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Thursday, April 18, 2024

“It’s not that rough, buddy”: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ (2024) is flawed yet airy and fun

6 min readHow could the second adaptation succeed when the first one absolutely failed? But perhaps Albert Kim, the writer and producer of the new adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024), embraced the show’s main philosophy — growth. Overcoming some odds to deliver a captivating and respectful interpretation of the beloved source material.
Profile picture of Mikaela Gabrielle de Castro

Published about 2 months ago on March 03, 2024

by Mikaela Gabrielle de Castro

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Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

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*Warning: This article contains spoilers. *

The year is 2008. I’m hunched over a Green Apple notebook, awash in the gentle glow of my grandmother’s lamp as she slumbers nearby. I’m writing a fic reimagining an alternate universe where Zuko and Katara end up with each other. The Avatar’s Love plays on YouTube, and I surrender into this spellbinding world.

Fast forward to today, there’s a second live-action adaptation from Netflix of my most cherished show — Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino’s Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010). And of course, our fandom remains rightfully protective and critical of any live actions after M. Night Shyamalan’s traumatic 2010 remake. After word spread that the original creators had departed the 2024 adaptation production due to creative differences, it was as if they vanished when the world needed them the most.

How could the second adaptation succeed when the first one absolutely failed? But perhaps Albert Kim, the writer and producer of the new adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024), embraced the show’s main philosophy — growth. Overcoming some odds to deliver a captivating and respectful interpretation of the beloved and relevant source material that is still being talked about for 19 years since its release.

As a staunch critic of live-action adaptations, it was time to don an Iroh-centric lens and consider the potential for small steps towards redemption.

Muddy plotbending and storytelling

Kim’s remake is coherent with the canon storyline, albeit encountering the challenge of condensing the original series’ first season, comprised of twenty episodes, into just eight.

Water Tribe siblings Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), stumble upon Aang (Gordon Cormier), who emerges from an iceberg. After isolating himself from the world for a century, Aang's return marks his resurgence as the Avatar. He’s destined to restore harmony to the world by mastering all four elements. The 112-year-old kid and his friends set out on a destiny-laden journey filled with twists and detours — including the vengeful Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) setting out to capture Aang to reclaim his lost honor.

Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

The first two episodes fall victim to clunky information overload, excessive exposition by Gran Gran (Katara’s grandmother), and pacing issues. I understood they aimed for a mature audience, but it was an expected miss that they watered down the liveliness and spirit of the cartoon.

It was apparent the writing crammed numerous plot points. A big change that felt immensely pushed was merging Jet and the Freedom Fighters storyline with the Omashu arc and Teo/The Mechanist. For first-time viewers, it may seem enjoyable for its cinematic and adventurous suspense, but for seasoned fans of the original series, this was a confusing turn and a missed opportunity to explore each subplot’s depth and significance fully.

The Kyoshi Warriors episode was a great way to jumpstart the series’ exciting tone. Aside from Sokka’s chemistry with Suki (Maria Zhang), Avatar Kyoshi (Yvonne Chapman) taking out the firebenders was a spine-chilling standout. Her savagery and readiness drove Aang to take urgent action in his quest to restore balance, even if it meant making difficult decisions and confronting the oppressive forces of the Fire Nation.

Amidst the show’s aura of morality and development, it still brings attention to social issues reflective of our own world. It portrayed dark yet powerful scenes of resisting genocide, blind patriotism, and political isolationism. Each episode features wisdom narrations and lessons from characters, reflecting on their motivations for fighting towards justice and peace.

Identity-driven characters that ebb and flow

The remake endeavored to put its eggs in one basket by preserving the original series’ mastery in maintaining a fragile equilibrium between being plot-driven and character-centred. One thing it got right was the enhanced humanization of the characters. Each individual had their own moral battles, dealing with trauma and war differently.

The portrayal of Aang's grief and his bond with Monk Gyatso (Lim Kay Siu) was deeply moving. It narrated the dreadful reality of his survivor’s guilt beyond his adventurous and playful persona depicted in the original. Their friendship sheds light on the weight placed on a young boy destined to be the Chosen One, the Avatar. Aang embraces his duty to save the world with the guidance of past Avatars, each imparting different philosophies, as he journeys with Katara, Sokka, Appa, and Momo.

Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

And, of course, the king of character development, Zuko. Initially, I had reservations about Liu's portrayal. Luckily, I was proven wrong. Like he was ripped off Zuko’s original character sketch, he convincingly embodied his skillful firebending, snappy attitude, and wrathful desperation to capture Aang. Right off the bat in the original’s first season, Zuko is established as the main antagonist. But this adaptation offered nuanced glimpses of the spoiled devil-may-care prince’s tragic backstory. The writers’ decision to humanize Zuko earlier and sprinkle a nanosecond of a light-hearted conversation with Aang is a reminder that he was a wounded teenager thrust into a destiny he was indoctrinated with.

In the remake, a detailed twist included the 41st division crew. They were ordered by Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) to accompany Zuko on the impossible mission to find the Avatar. It’s revealed that this crew was the same one Zuko had defended against his father, a selfless act that led to his banishment. This revelation showcases Zuko’s capacity for making sacrifices and underlying goodness. The writers also clearly poured so much love into the close dynamics of Zuko and Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), with a heart-wrenching rendition of the Leaves of the Vine.

The series is celebrated for its strong and multifaceted female characters. The Netflix version, however, disappointed me and many fans as it mishandled Katara's unadulterated tenacity, protectiveness, and resilience. She was reduced to a one-dimensional and calm figure. In the original, she had righteous outbursts and fights against Master Pakku’s (A Martinez) sexist customs to convince him to train her. Yet, in the adaptation, it was anticlimactic. She is considered a waterbending master prematurely, despite having only one match with him. This drastically robbed her character and cheapened her development.

Impacting Katara’s arc, the original story’s Sokka was initially misogynistic and immature, integral to his character development as Katara and Suki would challenge him. However, the new directors toned down his misogyny and goofiness in favor of a more “sensitive” and “modern” portrayal. The brother and sister’s lackluster leadership and inertness drained their personalities and growth. It was also baffling for the writers to put Katara and Sokka in the Cave of Two Lovers, a far cry from the original scene that was Aang and Katara.

Ozai’s silhouette alone was frightening in the cartoon. But Netflix Ozai was more active and surprisingly diplomatic, directly engaging with his officers and subordinates. In the original series, Azula (Elizabeth Yu) recognizes her own superiority, fueled by her father's favoritism and inborn firebending talent. However, the adaptation depicted her as rivalrous towards her brother. Yet, the Azula we know from season one would never have to doubt and compare herself to Zuko.

Azula was supposed to personify hubris rather than succumb quickly to paranoia. The slow-burn disillusionment of her perfect daughter role in the original was more melancholic and poetic. Unlike Zuko, who had Iroh as a father figure and Ursa as a protective mother, Azula never experienced love or familial support. Ozai simply saw her as a pawn to throw at the end, even if she was just a child. But even as both the fire prince and fire princess strive for their father’s validation, they are merely child soldiers mercilessly played by their father in his harsh quest for power.

Fluctuating costume designs against enchanting sceneries

Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

Photo from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024)/Netflix

The 2010 adaptation faced criticism for straying significantly from the source material. It used realistic and less exaggerated outfits, clothing one would see and wear in real life. Contrastingly, the 2024 remake drew scrutiny for its costumes that resembled cosplay, although it aimed for accuracy in mirroring the attire from the original cartoon.

Like Princess Yue’s unpleasant wig, (Amber Midthunder), some hairstyles appeared exaggerated and subpar. While the remake remained faithful to the cartoon's color palette and costume design, it was puzzling that there wasn’t more realistic dirt or grime on the characters, especially for people who frequently engaged in combat, bending, and travelling.

However, I genuinely enjoyed the hair-raising fight scenes that mixed realistic martial arts elements and Asian influences. I felt childlike again as I watched the benders kick fireballs mid-air, manipulate water as a rope or cage, or erect walls from the earth effortlessly. While occasionally serving as plot armor, the logic behind the bending is a drastic and exciting improvement over the 2010 remake's sluggish and often laughable bending sequences.

The scenes and backdrops were also visually appealing, swallowing you whole in their kingdoms, tribes, temples, and forests. As an Asian Studies student, I was drawn to the Middle Eastern influences embedded in the Earth Kingdom and the East Asian imperial opulence of the Fire Nation. They’re perfect for maladaptive daydreaming as the sets resemble Asian paintings and rich descriptions of a fantasy novel that flesh out mind-blowing worldbuilding.

A simulacrum and vessel of growth

For something I thought I would utterly detest and avoid, to my astonishment, I had a decent experience watching this remake. Of course, as an obsessed fan, there were noticeable frailties, acting limitations, and plot holes. But I took them with a grain of salt on this occasion. This remake will never measure up to the perfection of the cartoon, but it’s still worth the watch. It was surprisingly delightful to see some fan service: Cabbage Man, Aang’s air scooter, Zuko’s sassiness, and Iroh’s tea-loving enthusiasm.

This adaptation welcomes both longtime enthusiasts and newcomers with open arms to rediscover its enchantment: a story of friendship, determination, loyalty, family, sarcasm, love, trust, struggle, forgiveness, and destiny. May people give it a chance so we can eagerly anticipate Melon Lord Toph’s appearance in season two.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2024) is streaming on Netflix.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER

LIVE ACTION

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Profile picture of Mikaela Gabrielle de Castro

Mikaela Gabrielle de Castro

Blogs Editor

Mikaela Gabrielle De Castro is the Blogs Editor of TomasinoWeb. The clad-in-pink girl is an Asian studies major who passionately covers cultural criticism, identity, media, and literature. She also writes for the youth and opinion sections of local news outlets Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Philippine STAR. When she doesn’t pressure herself to write about everything, she hoards Sanrio stationery and Sylvanian Families, reads sappy non-fiction novels, and rewatches Barbie classics thrice a month.

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