Avatar: The Last Airbender Is a Love Letter to the Fans — For Better and Worse

Netflix’s live-action remake is too much of a good thing.

Inverse Reviews

Growing up in the mid-2000s, you were either a Harry Potter kid, a Narnia lover, or an Avatar: The Last Airbender devotee. The latter was catnip to many a younger millennial. It was an animated series that combined the worldbuilding and lore of its contemporaries with a story unlike any other. It was soulful, huge in scope, and impossibly endearing. Almost 20 years later, it remains one of the strongest stories in any medium, a reputation backed by its 2020 resurgence on Netflix.

It’s not a stretch to say that nothing can replace the original Avatar; one needn’t look further than M. Night Shyamalan’s embarrassing attempt at a live-action remake in 2010. There’s no way to describe the wound it left on the fandom without verging into hyperbole. In our defense, though, it’s hard to watch characters you grew up with, and storylines you spent years unpacking, adapted without the reverence they deserve. So when Netflix’s adaptation came along with promises to check all the boxes that were previously disregarded, it seemed like a perfect solution. Unfortunately, that slavish devotion to the source material creates a wholly different problem.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was always going to be a tough show to bring to live-action.


From the very beginning, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is a very different breed. To the streamer’s credit, it might be the most realized, and aesthetically faithful, adaptation it’s attempted. First-look images didn’t quite do Avatar justice. The care and craft that went into building this world are better appreciated in motion. The series is a far cry from Netflix’s other recent anime remake, the ambitious (but visually drab) One Piece. Colors pop off the screen, from the vivid orange and yellow of Air Nomad attire to the inky browns of the Earth Kingdom. The low-contrast house style of the streaming era is still a looming threat, but Avatar manages to rise above it. Unfortunately, not every aspect of the series can be adapted so seamlessly.

Showrunner Albert Kim knows better than to tinker with a good thing, and so the central brief of Avatar remains largely unchanged. In the fantastical realm of the series, four nations live in harmony. The Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads are defined by their respective ability to manipulate (or “bend”) a natural element. And once in a generation, a being emerges with the power to bend all four: the Avatar. The story effectively begins when Aang (Gordon Cormier), a 12-year-old airbending master, is identified as the next Avatar.

At first, young Aang is unwilling to take on the responsibility. He disappears just as the Fire Nation launches an attack on the Air Nomads, wiping out an entire race of benders and kickstarting a global conflict. One hundred years pass before Aang is discovered, frozen in an iceberg, by two siblings in the Southern Water Tribe. The Fire Nation has since conquered half the world, making Aang’s reluctance more problematic than ever. With the help of Katara (Kiawentiio) and her brother, Sokka (Ian Ousley), the Avatar has to master the remaining three elements to defeat the Fire Nation and restore hope to a wartorn world.

Through Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), Avatar: The Last Airbender finally gets the Water Tribe right.


Aang’s journey is filled with twists, detours, and countless adversaries. This worked to the benefit of the original series — each of its three seasons boasted 20 episodes, allowing the story to stretch out and expand the world one arc at a time — but Netflix’s Avatar has no such luxury. Not only is that particular style of network storytelling all but extinct, but the remake has the added pressure of working with young actors who could be hit by puberty at any moment. Combined with Netflix’s tried-and-true streaming format, Avatar takes a much more serialized approach, streamlining the original cartoon’s many arcs wherever possible.

It’s here that the new series strays from its predecessor... and where it suffers the most. Even with eight hourlong episodes, it’s impossible to cover every plot point of the original series and expect anything to make sense. Kim and his creative team aren’t afraid to compromise or prioritize one arc over another. They’re also not afraid to add context to the original story or tease future arcs in the first season.

The first episode opens with an event that was previously only alluded to: the destruction of the Air Nomads. It makes for a visceral, enthralling set piece, one that establishes just how evil the Fire Nation can be and sets the tone with dazzling combat and visual effects. We’re a long way from the disappointing bending of The Last Airbender. The Earth really moves in the Netflix series. Fire truly burns. Air takes on a whole different life.

Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) and Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) are the beating heart of the series.


Netflix’s Avatar is in direct conversation with the legacy of the original. It lends an all-knowing bent to some of the cartoon’s greatest mysteries, especially where antagonists like Zuko (Dallas Liu), prince of the Fire Nation, and his sister, Azula (Elizabeth Yu), are concerned. The duo are depicted more sympathetically right off the bat, to varying effect.

Liu shines as Zuko, embracing the rage and pathos that made him one of the cartoon’s breakout characters. His rapport with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Zuko’s jovial, tea-swilling Uncle Iroh, forms the beating heart of the series. Azula, on the other hand, feels like an unnecessary addition to the remake. Yu is frequently a marvel to watch, especially when leaning into Azula’s ferocity. That said, every detour the series makes to depict her life in the Fire Nation — and the hoops she has to jump through to appease her father, Fire Lord Ozai (a fantastic Daniel Dae Kim) — take away from the main storyline and the characters who need fleshing out the most.

A lot of changes within the series can be frustrating, especially when everything else feels perfect. The creative team demonstrates a clear love for the original series, and it manifests in the casting, costume design, and visual effects. But Netflix’s Avatar is almost too precious with the source material. It tries hard to save as much as possible, even the characters and gags that made the cartoon... well, a cartoon. Those touches often clash with that quintessential Netflix tone. In the end, it has the opposite problem as Shyamalan’s Last Airbender: its reverence for the original series, and its reluctance to trim the fat, often make for a muddled adaptation.

Flaws aside, it’s difficult to discount Avatar outright. Even when the series feels scattershot, it remains a tremendous flex of an adaptation. Netflix’s Avatar understands what makes the original so magical. It can’t claim to recreate that magic in its entirety, but its heart is there, and Avatar fans can enjoy something that’s eluded them for a long time: hope.

Avatar: The Last Airbender premieres February 22 on Netflix.

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