Review: I Watched the Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ So You Don’t Have to

The author, Boyne City junior Phoebe Holm, puts a season one disk of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” into a PS3 disk drive, her whole collection of Avatar DVDs displayed behind. Many years after its animated debut and finale, the Avatar series has been reimagined in a live-action remake (Photo illustration by Phoebe Holm).

Between classes and a busy schedule, I found the gumption while eating lunch at Baldwin to finally watch the live-action version of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” I got 30 minutes in, paused the show, annoyed, and went on with my day. Since then, I’ve had no desire to watch another second of it.

Eventually, I managed to watch the first two episodes, and that was enough for me.

Growing up With the Original

On Feb. 22, Netflix debuted its live-action remake of the 2005 animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which originally aired on Nickelodeon on Feb. 2, 2005.

The original show has been a consistent comfort show for me for the past 14 years. My brother and I were so obsessed that our parents bought us box sets of the seasons. Every time a rerun was on, our eyes were plastered on the screen, never losing focus for the 25-minute run time of each episode.

As someone who has watched the animated series at least 20 times, the live-action announcement in 2018 was, to put it simply, nerve-wracking. I didn’t want my childhood show misconstrued and changed.

The series takes place in a universe where an ability known as “bending” gives certain individuals the ability to control one of four elements: water, earth, fire or air.

This world has a reincarnated savior known as the “Avatar,” the only person that can fully control all four elements and serves as a protector for mankind, who vanished 100 years ago, abandoning the world in its war-torn state as the Fire Nation makes efforts to expand its empire.

The original show opens with siblings Sokka and Katara stumbling across Aang, an air nomad, and his sky bison frozen in an iceberg in the Southern Water Tribe. Aang is both the Avatar and the last living air nomad, having avoided the genocide of his people that the fire lord orchestrated to stop the Avatar from interfering with his plans.

Meanwhile, Fire Nation prince Zuko, accompanied by his uncle Iroh, is on a desperate search for the Avatar in hopes that capturing him will restore his honor. While running away from Zuko and searching for bending masters to help Aang learn all four elements, the kids come across people and experiences that teach them some pretty important lessons. These lessons were valuable to me at a young age and foundational to my development as a person. This show means a lot to me, hence my concern about a remake.

As if I wasn’t worried enough, the original creators – Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konieztko – departed from the live-action adaptation. They gave up their roles as showrunners and executive producers, due to “creative differences” with the studio. Not a good sign.

Going into this, my main question for the adaptation was whether this was going to improve upon the original, or if it was just going to be an inauthentic cash grab.

Episode One: “Aang”

Right off the bat, the tone of the show is drastically different from its animated counterpart. The first 10 minutes of episode one depict the cruelty of the Fire Nation. Fire lord Sozin, who began the war roughly 100 years earlier than the show’s beginning, burns the arm of an Earth Kingdom soldier for trying to interfere with his plans to invade the Earth Kingdom. Seconds later the soldier’s body drops to the ground, burnt to a blackened state.

This was shocking to me because it changed the portrayal of the Fire Nation’s violent nature. In the animated series, they were hot-headed individuals who were okay with hurting people if it meant advancing their efforts. The live-action leaned into that dark nature and revealed the true brutality of Sozin’s regime by actually showing the violent deeds.

The first episode continues by portraying the ambush on the Air Nomads and how Aang survived the genocide of his people. In the animated series, this wasn’t revealed right away, and didn’t show the real-time brutality of the planned attack; just the aftermath.

It’s clear that this series is aimed at older audiences. Between the brutality on display and the live action’s rating of TV-14 – compared to the animated versions rating of TV-Y7 – that much is apparent.

I appreciate this because it sets up the stakes of the world, showing how dangerous and evil bending can be in the hands of the wrong people. This also establishes the lore of the Avatar early on, so the audience gets a feel of how the reincarnation process works, Sozin’s rationality for killing the Avatar and how long the world has gone without an Avatar.

The remainder of the episode goes along the course of the original; the feeling is just different. Even with these new additions that are pretty jarring and add more dimension to the story, the dialogue is off. When the action and bending cease, things fall flat.

Sokka isn’t as witty as he once was, and Katara seems to lack her over-the-top personality – she isn’t motherly and caring to the overbearing extent that many people love her for. And for me, it feels like Aang doesn’t have the little quirks he used to; doesn’t have the desire to goof off and be a child, he doesn’t want to sled on the back of an otter penguin. Zuko seems to be as sassy and snippy as ever, though.

Aang also flies without his glider in the live-action, which was virtually impossible according to the lore of the original show. Only ancient masters could do so, it was a lost art. The CGI for this effect is also not great, which makes it look strange and unconvincing.

Episode Two: “Warriors”

Episode two focuses on Kyoshi Island, a village that is run and protected by a group of female warriors. This episode again follows along with the content of the animated series relatively closely.

But, there are some vast differences.

It seems like the adaptation isn’t setting the three main characters up for any actual growth, except maybe Katara. But for her, it’s in all the wrong ways. Aang is already more in touch with his Avatar side than he should be and Sokka has no room to fix his skewed judgments of women.

In the original show, the Kyoshi warriors, especially the leader Suki, face harsh, ignorant comments from Sokka; he has been raised to believe that men are the warriors and women are meant to tend to the children and the home. When he comes across these women warriors, his masculinity is threatened and he is eventually put in his place; the Kyoshi warriors make him dress in their feminine warrior garb and makeup. While in this attire, he struggles to beat the girls in combat, and grows from the experience.

Without the lessons he learns from the strong women he comes across, I don’t know how they are going to allow him to grow as a person. The show claims to want to address “more adult topics.” So why not address the concept of sexism and completely obliterate it? Make men see just how powerful women can be and allow the women to put men in their place.

Instead, they focus on the romantic relationship between Suki and Sokka. They don’t give her the space to teach him a lesson and show her techniques, reducing her to a simple love interest, which boils my blood. Suki and her group of warriors embodied the type of strong but compassionate woman I wanted to be.

Suki was never simply a love interest in the original. She challenged people without fear. She stood up for her womanhood and the things she cared about. She was the first feminist I was exposed to. And I loved every minute of her screen time.

Sexism isn’t some “outdated relic” like the show’s creators claim. It’s still a relevant issue that needs to be addressed. These strong female characters inspire women to stand up for themselves. She’s exactly what inspired me at a young age.

In addition, Katara has less personality than she does in the animated series; she seems to lack her strong-willed nature and seems to struggle more than Aang and Sokka. In the animated series, they all struggled and learned together, every character was unique and flawed.

Now, it feels like Katara is just… there. They take away the moments where she can hone her skills and reveal her fiery temper. She lacks substance, and it breaks my heart.

Notable Additions 

With Aang’s character development, I appreciate how the show reveals more of the emotional turmoil he faces. It delves deeper into the guilt he feels for disappearing for so long and leaving the world in its vulnerable state. He has an eye-awakening conversation with former Avatar Kyoshi, which reveals the importance of putting a stop to the Fire Nation.

The Asian and Native representation is also beautiful to see: the actors and actresses physically resemble the characters and derive from the races and ethnicities the creators of the animated show took inspiration from.

The Consensus

Even with these positives in mind, I watched 25% of the episodes and don’t know if I will be able to force myself to watch the remaining ones. Most of the content is the same, but there are many changes that make it hard for me to watch. It’s just not the same.

The story feels rushed. It feels like there is no time for the group to learn the valuable life lessons they did in the animated counterpart. Even though both of the series have a similar amount of hours across the episodes, the live-action’s first two episodes pack so much background information it doesn’t allow the details of the story to come out naturally.

A better focus of time and resources would have been to make something that builds on the already established storylines, such as telling the story of a former Avatar – one of Aang’s past lives. Going on to tell more of the story of the group’s lives after defeating the Fire Nation. Something that isn’t simply a cash grab, preying on our nostalgia.

I’m just tired of companies making everything produced before 2010 seem old and in desperate need of a refresh. The stories that have already been told need to be left alone.

If I were you, I’d just stick to the animated show. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is obviously still relevant, and in no need of a “refresh.”

If you need me, I’ll be rewatching the animation another five times instead of wasting my time with the remake.

About Phoebe Holm 19 Articles
Phoebe Holm is a junior from Boyne City, Michigan and a psychology major at Albion College. She is interested in understanding the human mind, writing about things that make her passionate and creating art. You can always find her listening to music and watching movies. Contact Phoebe via email at PJH12@albion.edu

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*