'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement

‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Netflix Review – There’s A Lot of Room For Improvement

When one thinks or mentions the cultural phenomenon that is Avatar: The Last Airbender, one thinks of fond memories full of adventures as we joined Aang, Sokka, and Katara in their attempt to thwart the deadly Fire Nation from taking over the world. Looming in the background of one’s basking on those fond memories is the dreadful realization that the live-action film, The Last Airbender, written, directed, and produced by horror/thriller icon M. Night Shyamalan exists. The mere mention of the film is almost taboo and holds the same amount of weight as mentioning the wretched Voldemort in the Harry Potter films.

Netflix has now debuted the second-ever attempt at adapting Avatar: The Last Airbender into the live-action medium, this time in the form of a serialized drama—an 8-episode epic adapting the first book of the animated series. M. Night’s film also tried to adapt the first book of the animated series in less than two hours which is a daunting task and massive feat to accomplish. Netflix also manages to create a hole for themselves when adapting the first book of the animated series in this new live-action adaptation.

I was initially keen on reviewing M. Night Shyamalan’s film before writing this review and I figured, why beat a horse that’s already dead? Everything and anything has already been said about this film, even if those revisionists are trying to praise the film now that Netflix has released their show. Either way, ‘The Last Airbender’ was demolished by fans and critics alike, there is nothing new I’m personally adding to that list of critiques–and no, we do not owe M. Night an apology for criticizing his film.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Gordon Cormier as Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Like the original animated series, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender follows a young Air Nomad monk named Aang (Gordon Cormier) who has just reemerged from a 100-year self-induced cryosleep. To his dismay, he learns that he is the lone survivor of his people, hence the name “The Last Airbender” and must assume his role as the new Avatar, the sole master of the four elements, Air, Water, Earth, and Fire, and in the process bring balance to the world which is currently under Fire Nation rule. Following him on this journey are sibling Southern Water Tribe duo, Sokka (Ian Ousley) and Katara (Kiawentiio).

I’ll preface the rest of this review by saying that the series is miles ahead of M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaption of the original series. It is a much more faithful adaption despite the series’ bold creative choices that are sure to leave fans of the original series rather frustrated and baffled by the time it all wraps up. That being said, we won’t spend too much time on the film itself as this isn’t a review of the film.

Albert Kim, the showrunner for Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, delivers a lot of what fans of the animated series wanted to see in this live-action adaptation. While some of the “remix” choices are welcomed, others are not so much. One of the few in my list of gripes with the series is the pacing and writing of the series. Kim and Netflix took a much more serious approach to their adaptation while attempting to maintain the original series’ more cartoonish and childlike aspects. This results in a tonal dysfunction that finds the series battling for tonal supremacy.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Gordon Cormier as Aang, Ian Ousley as Sokka in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023

For the most part, the more mature aspects of the series work when the writing is there for it and the actors are given the proper direction and attention to detail to deliver the seriousness of those moments. On the flip side, went the series leans into those cartoonish moments, they can be hit or miss and more often than not feel forced or present the characters in ways that are just remnants of who the character was intended to be in the original series.

This is mostly prevalent in our leading trio, Aang, Sokka, and Katara. Aang is not overly reluctant when it comes to assuming his role as the Avatar and his more serious and guilt-driven approach seems off for the most part. This reiterates my point that when the writing and attention to detail are given to these actors, they truly shine. Not once did I even truly feel that sense of disappointment for Aang in this series than I did for Aang in the animated series.

This is a 12-year-old child, who is the lone survivor of his people and quite literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders. This is also a child who is more keen on playing and enjoying life than assuming the responsibility the universe just so happens to bestow upon him and the series doesn’t quite nail that. At least not yet. This isn’t so much a slight to Gordon Cormier’s performance, I thought he was great in the role and does have the cuteness and charm of a young kid that we come to expect from Aang at least visually and physically.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Ian Ousley as Sokka in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2024

The same can be said for Sokka and Katara. Ian Ousley killed it as Sokka and embodied that awkward, steadfast, yet comedic charm to Sokka. However, Albert Kim’s decision to erase Sokka’s sexism still proved to be detrimental to Sokka’s overall story. There is very little room for growth here and his arc with Suki on Kyoshi Island, just doesn’t land the same without that misogynistic mentality he enters Kyoshi Island with. We also do not get the full extent of Sokka’s sense of abandonment at the hands of his father.

This was a young boy who was forced to grow up and become a man. The series fails at presenting that obstacle for him to overcome and become a much better man than his father was as he intended to be in the original series. Katara as a character in this series suffers the same fate. She’s not as headstrong or as vocal as she is in the animated series and is not struggling with her anger which lends into her arc of mastering Waterbending and proving herself to be a woman of worth rather than another addition to the tribe.

We don’t fully see how she is more of the leader and mother figure of her tribe and ultimately Team Avatar. These are all kids who are dealing with the remnants of war and are trying their absolute best to see the brighter side of things all the while writing everyone’s wrongs and overcoming personal demons and the live-action series doesn’t quite nail those nuances for these characters. At some point in the series, Katara almost feels completely sidelined just because. And by the time we get the Katara from the original series in this live-action series, it’s almost too little too late, as the window for development has essentially closed.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yvonne Chapman as Avatar Kyoshi in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Albert Kim called this series a “remix, not a cover” but also stated that the series would be a 1:1 adaptation in some aspects while remixing other aspects of the story and I personally feel that Kim downplayed the remix part quite a bit. I didn’t go in wanting or expecting a 1:1 adaptation of the animated series but there are some core elements from the first book that I was expecting to see but did not get in this live-action series.

One of the main things is the almost complete omission of Avatar Roku and the importance he served as the spiritual guide for Aang as he learned how massive his responsibility as the Avatar is. Kim decided it was best to have Avatar Kyoshi be a half-cooked spiritual guide and just leave Avatar Roku as some sort of jokester whom he only meets once. The issue here isn’t Kyoshi’s involvement, but how early and how prominent her involvement is this early into the story.

Omitting the Fire Nation’s Avatar from being Aang’s spiritual guide undersells the brewing turmoil between Aang and the Fire Nation as a whole. He had friends in the Fire Nation and would visit the Fire Nation often as a child (something he mentions in passing in this series) and not fully having that connection there undercuts the scope of the war Aang must be a part of. Additionally, Kyoshi’s inclusion and prominence felt like Netflix and Albert Kim’s attempt at generating enough hype to greenlight a possible Kyoshi-led Avatar spin-off which I’m not mad about. The approach could’ve been different though.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Utkarsh Ambudkar as King Bumi, Gordon Cormier as Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

One of my biggest gripes of this season, when it came to “remixing” things, was the over-condensing of certain storylines. This is heavy-handed when we meet King Bumi in the city of Omashu. Not only is King Bumi no longer fond of Aang (he too scolds him and calls him a coward for “running away”–is that how you feel Kim?), but his tests don’t come from a place of friendship and Aang has to essentially earn that back. In addition to this, we meet Teo and his father Sai in Omashu when they’re inhabitants of the Northern Air Temple.

Haru and the captivity of his father and his community are completely missing from this series. This was disappointing given how important this short story arc is to both Aang and Katara and pushes forward their respective character development. Jet’s inclusion was also underwhelming and his freedom fighter approach was also underdeveloped and squeezed into one episode with three, or four other storylines going on at once. We also get the events of The Great Divide but only mentioned in passing by some of the residents of Omashu.

This doesn’t stop there. Another issue I had with the creative choices made for this live-action series is that Aang does not learn how to Waterbend this season nor does he learn the little bit of Firebending as he does in the first season of the animated series. We’ll overlook how Katara gets her hands on her water scroll for now. One thing I can’t overlook is the rushed development of the events in the Northern Water Tribe.

The series suffers the same pacing fate as M. Night’s live-action film. The love triangle between Sokka, Princess Yue (Amber Midthunder), and Hahn is completely overlooked, rushed, and underdeveloped all at once. The mentor-mentee relationship between Katara, Master Pakku, and Aang has been completely omitted as well. Not only does Pakku not want to teach Katara how to master Waterbending, but he doesn’t want to teach Aang either. This results in a lackluster mentor-mentee battle between Katara and Pakku removing Pakku’s acknowledgment and earning respect for Katara as a Waterbender.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Gordon Cormier as Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2024

Subsequently, Kim decides to omit the connection Master Pakku and Katara have due to her neckless. If Kim had given himself the time to develop both Katara and Master Pakku and allow them to learn how he was the one who created that neckless for Gran Gran how he was set to marry Gran Gran and why she left the Northern Water Tribe, it would’ve made for better development between the two and allowed them to grow some sense of admiration for each other. Outside of Katara fighting against the ways of old and Pakku believing that women shouldn’t be on the frontlines. Missed opportunity.

Despite all of those negatives, there is a lot to praise Netflix and Albert Kim for when it comes to this series. The bending is one of the main things that we can praise the series for. However, at times the Water, Earth, and Fire bending don’t have the effects they should have. For example, when someone is hit with water, they’re not wet. Sounds like a nitpick but it’s a case of not paying attention to detail and it cannot be overlooked.

There are also some really beautiful shots in the series. The city of Omashu looks incredible and the Air Temples do as well. Those skyline views are a sight to behold. The Fire Nation ships look as intimidating as ever and the series’ score elevates those scenic moments. Unfortunately, there are at times that the view isn’t as grand and this could be a case of The Volume not being used properly in those intimate character moments. Outside of that, it is used to great effect.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Speaking of attention to detail, one has to admire the depth and heaviness given to the Fire Nation in this adaption. The Fire Nation are evil and the heaviness of their presence is commanding and intimidating. Dallas Liu is a standout as the exiled Prince Zuko and captures the essence of the animated version of Prince Zuko almost verbatim. That aside, the series does fail at times to capture the brewing respect that Zuko and Aang eventually come to have for each other. Additionally, Zuko is dead set on being next in line on the throne, why?

One can also admire the emphasis on Fire Lord Ozai’s abuse of his children. How his dynamic pushes both Prince Zuko and Princess Azula to pursue their respective desires. Again, Zuko wants the throne which is a questionable creative decision. Azula’s early introduction is one of those creative choices I can rally behind because it adds more gravity to her overall character development and what’s to come. I’m hoping we do get to see how cold and calculated she can actually be hopefully in season two.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Netflix Review - There's A Lot of Room For Improvement The Nerdy Basement
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Maria Zhang as Suki in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

I would like to also highlight the series’ set designs and costume designs. Both have been more faithful to the source material compared to the live-action film and they capture how each respective nation looks and how they live. This is specifically highlighted with the Kyoshi Warriors on Kyoshi Island. Make-up and costume design are immaculate here. All that was missing was Sokka in his Kyoshi Warrior outfit. The same can be said for the series’ creatures like Appa and Momo, to June’s Shirsu, Koh, and Wan Shi Tong who all look like tangible creatures. The dragon spirit would’ve been nice to see, however.

When all is said and done there’s plenty to enjoy as a fan of the original series, some new ideas were welcomed, and omissions of certain plot points were frustrating but I think we can all agree that the respect for the source material is there despite all of those changes. When it comes to adapting a series like ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ I think Netflix and Albert Kim have nailed it. The bending, representation, and castings were the highlights of the series. Prince Zuko is the standout star of the season. There’s room for improvement in all areas of the series from writing, pacing, adapting, and acting.

For what’s come before and what we have now, it is safe to say that Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is the adaptation we were all looking for. And for those who are reluctant to view the series for the sole sake of “we have the animated series”, you know what to do, the animated series is streaming on Netflix and Paramount+. Here’s to hoping we get a second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender and that Kyoshi spin-off. Need more of that.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

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