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'Avatar: The Last Airbender': Mythic Fantasy, With Violence & Spiritualism

, | March 22, 2024 | By

Perhaps the 21st century’s most acclaimed animated TV series, fantasy epic Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA), has been translated into live-action in Netflix’s $120 million serialized spectacle.

But if your kids loved the original, is it safe to let them watch the new version?

The eight-episode drama has dominated Netflix viewing charts, and the world’s top streamer just gave the green light to seasons two and three, to fully adapt the animated series.

But this version features visceral violence in the pilot (lots of intense fighting, and somebody is set on fire) and a few other episodes. All of this should push the rating to TV-14 rather than TV-PG, but streamers assign maturity ratings to their own films and series.

For families that safely navigated the animated series -- and whose youngsters may be clamoring to watch the new version -- does this live-action adaptation add other content to be concerned about? Read on for details.


What Is Avatar: The Last Airbender About?

A savior-type pre-teen, Aang the Avatar (Gordon Cormier), must save the world by mastering the four elements, with help from his teenage friends Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley). They are hunted by determined Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), who is guided by Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), a powerful warrior who has seen the cost and folly of endless battles.


Similar to Star Wars -- which also takes place in a non-Christian invented universe -- the animated multi-season journey balances intriguing villains, fantasy elements, moral choices, and justice-driven heroes, who often take a break to just chill. Exactly where this Netflix series will land remains to be seen, though it’s generally faithful to the source.

As in the original series, this take on ATLA has a heavy dose of non-Christian spirituality, with references to multiple deities and spirits lifted from Eastern and indigenous religious traditions. A dramatic finale wherein the moon spirit and ocean spirit are visualized in a yin-yang taijitu symbol will give pause to some parents.

It's not a bad thing for kids to clearly understand the difference between the real world and fantasy worlds, and also that our real world contains different ways of looking at spirituality. And it's useful to remember that a non-Christian-based story can contain truths about life -- one reason we still read pagan Greek myths, drama, and literature.

Engaging the Epic, with Some Concerns and Caveats

ATLA creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko crafted an extraordinarily well-plotted hero’s journey, building a fantasy mythology with multiple complex cultures, unique fight styles, centuries of history, and struggles both personal and national.

In this universe, four nations lived in harmony — until the authoritarian Fire Nation attacks and begins a Hundred Year War. Episode one of this series shows fire-wielding warriors committing genocide against the peaceful Air Nomads, scenes only hinted at in the animated version.

The conflict grows as the series progresses, with Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) determined to topple any opposing force. The Water Tribe, home to Aang’s friends Katara and Sokka, struggles to defend itself, while the self-protective Earth Kingdom is shown to be nearly as unsparing as the Fire Nation.

Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, can keep peace in a universe that’s distinctly moral but certainly not Christian-based.

Considering the Avatar takes in all the powerful being’s past lives, reincarnation—a tenet of Buddhism and Hinduism rejected in Christian theology—plays a role. With guidance, pre-teens and up could see reincarnation as a storytelling device akin to “the Force” in Star Wars. 


Along with brutal violence, ATLA has some scary imagery, as an entire episode takes place in a "spirit realm" where people fall prey to a face-stealing spider-like creature. One episode also has a fleeting mention of a same-sex romantic relationship between two adults.

In this multi-layered myth, moral themes of self-sacrifice, found family, trust, teamwork, and choosing good despite the steep personal cost are developed over hours of storytelling.

Do the pros outweigh potential cons? Parents may want to preview the series to decide, especially since this is live action, so everything is happening to actual people, not animated characters.

Story Changes in the Adaptation 

Like many fans of genre entertainment, I’ve watched Avatar: The Last Airbender multiple times over the past 15 years and have been consistently surprised by its storytelling depth.

If that series is A+, the Netflix live-action adaptation could generously be given a B-. The cast here is great, action scenes are a wonder to watch, and it hits most story beats, condensing 20 half-hour chapters (454 minutes) into eight hour-long episodes (382 minutes).

Viewers who are new to this story will likely find the lead trio — Aang, Katara, and Sokka — underdeveloped as protagonists. The story happens to them, but rarely do we see much that points to their deeper motivations or character flaws.

An in-depth analysis contends ATLA “lost its heart” in this version, and another review says Netflix does a “speed run” through the story.

But a few changes in the live-action version could be deemed an improvement. Some flashback scenes are added between Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh, which heighten the poignancy of their push-pull mentoring relationship.


Also, a teen-crush relationship between Aang and Katara has smartly been downplayed and likely to develop when the actors are older. And the motives of Zuko’s maniacal sister Azula are explored right from the start, promising a closer look at the nature of what sparks ruthless evil.

A Christian Behind the Scenes—and What’s Ahead for ATLA

Alongside showrunner Albert Kim, a key producer on Netflix’s ATLA was Dan Lin, whose company Rideback produced season one.

Lin, producer of The Two Popes and other hit films, has spoken of his Christian faith and taught at Act One, a program for Christian filmmakers. This past week, Lin was named Netflix’s film chief. Days later, Netflix announced a greenlight for ATLA seasons two and three.

Curiously, ATLA creators DiMartino and Konietzko left this live-action series early in production. The two have a script credit only on a pivotal middle story, “Masks,” which most longtime fans would agree is the best of these eight episodes, along with the two-part finale.

Underlining the impact of this franchise, DiMartino and Konietzko are working on a sequel animated film, slated for fall 2025, that takes place 15 years after the ATLA season three finale.

From Netflix to the big screen, expect Aang and his gang of heroes to be in the cultural zeitgeist for some time. The struggle for peace and harmony among the nations continues.


Currently streaming worldwide on Netflix, season one of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" has been designated TV-PG for intense martial arts action and war themes. (Certain episodes including the pilot would be more accurately rated TV-14 for graphic violence.)

Images: Avatar: The Last Airbender. Gordon Cormier as Aang. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023

Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.

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