Avatar: The Last Airbender: What It Gets Right, and What It Gets Wrong

Despite some flaws, Netflix's live-action adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon animated series mostly hits the right notes.

by | February 27, 2024 | Comments


Avatar: The Last Airbender is the latest cartoon to get the live-action remake treatment. After the mixed reaction to Cowboy Bebop and the overwhelmingly positive response to One Piece, a lot is riding on Netflix’s latest live-action remake. After all, the original Avatar: The Last Airbender remains a hugely influential and beloved animated show with stunning world-building, deep character writing, and great action.

That’s a pretty high bar for any adaptation to clear, and given this has a much shorter runtime, changes are to be expected, of course. After all, why make a 1:1 copy when you can just re-watch the original? While the Netflix live-action show stumbles on some aspects, it does hit the right notes where it counts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the things Avatar: The Last Airbender got right and the things it mishandled.

What It Gets Right

Zuko Is the Best Character

Arden Cho as June, Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

(Photo by Robert Falconer/Netflix)

When you watch the original Avatar it becomes clear rather quickly that Aang may be the titular Last Airbender, but it is Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation who has all the makings of a protagonist: the tragic backstory, the internal conflict, a moral conundrum, and a journey full of ups and downs. The live-action Avatar recognizes this and expands on the character, his relationship with his uncle Iroh, and even his conflicted relationship to the Fire Nation. The result is a character who is more complex from the get-go, rather than one who slowly develops across multiple seasons, turning Zuko from an interesting antagonist to more of a deuteragonist you root for as much as Aang.

It helps that actor Dallas Liu is fantastic as Zuko. Not only does he capture the essence of the character — he even sounds exactly like voice actor Dante Basco at times — but he also adds his own perspective and makes the character his own. Seeing him conflicted about the way the Fire Nation is resorting to dishonorable methods like the use of shadow agents and secretive warfare is fascinating and compelling to watch.

The Bending Looks Great

Kiawentiio as Katara in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

(Photo by Robert Falconer/Netflix)

One of the trickiest things about Avatar needed to pull off in live-action was the bending. It is the cornerstone of the cartoon and what separates it from other magic-based fantasy. Still, the particular blend of real-life martial arts and fantastical powers is tailor-made for animation but not particularly easy to translate to live action — as proven by the horrendous response M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 feature film adaptation The Last Airbender.

Thankfully, Avatar: The Last Airbender nails the look of bending. It mixes realistic yet fluid choreography with stunning VFX, resulting in action that feels intuitive and with verisimilitude for the world of the show. We don’t see a dozen fighters dancing ridiculously to lift a single rock; instead, bending fully becomes an extension of an individual’s martial arts. We also see numerous techniques used throughout the season, even within the same type of bending. Katara (played by Kiawentiio) can use water like a whip in one scene, then turn it into ice and throw ice discs to attack in the next. Also, given the darker and more adult tone of the remake, we see firebending realized as dangerous as it is implied (yet unseen) in the cartoon, which leads to some cool visuals and some brutal kills.

The Spirit World

Gordon Cormier as Aang in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

(Photo by ©Netflix)

A big aspect of the original cartoon was Aang’s role as the bridge between humans and spirits, with the show slowly building on the spirit world over the course of its three seasons (and later in the sequel series The Legend of Korra). With the benefit of hindsight, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender depicts how essential spirits are to the story from the beginning, introducing spirits like Wan Shi Tong already in season 1, and even bringing elements from the comics and from Korra, like the Fog of Lost Souls.

This makes the world of the show feel bigger and more connected, showing how the spirits interact and impact the physical world. Plus, the spirits look great. Koh the Face Stealer, in particular, boasts stunning VFX that feel real without being uncanny and fantastical without being cartoonish.

The Past Avatars

Yvonne Chapman as Avatar Kyoshi in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

(Photo by ©Netflix)

One thing that makes the Avatar unique as a hero is that they have past lives. Throughout the original cartoon, Aang occasionally receives wisdom from previous incarnations of the Avatar, which makes the world of the show feel lived-in and full of history. The live-action remake introduces Aang’s past lives earlier, showing us not only Avatar Roku (C.S. Lee), but also Kyoshi (Yvonne Chapman) and Kuruk (Meegwun Fairbrother) to teach Aang (Gordon Cormier) important lessons (and also to give some bad advice). Seeing the different personalities and skills of the various Avatars makes Aang more special, as he is different from them, and also teases the larger canon of Avatar — even things not from the original cartoon, but recent novels.

Much in the same way the original series made every appearance by Roku worthy of excitement, the live-action Avatar makes sure the audience knows each previous Avatar is simply the coolest person in existence. Roku instantly comes across as wise yet friendly (and also tortured by past choices), Kuruk is a chill dude with a very tragic life, and Kyoshi is an unforgiving and tough badass who makes every other character in Avatar look like a wimp by comparison.

What It Gets Wrong

The Pacing

Danny Pudi as The Mechanist in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)

(Photo by ©Netflix)

In adding urgency and prioritizing the big beats of the story, Avatar: The Last Airbender ends up rushing through the story and skipping all the side stories that were essential to the original. Granted, no adaptation can be 1:1, but the original Avatar in particular always used episodes about downtime and smaller adventures to develop its characters and its world — for example, an episode about the antagonists going to the beach that gave us incredibly profound character work and revelations, or the anthology “Tales of Ba Sing Se” that made a whole generation of kids cry their eyes out.

The lack of side stories, even as the series attempts to include every major character and story beat, means that the live-action Avatar also introduces said story beats rather conveniently. Having Jet (Sebastian Amoruso) and the mechanist (Danny Pudi) both be in Omashu at the same time means the gang has less time to visit smaller towns and feel the impact and reach of the war, making the world feel smaller.

The Tone

Ken Leung as Zhao in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender

(Photo by Netflix)

In an attempt to make Avatar appeal to fans of gritty shows like Game of Thrones, the live-action loses something essential to the story. Sure, its grown-up exploration of war and trauma leads to some interesting moments, but given the show is still about kids — kids who still experience moments of childish levity — there’s a mismatch of tones that doesn’t really work. One moment you see someone get horribly burned alive by firebending, and the next you see the main trio cracking jokes.

The writing for Aang in particular suffers for this, as he isn’t the happy-go-lucky kid from the cartoon, but instead a brooding character struggling with his responsibility who nevertheless jokes around in awkward moments. This makes the characters come across as less complex than even their cartoon counterparts, at least in this first season.

Do you feel Netflix got things mostly right in its live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender? If not, what could it have done better? Let us know in the comments.

Thumbnail image by ©Netflix

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