TV Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix

Though Disney’s caught a lot of flack lately for its piss poor live adaptations of animated classics, Netflix’s own ability to turn something beautiful into something forgettable and lifeless continues to evolve with each passing year. In the early days of the streaming era, it was mostly adding on regrettable additions to existing series (Arrested Development season five or The Killing season four, anyone?); but recently, it has moved to larger projects, taking loved animated series and comic books and turning them into garish slop, from Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, to The Umbrella Academy and now Avatar: The Last Airbender – which is perhaps its worst offering yet, an ugly CGI-riddled lump of bland characters, awful pacing, and incredibly poor editing, a $200 million cringe fest that is not as textually inept at M. Night Shyamalan’s epic 2010 misfire, but is just as soulless and inert at its core.

From the first scene of the series, there’s an inherent, caustic indifference to how nakedly Avatar: The Last Airbender simply goes through the motion of its source material, without a single original thought, begging the question of its existence (outside of the obvious factors, like an industry devoid of original ideas). Developed by Albert Kim (former showrunner of Sleepy Hollow), Netflix’s Avatar is but a series of gifs translating well-known moments into poorly-lit, painfully “photorealistic” (aka – boring) recreations, without any of the soul and pathos built into the original.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix

Given the source material and the budget, an Avatar series should be a layup; there’s so much texture built into its world, one whose societies and religions are built on the four elements – and defined by those able to bend them at their will. Avatar‘s world is united by its namesake, one person able to command the powers of all four elements, a human connected to the spirits of its past lives in pursuit of finding balance in the universe. Like the original series, Avatar follows Aang, who wakes up after 100 years trapped in ice (don’t ask) to the world at war after a century of Fire Nation totalitarianism. A young air bender and the last of his tribe, Avatar‘s first season follows Aang – along with the Water Nation youths who find him, Sokka and Katara) – as he discovers the remnants of the life he knew, and what’s become of a world without its existential guiding hand.

Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s live-action adaptation certainly understands the bullet points of Avatar‘s rich, textured world; and in reducing the first season’s arc by about a third of its running time, presents itself and opportunity to remove some of the original’s narrative dawdling with a tighter, more focused path – and in the process, potentially unlock opportunities to expand and evolve from its inspiration, breathing new life into a well-known story.

Instead, Avatar exists only to regurgitate, trapping an eager cast inside a cycle of undercooked plots delivered through an endless sea of exposition, with some truly embarrassing direction – which appears to adhere to an increasingly familiar, rotten Netflix template of shooting prestige dramas, green-screening the shit out of every background and (seemingly) limiting the number of characters allowed to appear in a 90% of frames at two (which is difficult, given that the show centers itself around a trio of co-protagonists).

(The action is also reminiscent of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop adaptation; it is weightless and inconsequential, its only attempts at artistic expression coming from its ability to take powerful fights, like Zhao vs. Zuko, and reducing them to blurry, empty nonsense).

Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix

The result is what feels like Avatar: The Last Checklist: The Series, a show so afraid of its own shadow (and the angry keyboards of internet idiots) it’s unable to deliver any of its stories with conviction, except in saying and performing exactly what it knows the audience expects. It refuses to challenge itself, or its fans, to consider Avatar‘s world as anything but a pristine piece of china to be observed from behind glass, displayed without any understanding of what made its material so special to begin with. Also, in truncating the first season, Avatar: The Last Airbender sacrifices any dimensionality in its main characters for the sake of religious reverie – which is perhaps the biggest signifier of all that this adaptation is actively disinterested in the philosophies and spirit of its source.

There are many examples of how poorly Avatar translates its story into something new – or even recognizable, for both new and old viewers; perhaps the best to watch to understand how much soul was lost in translation is the Katara/Pakku fight in Episode 7, “The North”. In the original, Katara’s challenge to the North’s master water bender is a punctuation of character and action, a 3-minute fight scene that gives incredible voice to how water benders use their powers.

Watch the original scene from “Master Waterbender” (season 1, episode 18, for those preparing for my Avatar: The Last Airbender Second Look coming later this year); it is an intricately directed scene, full of consequential movement and powerful displays of bending, every shot an act of cause and effect giving great consequence to Katara’ challenging’s battle to challenge the long-held traditions of the Northern Water Tribe.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix

The live-action sequence in “North” is perhaps the nadir of the series; the fight, which lasts no longer than two minutes, trades in the scope and momentum of the sequence it is aping, for cheap imitations of iconic moments (Pakku looking at his reflection in Katara’s spinning ice disc, Katara’s hair symbolically falling to her shoulders) with absolutely no weight, physical or emotional. Katara floats around Pakku’s defenses, they exchange a couple blows, and he breathes cold air on her – but none of it holds meaning, given the show’s lack of investment in its characters, and its absolute refusal to engage in anything artistic. Instead, like so many shitty AI models in the world today, “The North” takes art and strips it for its bare parts, unable to capture the spirit of what was being expressed in the original text, and incapable of attempting anything original out of its reassembled pieces.

Now, the eight episodes of Avatar are not completely unwatchable; as the most experienced of the young actors, Dallas Liu’s Zuko is the most textured of the bunch, able to overcome the awkward, stilted pacing of his arc to really capture the immaturity and pain at the core of young Zuko’s character. Zuko is deliberately unpleasant to be around, and Liu’s performance doesn’t shy away from that, even as the material bends and softens around him to panderingly endear audiences to his character.

The rest of the cast is fine (one can see the potential in Kiawentiio’s Katara in the final two episodes, even if the material itself fails her), but they’re all hindered by the same issues as the rest of the series: Avatar abdicates itself of the core responsibilities of storytelling, offering only short nods to deep, resonant character arcs about identity, family, and purpose through terrible dialogue, as it barrels towards the climactic battle at the Northern Water tribe’s home in “Legends”, the season finale (Agna Qel’a, a city made of ice that is given none of the cinematic scope as Omashu earlier in the season, strangely enough).

Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix

Mostly though, Avatar: The Last Airbender feels like a Cliff Notes version of its story regurgitated directly into the mouth of die-hard fans, the kind who only like to view their most treasured stories and franchises through a careful layer of plastic protection (example: most FunkoPop fans and their collections of lifeless imitations). In streamlining Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s journey to the sacred northern lands of the water tribe, so much was lost in translation: any sense of texture in its relationships and all the nuance in its exploration of violence and trauma is lost in this remake’s empty reappropriation.

Instead, Avatar hopes only to endear nostalgia from viewers already intimately familiar with these rich characters and their emotional journeys; new viewers will not see the nods towards these moments, but without the context and careful development, these moments will inevitably fall flat. Delivered without craft or confidence, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is an unfortunate, expensive flop.

Grade: F

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Avatar also seems prime to suffer from a problem inherent to every one of these swollen-budget streaming adaptations; Avatar’s first season wrapped principal photography in JUNE OF 2022; that means should Book 2: Earth be greenlit, we wouldn’t see a second season of the series until probably 2027. By then, enough new viewers will have seen the original series – will any of them want to return for this?
  • I could write an entire article about how egregiously this series takes “Leaves on the Vine” (the song Iroh sings to the shrine of his dead son in “The Tales of Ba Sing Sae”) and inserts it as a musical sting with no fucking context whatsoever. It’s a wonderful encapsulation of the series’ unnecessary reverence to being nothing but fan service – given the theme has no meaning to the story at this point, and will be completely lost on anyone new to Iroh’s powerful story. Just watch the original instead.
  • I don’t mind Gordon Cormier’s performance as Aang, which attempts to capture the wide-eyed optimism of the character – however, how he pronounces certain words (like “imporTanT”) stick out like a sore thumb, and can sometimes feel like straightforward script reading. His performance also really struggles in the time the show spends in the spirit world, particularly in “Masks”.
  • The show’s “realistic” air bending looks like shit.
  • There is no theme song or opening sequence; though one character recites it as dialogue in the first episode (which… why?), all we get is a lame title card. Between this and Mr. and Mrs. Smith‘s awful logo, 2024 is starting off poorly for title sequences.
  • Utkarsh Ambudkar’s Bumi feels like a missed opportunity for the show to develop a real sense of strangeness in its world. Instead, we get this sanitized old trickster, one completely devoid of the depth of personality of the original. Another fine example of Avatar obeying the text at the expense of the interpretation.
  • One hoping to see a presence for Appa, Aang’s beloved sky bison, and Momo the winged lemur, will be sorely disappointed. Outside of a few token scenes, neither factor into anything meaningful and are mostly treated as set dressing (save for a moment in the season finale, which is so undercooked it is laughable).
  • The “big” change this season makes is introducing Princess Azula earlier; though in theory this would allow us to see more of Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim, enjoying the shit out of himself), it doesn’t really add much to the proceedings, except making Zhao’s arc a little cleaner.
  • Can’t stress enough how atrocious some of the action editing is; there are numerous examples of cutting in the middle of stunts, which makes every significant action feel stilted and disconnected. Also, the reliance of CGI body models in long shots is painfully obvious, and harkens back to the jerky, weightless physics of The Matrix Reloaded-era action films. It’s awful.
  • One thing this series does accurately capture: how horny Sokka is for any female he meets.

6 thoughts on “TV Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

  1. You’re article is terrible honestly 😂 don’t understand why they take yall reviews serious when the show is doing so good lmao.

  2. I agree. The amount of times I told my gf “oh, there they go pulling that nostalgia moment just to please fans who could care less about the terrible script and storytelling” is crazy.
    A few changes that could have worked out had the writers shared a brain between them:
    1. Kyoshi Island having a matriarch that can actually fight would have allowed Suki to join Team Avatar right away. This could have led to a much more developed story. Instead, we now can see Suki’s role in the village as useless since there is literally a more powerful woman than her in charge and we had to deal with connecting the symbolic dots of her removing her face paint to garner us emotional thought that “oh, she’s exposed to the outside world (literally just Sokka) when she’s been so isolated by her island traditions. Her removing the face paint was a sad moment as the fight after felt less impactful, especially with Kyoshi coming in and winning the day leading to no quick rush for a kiss like in the og show. We had a full out lips kiss with Sokka instead. The pacing was just terrible.
    1a. “You can remove the misogyny from Sokka, but you can’t remove the player from the game.” -Love that he still goes after all the women
    2. So many small moments in the script where they use different words back to back to not sound repetitive. Zuko talking about the throne and then saying “I am the heir to the fire lord.” SMH, just say throne, it feels better.
    3. Uncle Iroh was clearly holding back emotions due to his traumatic experience and the writers made sure not to expose us, but the way the actor portrayed those shorter quips just felt so flat. It was if Iroh didn’t really care. I felt this with the Earth King Soldier who lost his brother and all Iroh had to say was “I wasn’t talking about me.” This is the same guy that has traveled around the world, and even helped a mugger with his stance in the OG show. No compassion. Also, missed moments to really imbew the reverence Iroh had for Zuko like when talking with Zhao, he would say, “Isn’t that right?” to Zuko where it would feel more like they had spent the past 3 years together if he had done what he did throughout the original show, and said “Isn’t that right, Prince Zuko” both to remind Zhao he is a prince and to show Zuko personalization in question when challenged by authority.
    4. I spent all show joking how, Momo, master of all show running abilities, was the only one that could save the show and then he literally tried dying in the finale. My GF was so invested in his near death tears were shed. We were happy to see him survive, so he could continue to save the show.
    5. Hakoda. If the worst memory fear of Sokka is true and Hakoda actually straight up said Sokka wasn’t ready, but then proceeded to just let the person he thought wasn’t ready protect the entire cove, thats wild. It doesn’t make sense and I think that ruined any chance of viewers respecting Hakoda. There are ways to signify that Sokka isn’t ready to leave the tribe to fight without just making him overhear something that shows his father lies to his face, yet willy nilly puts all trust in the son he doesn’t believe in. – Sidenote, every old character just becomes a senile, rude, incomplete, or confused character in their writing in this show.
    6. Zuko actually talking with Aang in “Masks” was nice.
    7. Leaves On the Vine was a sad attempt to get og viewers to apply emotional context to that entire sub-plot without really knowing the background to apply it for new viewers. ********Fun fact, that Netflix subtitles call leaves on the vine [Uplifting Music Plays] when Iroh is sitting in the chair tearing up. LMAO***********
    8. Zuko’s crew story end plot was good. I prefer it over the og show where they gained respect just by hearing Iroh say he got fucked up by his dad for standing up for soldiers. Zuko actually being the reason his crew was still alive was powerful.
    9. Ozai’s manipulation was fun to watch, but was just empty.
    10. They ruined everything about the Avatars connection with the spirit world. Spirited Away was my least favorite episode. (They were out here trying to garner nostalgia from the name Spirited Away. Sick people. Absolutely SICK)
    11. Was Hei Bai saved? Does anyone know? DOES ANYONE CARE? Wtf did the Acorn do?
    I’ll stop there since I don’t want my comment longer than the article. Not even Toph could have saved this season.

  3. I agree with this interview. While some comments are stating how harsh it is, it’s so easy to see how hollow and shallow it is. There really isn’t a justification for this live action if they are just playing it safe with expository regurgitation for more than half of the episode

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