Courtesy of Netflix

March 20, 2024

Netflix’s Adaptation of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Stumbles In Capturing the True Character of Its Predecessor

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There is no doubt in the zeitgeist that Avatar: The Last Airbender has cemented itself into legend as one of the most iconic animated TV shows of all time. Taking place in a world where four nations are divided by the four elements — water, air, fire and earth — the tale follows a young boy who is forced into the role of the Avatar, the master of all four elements, and must embark on a quest to restore balance in a world ravaged by the Fire Nation’s war.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, shame on you! Everyone’s seen Avatar, and no, I’m not talking about the one with the blue people. Avatar: The Last Airbender is more than just a good story. It’s a thrilling tale of adventure, redemption, loss, war, friendship, honor, forgiveness and power. The narrative of Avatar is so iconic that, after its conclusion, it was given an ongoing comic book series, a live-action film (which was admittedly very terrible), a prequel novel series and a sequel TV show: The Legend of Korra

The live-action Netflix series adaptation adds a new spin on the characters and builds on pre-established storylines. The writers respect the source material and they make efforts to show us vital points from Aang’s, Zuko’s and Iroh’s backstories in particular, which make them even more compelling as characters and give us a deeper take on the themes of war, honor and redemption.

On the other hand, the live-action suffers in many instances due to its brevity. The original first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender is twenty episodes long. The Netflix adaptation squishes it into eight, long episodes, which are hardly enough to cover everything, and as a result, the first season loses its true character. Up to four episodes are mashed into a single one through this adaptation, and the writers try to interlink the storylines of each through minor cuts and story modifications. 

Every major target in the plot is covered, and this allows time to insert added scenes that were not in the source material. However, we are only given the individual pieces of each original episode in broad strokes. This inherently takes away from the depth of the storyline, and, even worse, the characterization of major secondary characters like Jet (a morally gray rebel leader) and Suki (the leader of the Kyoshi warriors). Along with King Bumi, these characters aren’t given enough time on-screen to be fully fleshed out, and the modifications to their personal stories that were made to abide by the show’s exceedingly fast pace end up making each of them lose vital parts of themselves. It falls short of the thematic significance the property had in the original series. 

One thing the show excels in, however, is further exploring the Avatar Aang’s motivations and his inner turmoil borne from the burden of being the Avatar. Through added scenes, this adaptation highlights how being the Avatar is more than controlling the four elements, as it also makes Aang the world’s peacekeeper and savior in all times of need. This reiterates the insane burden of a position that he is thrust into at such a young age, adding a huge layer of maturity to Aang’s character. We are forced to come to terms with an important aspect of his past that is, for all its importance, somewhat glossed over in the original show: The Air Nomad Genocide, a mass slaughter of all of the air nomads by the Fire nation, save for Aang who was not present. Showing us this in real-time was a bold move, but I believe that it places a bigger emphasis on Aang’s road to redemption and the injustice that he committed when he left the other airbenders behind.

Nonetheless, the maturity of the show backfires when it reaches Aang’s dialogue. He often offers wise words and reassurance to other characters, which seems out of character and unbefitting of a twelve-year-old who is still struggling to accept his position in the world. 

Sokka, the water tribe warrior who accompanies Aang on his journey, is undeniably lacking in character. With the writer’s choice to take away the blatant misogyny he starts the show with, his entire character arc is scrubbed away. As a result, his romance with Suki falls flat, and their relationship seems to serve no purpose. The episode centering around Kyoshi Island, the birthplace of one of the previous Avatars to which the island is named, becomes more of a history lesson than a vital point in his character arc, as Sokka does not develop into a person at all. Furthermore, his humor is virtually nonexistent, and thus the show loses a large amount of its comic relief. 

However, the writers do smartly highlight the sibling relationship between Sokka and his sister Katara, focusing on their differences and the hole that their parents left them to fill. Both of the siblings had to carry heavy burdens from such young ages; Sokka through his role as the sole protector of the village, and Katara as the last surviving waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. I particularly enjoyed how the show explored this, and I’m excited to see how their relationship develops further in seasons two and three, which were confirmed this month by Netflix. 

All in all, Avatar’s live-action Netflix adaptation adds a different dimension to the original series that is very nice to watch, yet it also fails to retain many narrative elements and key points of character development which made the original an unforgettable show. It is definitely worth a watch and has a fair balance of pros and cons. I am excited to see how our main cast further develops in season two and if these disparities in character development are reconciled. The live-action adaptation achieves a solid 7/10, as it introduces many more points of interest that were apparent in the original but never expounded upon, making it a thrilling rendition of its predecessor. 

Leah Badawi is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].