Netflix's 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Once Again Fumbles the Source Material

Developed by Albert Kim

Starring Gordon Cormier, Dallas Liu, Kiawentiio, Ian Ousley, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Elizabeth Yu, Daniel Dae Kim

Photo: Robert Falconer / Netflix

BY Matthew Simpson Published Feb 22, 2024


Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered in 2005 to critical acclaim. It featured a unique world, fully realized over three seasons and 61 episodes, and a cast of instantly iconic characters living within it. Widely regarded as one of the best animated series of all time, and rightly so, it was ostensibly a children's show, but developed and written to have universal appeal, such that anyone of any age could relate to the characters' adventures, struggles and joys.

After a disastrous attempt by M. Night Shyamalan to adapt the series into a film in 2010, it was only a matter of time before another studio decided to try again. And in 2018, Netflix answered that call with an eight-episode live-action series with Vancouver's Gordon Cormier as the titular last airbender, Avatar Aang.

As with any adaptation, Avatar walks a tricky line, seeking to please fans of the original material and appeal to new fans. Showrunner Albert Kim has publicly said that one of his goals was to broaden the appeal to an adult audience, citing Game of Thrones as an example of the tone he'd like to set — a tone he strikes within the show's first few minutes when a character is immolated on screen by the series villains, the Fire Nation. An incongruity is apparent just as quickly, though, as the series looks and feels like a live-action adaptation of the made-for-children source material. Costumes are pristine and colourful, and the makeup effects are over the top — a cartoonish quality that doesn't quite fit with the adult violence on screen.

This dichotomy is the underlying theme of the show; there's a push-and-pull relationship between these two goals in the adaptation, and because it doesn't commit to either of them, neither of them quite works. It's frustrating throughout, and many of the choices made for this adaptation — even the ones that are good on paper — feel off.

As with the original series, this version of the story begins with Southern Water Tribe teenagers Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley) discovering Aang frozen in an iceberg. He is the Avatar, the spiritual leader and unifying force in this world, capable of mastering the martial arts of all four elements (air, water, earth and fire) who has been missing for 100 years.

In the time that Aang was missing, the Fire Nation wiped out his people and embarked on a campaign of conquest. Realizing that his destiny was to bring peace back to the world, the trio set off toward the Northern Water Tribe so that Aang can begin the training he didn't have the chance to complete before he disappeared, and learn to bend water. At the same time, the Fire Nation's exiled Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) is searching for him alongside his uncle, Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee).

One of the great things about the original series is that the protagonists are kids. It's true they are dealing with an oppressive nation trying to conquer the world, but it always gives space for the kids to be kids. It grants characters the time to experience the world they are travelling through, and to establish the stakes that the characters are fighting for. This remake barrels through several plot lines simultaneously in order to fit in as many of the iconic moments from the original Season 1 as possible, skipping over these details.

With the exception of one reasonably standalone episode in which Aang, Katara and Sokka visit an island of elite warriors and make friends there, in most episodes, several stories are told concurrently, often splitting up the characters and not giving them a chance to breathe. The choice to reshuffle the locations of these stories so they can take place at the same time isn't necessarily a bad one, and the germ of a great serialized version of the stories being told is there, but none of them are given the time to develop and have the impact that they should.

Worse yet, when our heroes arrive in the north, they allude to several adventures not shown on camera. While the last two episodes are great, some of the character development on display in them simply isn't earned, and because the show can't decide which audience it's catering to, some of the fights have people brushing off blows like they were nothing, and others have more violent ends.

None of this is the fault of the cast, but there are issues here, too. Kiawentiio as Katara is easily the standout performer among the younger characters, carrying nearly all of the dramatic moments single-handedly. Additionally, Gordon Cormier does a good job of remembering that Aang is still just a kid, notwithstanding the world-sized pressure he is constantly under.

The problem with the cast lies again in the competing goals of the series. Some of the characters behave as though they are actual human beings existing in a fantastical world, and some act like living cartoons — and the contrast is jarring. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is a great performer, but he sometimes feels like he's in a different show from his usual scene partner, Dallas Liu, and that doesn't even scratch the surface of one of the more notable guest appearances in the middle of the season, whose performance and makeup is more than a little over the top.

This is the issue throughout the season: the series is trying to achieve two different goals. Is this a show for kids or adults? Is it trying to recreate the original or remix the show into its own thing? The answer to both of these questions is "yes." As a result, neither goal is achieved; by having a hand in both pots, the series fails to make any significant choices that might have genuinely set this show apart from — and also complement — the original.

Ultimately, the duality carries through to the viewer. The series feels full of potential, but also like a missed opportunity.


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