Brow Beat

Should Fans Be Excited or Worried About Netflix’s New Live-Action Last Airbender?

Protagonist Aang and his flying bison, Appa
Concept art for the new series by John Staub.
Netflix

Netflix has announced a live-action adaptation of the animated classic Avatar: The Last Airbender, with the original show’s creators, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, back at the helm. And with that, fans everywhere hold their breath.

The central question here (and in the age of reboots writ large) is why you’d bother reimagining a relatively recent, beloved TV series as … another TV series. But Netflix’s famously hands-off approach may afford the showrunners new opportunities—and the autonomy they were denied the last time they tried to take the show into the realm of live action. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender remains notorious for, among other things, whitewashing the protagonists, mispronouncing the main character’s name, and generally being one of the worst films of all time. Konietzko and DiMartino have all but disavowed Shyamalan’s attempt. (“We were involved, but our involvement had no effect,” Konietzko said of the film in 2014, adding, “I don’t want to be associated with that!”)

Fans should have less to worry about with Konietzko and DiMartino calling the shots. In a new statement, the pair emphasized that they “can’t wait to realize Aang’s world as cinematically as we always imagined it to be, and with a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast.” The showrunners also promised they’ll go “even deeper into the characters, stories, and world-building.” Whether that means new plotlines or the integration of material from the comics remains to be seen. If the latter, the series could fold in the backstory of fan favorite Zuko, whose troubled family history was hinted at in the animated series but explored more thoroughly in the spin-off graphic novels, and also acknowledge the deaths they weren’t allowed to show on screen the first time around.

The co-creators have made use of the relative freedom of streaming before: The original show’s sequel, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, pushed the limits of family-friendly Nickelodeon with its darker subject matter, ultimately moving online for its last (and best) seasons. As Vanity Fair noted at the time, “Korra became too dangerous, too risky for Nick to air. But that outsider status made it downright irresistible to certain viewers. Especially teenagers.” The Korra comics went further still with respect to LGBTQ representation: Avatar Kyoshi, a recurring character in the original series, was depicted as bisexual, and the relationship between Korra and Asami was fleshed out more fully than had been possible on the TV show. At Netflix, where Voltron’s Shiro was recently revealed to be gay, it seems likely that all of this will be fair game.

Konietzko has described the new series, slated to film next year, as a “simultaneously new and old adventure,” and he and DiMartino aren’t the only ones returning on the creative side: Jeremy Zuckerman, who was responsible for the original series’ iconic score, also confirmed his involvement via Instagram. With the promise of fresh material, greater narrative freedom, and an exciting vehicle for Asian American stars, cautious optimism seems warranted. Reincarnation is, after all, the Avatar team’s area of expertise.