Netflix’s ‘Avatar’ Isn’t as Bad as We Expected or as Good as We Hoped

The streamer has delivered neither a masterpiece nor a colossal failure; instead, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ gets a passing grade—but there is reason to believe the show can improve

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No streaming service can pull off a perfect batting average with its original programming, but when it comes to Netflix’s live-action anime adaptations, the company has long been hitting below the Mendoza Line. Storied animes like Cowboy Bebop and Death Note arrived on the streamer with plenty of fanfare, only to be eviscerated by the very communities to which Netflix was trying to cater. Every live-action anime adaptation faces a unique challenge: the fantastical, seemingly limitless possibilities of animation is something even the best special effects can fail to capture. But Netflix has kept trying despite those high-profile early failures because the shows tend to come with a large built-in audience. If an anime adaptation can appease the fandom and become a hit with the rest of its subscriber base, Netflix could be sitting on a gold mine—perhaps even the next Stranger Things.

To the streamer’s credit, Netflix finally made some progress on the live-action anime front last year. The first season of the One Piece adaptation, which premiered in August, was beloved by critics and fans alike for embodying the kinetic energy of the manga. (The show has since been renewed for a second season. The only problem: One Piece creator Eiichiro Oda still hasn’t finished writing the series, which has been active since 1997. In theory, Netflix could roll out a dozen seasons of One Piece and barely scratch the surface of the source material.) Then, in December, the streamer dropped a live-action adaptation of Yu Yu Hakusho. While Yu Yu Hakusho didn’t carry the same hype as One Piece, it also scored favorable reviews—in fact, the biggest complaint about the show was that its first season was far too short.

After so many whiffs on the live-action anime front, Netflix was suddenly 2-for-2 on major titles, which appeared to bode well heading into arguably its buzziest adaptation to date. Whether the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender qualifies as anime is something even its own creators debate, but at the very least, it’s heavily influenced by the genre. (Dante Basco, who voiced Prince Zuko, considers it “American anime,” which is a solid compromise.) In any case, Avatar is a franchise that’s treated with the kind of reverence that’s rare among American animation: a story that gracefully touches on mature themes such as genocide, war, and imperialism for a younger audience. (The animation itself is also stunning, echoing the esteemed works of Hayao Miyazaki, another major inspiration for the show.) In the nearly two decades since Avatar first aired on Nickelodeon, it’s widely regarded as one of the best animated series ever made.

With all the adoration surrounding Avatar, however, an adaptation of the series is a terrifying prospect. (Even the sequel series made by the original creators, The Legend of Korra, divided the fandom—and it was very good!) The last time the world got a live-action Avatar adaptation, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, it was universally panned. How bad was it? Well, the film earned a whopping 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—when something as notoriously reviled as Dragonball: Evolution has better reviews, you know something went horribly wrong. Surely, Netflix’s adaptation (also called Avatar: The Last Airbender) couldn’t fumble the bag as badly as Shyamalan, right?

Fans certainly had reason to worry when the original Avatar creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, left the project over creative differences. The promotional rollout for Avatar didn’t exactly inspire confidence, either, with showrunner Albert Kim explaining that the adaptation would bypass many of the story’s side adventures and that character traits deemed “iffy” were removed entirely. But despite all signs pointing to the live-action series being a misfire, that’s not what transpired. The new Avatar is just … fine.

For the uninitiated, Avatar takes place in a fantastical world composed of four nations related to one of the classical elements: Water, Fire, Earth, and Air. Gifted individuals from each nation are capable of “bending”: essentially, manipulating their native element in an elevated form of martial arts. But one being, the Avatar, is able to master all four elements and maintain peace among the nations. Similar to the Dalai Lama, the Avatar reincarnates and passes to a different nation with each life cycle. Before the start of the series, the Fire Nation eradicates all of the Air Nomads, knowing that the Avatar lives among them: the first step in an ambitious plan to conquer the world. A young Airbender named Aang (Gordon Cormier in the Netflix series), the Avatar in training, isn’t with the Air Nomads during the fateful attack; instead, he’s caught in a terrible storm, and his Avatar State (a heightened ability that’s akin to going Super Saiyan) freezes him in a block of ice for a century as a defense mechanism.

In the time that the Avatar disappeared, the Earth and Water nations have isolated themselves from the rest of the world in a handful of cities: the last strongholds standing in the way of the Fire Nation. The story begins with two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, Waterbender Katara (Kiawentiio) and her sardonic older brother Sokka (Ian Ousley), inadvertently stumbling upon Aang as he awakens from his century-long slumber. Aang’s reemergence quickly captures the attention of Zuko (Dallas Liu), the Fire Nation’s exiled prince who has spent years searching for the Avatar—his only hope of being welcomed home by his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), the show’s Big Bad. With threats lurking around every corner, Aang and his new pals must travel the world so he can master the other three elements and stop the Fire Nation before it’s too late.

Netflix’s Avatar broadly covers the first season of the animated series, during which Aang focuses on mastering Waterbending while traveling to the Northern Water Tribe to help defend it from a Fire Nation assault. Along the way, Aang must contend with what’s happened to the world in the century he’s been gone—the extermination of his people, the loss of hope among the other nations—and what sort of sacrifices are required to become a fully-realized Avatar. As far as adapting the story to live-action, it’s a pretty seamless transition, aided in part by a young cast that not only looks the part, but also largely embodies their respective characters. Ousley, in particular, absolutely nails Sokka—someone whose constant wisecracks hide a well of insecurities that he’s not the fearsome warrior he makes himself out to be.

Really, the show’s greatest strength is its ability to lean on such gripping source material. While some storylines from the original series are meshed together for the sake of brevity, all of the rich character dynamics remain intact: the relationship between the emotionally wounded Zuko and the kindly Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) will once again tug at the heartstrings; Sokka, somehow, remains the franchise’s most eligible bachelor, spitting game at warriors and princesses alike. Perhaps the show’s finest improvement on its animated predecessor is a secondary antagonist from the Fire Nation, Commander Zhao, whose guile and arrogance is given new dimensions by Industry’s Ken Leung. (Performance-wise, Leung and Lee are at the top of their game, with few weak links in the sprawling cast.)

The biggest problem for Avatar is a familiar one for many live-action adaptations: by streamlining the narrative into eight episodes, the show loses sight of the idiosyncrasies that made the animated series so beloved in the first place. Some of the best moments in the original Avatar happened during Team Avatar’s side adventures, which weren’t just important from a character-development standpoint, but also allowed the viewer to become engrossed in the world. This version of Avatar is like doing a speedrun in a video game, rather than savoring every little detail: you may get to the finish line faster, but the journey isn’t nearly as memorable. In fact, the characters bounce between major locations so quickly—the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, Kyoshi Island, and so on—that the world can’t help but feel smaller in the process.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Avatar to adapt the entirety of the animated series without Netflix spending the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP. What we do get visually, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Appa the flying bison and Momo the winged lemur have been impressively brought to life with CGI, but some of the bending sequences more closely resemble PS2 cutscenes. (The same sentiment applies to the show’s many locations: Omashu and the Fire Nation’s throne room are clear winners; the Water Tribe communities look glaringly artificial.) Thankfully, the show does excel in some of the finer details: Each nation is inspired by Asian and Indigenous culture and folklore, which is reflected in everything from the set design and artwork to the food. (Not gonna lie: I wanted to devour every tastefully presented meal.) It’s the kind of authenticity that Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender notoriously lacked, so seeing that cultural representation realized on-screen is commendable in and of itself.

All told, a solid if unspectacular Avatar adaptation is probably the least interesting outcome. After months—if not years—of anticipation, Netflix has delivered neither a masterpiece or a colossal failure; instead, the show gets a passing grade, at least from this fan of the animated series. I’m much more curious to see how Avatar is received by people unfamiliar with the franchise, and whether this unique universe of benders, animal hybrids, mythical spirits, and ill-fated cabbages draws them in. If that does happen, then Netflix could have another massive hit on its hands, and, hopefully, a chance to improve upon some of the show’s early shortcomings in future seasons. Trying to live up to the legacy of the original series was always going to be a losing battle, but while Netflix’s Avatar isn’t off to a flawless start, I still believe Aang can save the world.

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