Now Reading: ‘Avatar the Last Airbender”s New Live Action Is A Disrespectful Departure From Its Roots


‘Avatar the Last Airbender”s New Live Action Is A Disrespectful Departure From Its Roots

August 14, 20206 min read

The two co-creators of Avatar the Last Airbender (ATLA) quit after clashing with Netflix over the series. Though the two creators wanted to keep the show close to its Japanese roots, Netflix wants to make the children’s show more graphic and “diversify” the cast by casting White actors.

Avatar the Last Airbender is one of the most coveted animated Netflix series. It is a children’s show based on four kingdoms: air, fire, water and earth. The avatar can control all of these four kingdoms. The show is unique because of its connections to Japanese culture. It is a western modification of Asian culture and people of any age can take powerful lessons from the show, many of which are rooted in Asian philosophy. The character development in the series is drawn out, but moving and from these complex characters, viewers can understand more about their own lives. 

So, fans around the world were excited to see the animation translate into a live action film. Better yet, Netflix was going to place power in the hands of Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, visionary producers who founded the series all the way back in 2002. The two were committed to furthering Asian representation and heritage through their work. The animated series was a reflection of these principles and the live action was on the same track.  

However, the news was too good to be true. In Konietzko’s resignation statement, he cited a “negative and unsupportive environment.” 

Both creators agreed Netflix did not follow through with its promises. The creative license Netflix promised (very publicly) was nowhere. Instead of honoring a more modest and subtle culture, the remake Netflix has in mind is anything but. 

This isn’t even the first time a live version of ATLA is going wrong. In 2010, M. Night Shyamalan released a version that scarred audiences around the world. The horrific remake was dull and uninspired. Worst of all, it was misinterpreted. By stripping Avatar of the two creators who dove into the intricacies of culture for inspiration, Netflix is making the same tragic mistake.

One of the primary reasons for the creator’s departure is diversity. While both creators are white, they spent a long time researching Asian cultures as they created Avatar. But, the animated series featured many white voiceovers. Both Konietzko and DiMartino were wary of that history so they promised fans that the cast would feature Asian actors and actresses. However, Netflix wanted to expand their diversity pool, saying it could be appropriate to cast white actors in these positions. 

The diversity issue is particularly hurtful. For many Asians, there was no one who looked like them on screen growing up. Having the potential to cast Asians in these roles would be inspiring. Not to mention, the characters in ATLA are all Asian. For the next generation of Asian kids, seeing someone who looks like them on screen, embracing a deep role, is inspiring. But Netflix’s willingness to take the show out of its culture and dish the roles to white actors/actresses means they don’t respect ATLA in the way the show’s creators do.

Even more disturbing than the willingness to cast white actors/actresses is Netflix’s willingness to part ways with the original show. Though Konietzko and DiMartino both wanted to stay true to the show’s humble and modest roots, Netflix didn’t want ATLA to stay a kid’s show. Instead of promoting fundamental lessons, Netflix wanted more gore, more sex and more romance, all principles that weren’t focused on in the original show. Avatar the Last Airbender is not 13 Reasons Why and doesn’t need to go there to be a beloved show. 

The pure disrespect Netflix has for ATLA shows just how far Asians have to go before they are respected by the film industry. A beloved show rooted in Asian principles has to undergo whitewashing, additional drama and a full departure from its principles so Netflix can approve. Netflix’s unwillingness to keep any part of ATLA intact means the live action isn’t what fans hoped for.

With the exit of two creators whose deep research and respect for Asian cultures turned ATLA into the hit it was, Netflix inadvertently tells Asians that they aren’t good enough. Netflix tells then their actors aren’t talented enough. Their culture is not exciting enough. Their principles aren’t engaging enough. Just like that, one of the most anticipated Netflix films crumbles to dirt. 

Now, all we can do is listen to Uncle Iroh. We can only hope we can come to the end of the tunnel. We can only hope to find light. 

Featured Image via mike_dante_d on Instagram

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Joanna Hou

Joanna is a 17-year-old books writer who also loves to explore other aspects of culture.