In the mid-aughts, Nickelodeon wowed a generation with “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The series took place in a richly detailed world whose inhabitants practiced an art called “bending,” which allowed them to control elemental forces. A mixture of anime and American cartoon styles, the show’s greatest assets were its exceptionally well-developed characters and sense of humor.
It quickly attracted a horde of fans who celebrated the show with fan fiction, memes and cosplay. If you’ve ever seen an image of a man cradling a cabbage with the caption “Still a better love story than Twilight” or a van painted to look like a sky bison with the license plate “YIPYIP,” you have “The Last Airbender” to thank.
Then everything changed when the M. Night Shyamalan version attacked.
Considered by some critics to be the worst movie ever (and unmentionable apocrypha in certain fan circles), the live-action film was widely panned for having an inconsistent plot shambling along under weak acting built on even weaker dialogue. To add insult to injury, the director blew the opportunity to fill the lead roles with underrepresented Asian actors and opted instead for a pale-white cast. Outraged fans responded with accusations of “racebending.” The junk heap was nevertheless a commercial success.
Maybe that’s why Netflix thinks it’s a good idea to do yet another live-action remake. The company announced the project this week, careful to note that it would be helmed by the original co-creators and would feature “a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast.”
Netflix doesn’t have an encouraging track record in this vein (*cough* “Death Note” *cough*), but maybe they’ve learned from their mistakes and want to show that they can do better.
But why mess with success? The original show was amazing; does Netflix really think they can top that, or are they just trying to cash in on a tried-and-true franchise? I’m all for reusing and recycling when it comes to glass and plastic, but TV shows tend to lose their flavor after successive copies. You can point out that studios face a financial risk when they invest in original content championing diverse voices. But the massive successes of titles like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” make that sound like a coward’s argument.
If you really want TV news to get excited about, let me remind you that HBO is producing a series based on Nnedi Okorafor’s award-winning novel “Who Fears Death.” The book revolves around a strangely gifted girl who must navigate an alternate-universe version of Sudan. If you like speculative fiction that delves into sociopolitical conflict with deeply thoughtful characters, then you can join me in jumping up and down while waiting eagerly for the series premiere.
As for “The Last Airbender,” it remains to be seen whether we’ll get a surprisingly worthwhile installment or a mediocre rehash that accomplishes nothing more than lining the pockets of a few cynical execs.
I’ll hold off on the celebratory cactus juice.