REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Live-Action Series Is Absolutely Everything The Movie Never Was

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Avatar: The Last Airbender has been a classic animated series embedded in the memories of most millennials since its original debut in February 2005. While often mistaken as an anime, the animated series has become synonymous with Nickelodeon alongside shows like Spongebob Squarepants and The Fairly Odd Parents. The show spanned a simple 3 season arc between 2005 and 2008 on Nick. Each season covers a different “book” alongside Aang’s journey, mastering each classical element as the Avatar. However, this simple children’s show also tackled some extremely mature themes like family trauma, ethnic genocide, and divine imperialism. This explains why the show has lasted over 20 years as a cult classic, including a recent rejuvenation on Netflix during the COVID-19 pandemic era of 2020 (via The Wrap).

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To capitalize on the young adult film craze of the early 2010s that included films such as Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games, rights holder Paramount Pictures commissioned a live-action feature film to be made by director M.Night Shaymalan. That was going to be a three-film trilogy covering each of the three seasons of the show. Like many hardcore fans, I was excited at the notion of a live-action adaptation. I even began my film blogging journey by covering The Last Airbender in 2009 on ComicBookMovie.com throughout the casting, production, and, eventually, the movie’s release. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t understand the property at all, and the film was a shell of the original show. The released film is literally in-name only as it tries to cram an entire season into an hour and forty-minute film for a popular (at the time) 3D release. That short runtime requirement produced a neck-break run-through of the original show’s first-season plot.

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Not to mention, the movie’s terrible martial arts and wooden dialogue were major problems (as well as changing the pronunciation of every character’s name for some reason?). On top of everything, Paramount forced on Shaymalan a racially questionable cast of all caucasian actors in place of indigenous and Asian actors, including Noah Ringer (Cowboys & Aliens) as Aang, Nicola Peltz (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Katara and Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) as Sokka. The film ended up being butchered by fans and critics alike, scoring a measly 5% on Rotten Tomatoes in 2010. As well as starting the Racebending movement to bring attention to the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood (via Tumblr). Many in the online Avatar community use the quote “There’s no movie in Ba Sing Se” as a joke that the film should be forcibly removed from the general public’s consciousness based on how much fans hated it. For those unaware, this was a direct quote from season 2 of the original show (“There’s no war in Ba Sing Se”) when Jet and other Earth Kingdom citizens are brainwashed to forget the 100-year war ever happened.

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The original creators, Bryan Konetikzo and Mike DiMartino were excited at the prospect of a live-action film (blessing Shamalyan’s original screenplay) but distanced themselves from it after it was released. They went on to create The Legend of Korra for Nick as a sequel series in 2012 through 2014. Fast forward to 2018, both creators announced a licensed partnership with Netflix & Nickelodeon to develop their own live-action series as co-showrunners to combat the negativity the film had done on the Avatar brand. Not much progress was known on their version of the series before the COVID-19 pandemic hit worldwide. They hired Albert Kim as another writer in their original writer’s room to help work on the show in January 2020. Allowing Kim access to the original creators allowed him to ask many lore questions surrounding the Avatar universe or popular online fan theories (via Variety). He even went on to co-write the first episode alongside Bryan & Mike.

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However, by June 2020, Bryan & Mike announced they would be departing the project “due to creative differences” with Netflix. Both wrote a pretty lengthy exit letter to fans about their disappointment with the streaming network’s direction on the adaption. This was the first major controversy to befall the series before a single frame was even filmed, something the Avatar community has mentioned time and time again as a major concern. However, it seems they have come around to the series as Michael Dante DiMartino secretly appeared at the Netflix show’s red carpet premiere alongside the original voice cast (via Albert Kim’s Twitter). He even removed the open-letter blog post from his official website. Nevertheless, Netflix moved on and eventually approached Albert Kim to take over as he had helped showrun multiple shows in the past, including Nikita and Sleepy Hollow. Bryan & Mike would go on to create Avatar Studios back at Nickelodeon in 2021, with several animated shows and a feature film in development set in the Avatar universe, with the first feature film due out on October 10th, 2025. And honestly, if the live-action series does well, it can only help Avatar Studios as they release their slate of animated projects. As they say, “All ships rise with the tide.”

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Albert Kim went on to hire his own writer’s room alongside the Rideback Ranch production company and always planned on fixing what the M.Night Shyamalan film had done wrong. However, he has admitted he never actually sat down to watch the Shyamalan movie (via EW). This shows many of the issues fans had with the film could easily be fixed without even really trying. He clearly wanted to highlight Asian and indigenous folklore in his adaptation, as he always planned on hiring Asian and indigenous actors in every role. The series even highlights actors and the culture of South Asian/East Indian descent, which is just leaps and bounds ahead of the film. A sentiment director and executive producer, Michael Goi, spoke to us about what this series will mean to the Asian community.

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Kim would also hire a slew of Asian directors (like Goi), stunt doubles, and crew members behind the camera, which is practically unheard of for major fantasy franchises. Lastly, he would cast almost complete unknowns for the lead roles, including Gordon Cormier (The Stand, Lost in Space) as Aang, Kiawentiio (Anne with an E, Beans) as Katara, Ian Ousley (13 Reasons Why) as Sokka, and Dallas Liu (Shang-Chi, PEN15) as Zuko. Kim would supplement their inexperience with well-known, experienced actors like Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Kim’s Convenience, The Mandalorian) as Uncle Iroh and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hellboy) as Firelord Ozai. Ironically, both of them happened to be massive fans of the original show (with Daniel Dae Kim voicing multiple characters). Production lasted nine months, starting in late 2021 in Vancouver on a version of The Volume (recently used in The Mandalorian). After that, post-production began on the project, lasting over 18 months to get the VFX just right under director & VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani (read his VFX breakdown on IGN).

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*minor spoilers ahead*

We at Knight Edge Media were given early access to the series by Netflix to review after covering the entire production since 2018, as the live-action series debuts today on the streaming network. To get it out of the way, the live-action series is absolutely everything the movie was not. It is a massive win for Asain representation, and the actors are as if they jumped right out of the TV to fully embrace the spirit of the original show. From the costumes and VFX to the martial arts of the bending, you couldn’t ask for anything more accurate (though the VFX in 2010 was never the problem). The score and supplemental music from composer Takeshi Furukawa are also massive standouts of the entire show. He was able to take the show’s original score and redo it perfectly with a live orchestra and even add his own twist. Netflix even released an OST for the series on all music platforms today. A small but fun touch that was added was the foreboding “dun dun dun” music every time the Fire Nation came on screen, which is a great callback to the original series.

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A plus for the writers is that they have the foresight to use future plot points (and even the recent Kyoshi novels) and bring them into the first season to expand the universe further. They had eight 1-hour episodes to let several plots breathe a bit longer. Unfortunately, they were also forced to overlap plot lines and have them happen simultaneously, which may upset many purist fans but is also unavoidable. As Albert Kim has stated, “This is a remix, not a cover.” A major plot point only mentioned in the original show (due to its graphic nature) is the Air Nomad genocide by the Fire Nation. The show’s opening prologue follows the massacre that the Fire Nation commits upon the Air Nomads to set up how ruthless they are, including starting the next 100-year war across the world. Honestly, the opening prologue blows the film out of the water in the first 30 seconds alone. However, I will say some fans may feel like the episodes are rushed earlier on (as was the problem in One Piece), but the general audience will not notice at all. This isn’t a problem in later episodes once the team begins traveling to the Northern Water Tribe and can only get better in season 2 and 3.

READ ALSO:  Netflix Releases Stills For June, Jet, Gran Gran and The Mechanist in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

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While the writers have time to expand the universe compared to the film, the dialogue is still a downside of the first few episodes. Due to the worldbuilding required for those who have never seen the show, a ton of exposition is dumped onto the viewer. They have to explain this universe in layman’s terms, and it produces clunky wooden dialogue between characters. The child actors like Gordon Cormier (and, to a lesser extent, Kiawentiio, who just feels “there” initially) don’t fully come into the role until later in the season. His acting is very wooden initially because he didn’t feel comfortable in the role yet (especially in the Southern Water Tribe with Katara). The more experienced adult actors carry the child actors throughout the entire series, like Lim Kay Siu as Monk Gyatso. It was always the plan for Kim to hire famous indigenous and Asian actors to play these supporting roles. I also have a major issue with the creative choice not to have Aang practice waterbending once the entire season. If he is unsure of himself in battle, that would make sense that he would be more comfortable airbending. At least have him practice alongside Katara sprinkled throughout the initial season literally about waterbending.

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Lately, I also have had an issue with The Volume, as it’s becoming more popular in Hollywood than on-location filming. When done right, you end up with The Mandalorian and parts of The Batman. Sometimes, you end up with an empty set. The difference between this series and Disney’s Percy Jackson is that The Volume doesn’t always feel empty. Specifically, when the cast is in Omashu, it feels like a city, not an empty circular set. Then, the production falls victim to The Volume when filming any scenes in the Fire Nation later in the season. The Agni Kai scene, which is supposed to be a public humiliation in a large stadium, ends up in a courtyard with just twenty people present. Most fans would like to see more on-location filming, which was a massive highlight of One Piece in South Africa.

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A major standout role (and most unexpected) was Ian Ousley as Sokka. The actor has come from much more serious roles, like 13 Reasons Why, but always wanted to show his comedic chops in a project. He is also one of the few cast members who also grew up as a fan of the original series (since most weren’t born yet). Sokka is given the best one-liners that will absolutely become meme-able but in a good way (looking at you, Madame Web). Many fans were worried about his casting, but Ousley embodies Sokka in every way. The controversy of Sokka’s “sexist-macho-warrior plot” being dropped isn’t even a problem in the grand scheme of the narrative (read my thoughts over at The Abbington Sun on how it should have been handled). He is simply the “meat and sarcasm guy” through and through. His love story arc with both Suki and Yue is changed slightly but still similar to the original series. However, in my opinion, Princess Yue (for some reason) is given a creative change that literally adds nothing to her character. It’s kinda like, “ok, I guess?” when viewing it unfold. I should mention I do accept the creative change to King Bumi’s character, as it gave him an actual arc while still staying true to the original character.

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The runners-up for the following standouts are Dallas Liu and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Zuko and Uncle Iroh. They have the best chemistry of any group in the entire show. Liu brings some sympathy to his version of Zuko compared to the film version, where Dev Patel kept overacting to show he was “the bad guy.”  Which was always unfortunate due to how great an actor Dev Patel is. The series even has an incredibly tender moment in a flashback at his cousin Lu Ten’s funeral between his younger self (Liu plays both) and Iroh. The series even had “Leaves on the Vine” playing subtly in the background. Something that was added to this live-action series and never shown in the original show. Another fantastic change the live-action series did was make Zuko’s navel crew the very soldiers he was trying to protect from his father at 14. This act of compassion is what gives Zuko his iconic burned face by Ozai in an Agni Kai (i.e., fire duel).

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I will also say it’s not even funny how great Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is as Uncle Iroh, as he completely understands the character inside and out. They actually make him more sophisticated, educated, and gentle instead of just the “funny, chubby, old guy” like in the original show’s first season. Also, his lack of an accent like Mako originally had isn’t even a thought or problem when Lee is on screen. Hopefully, Netflix could convince Shang-Chi star Simu Liu to cameo as Lu Ten in future seasons via flashbacks. It would be a sweet Kim’s Convenience reunion between Lee & Liu. A flashback interaction between the two would also expand upon that father/son relationship, which is never shown in the original series but completely defines Iroh.

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Finally, I can’t say enough about Elizabeth Yu in her first major role as Azula. Her dialogue was kept secret throughout most of the show’s marketing, but if you have any worries about her acting, it’s gone two seconds after she appears. Her original sub-plot alongside Daniel Dae Kim as Firelord Ozai is a welcome surprise for both characters. It was created specifically for this live-action adaption, though her two companions, Mai and Ty Lee, don’t do much. At least this new original sub-plot rounds out Azula and Ozai deeper as the series antagonist more than the original show (or movie, for that matter) ever did.

4.0 out of 5.0 stars

All-in-all, Netflix does have another franchise on its hands after One Piece. This series is everything the movie never was, from costume design (though they should show some depreciation) to VFX and the martial arts of the bending. The series is by no means perfect, with room for lots of improvements, but it was never going to be perfect. It’s a really good start on a potential 3 season arc. Everyone in front of and behind the camera made this live-action adaptation with the love and spirit of the original show. Many hardcore purist fans may not like the overlapping storylines (or minor creative changes like King Bumi or Princess Yue), but it makes sense within the adaption narrative. The child actors’ clunky dialogue and wooden acting do dissipate as the season goes along when they feel more comfortable in their roles when they aren’t dumping exposition on the viewer. I just hope in future seasons, when someone is hit with waterbending, they actually look wet, but that is a minor nitpick. As well as actually having Aang use the other bending disciples in action sequences. This is my biggest issue with the entire first season since Aang should be a novice at waterbending by season 2, not just starting to learn.

Here’s hoping we get a second season, as the subsequent seasons of the original series have always been far superior to the animated series’ first season. This would allow the writers to stop with the exposition & worldbuilding and write more about the upcoming conflict with the Fire Nation. It’s a more streamlined story between season 2 towards the end of the 3 season arc. Not to mention the introduction of the fan-favorite sassy blind earthbender Toph.

Hopefully, Netflix will consider filming seasons 2 & 3 back-to-back before these actors age out of their roles. As well as possibly a reunion with original creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino in future seasons. If not, due to their commitments to Avatar Studios, Albert Kim could always consider adding original head writer Aaron Ehasz (The Dragon Prince) or author F.C Yee (Avatar Kyoshi novels) to his team as the show consultants/writers going forward. This would bring some much-needed goodwill to the live-action series by fans who are still on the fence due to the 2010 film.

| Editor-in-Chief of Knight Edge Media | Film & TV Reporter | Social Media Manager |

Caleb began his film and television news reporting career during high school in 2008 by creating Superhero Movie News and part-time writing on ComicBookMovie.com. Eventually, he started Omega Underground with Christopher Marc in 2015. Breaking some major news stories throughout the industry and gaining recognition as a respectable film reporter on social media. Caleb eventually sold Omega Underground and all its assets to Geeks World Wide, LLC in 2018 and became a staff writer for them for about a year. Finally, Caleb left GWW to begin Knight Edge Media from scratch in November 2019 while finishing his Bachelor’s degree. Knight Edge Media has become a premier website destination for nerdy film and television casting, trailers, reviews, and production updates from the project’s announcement to its final worldwide release. Knight Edge Media has also been known for breaking several exclusive news stories throughout the website’s history.

Throughout his film reporting career, Caleb Williams has been given full press credentials for many nerdy movie and TV conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con, Las Vegas CinemaCon, and Phoenix Fan Fusion. He also has early press access to many upcoming streaming projects for review on Knight Edge Media.

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