Netflix is gearing up to release their live-action adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender next month. The project began development in 2018 but finally picked up steam in 2021 with several major castings of Asian and Indigenous actors. Showrunner Albert Kim said in his original statement to Netflix, “..a live-action version would establish a new benchmark in representation and bring in a whole new generation of fans. This was a chance to showcase Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people. Not just in a cartoon, but in a world that truly exists, very similar to the one we live in.” One of the changes from the original cartoon is the introduction of South Asian culture as part of the ever-diverse Earth Kingdom beyond just East Asain. This included casting Danny Pudi as The Mechanist and Utkarsh Ambudkar as King Bumi. If the show is picked up by the streaming service for a second season, they could further expand what cultures are used in their live-action adaption.
A major plot point in the original cartoon that stays with Aang and the rest of Team Avatar is their visit to The Swamp. The episode seemed like a filler but gave us our first look at Toph Beifong via vision. The episode also introduced us to Swampbenders. The world established that waterbenders only come from the North and South Poles. However, it is revealed that Swampbenders (a sub-set of waterbenders) have been living in a swamp within the Earth Kingdom the entire time. The original cartoon gave the swampbenders the Southern redneck accents for comedic effect throughout the show. A side note, there is also a strong argument that Swampbenders base their entire aesthetic on Vietnamese immigrants found in the New Orleans area. A PBS documentary titled A Village Called Versailles discusses their culture influencing the Louisiana Bayou.
However, Netflix could go another route with the swampbenders and how their culture is represented. If they are going to adapt the characters for live-action, the use of American redneck accents doesn’t translate well from a cartoon to a serialized drama. They must make them more serious, removing the silly redneck aspect completely, considering the characters play a major role in season 3, The Day of Black Sun. An option the streaming service could go with is the introduction of Polynesian culture into the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Initially, The Swamp was found in the center of Earth Kingdom, but to make it more realistic, they could move it to a peninsula. Having The Swamp take after the Everglades found in central Florida.
The Netflix series could give a real-world explanation of how water benders migrated from the South Pole to the swamp peninsula by boat hundreds of years prior. It provides the swamp benders with some needed backstory and uses Polynesian seafaring as a starting point. This idea of Polynesian/Maori culture was used in James Cameron’s AVATAR: The Way of Water (and, to a lesser extent, Jason Momoa in Aquaman) as another indigenous tribe known as the Na’vi of the forest. The same could be used in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with Hawaiian/Polynesian/Maori actors being allowed to have significant roles in the series. Their culture could be celebrated the same way as the First Nations and Indigenous cultures, and they will be celebrated as powerful waterbenders. So, too, this live-action adaption can be even further based on our living, breathing world and cultures.
Avatar: The Last Airbender begins streaming on Netflix on February 22nd