Two Superfans Break Down Avatar: The Last Airbender

The live-action remake of the beloved animated series is now streaming on Netflix.
Two Superfans Break Down Avatar: The Last Airbender
Two Superfans Break Down Avatar: The Last Airbender

In a world divided into the elemental nations of the Air Nomads, the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation, 12-year-old Aang is an Airbender, one who can manipulate the element of air. Along with Katara and Sokka (as well as their animal companions Appa and Momo), Aang has to save the rest of the world from the imperialistic Fire Nation, while also getting the hang of being the Avatar, someone who can manipulate all four elements. Welcome to Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA), Netflix’s live-action series inspired by the iconic animated show originally created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for Nickelodeon.  

The ominous departure of DiMartino and Konietzko from this recent adaptation as well as rumours of significant changes led to panicked discourse among fans of ATLA. Now that the live-action series is finally here, it’s clear that ATLA is less of a remake and more of a reimagining that draws on the original to create an eight-episode story. Here’s the briefest possible summary of the Netflix show’s arc. 

Episode 1: Aang

A century after Firelord Sozin wiped out an entire race of Airbenders, we come to know that the only one who can challenge the increasingly powerful Fire Nation had luckily escaped the attack. Avatar Aang is found, frozen in an iceberg, by Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. After Aang awakens, the three embark on a mission, with Fire Nation’s Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh hot on their tail.

Episode 2: Warriors

Aang, Katara and Sokka land up on Kyoshi Island, where Aang meets one of his past lives, Avatar Kyoshi. Prince Zuko, Iroh and Commander Zhao catch up to them, but Kyoshi comes to the trio’s rescue.

Episode 3: Omashu

In the busy Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, the trio meet a charming rebel leader and a dubious inventor. Meanwhile, cracks begin to show in Katara and Sokka’s relationship as loyalties are divided and true motivations are revealed. 

Episode 4: Into the Dark

Aang meets an old friend: Bumi, King of Omashu. Bumi rebukes Aang for disappearing and letting the war escalate. Katara and Sokka make their way through an underground tunnel to rescue Aang from Bumi.

The 'Gaang' from ATLA, which includes Aang, Katara and Sokka (with Appa and Momo)
The 'Gaang' from ATLA, which includes Aang, Katara and Sokka (with Appa and Momo)

Episode 5: Spirited Away

During an unexpected detour to the Spirit World to find out what happened to a group of lost villagers, Aang and his friends are forced to reckon with their past, face more than one terrifying monster, and make decisions about the journey ahead.

Episode 6: Masks

Aang visits Avatar Roku’s shrine for help rescuing Katara and Sokka from the Spirit World, but he is captured by Zhao. Zuko puts on the Blue Spirit mask — he does not want Zhao to take the credit of finding the Avatar — and rescues Aang. 

Episode 7: The North

The trio finally arrive at the Northern Water Tribe, hoping to prevent its prophesied destruction. Aang connects with Avatar Kuruk for advice, Katara proves her prowess as a Master Waterbender, and Sokka falls in love with the gentle Princess Yue.

Episode 8: Legends 

Fire Nation ships swarm outside the Northern Water Tribe’s borders. Zhao ends up killing the moon spirit, but Princess Yue, who has some of the moon spirit infused in her, sacrifices her life so that it can be returned to the moon. Aang activates his Avatar state, merges with the ocean spirit, and is able to keep the Northern Water Tribe safe from the invasion.

With that out of the way, here’s what two superfans of the OG show had to say about what bends and what breaks in the ATLA live-action remake.

Animation to Live-Action

Shruti: I literally wrote a note in my journal to not be a curmudgeon about this. I have to say, I don’t think that’s going to happen. 

Sharanya: I thought the choice to open with the genocide of the Airbenders by Firelord Sozin (Hiro Kanagawa) — showing us what happened, taking us back 100 years, rather than just starting in the present with Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), like the original show did — was interesting. It really hammered home the sheer scale of devastation that struck the Air Nomads. 

Shruti: It just did not emotionally register with me. We immediately switch to Aang (Gordon Cormier) a 100 years later, and the edit does not even make you feel like enough time has passed. The live-action also feels jarring because of its focus on survival, and nothing more. The animated series was about hope, optimism and what comes afterwards. There is a sense of forwardness. Even though Netflix has cast people of colour, which lends authenticity to the show, it hasn’t dignified the Eastern ways of Buddhism and Hinduism that underpinned it, making it feel like it’s philosophically bankrupt. And now I think I get a sense of why the original creators might have departed this show as well. The Netflix show resorts to Disney-Hallmark platitudes here which are reminiscent of Brahmastra (2022). 

Sharanya: I didn’t think the dialogues were that bad! But I’m not happy with much of the characterisation in the live-action remake. I get that they can’t move chronologically and hit the same beats as the original show, but they’ve ending up doing a messy mix-and-match. They’ve brought in different elements from across the animated show’s first season and squashed them together in one episode. One of my biggest gripes with the live-action remake is that we did not have the Gaang (a fond fandom nickname for Aang and his friends) spending enough time together. And I’m including Appa (Aang’s loveable sky bison) and Momo (a mischievous flying lemur) in this. 

Our reaction when the trailer of the live-action show was released
Our reaction when the trailer of the live-action show was released

Shruti: And there were no turtle ducks! That's not okay!  

Sharanya: The ATLA-verse’s hybrid animals are iconic. And there were no otter penguins here either, but they did have ostrich horses, so points for effort, I guess?

Shruti: Appa and Momo have no interiority or arc in the remake.

Sharanya: I saw a review of the live-action show pointing out that Appa has been reduced to a mode of transport, and that’s so true. He’s not a friend, he’s not a member of this group. They just call for him like a taxi, and he shows up to pick and drop them. And Momo is just there.

Shruti: The individual character developments of Katara, Aang and Zuko are also limited to how they relate to their respective traumas. I thought that the portrayal of trauma was very emotionally resonant, like Katara spending time with her mother before she dies to protect her from a Firebender. But by only focusing on how wounded these characters are, it reduces them to just that. We see little of their flaws or idiosyncrasies, like Sokka’s initially overt sexism, Katara’s stubbornness and Zuko’s over-dramatic impulses.

Shruti's response to the rumours that Katara would be turned into a girlboss
Shruti's response to the rumours that Katara would be turned into a girlboss

Sharanya: In the Netflix show’s pursuit to give everyone in the Gaang individual journeys, we never end up getting a real sense of the characters. Moreover, we really missed out on having them hang out together as a group. Throughout the whole show, I can recall very few moments of genuine connection between these characters, because they’re constantly off doing their own thing. And when they are finally together, it doesn’t feel like they’re a team.

Hits and Misses

Sharanya: First of all, Gordon Cormier as Aang is adorable. I think he gets the energy of Aang just right. Of course, he’s not as jumpy and lively as Aang was in the original, but I think he’s made the character his own. However, I found that Aang’s character in the live-action show was extremely self-flagellating. He’s constantly blaming himself for every single bad thing that happens. There’s none of the playfulness or levity we had in the Nickelodeon show. At the beginning, I was intrigued by this portrayal of Aang. But as the series unfolded, he began to feel a bit flat to me. That being said, I do think Aang is one of the most fleshed-out characters in this show. So what does that say about the other characters? 

Shruti: The lack of respite is something I wanted to bring attention to. This show is not goofy at all. There are some self-deprecating Sokka quips here and there. But it’s a very self-serious show. And the thing about the animated series was that the goofiness there was not just an aesthetic because it was a part of children’s entertainment. It was a part of a philosophical framework which was constructed with a lot of intentionality by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The thing is, when Aang tells Sokka that he should have fun sometimes when the latter is fretting about the war, it actually works as a form of resistance. It is not him being a brat. It’s a part of the Buddhist philosophy that he has grown up with. 

Gordon Cormier as Aang in Netflix's ATLA
Gordon Cormier as Aang in Netflix's ATLA

Sharanya: They’ve also brought in elements from Season 2 of the animated show, and I don’t know how I feel about that. For example, Azula (Elizabeth Yu), Mai (Thalia Tran) and Ty Lee (Momona Tamada) are introduced much earlier. They bring in the Cave of Two Lovers plot point from Season 2. They bring in Wan Shi Tong, the owl spirit of knowledge from the Library. You’d think they’d want to include details from Season 1 that they missed out on in the live-action, but they’re instead bringing in details from Season 2, which just makes it so crowded and chaotic.

Shruti: In contrast, the construction of the animated show is elegant and tight, despite the fact that they’re 20-minute episodes. 

Sharanya: In the original show, they consistently make it a point to show not just Aang, but also Katara practising waterbending and helping each other as much as possible. Right from the beginning, she is focused on improving herself as a bender. And it’s not a very big detail, but it speaks to the kind of characteristics they wanted to imbue into Katara. This version of her doesn’t seem as ambitious or assertive.

But what worked for me was the visuals. Netflix has clearly shelled out the big bucks for this show, because the way they’ve recreated the slides and turrets of Omashu is very similar to the animated version. And I noticed the same thing about some other sets as well; the bridges and canals of the Northern Water Tribe, as well as the Oasis they visit in the finale, are identical to the original. Props to the show for making the effort to recreate these major locations to look as appealing and reminiscent of the original series as possible.

Zuko's Blue Spirit sequence was remarkably faithful to the original
Zuko's Blue Spirit sequence was remarkably faithful to the original

Shruti: I could tell that a lot of careful attention was paid to the architecture and construction of these particular temples and kingdoms. It felt culturally faithful to me as well, because in the animated series, they draw it from real geographic examples in East Asian locations.

Sharanya: Did you realise that the sequence of Zuko rescuing Aang from Zhao is a frame-for-frame recreation of the Blue Spirit episode in the original show? Every single thing that Zuko does, whether it’s hiding under the cart to enter the stronghold, or that fight scene in which Aang and Zuko use ladders to leverage their way across the courtyard, it’s all exactly the same. I actually appreciate that!

Shruti: So, the show is great when it is faithful to the animated version? 

Sharanya: Pretty much.

Details and Concerns

Shruti: A good remake should resonate with me whether or not I have seen the original. One Piece (2023) is a good example of a Netflix live-action adaptation done right. It takes a very different approach as well, because it is also less goofy than the animated version. But just like One Piece, the casting of this series was inspired. I especially liked Zaddy Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), and the menacing, even if slightly cutesy Azula (Elizabeth Yu).

Sharanya: This Azula wasn’t as menacing as the original — if I don’t have chills down my spine when I hear Azula speak, then she’s not doing it right. I thought Kiawentiio and Ian Ousley were disappointing as Katara and Sokka. At first, I was not entirely convinced by Dallas Liu as Zuko, but I think he really found his footing in the second half. I liked his performance, especially in the Masks episode. And the bonding between Zuko and Aang in that episode really resonated with me. To that end, I think Zuko is the best-developed character in this remake. 

Zuko and Iroh's dynamic in the live-action is underwhelming
Zuko and Iroh's dynamic in the live-action is underwhelming

Shruti: I think Zuko’s performance, emotionally speaking, was very rich compared to the others. And I think that’s entirely to the actor’s credit because the writing here is not very strong. However, the tone of the show is so self-serious that Zuko being overly dramatic doesn’t stand out. 

Sharanya: Zuko’s angry outbursts are supposed to be funny in the animated series, which doesn’t quite land in the remake. Also, Zuko and Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) had zero chemistry.

Shruti: Talking about Iroh’s significance, I literally have a post-it note in front of me which says, “What would Iroh say?”, because that is the kind of moral impact he had within the animated show. He had abundant spiritual clarity that he doled out with his eccentric humour. None of his dialogues in the live-action have the wisdom or humour of the original. Even if I can make peace with that banality, what I can’t accommodate is that he is dismissive of people with very real concerns.

Sharanya: Let’s quickly talk about the villains. I thought the Agni Kai (a Fire Nation duel for honour) between Zuko and Ozai was pretty powerful. But where the Zuko in the live-action remake half-heartedly fights back, OG Zuko simply kneels down and refuses to fight his father. And that’s what makes Ozai’s cruelty stand out even more starkly, because the man just branded and horrifically scarred a child — his own child — who wasn’t even fighting back. Just to teach him a lesson.

Shruti: Also, Commander Zhao’s villainy is diluted by introducing Azula so early in the narrative and implying that he is just her puppet. 

Another text exchange based on the trailer
Another text exchange based on the trailer

Sharanya: I wish they’d ended the show with the Gaang celebrating their victory, and just having a good time for once in this entire season. It felt like they were mechanically moving from plot point to plot point without spending time on establishing the buoyant sense of camaraderie that formed the heart and soul of the animated series.

Shruti: I thought the last episode really worked for me because I think this is where they got some of their rhythm. They spent an outsized amount of time with the Northern Water Tribe and did not corrupt the chronology of the OG series. 

Sharanya: One of the biggest misses of the show, in my opinion, is revealing the detail about Sozin’s Comet (whose power Firelord Ozai plans to harness to win the war by summer’s end) as a cliffhanger at the very end. But bear in mind, the Gaang still doesn’t know it’s coming yet. So after the events of this season, what exactly are they working towards? The stakes feel significantly less urgent.

Shruti: I assumed that the reason they brought in the comet thing later on was because in general, they have taken a very different approach to the chronology of events. I totally get that creative choice, and I am wondering, since it’s a live-action cast, and these kids are going to grow older, if this is a way to spread out the events over a longer period of time? 

Sharanya: Could be. But I just want to end by saying that I’m not writing off this remake entirely. There were a few elements of it that worked for me. But when you have such a towering original work to compare it to, any adaptation would pale in comparison, no?

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