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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

The ‘Avatar the Last Airbender’ Live-Action Series and the Problem with Remakes

Despite its large budget and its excellence in the visual elements, the long-awaited new ‘Avatar The Last Airbender’ series is confusing and falls short of expectations.
Tori Wee
Team Avatar, or the Gaang, narrowly escape Fire Nation soldiers. Something the show did especially well with was the animation and the realism of the non-human characters. Although Appa (the skybison pictured) was less of a focus in the show, it’s clear that effort was put in to capture his flight and features.

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. 

These four words have stuck with fans since 2005 and have recently resurfaced in the Avatar the Last Airbender live-action remake. 

Since its release in 2005 the general consensus has been that a remake could never top the original Avatar the Last Airbender (ATLA). An initial attempt at a live-action movie in 2010 fell short for many reasons: it exclusively covered content from the first season, the bending animation was underwhelming, and the casting was made up of almost exclusively white people, even though the original show represents Asian ethnicities. 

The adaptation was first announced in 2018; since then, fans waited patiently as the cast members and peeks into the show were released slowly but surely. Familiar faces in the cast and extreme likeness to the original characters spurred excitement among the fanbase. But, as can be expected, this didn’t last. 

Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, creators of the original show, were executive producers and showrunners along with Albert Kim, executive producer of the adaptation. However in 2020, it was announced that both DiMartino and Konietzko left the show over “creative differences” with Netflix. As both producers expressed distaste in what the show had become, resulting in many fans losing interest and lowering their expectations for the remake. 

Little by little new issues were found with the show and once it premiered on February 22nd, 2024, the glaring problems were unignorable. 

I wanted to like this show. After the first two episodes, I was prepared to defend it and claim that it was “just a different story with the same characters.” But plot and writing choices failed to establish the new story, resulting in an action-packed show that was lacking in plot, character building, and meaningful takeaways. 

In season 1 of the show, of the original and the remake, a twelve-year-old boy and his skybison (a flying bison) are released by siblings, Katara and Sokka, from the Southern Water Tribe after being trapped in an iceberg for one hundred years. With all that time passed, the war between the Fire nation and the rest of the world had persisted for those years with the absence of the Avatar; the Avatar is a master of all four elements (fire, earth, air, and water) whose role exists to protect the people and facilitate peace across the nations. It is quickly revealed that this young boy, covered in blue tattoos, is the Avatar. 

The Avatar cycle passes through each element throughout the generations in the following order: fire, air, water, earth. After the death of the previous Avatar, Avatar Roku, the fire nation chose to attack the Air Temples and commit a genocide of the Air nomads to prevent the duties of the Avatar from interfering with their goal of annihilating all other nations and controlling the world. 

After Sokka and Katara meet Aang, the Last Airbender and the Avatar, they agree to accompany him on his journey to become the Avatar. Throughout the season, the three come across a variety of obstacles including the Fire nation’s banished prince, Zuko, and his uncle as they chase Team Avatar.

First Impressions 

One of the most largely discussed topics regarding the changes made by the adaptation is Sokka’s sexism. Since before its release, through an interview with Entertainment Weekly, fans have noted that by excluding an initial character flaw, many parts of the show become meaningless. 

In the first episode, Katara breaks the iceberg with the assistance of her limited bending and irritation. The initial reason Katara even gets to the point of being so angered that she breaks the ice is a result of Sokka’s sexist comments. Not only does this opening scene jumpstart the rest of the show, but it establishes Katara as a strong-minded character who is unafraid to defend her beliefs, and foreshadows minor conflicts in the future. 

Sokka’s sexism is a crucial part of his character development in the first season. In the coming episodes of the original series he meets Suki, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors on Kyoshi Island. The Kyoshi Warriors are a group of female fighters that defend Kyoshi Island. Upon the arrival of Team Avatar on Kyoshi Island, they are first met with the hostility of the Kyoshi Warriors. Sokka, who has always taken pride in his defense of the Southern Water Tribe, stood on the belief that “Girls are better at fixing pants than guys, and guys are better at hunting and fighting.” 

Sokka’s sexism roots from his fear of not being able to fill in his father’s shoes as a Water Tribe leader. His father and all the other men of the Southern Water Tribe are away fighting in the war established at the beginning of the show and Sokka, at sixteen, is the oldest man residing in the water tribe. He believes that he has to protect everyone else even if he is not the most experienced. On Kyoshi Island, through meeting Suki, his sexism starts to fray little by little as he grows to understand the traditions on the island and the strength of the Kyoshi Warriors, despite his preconceived notions of what a warrior is in the first place. 

This is not to say that the removal of Sokka’s sexism ruins the entire show; but so far, in the first season, these other developments that result from this character trait are not properly introduced or expanded. 

Vengeful spirit Koh the Face Stealer, takes on multiple appearances in a single scene; it shifts from its cold masked face to the wife of a previous Avatar and later to a mandrill. Attention to detail with the more powerful and feared characters allows for the show to hold on to the suspense that is expected from these scenes (Episode 5: Spirited Away). (Tori Wee)

Developing Characters 

A crucial part of adapting something that is already established is holding onto its core. In Avatar the Last Airbender, the beauty is in the characters. All of the main characters are so complex and unique that they balance each other out to support the plot. This, however, is another aspect that the remake fell short on. 

In the original show Aang is a carefree and excited twelve-year-old who does his best, at the beginning of the story, to avoid responsibility and extend his time as a normal child. He jumps at the opportunity to go penguin sledding and to ride the Unagi (large eel) of Kyoshi Island as opposed to acknowledging his position as the Avatar. As the show progresses, it follows Aang as he slowly understands the weight of his power and manages this responsibility with his friends throughout his journey. It is not until even the last episodes of the third season that this duty is fully realized. 

The remake rejected Aang’s originally upbeat character and replaced it with one who willingly takes on the responsibility of the Avatar and is generally more stressed and sincere than playful.

This shift in personality is also apparent in a few other characters including Fire Nation princess Azula. Azula, the favored younger sister to Prince Zuko, first appears at the very end of the first season in the original. She is sharp, calculating, and confident in her abilities, her power, and her authority. This results in a dangerous fourteen-year-old who is unafraid to make demands and is desperate for control. As the show goes on, we get a look into her desperation for approval from her father, her deep loneliness, and her consumption of power as a coping mechanism. But, within the first few episodes of the new adaptation, we can quickly note that this is abandoned. 

Azula is very obviously jealous of her brother and feels insecure. She is known for her confidence and the favor of her father but here she is manipulated and lacks complete control over herself, acting more as a puppet for her father and trying to please him until she can’t handle it any more. This weakness completely contradicts the order of her character’s development in the original show, where she slowly develops this trait and becomes more self-aware. 

Poor Writing and The Show’s Priorities 

The opening scene of the original show is replaced in the adaptation. It follows two people who seem to be Earth Kingdom rebels who stole from and infiltrated the Fire Nation. As viewers, we get an immediate look into the bending and an expectation for the remainder of the show is established; there is drama, violence, and a clear disparity between it and the original. In her video essay, popular BookTuber Hannah Azerang, better known as A Clockwork Reader, does “a deep dive into everything wrong with the new avatar show” and discusses the beginning scene. The video covers many of the criticisms of the new show including how this additional scene is evidence of “bad writing” and rejects the narrative of the original show. She says, “We are centering these kids. We are centering their story and their struggle and their fight. But in this story, right off the bat, we now understand who we are centering: the Fire nation.” Rather than focusing on the journey of a group of kids as they save the world, the relationships are stripped from their value through a recreation of characters’ initial interactions with each other and spotlighting a less relevant perspective.  

The show felt rushed and overall hollow as a result; what was originally twenty episodes became eight and the show adopted a “telling, not showing” approach to writing. Take the following example from Episode 5 (Spirited Away) between Katara and Aang. 

Aang: Your bending has gotten really sharp. I mean, you’ve been inventing new moves. That’s the mark of a skilled bender. 

Katara: I have been feeling pretty confident. But I learned everything I can from Gran Gran’s scroll so, what I really need to do is get to the Northern Water Tribe. Waterbending masters there will be able to take me to the next level. 

Aang: We’ve been running into the firebenders a lot more often. 

Katara: We’re getting closer to the Fire Nation border. 

Without the context of the previous scene, where the three characters run away from and fight off Fire Nation soldiers, this scene might have had more relevance. But, since the bulk of it was already translated through the previous scene and earlier episodes, it was a missed opportunity to give us more information or take more creative liberties to get new ideas across to the audience. 

Along with these scenes, it seemed as if making the actors “look the part” was prioritized over fleshing out the characters. The actors were dressed in costumes that almost exactly mimicked the look of the original show. The casting was spot-on with actors who underwent careful training to learn the martial art that their bending was based on; wushu for firebending, tai chi for waterbending, and so on. The efforts of the cast and the team were especially made clear with the fluidity of the bending animation and motions; the show had the beauty and realistic elements that brought the look of the Avatar world alive. 

But – the story and characters were drowned out by this elaborate exterior. In turn, character development and relationship building are lost in between the details. 

A main issue is that the show tries to allude to a closeness and a friendship that is simply not there. The main three characters of the first season are Aang, Sokka, and Katara but it’s hard to see a resemblance between the adaptation and the original when the dynamics are completely different and neither of the characters, especially Aang and Katara, get enough screen time together to make up for this. 

Scenes that had been spread across more episodes in the original are messily shuffled around to the point that they no longer make sense. In the adaptation, even in cases where the trio should be together, Aang is constantly left alone. He goes on multiple solo-adventures where he meets with past Avatars and other spirits. In hindsight, this could be used to emphasize the heavy responsibility the Avatar holds. In the original series, Aang initially struggles with this on his own and relies on the support of his friends and their experiences together to learn about his powers and gain confidence. However, since the trio barely have any valuable on-screen experiences together to fall back on, it doesn’t work. 

To the audience, the trio’s relationship comes off as forced, especially when Aang himself tries to reinforce a closeness in the characters that does not exist. In many of his one-on-one conversations with other less important characters, he argues that he needs his friends in order to reach success as the Avatar. He starts doing this around Episode 3, at a point where there have not yet been a sufficient amount of scenes between them all to support this argument. 

In most of his speech he mentions at least two things: (1) his failure to master all four elements to help everyone and (2) how he needs his friendship to fulfill his duties. Less time to develop characters and relationships and a priority of “cool fighting scenes” forces dull dialogue that was often repeated throughout the show to reinforce certain ideas. Aang not only took a backseat to Fire Nation characters in the show but also had the bulk of the redundant dialogue. 

A Surge of Remakes

I first noticed that more remakes were being made a few years ago with the Cinderella (2015) movie. Then came Beauty and The Beast (2017) and, recently, The Little Mermaid (2023). Disney+ and other streaming platforms are filled with remakes of stories that make up childhoods from all over the world. I remember being excited about these renditions of some of my favorite stories and seeing the magic brought to life. But although these remakes and retellings of classic stories are often faced with success, it has come to the point where they can be seen as unoriginal, unnecessary, and lacking. 

In this sense I think that the show did well on not directly copying the original. Many fans, including myself, expected this remake to be a live-action version of the original with little changes to the dialogue and plot. 

Throughout the series, the audience gets to witness the relationship between Zuko and Uncle Iroh, new scenes relating to the Spirit Realm, and other additions that aided in tying a few elements of the show together. 

In the original show, Zuko is more reserved with his emotions and is filled with the rage of his failures. I thought it was interesting how the show chose to take a different approach. Instead, it showcases vulnerability in scenes with his uncle and emphasizes the ‘soft spot’ that Zuko holds for him. 

This brings up a final question: how will the show continue? 

With a multitude of changes to the original show, it’s difficult to see how everything may ultimately tie together, if at all. Regardless, I look forward to the following seasons and learning how this remake will make up for some of the losses or confusion from this first season.

About the Contributor
Tori Wee, Staff Reporter
Tori Wee is currently a Features Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ Tori finds that journalism is a means to creatively educate others through in-depth research and storytelling. Outside of school, Tori enjoys reading, drawing, and running. Her favorite book genres are historical fiction or fantasy, and her current favorite book is Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang. Tori particularly admires the use of literary elements in journalism and tries to employ them in her own writing. In the future, Tori aims to pursue a career that plays into her interests in art, journalism, and gardening.