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The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

The student news site of Dickinson College.

The Dickinsonian

Do not watch the new “Avatar: The Last Airbender” remake

When I’m watching a remake or adaptation of an earlier piece of media that I enjoy, there are three questions that I always inevitably find myself asking, and answering, in the process.

1: In quality, is this remake or adaptation equal to or better than the original?

2: Is it trying to make a different point than the original—and if so, is it making this new point well?

And 3: Am I sitting here wishing that I was just watching or reading the original instead?

I sat down with my roommate recently to watch the new Netflix live-action remake of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the renowned cartoon that originally aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. The show centers on main character Aang, a 12-year-old boy with the power of “bending” the four elements (water, earth, air, fire) as he attempts to save the world.

Though I never watched the animated show as a kid (TV was a privileged rarity in my household), I had the opportunity to watch it when it started streaming on Netflix in 2020. I was astonished that I had missed out for so long on a show that is, in my opinion, the closest that humanity will ever get to crafting perfection.

The new live-action “Avatar,” however, is just one more example in an increasingly long trend these days that proves that no matter how many times studios try to milk beloved franchises for all they’re worth, they will never fundamentally understand what made the originals so great. Just the past two months have seen a live-action show of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and a musical reboot of “Mean Girls.” I did, personally, think the former was fun, but neither of those reboots actually improved on the original content. 

In the case of “Avatar,” I think I would have preferred if the live action remake was flat-out terrible. Then fans could poke fun at it just like they poke fun at the god-awful 2010 live action movie, and we could all just move on with our lives.

Instead, the new Netflix remake commits an even graver sin: it is not totally bad, but rather in most respects is completely mediocre. 

If we go through the questions I posed at the start, we will find that there is nothing, in terms of quality, in the live-action remake that equals or surpasses the original animated show. I shall list my minor grievances: The bending action sequences might have looked pretty cool, if I could actually see them on my dimly lit screen (though I turned my brightness all the way up). The scenery and settings were beautifully detailed, but so obviously a green screen. Zuko’s ugly scar looks more like he just got over-excited with his mom’s eyeshadow. (What happened to prosthetics?) The adorable animal sidekicks, Appa and Momo, are ugly as hell, and the costumes look like they were all bought at a Party City.

I cannot attest to the execution of the overarching plot and character development as I have not yet watched the entire season—although, to be completely honest, I’m not sure I even want to—but the way just the first episode handled certain events was enough to give me pause. (Spoilers ahead)

Aang’s major point of backstory is that he is the only Airbender left alive after the imperialist and evil Fire Nation executed a total genocide on his people. The children’s animated original handles the event with the gravity it deserves, exploring its psychological effect on Aang, and what it means for the balance of the entire world to have such a significant part of its population totally gone. Though the cartoon visually depicts the remains of and reactions to the event, we never see the actual genocide onscreen.

The live-action remake takes a different approach. The attack on the Airbenders begins fifteen minutes into the first episode, and though Fire Lord Sozin, shown earlier in the episode, states for the viewer that none are to be left alive, the entire scene is framed as not a brutal war crime, but a fight scene like one in any generic Marvel movie with cool moves and one-liners. 


I may have lightheartedly complained a few paragraphs ago about how certain things look, but from this scene in the first episode it became clear to me that the adaptation, though it attempted to re-hash the same ideas as the original, fundamentally misunderstands what those points were, much less why they were significant or why their execution worked. With such a failure to respectfully and accurately convey such an important part of the show, why should I lend any credence to anything else the remake has to say?

Which brings me to my answer to question three: I was, indeed, sitting there wishing I was actually watching the original instead. (Indeed, I turned the season 3 finale on right afterwards to comfort myself). 

If you’re looking for an excellent show with great effects that combines humor and action with a deep and thought-provoking exploration of themes like fascism, war, balance and moral responsibility, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (three seasons, 2005 to 2008) is streaming on Netflix. Its live action remake isn’t even worth your time.

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