Highly Anticipated Avatar Adaptation Finally Drops On Netflix

The live-action Avatar The Last Airbender series is here. How does Netflix’s version compare to the original?

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Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

After the huge success of Netflix’s One Piece live-action, many watchers held out hope that the same magic would apply to the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender. After the negative critical and fan reception M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 The Last Airbender received, fans of the original cartoon doubted that a successful live-action was possible.

Now, the wait is finally over. Netflix’s Avatar officially dropped on the streaming service on February 22nd, 2024, with all eight episodes available to watch immediately. We react to the new series and discuss how the new live-action compares to the original cartoon, as well as some of the changes the showrunner warned of ahead of the show’s release. Read on for our thoughts, feelings, and lingering questions on the newest Avatar adaptation.

Spoiler Alert: This article may contain spoilers, so please be advised when reading.

Summary

In case you aren’t familiar, Avatar: The Last Airbender follows Aang, the most recent incarnation of the Avatar cycle, as he learns to master all four elements to stop a 100-year war. The war, spearheaded by the Fire Nation, has wiped out all Air Nomads and most Southern Tribe waterbenders to keep Fire Nation ruler Lord Oazi in a place of international authority. After being trapped in an iceberg for 100 years, Aang escaped the genocide of the Air Nomads and how has to adjust to suddenly being thrust a century into the future.

Still of the cartoon of the principal characters from the 2005 "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NICKELODEON

The original cartoon had three seasons, each named after the element Aang learned that season. Like the cartoon, Netflix’s eight-episode series follows Aang in search of a waterbending master, with Southern Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka in tow. Running parallel to Aang, Katara, and Sokka’s quest to learn the element is Prince Zuko, a banished Fire Nation prince who wants to capture the Avatar.

Storyline

Overall, Netflix stayed faithful to the main points of the cartoon’s first season. Katara and Sokka still discover Aang in an iceberg 100 years after Aang unknowingly escaped the Fire Nation’s massacre of the Air Nomads. Zuko still hunts for the Avatar with his uncle and a small ship crew because he’s been banished by his father for disrespect. The season still ends with the epic battle at the Northern Water Tribe, the first big win for Aang and his friends on their journey to end the war.

As a fan of the original cartoon, one of my favorite parts of the series was the adventures the characters went on. Even with each episode being an hour long, the 2024 Avatar is constrained by its eight-episode season. There are no side quests, no exploration of smaller, backwoods locations, and no opportunities to see our main characters–who are, by their own account, very sheltered–explore the world and learn through doing.

Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

Showrunner Albert Kim warned fans about changes they made to make the narrative more concise, one of those changes being that Aang receives a prophecy from Avatar Kyoshi that tells him the Fire Nation will attack the Northern Water Tribe.

According to Kim, cutting out the episodic adventures is “part of the process of going from a Nickelodeon cartoon to a Netflix serialized drama.” But in taking out these side quests, the show has also removed reminders of the character’s youth and inexperience. Yes, the age-appropriate actors show us the burden these young children are taking on, but forcing the plot to move serially also puts a limit on how many facets of each character we see.

Although they cut out most of the side quests, there are some crucial additions to the story that the original never covered. As a cartoon for children, the show was restricted in how much violence and death they could show, meaning that most of the main traumatic events happened off-screen. The new Avatar brings these moments to life, starting the show with the first declaration of war from Fire Lord Sozin that leads to the genocide of the Air Nomads.

Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

We also learn more about Zuko’s backstory sooner. While the cartoon hinted at his complexity, it didn’t dive into his motivations for hunting the Avatar until the second season. The new Avatar not only shows more of Zuko’s backstory sooner but more of all of the Fire Nation royal family. The writers also made a nice twist in having the same military division Zuko earns his scar defending as his crew during his banishment, taking advantage of the gap left by the cartoon.

These additions aid in changing the overall tone of the story, replacing the humor-heavy adventures of the original with somber scenes that pack a heavy emotional punch. In the shift from animated to live-action, this emotional shift is fitting for the theme of the show and the high stakes the characters face.

Characters

The principal cast of the show remains the same from the original: Aang, Katara, and Sokka–along with Appa and Momo, of course–make Team Avatar, while Zuko and Uncle Iroh are the season’s antagonists. Unlike the cartoon, we meet Azula and her friends Ty Lee and Mai, along with Fire Lord Ozai, as well, getting a glimpse of royal life during the Fire Nation’s conquest of the world.

Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

While the Fire Nation characters are not new, OG fans met them later in the cartoon, with Azula and her friends not making an appearance until season two. But in its goal to provide more context upfront, Netflix’s Avatar introduces several key players earlier than the cartoon.

We also get more complex depictions of side characters, particularly Gyatso and the other Air Nomads. The first episode starts with Aang’s life at the Southern Air Temple, where he trains as an airbending prodigy and the Avatar. Gyatso appears occasionally throughout the rest of the season, so seeing his death and the death of all the Air Nomads in the first episode makes us more attached to each on-screen appearance he makes.

Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

While the added depth to crucial side characters is great, it does not negate the fact that our main trio had some serious character overhaul. Showrunner Albert Kim said that to make the narrative more concise, they had to change some of Aang’s personality, making him more driven and focused. Even with this preemptive warning, I was still disappointed by Aang’s lack of goofiness and optimism. He is, after all, a twelve-year-old boy who likes playing games and making people laugh. Aang’s personable brightness is part of what makes his destiny as the Avatar feel so right. To have that brightness dimmed felt like Aang was already starting to become world-weary and battle-worn without experiencing anything.

Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

Our Avatar is not the only one who has a character makeover. The showrunner and cast said before the show’s premiere that Sokka’s sexism arc was cut to adapt to the current times. In doing so, one of Sokka’s biggest growth points is scrapped, completely altering his interactions with his sister and the Kyoshi Warriors. 

As a result of this change, we also lose part of Katara, who in the original never let any of her brother’s sexist comments slide. There are other opportunities for Katara’s sense of anger and justice to appear, like confronting Jet and fighting Pakku, but the show never takes those chances. Instead, we see a Katara who still fights for good but in a more subdued manner. 

Again, I blame the season’s tight serialization. In trying to make everything fit in only eight episodes, we lose a lot of the non-essential plot details that define the characters for us. And the result is characters that are a step removed from the ones we know.

Bending

The fight scenes are arguably some of the best scenes of the entire season. Not every fight includes bending since many of the characters are non-benders, but even the characters with bending show off a certain level of fighting skill. The actors for Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko revealed that they had trained in bending every element, each of which is based on a specific martial arts style. The training shows through the screen, as well as Sokka and Zuko’s actors’ previous history with martial arts.

Still from Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

Seeing Aang airbend was particularly interesting, as that is the element that benefits most from animation, and seeing it translated to real life was exciting. But for a season that is supposed to revolve around Aang learning to waterbend, he doesn’t do it at all. Waterbending is reserved for Katara and the Northern Water Tribe, making the scenes when it appears scarce for an arc that is supposed to put it center stage.

Were the movements sometimes repetitive? Yes. Did the CGI hit the standard most people expect of a Netflix show? Not really. But was it fun to watch? Definitely. And did the bending and fight scenes do a good job of depicting the unfairness of kids being forced to fight against adults? For sure.

A Fan’s Perspective

Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is fine. It has more authenticity, depth, and drive than the poorly received The Last Airbender movie adaptation, but many OG fans still find it lacking. Perhaps having years of memories with the original cartoon has made me hard to please, but this live-action just didn’t hit the spot.

Promotional poster for Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series.
IMAGE VIA NETFLIX

Despite all the easter eggs planted specifically for fans of the original cartoon, the success of Netflix’s Avatar may lie in a different audience. A newer, younger audience that doesn’t have the same connections to the franchise as OG fans. The showrunner, cast, and crew want the series to continue. Based on all the advertising efforts Netflix pushed out, it’s safe to say Netflix wants this show to succeed as well. The key to doing that may mean making the adaptation its own instead of relying on the nostalgia of the cartoon.

If the future of this show is left in the hands of the original Avatar fans, the show might not last past its first season, if only because long-time fans don’t want to mess with perfection.


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