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A New Era for the Last Airbender: What to Expect from the Netflix Adaptation


On Thursday, February 22, Netflix released its live-action adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. It will be the second attempt at bringing the Avatar universe to fans worldwide, featuring a diverse cast and exploring mature themes like genocide, sexism, and environmental concerns.

The 2010s ushered in a decade of unforgettable pop culture moments, including the birth of Instagram, Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, and Lady Gaga’s iconic meat dress — to name a few. However, for some, M. Night Shyamalan’s movie adaptation of The Last Airbender stands out as a pop culture moment best left in the past.

In 2010, Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures aimed to capitalize on the popularized television series Avatar: The Last Airbender by transforming the show’s storyline into a 103-minute production. The $150 million feature sought to bring the animated journey of Avatar Aang to the big screen through a live-action adaptation. Yet, what was advertised as “a satisfying cinematic experience for the entire family audience,” was marred with misrepresentation and underwhelming visual effects.

With a 5 out of 100 Rotten Tomatoes rating, The Last Airbender incited a wave of criticism, not only for its poor use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) but also its casting of predominantly white actors. Given the animated series used inspiration from East Asian and Inuit cultures, fans expressed anger for the lack of diversity in the leading roles, with some even boycotting the film’s opening.

However, Netflix is attempting to redeem the 2010 film with its own live-action adaptation this year. Set to premiere on Thursday, February 22, 2024, fans around the world are eagerly anticipating the second attempt at bringing the Avatar universe to life on screen. The teaser trailer alone has amassed around 20 million views over the last three months, presenting a cast of predominantly Asian American actors and actresses. The cast includes Daniel Dae Kim, Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee.

This was a chance to showcase Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people,” said Executive Producer Albert Kim in an interview, “Not just in a cartoon, but in a world that truly exists, very similar to the one we live in.” Netflix’s adaptation is promising to stay aligned with the content of the original animated series which continues to be highly praised owing to its timeless relevance. Upon its debut on the streaming platform in May 2020, the original series – which had first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005 – quickly climbed to the top of Netflix’s Most Popular Top 10 list.

The show’s protagonist, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, is given the responsibility to stop the imperial ambitions of the Fire Nation and restore balance to the world. Coming from a tradition of pacifism rooted in the Air Nomad culture, Aang faced the challenge of aligning his duty to stop the conquest of Fire Lord Ozai, the main antagonist, with his deeply held personal values. This conflict reached its peak when it was revealed that the Fire Lord did not intend to conquer the Earth Kingdom but to completely exterminate it, similar to the genocide committed against Aang’s culture. Nowhere else but in Avatar: The Last Airbender did a children’s show delicately handle the weighty concept of potentially having to resort to murder for the greater good, placing a significant burden on a young protagonist with grace.

Despite being a children’s show, it tackled mature themes including imperialism, war, propaganda, genocide, sexism, parental abuse, and the repercussions of environmental destruction. Netflix’s adaptation reportedly approaches brutality with greater intentionality, diverging from the animated Nickelodeon counterpart by directly addressing themes of genocide and murder only hinted at in the original show.

Days before its release, however, the show’s fan base has already voiced concerns over such themes, adding that the portrayal of key characters, most notably Sokka, is inconsistent. Throughout the progression of the animated series, the characters mature through their shared experiences. Sokka, one of the last male figures of his tribe, grows beyond his sexist assumptions towards women, eventually recognizing them as equals. In Netflix’s live adaptation, it has been reported that these elements have been removed from the series, putting such story development choices into question. Despite actor Ian Ousley’s defense of Sokka’s portrayal, it remains to be seen how the show’s producer Albert Kim has chosen to tackle such issues and what the critical reception will be.

Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender has won numerous awards, including Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, and a Primetime Emmy Award. Whether Netflix’s adaptation will live up to the high praise of the original content it is based on remains uncertain. What does remain certain though, is that timeless, carefully crafted works will continue to attract a dedicated audience.

Through an accurate portrayal of the culture, mythology, and philosophy put forward by the original show, the Netflix adaptation can help foster greater understanding and appreciation of Asian and indigenous cultures among American audiences while providing a platform for Asian American talent to be recognized. Collaborative productions, educational value, and marketability of content derived from Asian sources further strengthen ties between the people of the US and Asia highlighting the significance of cross-cultural exchanges in popular media and representation in the entertainment industry.

We also recommend watching other Netflix shows featuring Asian creative works or productions such as Trese, a modern twist on Filipino mythology, One Piece, a successful live adaptation from a popular Japanese anime, and Beef, a comedy-drama commenting on the Korean American immigrant experience.

Kyle Ta-ay is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington and a Young Leader at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu. He is pursuing a master's degree at American University’s School of International Service in International Affairs with a focus on Global Governance, Politics, and Security. He is also an International Student Advisor at the International Student and Scholar Services, a Research Assistant for the ASEAN Studies Initiative, and the Vice President of Finance for the Graduate Leadership Council.

Denise Sievert Geronimo is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate from Colorado College, where she studied International Political Economy and Journalism. She is also 2024 Charles B. Rangel Fellow with the US Department of State.

Rocco Cartusciello is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is pursuing a master’s degree at Georgetown University in the Asian Studies Program, with a focus on Southeast Asian affairs.