Why Avatar: The Last Airbender Fans Have Issues With M. Night Shyamalan's Movie
There’s an ongoing in-joke amongst Avatar fans. When something is wrong, and people seem to be ignoring it, we’ll often say, “there is no war in Ba Sing Se.” This is in reference to the episode “City of Walls and Secrets” where the prosaic phrase is used to lull people into believing that everything’s fine, when in truth, everything is not fine. Likewise, there’s another in-joke amongst fans when you bring up M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, The Last Airbender. When somebody asks, “Hey, what did you think of that Avatar movie?” We’ll often say, “What Avatar movie? You mean the one with the blue people?” This is because most fans despise M. Night Shyamalan’s film so much that we often like to pretend that it doesn't even exist.
And look, I’m not going to spend this whole article trying to convince you that The Last Airbender is a good movie, because it’s not. It’s a terrible movie. But what if I were to tell you that maybe you’re being a little too harsh on it? Yes, it’s a bad film, but maybe it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. So that’s the point of this article. I’m going to lay out the biggest problems people have with the movie, and maybe try to show you why it’s not as bad as you think it is. But hey, I’m the guy who thinks The Legend of Korra is better than Avatar: The Last Airbender, so make of this argument what you will.
Here are the arguments made against The Last Airbender...
1. That the special effects are Godawful
What detractors will say: What the hell happened? The earthbending in this movie is an absolute joke! And all of the other bending looks ridiculous, too. Why couldn’t anybody make the bending look like it does in the cartoon? It shouldn’t be that hard with modern day CG. God give me strength! Why does this movie look so bad?
Counterpoint - Yeah, The Last Airbender is a pretty ugly movie, and the bending—especially the earthbending—is particularly underwhelming. In fact, in his review of the film, Roger Ebert went off on the visuals, calling them "atrocious." But everybody blames M. Night Shyamalan for this, when in actuality, how is this even his fault? M. Night Shyamalan is a director (more on that in a few), not a special effects guy. And prior to The Last Airbender, Shyamalan had never done a big budget, tentpole movie like this, but rather, smaller movies, like Signs and Lady in the Water.
And sure, some directors get great special effects teams on their first go for a movie like this, but as the legend goes, there was poor planning for this movie all around, and unskilled people were brought on for the effects at the last minute. So I don’t totally blame M. Night for how bad this movie looks. Give the guy some slack. It’s not completely his fault.
That the Characters are Nothing Like They are on the Cartoon
What detractors will say: Why are these characters so different from how they are on the cartoon? Katara doesn’t brood like this. Aang is a lot more playful. And what have they done to my poor Sokka? Sokka is supposed to be funny. This Twilight guy is not funny. He doesn’t even crack a smile! Who are these people? And why is the acting so terrible?
Counterpoint: Yeah, so, this is where M. Night really should have done a better job. As the director, he should have studied the source material a lot better and gotten this right. Noah Ringer as Aang isn’t terrible, and I can kind of see him being Aang-like. But Nicola Peltz is a terrible Katara, and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka? Give me a break. It's been said before in other articles, but it's Sokka's voice. It just sounds wrong.
That said, I’m going to go to bat for Dev Patel, because I actually think he makes a pretty good Zuko. He’s angsty, he can act, and I think he’s believable as the character. I know it’s kind of weird that the brown people are the “bad guys” and the white people are the “good guys” in this movie (I’ll get to that), but I think Dev Patel is a good Zuko and I’m sticking to that.
That There is Blatant Whitewashing in This Movie
What detractors will say - Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the only American cartoons on television that prominently features Asian characters. It’s beautiful to see so much of Asian culture represented in a way that is both respectful and celebratory. And it was created by two white dudes—Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Which is what I don’t understand. M. Night Shyamalan is Asian. Why did he decide to whitewash this movie? Because it was a big deal at the time. Couldn't they have fixed this before it came out?
Counterpoint - This goes back to what I said up top about not being able to pick the actors he wanted, since Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone were cherrypicked for this movie, and Noah Ringer is said to be the only one who really auditioned that Shyamalan wanted for Team Avatar. Yeah, it’s a bad look when the actual Asian characters are the bad guys, but at least there's some diversity among the cast?
And as I said before, the only great actor in the movie is actually Asian. It’s a sore spot, but this movie was in 2010, long before Disney was making diversity a priority, and making it okay for everybody to follow suit. If this movie was made today, I guarantee it would be have all-Asian cast. Just like the TV show that is coming to Netflix, thank God.
That They Couldn’t Even Pronounce the Names Correctly
What detractors will say: “Ong?” Who’s that? And “Soaka?” Are you kidding me? It’s SOK-KA. Dude, you couldn’t even get the names right? That’s literally the easiest thing in the world and you messed that up, too. How?
Counterpoint: Okay, soooo, this one is hard to defend. Apparently, M. Night Shyamalan wanted to be culturally sensitive to how the names would actually be pronounced in Asian culture. But when you couple that with the fact that there are white actors playing Asian characters, then that doesn’t really work.
M. Night says he was a fan of the show after his daughter introduced him to it, but as a fan, he shouldn’t have tampered with stuff like that. The minute Aang’s name was pronounced “Ong”, was probably the minute that M. Night lost half the audience. So I get what he was going for, but it just didn’t work. Sorry.
So, is The Last Airbender bad? Yes. But should you pretend like it doesn’t exist? Well, I don’t know about that. It has a lot of issues, but it followed the first season well enough, and it tried. It really did. But what do you think? Is it really as bad as people say? Or is it worse? Sound off in the comments section below.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.
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