Avatar: The Last Airbender, Netflix review – temper expectations

Eye-catching fantasy fare ensures a good time in this live action adaptation, but fans of the original may be disappointed.

Ever since Avatar: The Last Airbender debuted its final episode on Nickelodeon in 2008, fans have been asking for a live-action version of the epic fantasy adventure.

After all, it has all the elements (literally) of a trilogy that could rival Star Wars and Lord of the Rings: a chosen one, telekinetic powers, flying beasts, and massive, fate-deciding battles accompanied by a moving score.

Then, somewhere, a monkey’s paw curled a single finger, and M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 movie The Last Airbender was born. If you know, you know. If you don’t, good for you. But I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to talk about the Netflix series that released today – a series that brings with it a lot of pressure on it to not be as bad as Shyamalan’s effort. And with the bar pretty much on the ground, how tough could that be?

First, a summary for those unfamiliar with the story: The series is set in a war-torn world where certain people can bend one of four elements – water, earth, fire or air. Aang, the Avatar and the last living Airbender, is the bridge between the mortal and spirit worlds, and will one day be the only one capable of bending all four of the elements instead of just one. The Avatar maintains the balance of the world and nature to bring peace, and Aang is now faced with the responsibility of ending the ambitions of the militaristic Fire Nation to conquer the world. With his new companions Katara and Sokka, Aang sets out to master the four elements while pursued by Zuko, the exiled crown prince of the Fire Nation, who seeks to regain his honor by capturing him.

Air pressure

In the opening episode, showrunner Albert Kim and director Michael Goi make it crystal clear this adaptation is not going to follow the original show one-to-one. There are going to be artistic liberties – because of course there are when you try to squeeze 20 fully-formed episodes into just eight. I can’t give away what happens, but I think episode one will be the love-it-or-leave-it point for a lot of fans.

I mostly liked the first ep, and I was especially impressed by 14-year-old Gordon Cormier’s turn as Aang, who embodies just the right amount of childlike naivety mixed with adolescent stubbornness. It’s not easy being the Avatar, just as it’s not easy stepping into such a well-known and beloved role while the whole world is watching. I think he’s done a great job.

The VFX are also pretty great – definitely an improvement on the previous attempt, with the gusts of wind, bursts of flame, and blasts of water often feeling quite visceral and real. Appa, Aang’s giant flying bison, is also quite a marvel. The detail in his fur is extraordinary and looks like it would be so soft to touch.

Read: Avatar: The Last Airbender – everyone wants to touch Appa

Alas, as with a lot of Netflix productions, the whole look of the show has an odd sheen to it, like you’re looking at it through a glass lined in Vaseline. It’s noticeable where they’ve gone ham on the computer effects to distract audiences from the lack of real set, which all contributes to a loss of magic overall.

No time to lose

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Sebastian Amoruso as Jet, Kiawentiio as Katara in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2024

If you’re completely new to Aang’s story, the choices made in the series to distinguish it from the original won’t really matter to you. But fans and newbies alike will probably share a similar reaction regarding the show’s pacing. In a nutshell, it is extremely fast, and hardly ever slows down during the collective ~8 hour runtime. This is a show on rails, attempting to make stops at every beloved bit from the original series while hurtling towards its final destination, announcing every five minutes that this is where we are headed (the Northern Water Tribe) and here are the reasons for that (Aang receives a prophetic warning).

Every plot point is over-explained in dialogue exchanges between characters, which I assume was done to help newcomers understand what’s going on. Whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’?

Unfortunately I think all of this is a symptom of a shift towards showrunners prioritising ‘eyes on screen’ time – because people tend to look at their phones frequently during shows – which means less downtime for characters, and faster scenes that strive to further the plot above everything else.

It’s a shame, because just as we are getting to know our central trio of Aang (Cormier), Katara the waterbender (Kiawentiio), and Sokka the wisecracking boomerang-hurler (Ian Ousley), we are hurried off to the next ‘big moment’ of the series, with both writers and directors presumably protecting themselves againts fan outcries of: ‘but what about Jet? and the Cabbage Seller? and June the bounty hunter?’ You can relax, because these are all things that are included from the original series. But it all flashes by so fast that I have to wonder if it’s worth it.

Flameo, hotman

One thing I can confidently say that Albert Kim et al got 100% right is the interpretation of Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh. If anything, I would happily watch a thousand hours of Dallas Liu as Zuko and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh, bickering away as the exiled prince of the fire nation and his wise but completely unserious uncle.

Zuko is a complex character, having to straddle dual roles as both a classic villain and a misunderstood teenage boy. There’s an internal struggle to him that has to be played right, and Liu nails it. It also helps that Liu was already a skilled martial artist before joining the production, so the firebending moves he gets to dish out on Aang and co always look extremely cool. There’s some fantastic swordplay too, but I can’t say more without going into spoiler territory.

As good as Zuko’s scenes were, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something essential was missing, especially as I hit the midway point of the series. Or maybe it’s a couple of things – the stuff that often gets lost when translating animation to live-action: like the whimsical approach to logic, or the looney-tunes physics, or the way a show can make you grin ear-to-ear with a ridiculous sight gag in one moment, and then absolutely break your heart with just one look (and an astonishing VO performance) in the next.

Watered down

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Gordon Cormier as Aang, Ian Ousley as Sokka in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023

Netflix announced its Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series in 2018, with Albert Kim attached as show runner. I, for one, was pretty certain that we’d at least see a more visually-attractive adaptation, what with the technological developments that have occurred since the 2010 film. I think on that front, the Netflix show pretty much nails it, but it’s absolutely come at the expense of letting us down on the story front. It just doesn’t hit the same.

The animated Avatar: The Last Airbender series is well known for its Hero’s Journey-style narrative, but it’s equally as well known for its hilarious and goofy filler episodes, and the down time it takes with each character to let their big moments breathe. I believe those are the main reasons so many adults return to it after first watching it as kids – it’s surprisingly emotionally mature.

If you go in expecting an equally groundbreaking and endearing series as the original, well, prepare to be disappointed. Keep your expectations medium-low, and you’ll have a good time kicking back and watching some eye-catching fantasy fare.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (live action) is streaming on Netflix now.


3 out of 5 stars


Gordon Cormier, Daniel Dae Kim


Michael Goi and Roseanne Liang

Format: TV Series

Country: USA

Release: 22 February 2024

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports