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Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender: What Went Right, What Went Wrong

Overall, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is a solid homage to its original source and an improvement over its last adaptation.

The main trio of the first season in live action.

In 2005, Nickelodeon showrunners Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino released the 3-season animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which enamored many Gen Z viewers then and now. Now, Netflix takes on the risky idea of a live-action production of the beloved cartoon. The remake of the cult classic Nickelodeon cartoon appeased some fans and devastated others.

The Original Show

In a world of elemental “benders,” the Fire Nation shatters the peace by colonizing the others, even wiping out all the Airbenders in existence. One hundred years pass, until Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka free a boy trapped in an iceberg. The boy, named Aang, is the last Airbender left alive. He is also the Avatar, a figure who has the ability to bend all four elements. After a visit from the Fire Nation, Katara and Sokka join Aang on his journey to learn Water, Earth, and Firebending, and help him take down the tyrannical Fire Lord Ozai for good.

The trio takes many exciting side adventures, makes friends and enemies, and learns important lessons all throughout the story. It maintains a humorous tone geared toward a younger audience, but isn’t afraid to address heavier themes at times. These include Aang being the sole survivor of genocide, or Katara and Sokka losing family members to war. The characters’ growth throughout the show is masterfully written, a big part of why it remains widely known and praised to this day.

First Adaptation Attempt

Five years later, The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan created The Last Airbender, a live-action movie adaptation of the first season. The fanbase regarded this film as an all-around disappointment. The original series was shown absolutely no respect. Avatar‘s world draws heavily on aspects of Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and Inuit culture, which Shyamalan managed to brush over by casting white or Indian actors in many main roles. Even several characters’ names are mispronounced, further discrediting the source material. In addition, the action scenes and practical effects felt flat and unexciting in comparison to the original cartoon. Fans collectively ignore the existence of this adaptation and refused to let their favorite show receive such disrespectful treatment.

Netflix’s Live Action Controversy

Eventually, Netflix began streaming the show, creating a new spike of interest. Old fans revisited their childhood, and new fans grew to love it. In 2018, Netflix annouced that they would be working with the original creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender, DiMartino and Konietzko, to create a live-action show adaptation. This news began to tentatively raise hopes again, but it didn’t last long. Two years later, DiMartino and Konietzko explained that they parted ways with Netflix due to “creative differences.” When Netflix began to release details, it started to make sense why.

Netflix’s showrunners made several significant changes to the characters’ stories, not all of which make sense. One of the most controversial is that of Sokka’s initial development. Early on in the original, Sokka doesn’t think girls can fight and belittles his sister Katara for trying to learn. The trio later encounters the Kyoshi Warriors, an all-female warrior troop. Their leader, Suki, humbles him with her combat skills. At the end of the episode, Sokka apologizes for looking down on her and asks for a lesson in her technique.

Netflix claimed this behavior was outdated and “problematic” of Sokka, but isn’t that the point? Well-written characters do not start out as perfect angels; they mess up sometimes, and learn important lessons along the journey. This lesson Sokka learned became important later on as Katara experiences the same treatment from a Northern Water Tribe master. If such an important arc for a main character was eliminated, what would that suggest for the rest of the remake?

The Good Stuff

The remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered February 22 of this year, and received a very mixed reception. The fact that it actually paid respect to the original cartoon and its Asian and Indigenous inspiration pleased many nervous fans. The casting reflects this: Gordon Cormier plays Aang, Kiawentiio Tarbell plays Katara, Ian Ousley plays Sokka, Maria Zhang plays Suki, Dallas Liu plays Prince Zuko, Elizabeth Yu plays Princess Azula, Ken Leung plays Admiral Zhao, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays Uncle Iroh, and Daniel Dae-Kim plays Fire Lord Ozai. Many actors are fans of the original and aimed to add their own spin while staying true to the source.

The most commonly praised is the portrayal of the exiled Prince Zuko and his connection to the kindly uncle Iroh. Fans of the original know that Zuko undergoes tremendous internal conflict in regards to winning back his father’s favor. One of the best parts of the story is his eventual redemption and restored bond with his uncle. In the remake, Liu embodies the outward anger of Book One Zuko as well as his inner family turmoil that surfaces later on. Lee effortlessly carries the energy of the wise mentor Iroh, yet does not shy away from the character’s past as a Fire Nation general.

In regards to the action and effects, it far outshines the Shyamalan movie. The visual effects used to create the various creatures and spirits look just as fantastic and terrifying as their animated counterparts. The action and bending, too, have improved, appearing smoother and more connected to a person’s fighting style. The main cast took a six-week boot camp in multiple forms of martial arts to more accurately imitate bending moves used in the cartoon. The show’s strength is its goal of keeping details and worldbuilding accurate to the source.

What Fell Short

However, the middle of the new show started combining plotlines from individual animated episodes. Many fans believed this felt clunky and ruined the pacing. For example, Aang, Katara, and Sokka reach the Earth Kingdom city Omashu in episodes 3 and 4. While there, they run into three separate sets of characters that they originally met outside the city. With this, we lose the setup for pivotal moments, like the beginnings of Aang and Katara’s feelings for each other.

Instead of taking the time to explore these moments in detail, the writers blended together or referenced in passing to save time and money. Even when the changed scenes are from “filler” episodes, it takes away from the whimsical, childlike joy and rushes vital points of development. This was most likely due to Netflix imposing the ever-present format of eight episodes per season. Many viewers have expressed that this often does not work well for adapted material.

Similarly, the showrunners of the remake aimed for a slightly darker, more mature tone. Specifically, they wanted something that would “appeal to fans of Game of Thrones.” The remake introduces PG-13 levels of violence and horror alongside the lighter moments aimed at children, and the result often feels uneven. The normally excitable Aang finds himself haunted by the guilt of having been gone for so long while the world burned around him. While this is a critical aspect of his character, it seems to take over everything else about him here. 


It isn’t a perfect adaptation, but no such thing exists. The remake received 60% on the Tomatometer from critics, but a more promising 74% from audiences. Enough people enjoyed the show for Netflix to renew it for two more seasons. Meaning, if you aren’t satisfied currently, there is a chance for it to improve. With no threat of cancellation, no worldwide lockdown, and fairer conditions for writers, it is worth waiting for Books Two and Three. Overall, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender had its weak points, but it’s an improvement over its last adaptation. Even if you aren’t familiar with the cartoon, it serves as a well-designed fantasy adventure filled with compelling characters and invigorating action.

Written By

I'm a 2024 graduate of Ohio University with an English-Creative Writing major and a Screenwriting minor. I'm from Huntley, IL, and one day I want to write and produce my own TV series.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Richard McNeal

    April 13, 2024 at 5:27 pm

    A very detailed and thorough review.

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