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ATLA: Renewed Interest and Ongoing Controversies

Artwork created by SBHS sophomores Lujan and Leyla Asturias (instagram handles: @lejaan_australia and @leylaasturias)

Avatar has a massive fanbase, so Netflix has the potential to create a movie loved by millions or spark a cohort of angry protestors.

Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) scheduled for release in 2021 shows promise for high viewership after the original cartoon successfully trended on Netflix’s Top 10 List for 58 days- the longest streak for any show on that platform.

When ATLA first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005, it was rated TV Y-7, primarily marketing itself towards elementary-school children. However, over this year, the show gained prominence amongst teenagers and a generally older demographic.

Senior Shreya Manjrekar, an avid watcher of both Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel The Legend of Korra gave her input on why the show became so popular amongst teens.

“Unlike other kids or cartoon shows, [Avatar] focuses on really interesting and relevant real-world problems, like race and genocide and sexism. It makes you think not only as a kid but also as an adult or a teenager,” she said.

Noting the show’s high viewership and popularity, Netflix invested in a live-action remake of the series. It should be noted that this remake concerns Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, not Disney’s blockbuster Avatar. Fans were excited, especially because Netflix planned to work with the original creators of the show, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, to create an adaptation that honored both the original storyline and the diverse cultures represented in Avatar.

In August, however, the creators left the show. Konietzko said that under Netflix, he felt like the creators “would not be able to meaningfully guide the direction of the series”. DiMartino released a statement claiming that leaving the production was “necessary for [his] happiness and creative integrity”.

Fans were outraged following DiMartino and Konietzko’s resignation from the project. Many recalled M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 live-action movie adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, notorious for its slow-moving plot, whitewashed/brownwashed cast, and complete reimagination of the Avatar universe. The movie has a phenomenally low rating of 5% on Rotten Tomatoes and even caused protests that lasted for over a year.

Senior Sandip Das provided his personal reasoning behind why the movie was so ill-received.

He said, “I dislike how, one, they did not respect the source material. Aang’s growth, especially, was so shallow and I felt like they could’ve made Zuko and Iroh’s relationship more familial like how it was in the show. In the show, the characters were mostly East Asian, Southeast Asian, and Inuit, and in the movie, they were mostly white. Avatar is based on some Asian culture, and [the movie] completely removed that.”

Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the adventures of Aang and his friends as they plot the downfall of Firelord Ozai, the ruler of the Fire Nation who is steadily colonizing the rest of the world. The avatar universe has four regions: The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation.

Most people in the Avatar universe can bend their region’s respective elements; for example, air-benders can bend air, water-benders can bend water, and so on. The Fire Nation exterminated air-benders over a hundred years prior to the events portrayed.

Aang is the only surviving air-bender and also the avatar, which means that he is the only person in the world who can master all four elements. The avatar’s purpose is restoring balance to the world, which Aang must do by liberating the rest of the world from the Fire Nation’s clutch.

Avatar has a massive fanbase, so Netflix has the potential to create a movie loved by millions or spark a cohort of angry protestors. Just as Aang maintained a balance between spirits and humans, the Gan Jins and the Zhangs, and the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, Netflix must maintain a balance between the creators’ original storyline and a compelling readaptation.

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