Avatar: The First of Many Cash-Grabs
Illustration Credit: John Staub
As a lover of many other fantasy franchises, it’s surprising that I only discovered Avatar: the Last Airbender this past summer. I had always been aware of the series, which enjoyed an avid following among a niche audience, but my only previous experience with it—as with many other “normies”—was the abysmal 2010 live-action film. Eight years later, and lo and behold, the entire three season run is available on Netflix. I decided to sample the first episode, and immediately found myself enraptured by the series.
The story of Aang is the prototypical hero’s journey, where a young boy and “chosen one” must embrace his destiny and bring balance to a world at war. That concept on its own would be enough to engage most viewers, but it’s a testament to the writing of Avatar that the protagonist is far more than a Luke Skywalker stand-in. Aang, along with every other main character, undergo compelling arcs throughout the series’ run. While fundamentally a story about good vs. evil, the show still manages to tackle some mature themes. The thoughtful, rip-roaring, and fantastical adventures presented in the show can appeal to all ages. In addition, the milieu of the show—in which individuals can manipulate the elements of fire, air, water, or earth—draws enough from real-world Asian religions and cultures to create a rich and unique lore.
When Netflix recently announced that they were going to be remaking the beloved series for live-action (with the original creators behind it no less), you would think I’d be ecstatic. After all, with the visionaries behind the original, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, helming the production, it surely couldn't be as bad as M. Night Shyamalan's nightmarish reinterpretation. Plus, this would be a perfect opportunity to introduce the majesty of Avatar to the general public, so that it might finally receive the same recognition as a property like Star Wars (and deservedly so). However, when I first heard this announcement, my reaction was simply, “Why?”
Supporters of the decision have claimed that this live-action series could correct the many mistakes of Shyamalan’s 2010 adaptation, a chief issue of which was the blatant “white-washing” of several of the characters. Even so, while more accurate racial casting is definitely favourable, it doesn’t seem to address my main concern with this planned project, which is that this adaptation threatens to tread over no new territory, and simply rehash everything that made the original series great.
Although the project details are scarce right now, I can’t fathom how it could be made into an engaging series comparable to its source material. Will Netflix merely recreate every episode from season one of Avatar except in live-action? That is utterly pointless, when one could just watch the the first season of the original, and still get all of the great moments—Aang emerging from his hundred-year cryostasis, Katara mastering waterbending and Zuko and Iroh’s witty banter, to name a few. The only thing a live-action version would add is realism to this fictional property, but do fans really watch the show for its realism? The animation of Avatar is part of its unique visual feel. Recreating those special effects and action scenes in a believable way, without an ample budget, is going to be a Herculean task.
Maybe it’s just the cynic in me, but perhaps Avatar: The First of Many Cash-Grabs is a more appropriate title for this project. If you’re a fan of the original, and you simply want to see a nostalgic reinterpretation of the franchise you love, that’s fine. But if the goal of this series is not only to appease long-time fans, but also introduce Avatar to a wider audience, Netflix still has the opportunity to make something that will appeal to nostalgia and be original. If this series was set in the Avatar universe, but was a spin-off of the original, it could accomplish both.
The Avatar life cycle will inevitably continue, but it shouldn’t try to emulate past incarnations, and instead give us something new and unique. However, if Netflix follows through with this plan, it could lose the opportunity. In an age of remakes and reboots, when the world needs original stories and ideas more than ever, I certainly hope that opportunity doesn’t vanish, only to resurface generations later, when the damage has already been done.