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Avatar: The Last Airbender (Netflix’s Version)

My favourite episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender is “The Ember Island Players”. It's not a particularly important episode. It’s the re-cap; little plot, mostly jokes, a good time before the epic four-episode finale. That’s not why I love it.

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My favourite episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender is “The Ember Island Players”. It's not a particularly important episode. It’s the re-cap; little plot, mostly jokes, a good time before the epic four-episode finale. That’s not why I love it.

I love it because it has heart, humour, and growth, however small. Considered by some to be ‘filler’, the fatal flaw of cartoon and anime, in this penultimate episode our merry band of protagonists go to see a propaganda show about themselves, engaging with the classic play within a play. They are forced to reckon with extreme, dramatised versions of their characters. For some, it resonates (our anti-hero, Zuko, sees a villainous rendition of his past), for others it informs (“You never told me you made out with a moon spirit!”), but others do not like what they see.

Which leads me into the 2024 Netflix adaptation.

Avatar fans have been burned before. We do not speak of the 2010 film, where the central character’s name is mispronounced, the magic system is comedically useless and the plot is drained of its charm for runtime. We walked into 2024 hopeful that someone in the Netflix writer’s room knew what they were doing.

And someone did. But they struggled to get a word in edgeways.

There are things I loved about this adaptation. Linda Hutcheon says “adaptation always involves both (re-)interpretation and then (re-)creation,” and I agree that we should never be chained to the original work. I appreciate Dallas Liu’s impertinent Zuko, who was afforded a surprising amount of heart in episode four. Accompanied by an orchestral rendition of Leaves from the Vine, old fans are rewarded, new viewers are welcomed, and our favourite angsty anti-hero is presented in a new, interesting way.

But I want to talk about Katara.

Katara was never my favourite character. She was unabashedly feminine, motherly, and a bit of a killjoy, which in the 2000s was definitely not the coolest thing to be. She is, however, undeniably instrumental to the plot. As she struggles against overt misogyny from her brother, her teachers, and her culture, she uses her anger, as well as her empathy, as a resource to challenge their assumptions. By the end of season one, she earned my respect; her method of resistance is just as admirable as any hard-headed earthbender.

Kiawentiio Tarbe’s Katara never surpassed pantomime. Remove her from the show, and nothing shifts; she does not break the iceberg in anger or discover the path through the Cave of Two Lovers. We are told she’s a ‘master’ in the last episode without any evidence of training. Indeed,

her one visually impressive fight scene with Zuko feels insincere because of this. Grand declarations of her indispensability ring hollow as her character is forced into smaller and smaller boxes for her male counterparts: sister, love interest, rival.

As Ian Ousley’s character Sokka is given space to breathe, indulging in every hobby and personality trait (he’s the jokester, an engineer, a warrior, a ladies’ man, an already enlightened feminist), a viewer can’t help but feel lured into a surface-level form of activism. Aang, the titular Last Airbender, is repetitive in a way that is important to the plot. He serves his function, however monotonous, whereas Katara is fundamentally misunderstood.

Patriarchy has taught us misogynist instincts. Suffocating a character, then claiming her as an example of feminine strength, underestimates the audience. We are smarter than that. Somehow, a cartoon was more respectful of its fans than an M-rated series.

My sister described Avatar: The Last Airbender as the most Netflix-coded show imaginable. So many resources have been pooled into effects, props and costumes that it is visually perfect, but deeply imperfect in most other aspects. Whether or not this is a good thing is up to the viewer, the fans, and what we are willing to endure for sparks of something interesting.

 
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