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Thoughts About the Netflix Live-Action Adaptation of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER

Originally published September 22, 2018

After taking a few days for the news to sink in, I feel ready to share my thoughts about Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.

As a refresher, Deadline reported earlier this week on how the beloved Nickelodeon series will be recreated as a live-action series, with the original co-creators, Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, guiding the way as both the executive producers and the showrunners.

When I first heard the news, I wasn’t exactly “crying big soppy tears of jubilation” as Angry Asian Man had said otherwise. I was more so uneasy about the news.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER ran on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008. Set in a world heavily influenced by several Asian cultures, it follows a young boy, Avatar Aang, and his friends, who help him learn to bend all four elements (air, water, earth, fire), in order to stop Fire Lord Ozai from taking over the world and put an end to the 100-Year War.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s the kind of show where it may have you thinking, This is a show on Nickelodeon? It brought about a unique kind of fantasy world at a time when HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS films were appearing on the big screen every other year. The storytelling was a compelling blend of both humor and thoughtfulness. It touched on topics such as genocide, sexism, loss, and morality. Being a teenager when it was on the air, watching the show is one of my favorite memories from that time period.

The show also contributed a lot to the Asian American community. Dante Basco, who’s known by older generations for playing Rufio in HOOK, is recognized by people in my age demographic as the voice of Zuko; the troubled prince of the Fire Nation who feels he needs to capture the avatar to regain his honor. AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER was also notable for being one of the final works of Mako Iwamatsu, who voiced Zuko’s Uncle Iroh, before his death in 2006.  (Greg Baldwin took over the role for the remainder of the series.)

Co-creators DiMartino and Konietzko (also known by fans as “Bryke”) devoted a lot of time and effort into making sure that the influences from Asian cultures that are presented in the show are done with the proper amount of respect; from making sure the calligraphy that appears throughout was written correctly, to bringing on Sifu Kisu as their consultant for the different styles of kung fu that are used by the characters. Not bad for a show that was created by two white guys.

On a personal note, AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER was the first animated series where I saw characters, Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka, that looked very similar to me. They were the first characters whom I could look at and say, “You know, if I wore their get-up, I could look like a member of the Water Tribe.”

That’s why it was a major letdown when M. Night Shyamalan undid everything that made the show great in his 2010 live-action film, THE LAST AIRBENDER. I remember seeing it with my family, in horribly rendered 3-D, not feeling a single ounce of the charm in this interpretation of the world that Bryke and the original cast and crew devoted so much blood, sweat, and tears to. I walked away after the fact, with two hours of my life completely wasted.

Thankfully, in the eight years since then, more stories have been added into the original universe. Fans got to follow Aang’s successor, Korra, when THE LEGEND OF KORRA ran on Nickelodeon from 2012-2014. The story of Aang and his friends have continued on in the form of comics released by Dark Horse Comics (the first 15 books having been written by Gene Luen Yang).

This universe and these characters are very special to me and many other people out there, and honestly, if it weren’t for the existence of Shyamalan’s THE LAST AIRBENDER, maybe I would be a lot more excited for Netflix’s upcoming adaptation.

However, I’ve decided that I’m not going to completely throw it under the bus either. Instead, I’ve chosen to be cautiously optimistic. I’ll be much more excited for this live-action AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER if: 1. Bryke is leading the way, 2. if the casting is as “culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed” as they claim to go for, and 3. if the trailer is dope.

So far, the first of my three expectations have been fulfilled. Let’s see if the other two follow through.

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