“Avatar: The Last Airbender” could be considered a pop culture phenomenon. The writers and other creators lovingly established a well-crafted world and mythology that, while set within very clear boundaries, opened up numerous possibilities to continue the story or even backtrack and tell stories that happened before the specific time this specific series was set. Although it’s a Western story of sorts, it’s told and even animated with very obvious Eastern influences, including anime. The characters are clearly Asian and Inuit, of various specific ethnicities (clothing styles from Japan, China, Korea, and Inuit cultures are pretty clearly identifiable). In addition, all major characters were crafted with as much care and love as the setting and story itself, including (or possibly especially) the villains.
The series concluded after three seasons, chronicling Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and a number of other characters in their quest to teach Aang how to master bending (supernatural manipulation) of all four major elements, which only he can do as the titular Avatar.
Enter M. Night Shyamalan, who had not yet completely destroyed his reputation, despite some missteps. Mr. Shyamalan had taken up the task of adapting this well-crafted story into a live-action adaptation for the big screen. What resulted from “The Last Airbender” was a horrible mess that, at best, all but ruined Shyamalan’s career and, at worst, pissed off and even offended fans of the series.
How did it happen? There were several careless and tragic missteps that brought on the ruination of that movie and, unlike the Avatar, it has yet to resurrect in a new life…
One screw up stands out among the others for almost all the fans of the original series, and it will be discussed later in this article.
The first screw up we’ll discuss though, where I first saw that this movie would not be as great as it could have been, was when they decided to retell the story of Aang, the titular last Airbender, the story that had a total of 61 half-hour timeslot episodes spread across three seasons, into a movie trilogy that would run about 1 hour and 45 minutes each (that’s the approximate run time of “The Last Airbender”). As was proven by this mess, the writers had to omit so much essential world and character building content that it felt like a hollow shell of a story. Edited for their theatrical releases, The Lord of the Rings movies ran between just under three hours to a little over three and a half hours, and that still wasn’t enough content for many people!
Another issue concerning the sloppy attempt to retell the same story was the writer missed a phenomenal opportunity to expand the world that the original creators had established, including a premise that allows for countless possibilities! A major premise of the “Avatar” series is the eponymous Avatar is born to one of four nations, which maintains a distinct pattern (Water, Earth, Fire, and Air), though he or she will have the ability to control all four elements, and the Avatar can be born a male or a female which essentially provides writers with a whole new character in every incarnation.
The only other series I’m personally aware of that has such possibilities is the beloved “Doctor Who”. Think about that for a moment: a series spread across multiple medias with numerous possibilities that could become a contender of sorts to “Doctor Who”! The writers of this piece of shit decided they were going to retell the same story, but with less time that required they sacrifice development on all levels. That’s a special kind of stupid.
Now the major issue that was blasted non-stop, from every corner of the internet: the casting choices. Most of the major roles had white people cast in them. Katara, Sokka, and many others had been “whitewashed” and many people, especially Asian fans, were not only pissed but offended by this. They were NOT overreacting. Again, the people who made this movie missed a remarkable opportunity! They could have had an ensemble cast of martial arts stars comes together for this project and people would have loved it!
They could have cast Donnie Yen (famous for films such as “Ip Man” and more recently “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), Jet Li (a name many even in the west know), Jackie Chan (same as Li), Byung-hun Lee (a Korean actor and martial artist who’s making a name for himself), Iko Uwais (An Indonesian actor and martial artist famous for “The Raid: Redemption” and “The Raid 2”), and Yun-Fat Chow (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) are just a few off the top of my head, and that’s not even taking into consideration various Native American and Inuit actors who, sadly, I can’t even name one that I’m aware of! If the names aren’t “marketable” Star Wars showed us that even with their shittiest movies, they can make unknown actors names that everybody will know.
Finally, a two-fold problem: The martial arts in the movie sucked. I mean watching the martial arts and bending in the movie was a fucking disgrace on every level. One thing I think should have been done was to make this film a martial arts style film, first and foremost. Work with the actors, trainers, stunt workers, and special effects artist to work in the bending and make the fight scenes and use of bending as awesome as it should be. Yet again, they missed a great many opportunities to expand the world that had already been established. What if they based a character on the legendary Bruce Lee?
How could they incorporate Jeet Kune Do into the world of the Avatar? What about Lee’s philosophy on that style and form? What if you had a martial artist who practiced Drunken Boxing? He or she could be a booze bender! The original series established that skilled water benders could manipulate the water inside plants, and even the blood inside animals and people under the right circumstances, so booze/alcohol bending is very plausible in that instance!
If this movie had only one or two problems, even if they were major problems, it could not be as bad as this filth turned out to be. As early as its conception, this movie was doomed to fail and may have robbed us of an “Avatar” movie that’s actually competently-made. Instead, the trash that made this movie, including Shyamalan himself, did one of the absolute worst things you can do when adapting a work from one medium into another; they didn’t care. This movie was made because people saw it as a way to make quick and easy money, nothing more. I don’t know if they were fans of the original series, but I have to assume not because if they had been, they might have treated the adaptation with some measure of dignity and respect.
“The Last Airbender” deserved better, everyone who touched the project with the intentions of just making quick and easy money deserve to have their careers ruined and even though he’s trying very hard (with some success, even), M. Night Shyamalan deserves all the backlash he received and more for his treatment of this movie.