Okay, so apparently the world isn’t exclusively full of bad news. As of this weekend, Avatar: The Last Airbender is available to stream on Netflix. And although Season 1 feels a bit juvenile, the show rapidly grows more sophisticated and adult over its three seasons, leading to one of the most satisfying finales in TV history.
This just so happens to be a weird time for entertainment franchises with the word “Avatar” in their name. At the same time that the cartoon has landed on Netflix (with a live-action reboot in the works, oh geez), James Cameron is chugging away on Avatar 2, a sequel to the 2009 mega-budget movie that has nothing—in fact even less than nothing—to do with the animated show.
So, first things first: This is a very difficult topic to write about because all of the titles are so damn similar. Ugh! There’s Avatar the cartoon; there’s the follow-up series, Korra, which is also wonderful; there’s the 2010 live-action movie that was based on the cartoon and totally flopped; there’s the Cameron film from 2009 that was a huge hit; and there’s the sequel to the Cameron film that’s planned to come out in 2021, if movie theaters/humans still exist at that point.
Oh, and there’s also Netflix’s live-action reboot of the cartoon, about which we know virtually nothing. (But the original showrunners are involved, so that’s a good sign? Hopefully???)
Avatar-the-cartoon is a show with great characters, with solid jokes, with fun action, with tons of imagination, and ultimately with a lot of heart. You should watch it, all of it, right now. Conversely, Avatar-the-James-Cameron-movie made a lot of money.
Plenty has been written already about how soulless the Cameron film is, and how it vaporized from our collective cultural consciousness with weird rapidity. Can you name any of the characters, or describe your favorite scene from the film? The only part of the movie I still think about today is all the slash fiction and art it inspired for a hot blue second in 2009. DeviantArt-Avatar has had a longer shelf life than the original work.
There’s a great story that when James Cameron wanted to make a sequel to Alien, his entire pitch consisted of him writing “ALIEN” on a blackboard for studio executives, and then adding a dollar sign to make it “ALIEN$.” Whether that actually happened or not (alas, great stories are almost never true!) it certainly seems consistent with the philosophy underpinning the way Avatar is made—a film the seems to have no heart whatsoever aside from a beating throbbing wad of millions of dollars.
On the other hand, Avatar-the-cartoon is a kids show with a commensurately modest budget, compared to a James Cameron film at least, and what it might lack in lavish CG spectacle it makes up for in feelings, heart, and it perfectly captures the anxiety of youth and growing up in a world that once seemed beguiling but might, it turns out, have been ruined by adults who are actually complete disappointments.
The animated series gave millennials (and people of all ages, but chiefly people who were Nickelodeon's target demographic when the cartoon came out) a story about kids who want to fix a broken world left to them by careless adults squabbling over feuds that seem meaningless in the face of oblivion. It is a thing of beauty that seems somehow to refer to the exact moment we are living in right now.
The Cameron film is ... well, it's not something you can actually remember if you saw, or if someone described to you at some point, or if you started watching and then fell asleep.
Go download Netflix Party so you can watch with your friends, and don’t be ashamed when you cry.