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Avatar: The Last Airbender Live Action | Review

Go Girl, Give Us Nothing!

By Xandra Button

Rating: 0/5

Content warning: this article discusses genocide.

Image from wikimedia commons

There are not enough words in the world to describe just how disappointed I am in the new Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action Netflix adaptation. This adaptation is based (and I mean very loosely based) on the critically acclaimed Nickelodeon cartoon that ran in the early 2000s. The cartoon version of Avatar: The Last Airbender was a show designed for a young audience. It dealt with heavy topics such as genocide, misogyny, child abuse, and trauma in a way that was appropriate for children to see, while also maintaining a hopeful and funny energy that was particularly appealing to kids. The creators of the original show were careful to not make any scenes too graphic, yet they did not shy away from the fact that these topics are necessary for young people to learn about.

Netflix’s adaptation, unfortunately, does not adhere to these ideals and has seemingly never heard of the word ‘tact.’

Avatar is set in a world where people are divided into four groups, all of which have different powers connected to the elements of air, water, earth, and fire. These four groups are based on real cultures outside of the show, with air representing the Tibetan monks, water the Inuit people, earth China, and fire Imperial Japan. Avatar follows a twelve-year-old boy named Aang, who wakes up after 100 years and discovers that his entire race (the Air Nomads) has been wiped out by the Fire Nation, and he is now the only Airbender left in the world. Together, over three seasons, Aang and his friends journey across the world in an attempt to learn different types of bending and ultimately stop the Fire Nation’s unjust war.

While it is difficult to pinpoint what upsets me the most about the live-action adaptation, I will begin where the live-action begins: with the genocide of the Air Nomads. The creators of the original cartoon were very careful in how they depicted and discussed the Fire Nation’s destruction of the Airbenders. In episode three of the cartoon, Aang travels to his former home and discovers the skeleton of one of his friends, surrounded by skeletons dressed in Fire Nation uniforms. While this depiction is obviously dark and disturbing, especially for a kid's show, it is also handled with extreme care. The cartoon does not go into detail about how gruesome the Airbenders’ deaths were, and it certainly never shows flashback scenes from the genocide. Instead, viewers are left with an idea of what happened to the Airbenders, but without the disturbing and violent imagery of an active genocide.

Image by_jeff_mahadi on deviantart

The live-action adaptation goes in the opposite direction, showing in the first episode a detailed depiction of Firebenders invading an air temple and killing the Airbenders who live there. I was genuinely upset by this, and I continued watching only to see Aang’s friend burned alive by a Firebender in front of a group of children. The need to show these events in detail instead of offscreen felt to me like trauma porn.

I was offended by Netflix’s desire to capitalize on genocide for shock value, especially in a show that was originally marketed towards children.

I was also insulted by the new adaptation’s determination to water down the personalities of almost every character, particularly the women. The cartoon allows for women to be angry and imperfect. Katara in particular, while kind, caring, and ‘motherly’, is also consistently enraged by the injustice of the world around her, and for good reason. The original show allows her to express this anger, even in unhealthy ways, making her a relatable character with an interesting personality. Netflix’s version of Avatar completely diminishes Katara’s character. She is no longer allowed to be angry, even when she is affected by sexism, trauma, and prejudice. Instead, she remains calm throughout the season. Why fight for what you believe in when you could instead give speeches that help motivate the other (mainly male) characters? This new version of Katara is representative of Netflix’s fear of stirring the pot. They are so afraid to upset anyone that they stripped Katara of everything that made her unique. Suki and Yue were similarly affected by this, as they were both transformed into love-sick, doting characters rather than the strong, powerful women that they originally were.

I could continue this article forever. I could discuss how the costumes look fanmade or how the dialogue in almost every scene is cringe-worthy. I could talk about how all the humour has been cut for some reason, and I could point out how Aang never learns waterbending, even though that's the entire goal of the first season. But what's the point? The fact is, the show is lazy, and the people supporting it are allowing Netflix to get away with this laziness. While the original cartoon trusts its audience to understand subtext, this adaptation does not. Instead of allowing audience members to realize there was a genocide, this adaptation shows Airbenders being lit on fire. Instead of slowly learning about Katara and Sokka’s mother over time, this show depicts her death in detail. Instead of learning about Iroh’s relationship with Zuko naturally, the writers have Iroh point-blank explain his motivations to Aang. Any form of subtlety has been lost, which not only makes for a boring show but one that expects so little of its audience that it is downright offensive.

Contrary to how it may seem, I am not here to make fun of anyone who enjoyed the live-action. Rather, I want to make you inspect what it is you truly like about it. Did you enjoy the characters and the way they interacted with one another? If you did, I’d encourage you to rewatch the cartoon, where the dialogue and character motivations are a lot more fleshed out. Did you enjoy the bending and the fight scenes? Please, watch the original again, where the creators put a lot more time and care into depicting unique, entertaining fight styles within animation. Did you enjoy the (very few) new pieces of lore we found out in the live-action? Then I urge you to read the Avatar comics, which take place after the events of the cartoon’s final season. And, if after all of this, you still find yourself wanting to watch the live-action, then just please recognize that Netflix is giving you the absolute bare minimum, and you, as an audience member, deserve so much better. You are not stupid. Don’t let the media you consume treat you like you are.


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