Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender was AMAZING

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Art of Lily K
| March 5, 2024
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Initially, I wasn’t planning on writing an article about Netflix’s Avatar – The Last Airbender adaptation, as I will be leading the Watching Now Special talk about it here on Couch Soup. But… I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I thought I might as well write down my thoughts. 

First things first: I LOVE the animated series. It’s easily one of the greatest animated TV shows you can find out there. I had doubts about this adaptation ever since they started sharing the changes they decided to make. Not so much to the story but to the characters themselves. I yelled about how they took away core parts of Sokka and Aang without seeing the series for myself. Big mistake. I will apologize right now because I was wrong. I am not afraid to admit this. 

You see, this adaptation takes a much more serious turn and a more adult approach to its story and the characters. Arguably the animated series was successful because it didn’t treat its audience as children, but it did have moments where you could tell they had to include these so-called filler episodes to make it more light-hearted. Yes. It is about children, these kids are all under 18, but Stranger Things and other kids-led TV Shows proved a long time ago that having kids as their lead doesn’t mean that it can’t be a seriously haunting and much more adult story. And you know, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it always tickled my brain how Avatar would look if they toned it in a way where it really went for its darker themes. I got my answer now, and I absolutely loved it. Let me break it down for you. 

Warning! Spoilers ahead! 

Fire Lord Ozai in all his glory

The Story 

Season 1 of the adaptation covers Book One of the animated show. But instead of the lengthy 20-episode season (where each episode was around 25-30 minutes), we get 8 episodes that are up to 50 minutes or an hour long. The story is in big parts, the same as the animated version, with things taken out of it but new ones added to it. If you don’t know, here’s a very quick recap:

The Fire Nation is after World domination. After the genocide of the Air Nomads, the Avatar – the one who can master all four elements – vanishes without a trace, and the Fire Nation wages war on all the others. After 100 years of fear, Sokka (Ian Ousley) and Katara (Kiawentiio) of the Southern Water Tribe find a boy frozen in ice. They soon find out that it is the Avatar himself, but unfortunately for them, Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) from the Fire Nation is right there as he was sent by his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), to find the Avatar. So from then on, Team Avatar, while looking for answers and help for Aang (Gordon Cormier), also has to escape the grasp of not only Zuko but other threats along the way. 

I will start by saying that I think they chose what to keep and what to leave out of the original show perfectly. Sure, if you wanted an exact copy of what you saw and loved originally, you’re gonna have problems with this adaptation. I will also be completely honest here by saying that as much as it is part of Aang’s story that he just wants to be a kid, and the thought of being the Avatar scares him, which is why he keeps getting distracted by childish things, I am glad they left that with the animated series. It’s still very much there, but it is more subtle and fits this more serious-toned narrative a lot better. He is a kid who is weighed down by all that is happening around him. Yes, there are moments here where Aang simply can’t face all that happened ever since he disappeared and how the world changed, but he MUST step up, and that is something that is pushing him forward. I mean, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we all have emotional damage because the show didn’t just talk about the genocide of the Air nomads, but WE ACTUALLY WITNESSED IT. Now imagine finding out that all your people are gone and thinking that it is all because of you. Wherever they go, he keeps seeing what his absence meant for all the other nations, and it does get to him. They perfectly balanced out how – despite being 112 years old – he is still a kid at heart, but a kid who literally has duties that would break an adult, too. So, as much as people complained when the news came out that Aang wouldn’t be preoccupied with thoughts like, “Let’s go ride the elephant koi,” – I was among those who complained – in this setting, it makes sense that he would realize what he must do much sooner. 

I won’t touch on the changes to Sokka’s character, where he is not as sexist as in the animated series because… once again… it WORKS. And I mean, I complained when I first heard that they would tone his sexism down, but now I am once again reminded: WATCH THE THING BEFORE YOU JUDGE IT. Sokka, from the very beginning, carries a heavy weight, and while he still very much dodges serious topics with humor, I didn’t care that he didn’t have sexist comments left and right. 

Next, please. 

They expand the story in a very smart way. They focused all of their attention on the characters and how they can make their story go deeper. I think they achieved the most on this front with the Fire Nation delegation – Prince Zuko, Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), Fire Lord Ozai, and Princess Azula (Elizabeth Yu). Showing Ozai and Azula this early on was a huge win. The psychological warfare Ozai wages on both his children, honestly, just makes him even worse than he was in the animated series.

Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh

The Cast 

I remember going on TikTok after they released a clip of Zuko and Iroh from the show, and everyone was tearing apart Dallas Liu’s performance in the scene. To these people, I have a few things to say, but none of it would be appropriate, so I shall shut my mouth. 

While the casting of the entire thing is fan-fucking-tastic, the Dallas Liu and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee duo as Zuko and Iroh take the cake easily. Their storyline was always my favorite thing about the animated show, and I truly did not believe that they would be able to deepen my love for them, yet here we are. 

You see, Uncle Iroh is basically the father that Zuko never had. And while we learn a lot about them in the animated series, they put a scene in here that makes their entire story so much more beautiful and heartbreaking. The funeral of Iroh’s son. When I tell you all that I cried my eyes out during this scene… oh boy… Iroh is grieving the loss of his only son, and while at first what Zuko says is just something he learned to say in these scenarios, he turns back to tell Iroh how much his son meant. How he helped him get through hard times and how wonderful he was. Iroh just sits there with tears in his eyes and doesn’t say a word as this young kid sits down next to him so he doesn’t have to be alone during the most painful moment of his life. It’s such a tender, beautiful moment and something we all needed to see. And then… AND THEN… they go even further, and it turns out the 41st division Prince Zuko stood up for and got burnt for it by his father is actually his crew on the ship. He saved them from certain death in the end, so when they finally show respect to him, that moment hits harder than it ever did in the animated version. And you know what’s the other reason it was all so fantastic? Dallas Liu and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. They ARE Zuko and Iroh. 

Just as much as Gordon is the embodiment of Aang, Ian Ousley is Sokka. I was tearing up in the first episode three or four times just because of them and how perfectly they captured what we loved in these characters.

Now Katara, on the other hand… I will get a lot of shit for this, but I couldn’t stand Katara in the animated series. She was always way too much for me. Her bossiness, her whole “I know better” attitude. I mean, these are things that I can’t stand in people, but I think they amped it up way too much with her. I was at peace with her by the end of season 2. I very much LOVE this toned-down version of Katara. She still is very bossy and wants her voice to be heard, but not as much in your face as before. I really liked how Kiawentiio played her, but I can also admit that she is the most different from her animated counterpart. 

Daniel Dae Kim is Fire Lord Ozai. Whoever says that he is not as menacing as he was in the animated? Did we watch the same man? I don’t think we did. I wanted to punch this guy in the face so badly, but I was also terrified of him after what he did to Zuko. His own son. He is truly just human trash. 

And I can’t go anywhere without talking about the evil sister of Zuko: Azula. I think that by bringing her in for the first season, they made the perfect move. In the animated series, we don’t see much of the psychological warfare Ozai uses against his own flesh and blood, but here, it helps us understand how it drove one of them away and how it brought out the worst in the other. Azula was always power-hungry and very awful, but it was Ozai who pushed her until she broke completely and gave in to her desires. Everything that happened to Zuko was a catalyst to open up Azula’s full potential. And it is so brilliant. And Elizabeth Yu plays her perfectly. 

Katara, Aang and Sokka ready to fight

The Conclusion

Avatar – The Last Airbender is great. I don’t remember the last time I was so invested in something. And yes, it was always part of my life, but I was genuinely worried about how they would handle such a beloved animated show. In my eyes, we won. Yes, it does have its faults, but I can honestly say that they expertly chose what to take out, what to leave in, and what to add to it in order to give us a more mature and serious adaptation. The casting is absolutely fantastic, and I will take a tiny moment here to say that:

Anyone, and I mean ANYONE, who body shames these young actors is awful. The ones who got the worst treatment were Elizabeth Yu (Azula) and Thalia Tran (Mai). I was disgusted by the comments many people had on these young girl’s bodies and appearances. You all should be ashamed of yourself. 

My other message to everyone out there: We need to learn to form our own opinions again. I have to as well because I let news, emotions, and critics dictate how I look at things for long enough. There were many occasions where I didn’t watch something because people were shitting on it, only to then see it later and realize: actually… it’s not that bad at all. So I made a vow after binging Avatar on the day it dropped: never again. People are so bitter and angry if something doesn’t go their way. We need to let go of these toxic fan cultures – because they are incredibly toxic – and just see things for ourselves. Read whatever you want, but don’t let others decide for you. Decide for yourself.

Avatar – The Last Airbender was great. And I really hope we’ll get a second season because I desperately need them to bring my girl Toph Beifong to life.

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