This is the most pointless, self-sabotaging change in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Netflix made a lot of changes to Nickelodeon's animated Avatar: The Last Airbender series while remaking it in live-action. A few of the changes were for the better...but most were not.
Appa takes flight through couldy skies with passengers Aang (Gordon Cormier), Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ousley) on his back.
Appa takes flight through couldy skies with passengers Aang (Gordon Cormier), Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ousley) on his back. /

Late last week, Netflix dropped the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, its live-action remake of the Nickelodeon animated show which ran for three seasons back in the 2000s. The original series is about a hyperactive child named Aang who also happens to be the Avatar, the only person in the world who can control all four elements. The show remains beloved to this day, so Netflix's remake had a lot to live up. Did it meet expectations? Now that people have had a chance to watch, the answer is a resounding...kinda a little?

Critical consensus is that the show is more or less fine. It has a 61% average on Rotten Tomatoes, which means it's certified fresh...but only barely. (The original show, meanwhile, has a 100% fresh rating, a very hard act to follow.) Our own critic Rich Eberwein has been mildly whelmed by the show, enjoying some episodes more than others but overall assessing it a mixed bag. After watching most of the episodes myself, I concur. The show has sequences where things gel and I enjoy myself, but there are also more than a few slow stretches and moments that leave me asking, "Why did they do that?"

Generally, the remake is at its strongest when it sticks close to the source material, but lest you think I'm just blindly loyal to the original series and won't tolerate any deviations, there were some changes I really liked. I think the series gets off to a good start by showing us what happens when the tyrannical Fire Nation attacks the Southern Air Temple, starting off a hundred-years war that our heroes will be charged with bringing to an end. This isn't something we got to watch in the original series, and it was exciting to see it brought to life.

I also thought the show did a good job with the character of Zuko, a Fire Nation prince charged with finding the Avatar and bringing him home to his dictator father. Actor Dallas James Liu brings Zuko's vulnerability even closer to the surface than it was in the animated series — alongside Ian Ousley, who plays the insecure quip machine Sokka, I'd say Liu is the acing MVP of the show. We see more of his backstory in the remake, which helps us sympathize with someone who could come across as a villainous caricature. That was a good choice.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023 /

Avatar: The Last Airbender needed a couple more rewrites

At other times, the show mashed together plotlines from the original show in awkward ways, or misjudged jokes, or made changes to the structure of the story that hurt the flow. I'll give you a particularly irritating example. In the original series, Aang learns early on in his journey that a comet is going to pass by the planet in one year's time. It's known as Sozin's Comet, because 100 years ago it passed by the planet and gave all the fire-benders an extra boost of power, which allowed Fire Lord Sozin to begin a war of expansion which is still going on. If Aang cannot master all four elements and stop the current Fire Lord Ozai before the comet comes back around, Ozai will use its power to finish the brutal war his ancestor started at the cost of uncounted lives.

This gives the show a clear time-table: Aang must come into his own as the Avatar quickly or all is lost. For the remake, showrunner Albert Kim opted to delay the arrival of the comet on account of employing flesh-and-blood actors rather than ageless voice actors, and fair enough. “The comet was their ticking clock,” Kim told Entertainment Weekly. “We removed that particular ticking clock from our show for now because we couldn't know exactly how old our actors would be for the subsequent seasons. We definitely thought about that going into season 1 so that we can accommodate for puberty, adolescence, time passing — all of those fun things that happen to real-life human beings that don't happen to animated characters."

I think that's reasonable. But without the comet, Aang's drive to master the four elements isn't quite as clear as on the original show, so Kim felt the need to give him another one. "In the first season of the animated series, he's kind of going from place to place looking for adventures," Kim told IGN. "He even says, 'First, we've got to go and ride the elephant koi.' It's a little looser as befits a cartoon. We needed to make sure that he had that drive from the start."

"And so, that's a change that we made. We essentially give him this vision of what's going to happen and he says, "I have to get to the Northern Water Tribe to stop this from happening." That gives him much more narrative compulsion going forward, as opposed to, "Let's make a detour and go ride the elephant koi," that type of thing. So that's something, again, that's part of the process of going from a Nickelodeon cartoon to a Netflix serialized drama."

Indeed, in the second episode of the season, "Warriors," Aang receives a vision of a terrible fate that will befall the Northern Water Tribe if he doesn't travel up that way and help. He must go there as soon as possible. No misadventures!

...only he still fully does make stops along the way; we don't arrive at the Northern Water Tribe until the last couple of episodes of the season, just like in the original series. The only difference is that, because the show has given him this vision, he now has to make excuses for his dalliances. When Aang and the gang stop by the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu in Episode 3, Aang mentions the importance of reaching the Northern Water Tribe, but says they should stop here anyway. When he wants to help imperiled villagers in Episode 5, he again says that he knows he has to reach the Northern Water Tribe, but it's important to make this detour. Not only are all these justifications awkward, but they cut directly against the sense of narrative propulsion that the writers wanted to give the show by granting Aang this vision. Why give it to him at all if they were going to stop and start the plot every couple of episodes anyway?

I know I'm speaking from a position of hindsight, but there seem to be a lot of other solutions to this writing problem. If Aang never has the vision of the Northern Water Tribe, the shape of the season wouldn't have to change. He still needs to learn how to bend the four elements, and since there are water-bending masters in the Northern Water Tribe, getting there could still be his ultimate goal. And without the pressure of needing to avert a Northern Water catastrophe on his brain, his pit stops along the way wouldn't feel as forced and weird.

One Piece. Iñaki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy in episode 102 of One Piece. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023 /

Avatar: The Last Airbender vs One Piece

Aang's early-season vision of the Northern Water Tribe in crisis feels like such a clumsy insert I wonder if it wasn't a note from higher-ups at Netflix. "The show doesn't have enough urgency. Give him an apocalypse to avert," or something. Netflix spent a lot of money on this show, so the studio may have leaned on Kim and company to maximize the drama, not realizing that it would make the series worse in the long run. It wouldn't be the first wrong-headed thing a studio executive has done.

In fact, I wonder if there wasn't a lot of studio interferance on the Avatar set. I can't help but draw comparisons between the Last Airbender remake and One Piece, another Netflix live-action remake of a beloved animated show. I'm thinking specifically about the structure of the season. Like Avatar: The Last Airbender, the first season of One Piece had eight episodes. The first two episodes stand on their own, more or less; we get to know the characters as they go on a pair of discrete, standalone adventures. After that, those adventures come in two-episode units that start in one episode and end in the next; a series of three two-parters take us through to the end of the season. The Last Airbender has this exact same structure. Does Netflix have a template it's following when adapting a show from animation to live-action?

For whatever reason, this structure worked for the One Piece remake; that show maintained a level of buoyancy and spontaneity that The Last Airbender just doesn't have, whatever its virtues. Netflix's Avatar remake isn't a complete failure, but it's neither better than the animated original nor different enough to stand on its own.

dark. Next. atla. Every type of sub-bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender

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