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The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
By Grace McNally, Staff Writer • June 13, 2024
Opinion | Long-distance friendships are possible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 6, 2024

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Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
Pitt track and field athlete inducted into Delaware Sports Museum & Hall of Fame
By Grace McNally, Staff Writer • June 13, 2024
Opinion | Long-distance friendships are possible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 6, 2024

Review | Live-action ‘Avatar’ series brings needed representation, but falls short of the original

Gordon+Cormier+and+Robert+Falconer+in+%E2%80%9CAvatar%3A+The+Last+Airbender%E2%80%9D+%282024%29.
Photo by Robert Falconer/Netflix via IMDB
Gordon Cormier and Robert Falconer in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2024).

A few things made me the critical thinker I am today — my mother, Luisa Capetillo’s feminist literature and “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The show cemented my beliefs in what freedom truly means and explained the pressure of power and how to face colonial situations that feel too close to home. And it has a flying bison, Appa. Need I say more?

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon, quickly becoming a cult classic. The 61-episode series follows the growth of a young monk called Aang, who — as the Avatar and the only person who can control all elements — needs to bring balance to a world filled with violent colonization and a growing dictatorship. The animation format of the show allowed us to enjoy a full blaze of colorful fires, the striking wind, water whips and the auditory world of earth bending through a nerdy, political, laugh-out-loud funny and comforting script. 

However, in this day and age, no great animated media can rest in peace without a live-action remake

The show’s first live-action adaptation, a 2010 fever dream, consists of an extremely white and not diverse cast fighting against the people of color in the Fire Nation — Dev Patel did an amazing job, and no one can take that away from me. The necessity of a new live-action series rose from the need to accurately represent the extremely diverse world of the Avatar, from the Inuit and Yupik cultures seen through the Water Tribes, Tibetan Buddhist Monks high up in the Air Temples, Imperial Japan through the Fire Nation and the monarchs of China with the Earth Kingdom. To bring in white people for these roles kills the whole point of the show. I needed to see this show with its true cultural authenticity. 

When the cast was announced for the Netflix show, I was so glad. The lineup featured Kiawentiio Tarbell, who broke my heart in “Anne with an E” on Netflix, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Gordon Cormier. They seemed great for the messy, emotional, teenage angst team that made up the Gaang. 

Yet, when the original show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko parted the project in June 2020 due to “creative differences” with Netflix, I knew I could not expect anything from the show. I still wrote myself up to review the show for The Pitt News because there was a small part of 15-year-old Irene who wanted to cry over Princess Yue again. 

The first few episodes focus on depicting the pain and grief that comes with fighting a war — or even choosing not to — for 100 years. The loss and grief are not yet apparent to the main characters. Aang, Katara and Sokka’s adventures kind of blur in the background, as if they were only observers. Katara’s fury against the Fire Nation and her envy over not being a naturally talented bender are gone. Katara is now a kind “motherly figure” to the team, all hugs and caring for their pain. Sokka is no longer funny — maybe a bit of dry humor is sprinkled there, but my favorite pre-pubescent macho man, desperate to become the big leader of the team, is gone. 

Aang is no longer on his journey to become the Avatar, but he jumps directly into taking action by Episode 4, his jokes and way of peace long gone. His journey, which does take up all 61 episodes in the animation, seems to be muddled down to a few short episodes. The Gaang seem to need the time to understand their roles and what is at stake for each of them. They seem distant, a superficial coloring of teenage angst, yet I’m hopeful for them to grow. I’ll be as old as King Bumi when the second season comes out. 

Dallas Liu and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee put up a stellar performance. The uncle and nephew team, a fan-favorite from the animation, do an amazing job of building up the pain of loss through the latter half of the show. Zuko deals with scars inside and out — his face was branded by his own father’s fire, leaving a burn mark that runs through his eye, brow and ear, a permanent reminder that he is not the perfect crown prince or son. 

His uncle Iroh, a tea-loving retired war general, joins him in his exile and mission to find the Avatar to regain his honor. Liu and Lee work amazingly together. Zuko sees the world for the first time not as the future Fire Lord, but as a child, and Iroh helps him question if he truly needs his father’s approval. Liu works great at proving how sad Zuko is from being rejected by his family, and Lee masterfully depicts a grieving, wise man who doesn’t want to lose his loved ones. Iroh and Zuko’s journey best serves to understand what is at stake and how we define our destiny, truly building up their characters fully. Seeing them in live-action brought a fire to my soul  — get it?

But, why are we so desperate to bring every cartoon to live-action? Why are we desperately excited and hopeful for these adaptations? What do we even want to get out of it? Are we that desperate to see magic at the hands of real humans in times that seem dystopian to some degree? Is this just a projection of our desire to see magic — to see ourselves in a new light — in our daily lives, a seemingly childish dream that has followed us into adulthood? Do I want to relive my childhood, even as a boring college student, and remind myself how magical life can feel? 

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” tries its hardest, but its secondary characters and villains are the true spirit of the show — playful and hopeful, each with their desire to become part of the bigger world. Characters like Yue — including her stiff, Party City wig, even with a Netflix-level budget — Suki, Iroh and Zuko remain the most prevalent figures, and become the heroes of the live-action adaptation. What truly made me tearbend was the image of all the female waterbenders, dressed in their Indigenous clothes, standing together to defend their land together. I didn’t care anymore about staying true to the animated story — what mattered was that scene alone encompassing everything 15-year-old Irene loved about the original show.

About the Contributor
Irene Castillo, Senior Staff Writer
Irene Sofía Castillo Maldonado is a junior history of art and architecture major with a museum studies minor and a Latin American studies certificate. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico, so you might see her long Spanish sentences slip through in her exhibition reviews. Aside from The Pitt News, she’s a researcher for anti-colonial practices in museums and art, as well as a firm coffee shop critic –– cortados are her favorite.