A Live-Action Series Adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Netflix? Meh.
I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender from the very day it aired, when I was in seventh grade. For the rest of middle school, I felt like I was one of the only people in my classes who gave it a chance. By high school, I found that I had a bunch of friends who loved it as well, but we were pretty far from what it meant to be “cool” and popular. After high school, I slowly came to realize that…
Pretty much everyone in my age group grew up on Avatar: The Last Airbender.
I woke up on September 18th, 2018 to multiple people tagging me in posts about articles of Netflix’s announcement of their Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series adaptation, as well as many more of my friends messaging me these articles directly. (I attribute this to how I am currently writing a book about the social and political themes of the show.) I didn’t have the heart to individually tell these people that the news doesn’t excite me, and instead got to writing this (even though I’m publishing it months later), as well as posting a vague status on Facebook about my feelings.
To start off on why I feel the way I do, I’m going to bring up something very taboo in the A:TLA fandom — the movie we pretend doesn’t exist.
Despite posts on online forums in the preceding years being wary about M. Night Shyamalan leading the project, my group of friends were excited to watch The Last Airbender on its release date. Yeah, a lot of us dressed up to go see the premiere, and boy, were we disappointed.
My mindset for why I was hyped for the movie was because of two reasons. First, it would have been nice to see the story retold in a movie format. Many things would have to be left out, but it could have been engaging in other ways. Secondly, if the movie was actually good, I could have convinced my parents, who had no interest in the show and scoffed at us watching it, to go see it, maybe even introducing them to the original series.
Well, none of that happened because Shyamalan ended up creating one of the blandest movies I’ve ever seen. But the idea for a movie had potential.
Getting back to the Netflix adaptation. My criticism with this happening isn’t me thinking that we’re gonna be Shyamalan’d again. What I’m actually worried about has to do with demographics and format. It turns out I’m not the only person who thinks about the former. Several people have pointed out to me that they do care about it, and believe that a live-action remake will appeal to those who never gave the original a chance.
When it comes to movie adaptations with theatrical releases, they stand more of a chance to appeal to a variety of people. Also, remember that movies are shorter, and that viewers may be more willing to give an unfamiliar genre a chance than dedicate themselves to a series that they may quit five episodes in. (You’ve probably heard or told people something along the lines of, “You have to get to episode 13 to get hooked!” when it comes to certain shows.) Even if viewers unfamiliar with A:TLA have Netflix accounts, the reboot will be competing against countless other Netflix Originals, along with content not produced by them. Who knows which taste communities the show will be targeted to. It’s not a far-out guess that it will be pushed towards people who have already watched the original. If we wanted to expand the fandom by making a series reboot, it would be more worthwhile to have HBO produce it. (Now, imagine that.)
The fact that the adaptation will be live-action holds no meaning for me. It seems like a gimmick to differentiate this series from the original. If the story is the same and is in episodic format, what will live-action lend to the show? But maybe my indifference to live-action is a matter of preference. While I liked the animation of A:TLA, it wasn’t one of the main reasons I did so, and I didn’t recommend it to others based on that, but on other qualities. I do know that high-quality animation is a bigger deal for other people, so maybe other viewers are legitimately excited for elements that come along with live-action, such as watching actors portray the characters, special effects, etc. I know one person who liked The Last Airbender because of its portrayal of martial arts.
Because the reboot is going to be a series, how is the pacing and storytelling going to be different from the original? If it’s kept the same or similar, it will be stagnant for familiar viewers. Or maybe they’ll do what so many popular shows have done this past decade. In the age of Netflix, I’m fed up with series resorting to soap opera-esque episodes and cliffhangers throughout their seasons. (A large problem I had with The Dragon Prince.) One thing I loved about the format of A:TLA was that they rarely resorted to those sorts of cheap tactics to keep people onboard. Our love for the characters and their storylines was what compelled us to keep watching.
Overall, I don’t feel strongly one way or the other, which is why it took me so long to drive up the will to finish writing this. What I am irritated at, though, is that it seems like A:TLA has fallen into the needless remake craze. It has been only fifteen years since Book 1 premiered, and just over ten since we (first) watched the battle between Aang and Fire Lord Ozai. I’m tired of nostalgic products and marketing. The new series being live-action and produced by Netflix are the two main points we have been told, as if we should be singing endless praises for just those two aspects. Oh yeah, the casting will be more culturally appropriate, and creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino are involved. Cool…but is it still worth the hype? Let’s remember that many fans were excited for The Legend of Korra, which Bryke worked on, but ended up disappointed with it. I find that A:TLA viewers recommending TLOK is a toss of the coin. (The sequel series was different from A:TLA, but I still liked it.)
What I would have rather had Netflix do was produce a new series within the A:TLA universe, or movie adaptations of the comic books. For years, that’s what I saw fans requesting from Netflix. That’s not happening, and instead, I’m told I should look forward to their live-action series remake, even though I have not be been told a single good reason why. When the time comes to watch it, don’t expect me to jump on it. If it’s entertaining, that’s neat, I guess. If it offers quality programming for the existing fandom and new viewers, that would be great. However, as of now, I have no reason to expect that.