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  • Writer's pictureAntal Bokor

Netflix’s Avatar The Last Airbender Isn’t a Disaster, but Just Barely

Despite being almost 20 years old at this point (seriously!), Avatar: The Last Airbender still has a passionate fan base. And thanks to streaming services, new fans have been discovering Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender in waves as it has gone on and off of sites like Netflix. It’s not surprise, then, that Netflix would want to create a live action adaptation of The Last Airbender

While fans are quick to disown M. Night Symalan’s The Last Airbender for his depressing portrayal of the “Uhvatar” and its clumsy adaptation of the source material’s first season. It’s no wonder, then, that news of this live action show was met with some trepidation. Especially when original series showrunners Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino decided to leave over creative differences. 

But it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well…

I just finished binging the Netflix series, and while it does a few things right, it is a disappointing adaptation that fumbles major characters, and suffers from a strange format, poor direction, bad writing, and a whole lots of other strange story mishandling that detracted from the show’s serious potential.

I do have some bias. As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is nearly perfect, even if it did have a semi-rough first season as it was finding its footing. But it’s a show full of heart, subverted expectations, and some great characters that grow believably over the course of three seasons. The source material for the Netflix adaptation is so beloved that even the animated show’s creators couldn’t win fans over with the follow-up The Legend of Korra in the same was as they did the original.

The Netflix show, therefore, was probably never going to make everyone happy. 

I can’t say that Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t have a rocky start. From the very first episode it was hard for me to get away from some of the costuming choices and set designs. They also didn’t do enough to establish Aang as a potentially worldly kid. In fact, they do a bad job establishing him as a “kid” at all, immediately showing him flying through the air as the other Air Nomads look on in awe.

Aang, portrayed here by Gordon Cormier is a child, like as in the source material–and while I don’t want to bash child actors, Aang’s portrayal is stilted and lacks the main character's trademark charisma and charm. Taking Aang into live action is tough, and while Cormier looks like him well enough, it’s hard to get behind this incarnation.

Let me get this out of the way right now: any of the acting decisions, line deliveries, and anything like that may have been at the behest of the director. And, frankly, some of these actors are kids–so there is a certain amount of leeway that I think should be given.

However, the real blame here lies on the directors and the writers. Despite the live action show and the source material’s first seasons having similar runtimes, the format of the show required lots of truncation of stories. This lead to a whole lot of expository narrative dumps–and everyone knows that in storytelling it’s always best to show, and not tell. Unfortunately., there's a hell of a lot of telling here. Characters frequently make references to exciting adventures they had offscreen, instead of showing us these moments.

This means that a lot of the bonding that is happening between the main characters is happening off screen. And a lot of their growth as characters–their bending abilities getting better, and how they deal with their predicament emotionally–is left for the characters to talk about instead of perform. 

The direction itself is pretty wanting, too. There are lots of character reactions that are literally missing. There aren’t many reaction shots in the show–at least none that shows the character’s face in close-up. This gives action sequences a cheap, stage play feel to them. And the costuming only helps lend to that feeling.

Some of the characters are portrayed well, and some of the casting is spot on. Zuko and Iroh are portrayed well–even despite some significant changes to Iroh’s character. There is a lot of screen time dedicated to showing the audience why Iroh would go on this journey with Zuko, when most of that could have been shown in their relationship in real-time, and not through flashbacks. In fact, a lot of these flashbacks give us too much information about what happened before, while we only get quips about what is happening now.

I understand why some of the story decisions were made. And it was interesting to see major plotlines from the source material being mashed together to form new stories. But to do this there were some major sacrifices made to the messages behind those stories, and sadly, to beloved characters. Bumi, especially, was done dirty by the show.

There were some changes I appreciated, however, even if they required some contrivances to exist. Seeing Avatar Kyoshi go ham on that group of Fire Nation soldiers was pretty fun. But a lot of Aang’s eagerness and fun lovingness was left behind here for the sake of the narrative.

Tonally, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is a lot darker than the cartoon. I don’t know if the show needed to focus on the horror of war. Maybe the showrunners wanted to make a point of how a world that has been in conflict for 100 years would react. Spoilers: everyone has PTSD. And how can you blame them? The Fire Nation is pretty ruthless, with people burning to death screaming pretty frequently on this show.

But the showrunners can’t grasp a global conflict of this scale, and they don’t realize that the entire world wouldn't be plunged into constant war for 100 years. This is further proved by a sweet (but dumb) story beat where Zuko saved a “divison” of troops, only for them to be ordered to accompany him on his exile instead of die needlessly. Except, a division of soldiers is way more crew than is needed for a boat. I guess I can’t say how the Fire Nation divides its forces, but even so, the battle plan made it sound like this “division” would be a significant force, not just like 20-40 dudes. 

And the entire show is littered with writing issues like this.

Overall, this first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender felt a lot less epic than its source material’s first season. The characters grew, but it was all offscreen. They bonded–again, offscreen. Except for Iroh and Zuko, who had extensive screen time dedicated to making them sympathetic characters–instead of just having it naturally through their actions as the story progressed. It also suffers from a horribly uneven tone–with people burning to death and others suffering PTSD, and the writers still trying to inject some of the lighthearted fun that permeated the source material. They failed.

It also doesn’t help that the showrunners felt it necessary to change significant portions of the source material’s lore, as well as character’s personalities and even motivations. What’s left is something that I’d probably enjoy watching on Ember Island, but not really what I wanted out of a live action Avatar. Did anyone even really ask for this?

Avatar the Last Airbender is streaming now on Netflix.



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