Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender – At Least They Didn’t Call Him ‘Ong’

The live-action Avatar is frustrating because it so nearly gets it right.

avatar: the last airbender

Recently, the eagerly awaited Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix remake debuted to some incredibly polarizing views. Some fans disowned it, some enjoyed it, and others were just relieved that it wasn’t much worse. As an avid fan of the original, I would say I mainly fall into that third category.

Why were some of us relieved, exactly? What did this adaptation get right, and what controversial changes did it make? And why is the Avatar fandom so stirred up over all of it?

Because this version of Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t just your ordinary soulless cash grab adaptation: this one had a fire lit under it. Not only because it’s a cherished show with a devout following, but because of the disastrous 2010 film adaptation.The M Night Shyamalan film was ill-conceived and considered one of the most egregious examples of whitewashing in Hollywood. It’s not just that the movie didn’t deliver, it leaned into the territory of being offensive.

In addition to that, there were many other problems with the film: the bending effects were poorly thought out and executed (with firebending only working on pre-lit fire, which implies that the Fire Nation took over the world with campfires and birthday candles). They attempted to cram an entire season of twenty episodes into one movie. And then they topped it all off with some truly bizarre name pronunciations, like “Ong” and “Soh-ka”.

Because of that, the legacy of Avatar: The Last Airbender live action adaptations was in dire need of a Zuko-style redemption arc. And so fans watched with cautious optimism as the Netflix show was slowly pieced together over the course of years. We were anxious, because we had seen both ends of the spectrum: the universally acclaimed animated show, and the infamously panned first adaptation. The new adaptation would presumably fall on the spectrum somewhere between those two, but where exactly?

I’m happy to say that the 2024 Netflix show is better than the 2010 film. The main thing that sets the two apart is that it’s clear that Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender tried. While it feels like those who worked on the film briefly skimmed the Wikipedia synopsis of the source material and then called it a day, the team for the Netflix series did their homework.

avatar: the last airbender

The Netflix show made sure to carefully cast actors of the appropriate ages and cultural backgrounds. It takes more time to explore various episode arcs from the show, when the film cut about 75% of the first season. It nods to several iconic design choices from the show and looks much more like the colorful, lush world of the animation than the drab film. And thankfully, the Netflix show manages to pronounce the characters’ names correctly.

So this recent adaptation is better than the 2010 film, which is admittedly a low bar to clear. But how does it fare when faced with the much tricker challenge of doing justice to the cherished original show?

I had a good enough time with the 2024 remake. But I also groaned several times while watching it. It’s not perfect by any means. But in addition to fixing the oversights of the film adaptation, there clearly was a ton of effort put into so many aspects of production: there are some showstopping VFX effects, the costume designs are very faithful to the original, the animals look fantastic (Momo looks a little rough, but his Zoboomafoo puppet energy grew on me).

Even the set dressing is thoughtful: from the unhinged drawings of the Avatar pinned up on Zuko’s wall, to the statue of Bumi’s pet rabbit Flopsy in his ornate palace. There was a lot of detail and care put into certain elements of this that shows a certain devotion and respect to the spirit of the original.

But despite so many minor elements of this adaptation clearly being handled with caution, some risky creative liberties were taken with Avatar: The Last Airbender’s plot and characters. Which is surprising, because those aren’t the part of a well-established story one might think to mess around with.

I quickly developed a soft spot for Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko. He differs quite a bit from cartoon Zuko’s villain-coded character design in the first season. His Zuko is a lot more youthful and childish, even with a few moments of sweetness (like when he comforts Iroh at his son’s funeral). He’s still full of angst, but in a way that reminds us that he’s just a teenager. The introductory shot of him in his room shows a shelf of action figure-like figurines of past avatars, as he scribbles away in a diary. The whole scene feels so relatably adolescent that it’s borderline comical.

This depiction of Zuko is very different, but it works because it makes his backstory even more heartbreaking. We’re often reminded that he’s just a kid. This more sympathetic version of the character leans into his redemption arc much earlier, which in the original series was revealed as more of a twist later on. Some might not enjoy this change, especially new viewers who aren’t aware of Zuko’s character development journey. But the bright side is that this way, we get more of the wholesome dynamic between him and Iroh (the lovable Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), which is one of the most rewarding relationships in the whole show.

A lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s more over-the-top characters were toned down quite a bit as well: Sokka (Ian Ousley) goes from in-your-face comic relief to a more grounded, sarcastic leader. King Bumi is still played up larger-than-life by the incredibly underrated Utkarsh Ambudkar, but he has a layer of underlying bitterness and understandable hurt that adds dimension to a previously one-note chaotic neutral character with random motives. The Mechanist (Dani Pudi) goes from a goofy inventor to a frail, scared father who gets caught up with the wrong people in an attempt to provide for his son.

These changes weren’t the most fun or cartoon-accurate character choices, and they weren’t always supported well by the writing or direction. But I’d argue that they were the right choices for this adaptation. Of course that’s partially due to the fact that over-the-top character choices read better in animation than in live action. But also because they suited this darker, more mature interpretation of the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender well, and added nuance to the reality of the kind of people that would be created in the wake of a devastating war.

This adaptation also has a significantly darker tone. You see several shots of violence and destruction, including some brutal deaths. This deviates quite a bit from the tone of the light-hearted children’s show. Although it teeters on gratuitous, it has a right to be there: because after all, this is a story about war. Actually seeing the destruction really drives that point home and raises the stakes. And considering that the audience of superfans that grew up with the Nickelodeon show are now adults, it feels appropriate to include more mature subject matter.

But there are other changes that are truly head-scratching: The storylines go off in strange directions that don’t always serve the greater story at play. Considering that the goal was to adapt a twenty episode arc into eight episodes, it was already going to be a tight squeeze. Many of the cuts made were understandable, but left the core story awkwardly pieced together. And squeezing unnecessary elements into the choppy narrative really didn’t help things. It’s unfortunate, because these poor writing choices are really what sabotaged this otherwise promising tribute to the original.

Did we need a whole episode devoted to showing Katara and Sokka’s worst memories when we can already piece them together based on what we already know about them? Or a monologue from June the bounty hunter explaining her chaotic moral code as a mercenary when her job title already gives that away? Or a scene explaining the lore behind who Koh the Face Stealer’s mother is?

If these inventions were just new additions that attempted to deepen the story and missed the mark, that would be one thing. But they actively took time away from other important elements that were crucial to the story.

The most glaring omission is Aang learning waterbending, which the entire first season should be centered around. Just about everything that happens is indirectly caused by that. It’s even the entire reason he ends up at the Northern Water Tribe, where the dramatic finale takes place. The whole plot of the show hinges on Aang being the only person who can stop Fire Lord Ozai by using all four elements to defeat him. If he’s never shown actually learning the other elements, it messes with Aang’s entire super-objective.

There’s also a general lack of depth in this version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It would be easy to place the blame upon the challenges the actors were up against, including many of them being young and having to act around empty space reserved for special effects. But the actors really weren’t given much help with the writing: scenes either linger on too-long moments that fall flat, or just quickly and clumsily prioritize telling and not showing (there’s a line in the first episode where Aang straight-up lists off his interests, when they could have just sacrificed a minute or so to show him doing those things organically).

Running into some challenges with the plot would have been forgivable if this was the first attempt at telling this complex story. But this is different, because they already had a pre-existing blueprint for a version of this story that undoubtedly works. If it’s not broken, why fix it?

Much of my dismay over this isn’t because the end result is particularly awful, it’s because it was so close to being satisfying. This remake had so much potential on paper: they initially had the original creators on board to collaborate with. They had a great pre-existing road map to work off of, as well as an example of what not to do. They spent several years in production, and had a significant budget. There was clear attention to detail and respect for the original show, and an urgent drive to do better than the 2010 film. Since it had so much going for it, the missteps are all the more frustrating.

That being said, I feel sympathy for those who put their hearts and souls into this project, since this adaptation would be brutally dissected by fans no matter what. There was no way this live action would ever be able to recreate the near-perfection of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender, so at some point nitpicking it too closely starts to feel a bit unreasonable. Complaints like the actors not having the exact same body shapes as the cartoon probably cross that line.

When any beloved nostalgic piece of media is touched, there’s bound to be at least a little outrage.There are always going to be those who treat discussing this adaptation as little more than a critical game of spot the difference, rather than attempting to understand the challenges that come with adapting such beloved source material. It’s been disheartening to see some mean-spirited harassment toward the creatives, especially the young actors. Although there were parts of this version that were disappointing, it’s clear from the amount of work and detail that went into accurately recreating this world that the intent was pure. There’s no need to rip it to shreds.

I did really appreciate Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender as a celebration of the original. But does it stand on its own as a solid adaptation? Not really, but I wasn’t expecting one. I just wanted to see this amazing universe explored in a fresh way, and that’s definitely achieved at some points. It’s a step up compared to the 2010 film version, and that feels like the best I could have reasonably expected.

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