I don’t know if it’s completionism or masochism or what, but after finishing my newbie watch of Avatar: The Last Airbender–and before starting on The Legend of Korra–I had to watch the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan version. Or maybe it’s a justice thing. All the other Avatar fans had to go through their own spasms of disappointment when the movie came out. It didn’t seem fair that I would be able to avoid it.
First things first: I completely understand why people were telling me not to watch this movie, because Jesus fuck. I generally try not to be precious about changes when it comes to adaptations–film is its own medium with its own creative requirements, so I’m not one to get pissed if the director alters a dress color or a character backstory from what it was in the original medium, as long as that new version works in the film. But crispy Jesus Christ snowshoeing lentil damn--even completely disregarding the source material, The Last Airbender is still a deeply shitty movie. Katara’s ham-handed expository voiceover is bogus as fuck. I know twenty 20-minute episodes is a lot to fit into one movie, but if you can’t figure out how to condense without shitting all over the “show, don’t tell” maxim (the “and BTW, then Yue and Sokka fell for each other” moment comes to mind), maybe don’t make the movie.
I don’t know how Shyamalan made bending look boring as fuck, but he did. The movie as a whole looks dingy, and while slow-mo might work for action scenes in some movies, it does not work here. The most visually interesting aspect of The Last Airbender was Appa, and that’s only because I’m pretty sure I’ll be having nightmares about him.
THAT SAID, though I had been led to believe that The Last Airbender was wall-to-wall condensed movie syphilis, there were parts that I did not hate, in large part because I went in with very, very low expectations. Shaun Toub was legitimately good as Iroh, and I also dug Dev Patel’s portrayal of Zuko, which was a 50/50 split between IMPOTENT RAAAAAGE and looking like he’s about to burst into tears at any given moment. I found myself really enjoying scenes involving the two of them, and only partially because every second I spent with them was another second I wasn’t looking at Sokka (more on him later). I like the change the movie made re: Iroh’s powers, establishing him as the only one who generates fire, while everyone else has to use fire that already exists, much like the other benders do with their elements. That’s an example of a change done right–it establishes Iroh’s badass quotient effectively and efficiently, whereas the show had multiple seasons to build it up.
A change that makes less sense: Imprisoning the Earthbenders in a quarry, instead of on a ship where they have no access to earth. I knew about this alteration before, but it was no less WTF?! for having had advanced warning. Also: I feel like it was a mistake to show so much of Fire Lord Ozai. He’s a constant, menacing presence in the show due in large part to his lack of screentime. Whenever you see him, he’s being a sneering asshole. In the movie, he’s just… a dude. A dude who’s a war-happy, abusive father, but still. He never came off as a particularly intimidating villain.
And changing the pronunciation of Aang and Sokka’s names. Just… why? What’s the point there?
Speaking of Sokka, I literally winced every time he came on-screen. Because of the racebending thing, yes (inner dialogue that first shot of the back of Yue’s head: “
Please tell me she’s not whi OH OF COURSE SHE’S WHITE.” Not white, Latina, my bad.), but also because why is Sokka an adult?! He is the epitome of the goofy teenage boy! At least Katara–for all that she is white, for all that they completely gutted this awesome female character and gave her close to nothing to do (and don’t get me wrong, that royally sucks!)–doesn’t look like she’s old enough to be paying goddamn taxes. Show!Sokka is interesting. He tells bad jokes and struggles with self-doubt. Movie!Sokka is a bland beefcake who looks like he belongs at an Abercrombie and Fitch.
I can’t even say anything about Noah Ringer as Aang. He left no impression. I’m sure Ringer’s a nice kid.
The dialogue’s wooden. The acting’s wooden. OH LOOK, BACKGROUND POC, HOW NICE:
I’ll admit that I like how we first learn about Zuko’s tragic backstory when Zhao announces it at a dinner party, because he would do that, the immature pissbaby turd. That said, I don’t think Aasif Mandvi brought enough oomph to the role. Zhao is essentially the least impressive of all the Avatar villains–he has to be, he’s the one the gaang cut their teeth on, and ain’t nobody holding a candle to Azula–but even he left an impression through being such a pathetic jackass that he’s determined Zuko, a kid, is his nemesis. If I hadn’t known that about the character going in, I wouldn’t have gotten it from the movie. Zhao’s just… there.
Four minutes into this movie, and my brain was screaming ABORT, ABORT. I should have listened to it. The best part of this travesty, aside from Iroh and Zuko (were they genuinely good, or were they just good-compared-to-Sokka? I’d have to watch this movie again to confidently weigh in on either side, and I refuse to do that) is that it didn’t get its grubby paws on Toph or (for the most part) my queen, Azula.
I’ll close with the truest possible expression of my feelings about this movie: