Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Live Action - 2024)

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a beloved animated series with wonderful characters and world building. Avatar: The Last Airbender is live action… on Netflix (let's forget that movie), well, I need to talk about it, because on paper it is a fantastic adaptation.

Good adaptations are tricky to get right. Some start great but fumble along the way. Others nail character, but fail with world building. Or the other way around, you get the idea. What’s worse is that most adaptations are lazy cash grabs that don’t understand why the original version was so good in the first place. Thankfully this is not a cash grab and the people behind the show clearly understand and love the source material.

So why isn’t it great? Let's get into some basic facts about this adaptation.

The first season of the animated series was 20 episodes long and ran for roughly 22 minutes per episode. This adaptation is only 8 episodes but each episode runs nearly an hour. So the math kind of makes sense, there are roughly 440 minutes in the original, and 480 minutes in the live action. So why couldn’t they theoretically do a one for one adaptation?

I’ll get to that in a bit, but first some context. Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world where some people are born with the ability to wield the traditional elements of nature; Earth, Air, Fire and Water, a power called bending. The Avatar is born once in a generation and can wield all four elements and is connected directly to the spirit world (which is where these elemental powers came from). The Avatar is a singular soul that reincarnates after death instead of moving on. They retain a connection to all of the previous lives of the Avatar. Each is their own person, with unique quirks and personality, and they don’t look alike, and can be either gender.

Because of the spirit world connection, bending is hereditary, and generally location-based. The world as it exists in the show is pre-industrial and split along bending lines, with four Nations occupying parts of the known world: The Earth Kingdoms, Northern and Southern Water Tribes, the Fire Nation and the Air Nomads. Each represents a different aspect of Asian culture and tradition although there are no direct parallels for obvious reasons. For example; the Fire Nation is depicted as a very militaristic and imperial nation that feels like feudal Japan.

The basic setup is fairly simple. About 100 years ago the ruler of the Fire nation, Sozin, decided that his people should be in charge of everything, and declared war. The only person that could theoretically stop him was the Avatar. This was facilitated by a one in a century event called Sozin’s Comet (formerly the Great Comet) that boosts the power of all fire benders while it is close. Sozin used this as a major advantage to attack the Air temples and wipe them out entirely.

The reason makes sense, but is heartless and extreme. They knew the next Avatar would have been born in one of the Air Nomad tribes because the Avatar reincarnation cycle is tied to each nation (progressing from Earth to Fire, then Air and finally Water before cycling back to Earth). So the Fire nation was committing to a rather genocidal version of the Terminator plot (without time travel, of course). In the animation this attack was mentioned several times, but not explicitly shown. Which I will get back to in a moment when I talk adaptation.

In enters Aang, a 12-year-old Airbender who is goofy and caring and a bit reckless. He has bonded to a flying bison named Appa (all animals in this universe are hybrids of two real animals and some are tied to bending powers), and doesn’t know he is the Avatar. Yet he is a prodigy, excelling at Airbending to the point where his fellow students are wary of him. So when he finds out he is the Avatar he freaks out and runs away with Appa just before the Fire Nation attacks.

So why explain all that? Well, because it speaks to the core strengths and weaknesses of this adaptation. Take for example the fact that in the animation we never see Sozin’s attack on the Southern Air Temple. In this adaptation we do get to see it, and it serves as the jumping off point for the story. While it is a well crafted scene that establishes the general conflict, it also changes a few details in a fundamental way.

First is the reason why Aang left. In the animation he ran because he was overwhelmed, and then ended up encased in ice for a century. In the live action he went on a flight to clear his mind so he could figure out how he felt about being the Avatar. He had no intention of running away, only to be swept up by a tsunami and encased in ice for a century. This isn’t a big change, but it does alter his motivations somewhat.

These kinds of details are peppered throughout this series, and are a bit of a mixed bag as to how successful they are implemented. The other major issue is pacing, because things were added to the story that were previously not shown, and with a limited amount of time perhaps too much is left on the cutting room floor, or events end up feeling a bit rushed and slapped together. Yet none of it was done thoughtlessly, because of the clear love for the source material and a genuine attempt to get it right. For lack of a better term, this series is more remix than adaptation.

This creates a strange issue where everything feels familiar, but nothing is quite where it should be (with a few notable exceptions). Scenes are added that don’t really belong, character arcs feel a bit rushed, and overall there is a sense that the story needed some time to breathe. This doesn’t make this series bad or unwatchable, but does mean that fans of the original will feel like something is wrong but have no real way to put a finger on exactly why.

Now it isn’t all negative. In fact, this is a truly fantastic adaptation in a number of ways. The characters look, sound and feel like they leapt out of animation and landed in reality. The five primaries, Aang, Katara, Sakka, Iroh and Zuko are all realized almost perfectly. I do have to mention that some of the dialogue is clunky and relies on tell rather than show. The visuals and world building are all on point and most of the new additions are great. A lot of the directly recreated scenes are also well done (although there are some odd omissions).

Aang (Gordon Cormier) is almost too well cast with a young actor who not only physically looks like the animation but also sounds like him. He can occasionally come across as too young (he was actually 12 when this was filmed), but did an overall good job with the role. Similiarly, Katara (Kiawentiio) feels nearly identical to her animated counterpart and brings a genuine earnestness to the role. She also makes the bending look natural which must've been difficult given that she was really just waving her arms around and pretending to manipulate water. Actually the choreography was all very well done, with memorable fight scenes and some great wire-fu. The biggest change to the core trio was Sakka (Ian Ousley), who gave a more nuanced and mature performance, often being the strong older brother instead of the comic relief, which for me was a welcome change.

I expected Paul Sun-Hyung Lee to do a great job with Uncle Iroh, but some of his choices were really wonderful, and dare I say a slight improvement over the beloved character from the original. Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), much like in the original series, is arguably the best character. For most of the first season in the animated version, you felt like Zuko is just this spoiled wannabe villain with corrupt motivations who tends to whine a lot about failing again and again to catch the Avatar. Here his arc is slightly different. It’s been carefully crafted to reveal his past and motivations in such a way that he comes across as both a tragic and heroic figure. Your heart bleeds for Zuko, and you want to root for him despite being at odds with our primary heroes.

The visual effects were also almost all wonderful, with sets often feeling like they were real places, although in some cases it was obvious the characters were on a set with heavy visual effects. The digital animals were mostly okay, but I’m not sure the technology is quite good enough to pull off photorealistic creatures like these. Appa and Momo (who accompany our three leads throughout the series) are an impressive achievement, and I wish they had more screen time. The bending is almost all excellent, with a couple of minor wonky shots.

I won’t go into further details to avoid spoilers, but I will end this by saying that overall, this was worth watching. I’m not entirely sure it justified its existence, but it was never boring and could be a good entry point for anyone interested in the franchise who doesn’t like animation.


There were a lot of memorable characters that appeared in only one or two episodes but were direct one-to-one parallels from the original. The ones that made the most impact were Suki, Bumi and Yue.

Two notable characters that were not seen or barely seen in the first season of the original animation have a somewhat significant presence in the adaptation. Fire Lord Ozai and his daughter, Zuko’s sister, Azula. Ozai is played by Daniel Dae Kim and he does a good job bringing the character to life. Azula (Elizabeth Yu) is played nearly perfectly, despite being a slight departure from the original, and I cannot wait to see more of her in future seasons.

Speaking of the future, since release, Netflix has officially greenlit seasons two and three, so the adaptation will be able to finish out the full original series arc.

As an important milestone, this series features an all ethinic cast and a lot of talent behind the screen are of Asian descent. I wish this wasn't a big deal, but given that the original voice cast was mostly white and the 2010 movie was as well, this is a good step in the right direction.

Episode five was probably the worst episode, and never fully resolved the initial problem that the team stopped to investigate in the first place. It also features some of the most changes and additions. The plot is too packed and events feel rushed.

Episode eight was my favorite episode, fully realizing some truly fantastic ideas and the effects work was nearly perfect. The emotional stakes and plot wrapped up well, and it impressed the hell out of me that they were able to pull off something so ambitious that I never thought could be realized in live action.

Overall, this was a solid but flawed adaptation with a lot to offer both new viewers and fans of the original.

3 out of 4 elements.

Samantha M. Quinn spends most of her time in front of a computer typing away at one thing or another; when she has free time, she enjoys pretty much anything science fiction or fantasy-related.


  1. Cool. I sadly missed the boat on watching this in my formative years and I think it would've been awesome to have a western animation that could match the anime I was obsessed with at the time (namely Naruto, and my peers who liked anime loved ATLA too). But finally watching it when I did, I thought it was only OK, though I absolutely loved the concept of -bending and the simplicity of 4 nations that nonetheless led to a lot of complex mixing and contrasting. But it just carried itself way too much like an interminable kids' show sometimes, with its sense of humor especially. With that said I claw at any excuse to revisit the universe in an adaptation and am eager to see what the bending effects look like in live action... thanks for the review and selling me on it.

    1. So it was pretty good in the end, I loved seeing L O S T alum show up and absolutely kill it with their performances. Suki easily took my breath away as soon as I saw her looking bug-eyed at Aang being recognized by the statue. Love her, need way way more of her than just that episode 2 appearance!


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.