Award-winning student news since 1978

The Brookhaven Courier

Award-winning student news since 1978

The Brookhaven Courier

Award-winning student news since 1978

The Brookhaven Courier

‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ soars

Netflix and Nickelodeon’s new live action series masters all the elements of a great adaptation.
Isabel Velzquez

When Netflix and Nickelodeon announced they would be producing a live action adaptation of the animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” I was concerned. Like many in my generation, I grew up watching “Avatar.” The meticulous hand-drawn animation, compellingly written characters and complex, yet easy-to-grasp world were quintessential parts of my childhood.

Naturally, I hoped any adaptation of the series would live up to those high standards. I am happy to say Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” exceeded all my expectations, proving to be not just a stellar adaptation, but a wonderful project in its own right.

The plot of “Avatar” is straightforward. There are four elements which can be controlled by people in the world: water, earth, fire and air. Individuals who have the ability to control these elements are called benders. The avatar, a figure who is reincarnated into different elemental nations over time, is the only person who can learn to bend all four elements. The most recent incarnation of the avatar is an airbender named Aang (Gordon Cormier), who is the last of his kind, hence the title of the series.

Traveling the world with his waterbender friend Katara (Kiawentiio) and Katara’s nonbender brother, Sokka (Ian Ousley), Aang sets out to stop the Fire Nation, which has been waging a hundred year war against the other nations.

Throughout their journey, Team Avatar encounters a disgraced Fire Nation prince named Zuko (Dallas Liu). Zuko, accompanied by his uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), is on the hunt for the avatar, hoping his capture will curry favor with the firelord and thus end Zuko’s banishment. 

The first thing I noticed when watching “Avatar” was how dedicated the cast were to their roles. Each actor clearly holds a deep appreciation for the iconic characters they are portraying, and it shows through their performances.


The Peaceful Protector

Cormier, as Aang, channels a wide depth of emotion into his performance, an impressive feat considering he was only 13 at the time of filming. Cormier perfectly captures Aang’s innocence and good-heartedness, while also imbuing the character with a deep sense of tragedy. Aang is the last airbender. The responsibility of being the avatar, combined with the responsibility of carrying on the legacy of his entire people and culture, is a heavy burden. All of these nuances come through in Cormier’s performance.


The Faithful Guardian

Kiawentiio is great as Katara – the heart and strength of the team, unshakably firm in her ideals and fiercely protective of those she cares about. Despite facing her own tragedies in life and seeing the cost of the Hundred Year War, Katara has more faith in the avatar and his ability to save the world than anyone else. Kiawentiio effortlessly switches between these traits of the character, demonstrating Katara’s strength and steadfastness in one scene, and her endless empathy in the next.


The Loyal Companion

A standout performance of the series was Ousley as Sokka. In the animated series, while he possessed a great many other character traits, Sokka generally served as comedic relief, providing some hilariously written one-liners every episode. The character was loud and boisterous. The showrunners and Ousley wisely realized these extreme traits, while working exceptionally well in the medium of animation, would not necessarily translate well into live action. Ousley adjusted his performance accordingly, and the result is an utterly unique yet still distinctly familiar take on the character. 

Sokka is obnoxious, snarky and oftentimes overly confident. Yet he is also incredibly smart, loyal and above all, brave. Being a nonbender, Sokka does not possess the same fantastical abilities as his sister or the avatar, yet he never lets that stop him. Being the most “normal” of the group gives Sokka the most perspective, allowing him to see outside the box and come up with creative solutions for problems. More often than not, it is one of Sokka’s crazy plans that saves the day. Like the two other members of the team, Sokka feels a deep responsibility and duty, both to his and Katara’s tribe, which he has protected for years, and to Aang, who he comes to view as a part of the family over the course of the series. Ousley cunningly conveys the complexities of Sokka, showing time and time again that the character is much more than just “the funny one.”


The Shattered Prince

My other favorite performance was Liu as Zuko. Zuko is a tortured soul, carrying many scars with him, both physical and emotional. He grew up as the prince of the Fire Nation, heir to the firelord’s throne. Yet unlike his father Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), and his younger sister Azula (Elizabeth Yu), Zuko has never possessed a killer instinct. He is, at his core, a kind hearted person, and the Fire Nation, especially the royal family, is not a place in which kind hearted people thrive. Zuko endures abuse and ridicule for his perceived weakness, ultimately resulting in his father burning Zuko’s face and banishing him until he can capture the avatar. The character of Zuko comes with a lot of baggage, and in the wrong hands could lose much of his nuance. Liu is more than up for the challenge, exuding the pain and bitterness his character has gone through, while never once losing sight of Zuko’s true nature, a kind and honorable young man. Zuko may be the antagonist of the season, but viewers will more than likely find themselves feeling for him more than any other character.


The Unwavering Mentor

Of course, Zuko is not alone in his journey. His uncle Iroh accompanies him at every step. Iroh is a complex character. He has a dark past, being a former warlord who conquered entire cities in the name of the Fire Nation. Since then, he has become disillusioned with the ideals of his nation, and now seeks only one thing: to protect the nephew he loves as his own son. Iroh is Zuko’s conscience, keeping Zuko from going down the same dark path he was once on himself. I was initially skeptical of Lee’s performance as Iroh. He seemed to be overdoing it with some of Iroh’s characteristics. However, by the end of the season, I was completely won over by Lee and his take on the character.


Worthy of the Title

“Avatar” impresses in more ways than just its performances. The series is a visual spectacle, with breathtaking scenery, from sprawling Earth Kingdom cities to intimidating Fire Nation palaces. Additionally, the fight scenes incorporating the bending of the elements are incredibly well choreographed. There is a kinetic energy which comes through in every fight. The effects of the elements themselves are more hit and miss, but the energy more than makes up for that.

Overall, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” made me feel like a kid again in all the best ways. Seeing these characters and their stories in this new medium is a joy. The passion for the original series, balanced with bold new directions taken, make for a stellar viewing experience. Seasons two and three of the series have been greenlit for production as of March 6. I cannot wait to see what this team will bring to the table next.

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