Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Leaves Little Room for Nuance

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Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Leaves Little Room for Nuance

“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony…” 

Few television intros are as deeply ingrained in our collective memory as the iconic title sequence of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Mae Whitman’s Katara, with her soothing voice, guides us into each episode as the young waterbender recounts her fateful discovery of Aang, the long-lost Avatar destined to bring an end to the century-long war and save the world. In Netflix’s live-action adaptation, it is now Avatar Kyoshi lending her voice to the opening sequence. However, rather than serve as a seamless transition, the new narration is burdened with an excessive need to over-explain the show’s premise, coming across as a clunky rewording of the original. It’s like trying to copy someone’s work but changing some of the words so you don’t get caught. This stumbling introduction is emblematic of the broader issues plaguing the live-action series—unwarranted self-seriousness, an overload of exposition, and a failure to recapture the true heart of its source material. 

One of the defining traits of the original animated series is its ability to balance moments of levity with the weight of its overarching narrative. The found family dynamic between Aang, Katara, and Sokka (and later, others) was a cornerstone to the show’s success, manifesting through a delightful blend of silly banter and childlike wonder of the world they’re exploring. After waking up from what was essentially a 100-year-long coma, the first thing Aang says to Katara is, “Will you go penguin sledding with me?” In contrast, the live-action series omits integral scenes that showcased the characters’—specifically Aang’s—sense of play. Detours such as riding the elephant koi fish on Kyoshi Island and sliding down the Omashu delivery system were excluded to prioritize Aang’s race to save the Northern Water Tribe, as well as emphasize the show’s shift towards a darker, more serialized structure. 

The original ATLA excelled in crafting multifaceted individuals who experienced joy and camaraderie amidst the chaos of their world. They were not solely defined by the tragedies they endured; they were still, at the end of the day, kids who wanted to play and make each other laugh. Even other fantasy series such as Stranger Things, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the Harry Potter movies, while undoubtedly dark in their material, left space for lightness because they remembered that their characters are children before they are heroes. The live-action ATLA, however, mostly forgoes levity in favor of a relentlessly serious tone. This shift deprives viewers of the opportunity to truly connect with the characters on a deeper level beyond their struggles. By removing the gang’s little adventures in between, the adaptation focuses excessively on the tragedies of war and reduces the characters to mere vessels of their trauma—Aang’s stemming from the genocide of his people, Katara’s rooted in the death of her mother, and Sokka grappling with insecurities about his warrior capabilities. 

Whereas the original series gradually introduced new information and allowed viewers to unlock pieces of lore with each episode, the live-action opts for a more exposition-heavy approach. The first 20 minutes of the series depict the brutal massacre of the Air Nation, whereas in the original show, this revelation unfolds much more hauntingly. Aang doesn’t discover the truth until Episode 3, where he witnesses the skeletons of his people upon returning to his home at the Southern Air Temple. Netflix’s take chooses a more flashy, violent presentation, sacrificing the nuanced and subtle storytelling as seen in the animated counterpart.

ATLA also introduces Fire Nation characters like Ozai and Azula far too early, accelerating the narrative stakes from the outset. Azula, in particular, undergoes a transformation in her arc. In the original series, Azula is a prodigy; she’s sharp, cruel, and clearly Ozai’s favorite child. Her flames are blue because they burn hotter than other Firebenders, and she never fails to get her way. In the live-action, Azula is a little rougher around the edges. She’s still a ruthless mastermind—her eyes darken with satisfaction as she watches her father burn traitors alive, and she concludes the season leading a military victory in overtaking Omashu. Yet, she’s still portrayed with a degree more sympathy as she desperately strives for her father’s approval. In Episode 5 of Netflix’s Avatar, Ozai berates Azula for her self-serving flattery and praises Zuko’s resilience during his banishment. In Episode 7, Ozai deems her fighting performances unworthy as a manipulation tactic, forcing her to redo her test until she snaps. Even as her friends Mai and Ty Lee assure that she’s the best, Azula knows it’s not enough unless her father admits it. While it’s an interesting storyline, the premature glimpse into Azula’s insecurities detracts from what made her such a menacing figure in the original show, since those cracks in her character weren’t made visible until Book 3. In doing so, ATLA spoils its own future plot points and undermines the anticipation that the animated series masterfully built over time. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender’s reliance on exposition assumes that the audience requires constant hand-holding to understand what is happening on screen, thus resulting in bouts of tedious dialogue that over-explain the narrative. Rather than depicting developments organically, the show often resorts to a “tell, don’t show” method. After finding out he’s the Avatar, Aang, in a one-sided conversation with Appa, expresses his doubts over being able to stop a war and describes himself as a goofy kid who “likes to play airball and eat banana cake.” On Kyoshi Island, Katara talks about how Aang is good at connecting with people and “building bridges.” Perhaps most notably, in the show’s finale, after Aang merges with the spirits to form a colossal fish-like figure, Yue proceeds to explicitly explain: “Aang has given himself over to the Ocean Spirit, allowing it to channel its rage through him and access the power of the Avatar.” Not only do these lines feel awkward, they detract from the emotional impact of such pivotal moments. 

It’s not surprising that a live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender would prove to be disappointing. Limited by the challenge of condensing a 22-episode season into just eight hours, it’s understandable that the series would have to make major sacrifices into what would be included and excluded. However, in attempting to straddle the line between a kids series and a “prestige” drama, Avatar: The Last Airbender struggles with neither fully capturing the spirit of the original nor establishing its own identity. The constraints of adaptation, coupled with an unclear target audience, contribute to a compromised narrative that ultimately fails to resonate emotionally. 

Dianna Shen is an entertainment writer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in Paste Magazine, Primetimer, Consequence, and Decider, among other publications. When she’s not crying over a rom-com, she can be found @ddiannashen.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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