Thirteen years ago, one of the worst movies came to theaters. Not only was it an embarrassment to cinema, but it was an embarrassment to the show it was based on. Avatar: The Last Airbender deserved better than the whitewashed, choppy story that is The Last Airbender.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender follows the story of Aang (Noah Ringer), a young monk who has the ability to control all four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. He lives in a world where most people can control only one of the elements, and he must stop the Fire Nation from conquering the world.
As mentioned, this is an adaptation of the show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Unlike the show, however, this movie is complete and utter garbage. The characters. The plot. The pacing. The dialogue. Everything.
I remembered going to the midnight screening with my cousin. We both dressed up as characters from the show, took fun pics beforehand (which I won’t share because that would be embarrassing), and discussed how hyped we were to see our favorite characters appear on the big screen.
Oh, how naive we were.
When the movie started, the whole theatre erupted in applause. But when the end credits rolled up, the theatre fell into silence. Well, except for one individual, who loudly cursed Shyamalan’s name when his credit appeared. At first, I didn’t think much of the film, perhaps I became numb with shock. In just two hours, everything that I loved about the show fell into disarray before my eyes.
13 years later, I reluctantly decided to watch the film again, this time with my boyfriend so I wouldn’t suffer alone. It’s still as horrible as a decade ago, and I think I might’ve broken my boyfriend.
But, he’s good now, so don’t worry.
Bleaching the Characters
Now, let’s get into the specifics of what’s wrong with this film. The most controversial aspect is whitewashing. The film takes place in an Asian-inspired fantasy world similar to the tv show; however, in a sharp departure, a vast majority of the cast is white. What’s more alarming though, is that all the bad guys are People of Color (POC). Needless to say, that’s an awful move on the director. He’s a POC himself so why did he make that decision? One can only speculate and use this as a case study of what internalized white supremacy might look like in action. It is further proof that simply sharing skin does not make allies, and that who the POC in a position of power is intellectually, morally, and intersectionally, matters. Far too often, POC in high places are just mouthpieces for white supremacy, tokenized and weaponized to ward off criticism of systems. Who knows Shyamalan’s intentions, but whatever the case, it’s poor taste.
Beyond whitewashing, the characters are terrible. You shouldn’t be harsh on child actors, but they chose the wrong kid to play Aang. Aang in the show is happy-go-lucky and fun. Ringer portrayed Aang as if he had depression, departing from the character base that was the entire draw of this franchise and film. That alienates the majority fans here from the tv series. For new fans who may not have watched the show, audiences generally don’t want to follow a character who seems miserable throughout a film aimed at children. This seems to not work on both levels, it does not retain franchise fans, nor does it appeal to a new demographic to replace them.
Look at Aang in the movie:
Now look at Aang in the show:
Who would you want to follow? Aang in the show, of course. Sure, original Aang has aangst (pun intended), but it’s not all the time. He knows when to be serious, when to be funny, when to be sad, etc. Aang’s a compelling character but for some odd reason, they butchered his character.
The same goes for everyone else in the movie. None of the actors portrayed their counterparts in an appropriate light. Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) is also miserable and has the eyes of a serial killer.
In the show, Sokka is the comic relief. He’s funny but has the traits of a leader. He develops into a strong leader throughout the series. Rathbone shows none of that; instead, he’s standing idly in the background most of the time, wandering around with little to no direction.
No one has direction.
The only character who may have been slightly good was Iroh (Shaun Toub). Granted, Toub’s portrayal is also different from his counterpart, but you can tell he’s at least trying. No one else in the film is giving one care in the world. They’re either gloomy, a plank of wood, or both.
Bleeding the Plot Dry
As for the plot, what plot? It’s rushed. Exposition is thrown everywhere. We’re constantly told what’s going on instead of properly experiencing the scenes. No one has an actual conversation. It’s nonstop, “Hey, let me tell you about this important plot device,” and “Hey, we must travel to this specific location before we can go to another specific location, and we must do it quickly instead of focusing on character development.”
The film is trying to cram 3 seasons of a tv series into a two-hour flick, so everything is a jumbled mess. Characters aren’t given time to relax, nor is the audience. We’re constantly jumping from scene to scene. I can’t recall one that’s properly paced.
The worst example of poor exposition is when we learn the backstory of the exiled prince, Zuko (Dev Patel). Zuko, for some inexplicable reason, asks a random kid to recall what happened to him in the past. Zuko’s in disguise, so the kid doesn’t know that he’s the Fire Nation Prince. This was such a weird and unnecessary scene. Was there no better way to tell his backstory besides asking some unknown kid to infodump? Like, what? Why? Another strange thing about it is, considering that Zuko has such a tragic backstory, why in the world would he want or need to be reminded of it?
There are so many stupid scenes in this movie, if I counted every one of them, we would be here all day. It’s not a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of film, it’s a special kind of bad that’ll leave you in a bad mood afterward.
Overall, The Last Airbender is a terrible adaptation of a beloved television show. It does the characters dirty. It does the story dirty. It does everything dirty. If you’ve never seen the show and only the movie, then you’ll get the wrong impression of its source material. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a great show that everyone should see. I wrote an article about it here, actually. As for the movie, it’s best to avoid it at all costs.