It’s no secret that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender was one of the worst TV to film adaptations of all time.
In fact, it was so awful that it left a lot of people were wondering whether a series as expansive as Avatar: The Last Airbender could even be adapted into a feature film. Perhaps Shyamalan’s film was doomed from the start. Let’s find out.
Let’s fix The Last Airbender.
May god have mercy on our souls.
1. The Boy in the Iceberg
First of all, the movie is going to be longer than Shyamalan’s version which clocked in at around 103 minutes. We’re going to be aiming for about 2 and a half hours.
Our cold open (pun intended) shows Aang riding Appa through a storm. As they are battered by endless wind and frost, they lose control and crash into the water. Aang’s tattoos and eyes begin to glow and he ensnares both of them in ice. We watch the iceberg slowly float to the bottom of the ocean before our opening credits begin to roll.
We get the same opening sequence showcasing the four elements and explaining the world. This time, we just get a voiceover during the element displays. No more text scroll, this isn’t Star Wars. The TV show’s first opening sequence got all the necessary information across just fine, so no need to change that.
We open at the South Pole with Katara and Sokka hunting in their boat. It’s quickly established that Sokka is a boisterous and somewhat goofy young man with a chip on his shoulder. We also see that Katara is a water bender, a power which Sokka is suspicious of. They bicker and Katara snaps, breaking off a chunk of the glacier to reveal a strangely shaped iceberg with what appears to be a human inside.
Katara impulsively strikes the iceberg with Sokka’s trusty club. At first, nothing happens and Sokka chastises her for her recklessness. He’s cut off mid sentence as the iceberg explodes, firing a massive beam of light into the sky.
We cut to a Fire Nation ship where Zuko is training in fire bending with Uncle Iroh. We quickly establish that he’s skilled and also introduce fire bending to the audience. In this version, Firebenders don’t need an already existing flame to bend. Mainly because it really hampered the fight sequences and made Firebenders laughably ineffectual.
Zuko is interrupted as he spots the light and believes it to be the Avatar. The scene quickly establishes his motivation and his personality as we’re introduced to him and his Uncle. We learn of his mission to find the Avatar but it’s more important here to see the contrast between his serious, intense personality and Iroh’s laid-back humour.
We return to our heroes to see Aang wake up and immediately start goofing off. Unlike Shyamalan’s version, this Aang starts off as a scatterbrained free spirit who cares more about playing around and having fun than anything else. He casually shows off his air bending and explains to Katara and Sokka that he’s an airbender. He takes them back to their village on Appa.
Aang is introduced to the villagers and Gran Gran (Sokka and Katara’s grandmother and the village elder) expresses disbelief that an airbender is still alive after all these years. Aang is confused by what she means by this but when the villagers ask questions, he just runs off to explore and find penguins. Katara follows him and they end up stumbling upon a wrecked Fire Nation ship in the ice. As they stare at the ship, Aang finally realises how long he’s been under the ice. Katara explains that the Fire Nation invaded over a hundred years ago. Aang can’t believe it until he sees a Fire Nation ship coming on the horizon.
They return to the village to find Zuko tearing it apart looking for the Avatar. Aang intervenes and reveals that Zuko is looking for him. He agrees to go with Zuko if the Firebender leaves the village in peace. Zuko pledges on his honour to leave them alone and he takes Aang away. The sheer conviction with which he declares his vow highlights to the audience that while he may be a vicious and ruthless soldier, Zuko is a man with a code.
After the Fire Nation leaves, Katara tries to convince Sokka to save Aang. He refuses as it is his duty to protect the village. However, Gran Gran explains the importance of the Avatar’s mission to the world. Finally, Sokka agrees to rescue the boy and with Gran Gran’s blessing, they find Appa and fly off into the sunset.
2. The Avatar Awakens
We get some dialogue on the ship where Aang tries to befriend Zuko. We learn a little about Zuko’s motivation to regain his honour and please his father. While Zuko is distracted reminiscing about his past, Aang is able to break free form his bonds and leads the Firebenders on a wild chase across their own ship. He’s inches away from freedom before Zuko finally corners Aang on the deck. Katara and Sokka swoop in on Appa just in time to see Zuko blast Aang off the ship.
Unfortunately for Zuko, Aang isn’t finished yet.
Aang awakens the Avatar State and bursts out of the water. Around the world, we see Avatar Statues in various temples begin to light up. The Avatar is back and now the world knows it. Aang buries Zuko’s ship in ice and passes out from the strain. Before Zuko and his men can recover, Katara and Sokaa rescue Aang and fly way.
As they fly off on Appa, Katara asks why Aang didn’t reveal that he was the Avatar. Aang confesses that he never wanted to be the Avatar in the first place. Similar to Shyamalan’s version, Aang’s journey will be about him learning to accept his destiny as the Avatar as well as reconciling his pacifism with the need to fight to save the world.
Despite his reservations, Aang agrees to venture to the Northern Water Tribe with Katara and Sokka to learn water bending. They begin their quest to the North and fly off into the sunset.
3. Queen in the North
This brings our first major departure from Shyamalan’s film as well as from the original series. We cut to the North Pole and are introduced to the Northern city through the eyes of a young girl in rags and a hood. She is making her way through the streets, raising hell as she does. We see how huge it is in contrast to the village in the South Pole as the girl slips and slides her way through the city by sliding through the ice and leaping from rooftop to rooftop. She causes a ruckus and is apprehended by the guards. They bring her to their Chief and she lowers her hood to reveal that she is Princess Yue.
One of the big problems from the real movie was that the emotional punch of the last act relied on Yue’s sacrifice. Problem was, we didn’t have enough time to give two shits about Yue since she had about three lines of dialogue. Why would it matter if she sacrificed herself if we didn’t know the first thing about her?
We learn that Yue has been acting out and is reluctant to accept her responsibility as the daughter of the Chief, soon to be Chief herself. Her father foreshadows an impending attack from the Fire Nation and warns her that she needs to grow up. This is to parallel Aang’s journey as both will have to learn how to come to terms with their respective roles.
4. The Earth Kingdom
We flash back to Aang’s past 100 years ago and see him playing with the other young Air Nomads before being called in by Monk Gyatso. He learns that he is the Avatar before he hears Katara’s voice, bringing him out of the dream.
Aang wakes up as they fly over the Earth Kingdom to Sokka and Katara bickering again. With Appa needing to rest, they land in a forest. They make camp and Katara continues to try to practice her water bending to little success, much to her frustration. Aang tries to practice with her but gets distracted and instead quickly befriends a monkey that tries to steal their food. He calls him Momo.
Despite Sokka’s words of caution, Aang disguises himself and ventures into the nearby town, curious at what he will find. Sokka and Katara follow him and they see that the town is being occupied by the Fire Nation.
The Gaang speak to the citizens as they gather supplies. They learn that all Earthbenders have been taken to an unknown prison. They also hear rumours of a resistance group that has been fighting the Fire Nation occupation for some time. Katara suggests that they go see the resistance fighters but Sokka is adamant that they stick to their mission. They are about to leave the town when a Fire Nation soldier begins abusing one of the citizens who has been unable to pay their taxes to the Fire Nation. Aang instinctively intervenes, revealing his identity.
They begin to fight the Fire Nation soldiers and seem to be holding their own. Unfortunately for them, Zuko and his men arrive, having deduced that they would stop by to resupply at this town. Zuko vs Aang Round 2 begins in earnest.
In the Shyamalan film, the Gaang only ever met Zuko once, which meant that his appearance at the climax was met with an “Oh, I kinda remember that guy” reaction from Katara. The Gaang needs to be well acquainted with Mr Angst-bender by the time they reach the North Pole. The fight goes out of control and the whole town begins to burn. Aang clearly blames himself for this damage and decides to flee. They jump on Appa and get the hell out of dodge. Zuko, nothing if not persistent, gathers his men and gives chase.
As the Gaang fly, they are caught in a storm and they crash land in another forest. Zuko too is caught in the storm and has to make camp at a nearby Fire Nation base that is occupied by Admiral Zhao. Zuko is immediately at odds with Zhao, who has learned that the Avatar is alive. We learn about Zuko’s past and how his father banished him for speaking out of turn to a superior. Clearly, Zuko still hasn’t learnt a damn thing.
After Zhao insults him, Zuko challenges Zhao to an Agni Kai and though he puts up a good fight, he is defeated and about to be killed until Iroh intervenes. Zuko leaves the base with his remaining men, humiliated as Zhao proclaims that he will be the one to find the Avatar.
Knocked out by the crash, Aang continues to have visions of his past though this time, a strange bearded man keeps trying to talk to him. Three guesses who this is.
Aang wakes up just as they are found by a troop of Fire Nation soldiers. They are rescued by a gang of armed men who drop from the trees and start kicking Fire Nation ass. The soldiers run for their lives and the leader of the gang turns to Aang. He lowers his swords and takes the twig from his mouth. With a sly grin, he introduces himself.
Clearly, this is going to end well.