Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why I Refuse to Watch M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender"

I liked Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. I won't say I was a die-hard fan, but I thought the writing was funny and clever and heartfelt, and I enjoyed myself a lot whenever I got the chance to watch it. I liked how the characters grew realistically, how they bantered with one another, how they felt like people I'd enjoy knowing in real life.

It is for this very reason that I refuse to watch M. Night Shyamalan's new live-action adaptation.

Shyamalan has thrown away an excellent opportunity. He could have used this as an opportunity to introduce unknown Asian-American actors to the movie-going public, in a fantasy setting which celebrates Asian culture; instead, he specifically requested white actors, and put them in what amounts to yellowface for their roles.

The few actors in the movie who aren't white are Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean, and they're all cast as villains. Zuko and Uncle Iroh were my two favorite characters in the series, and I loved watching Zuko's personality unfold, discovering the hurt and need for acceptance which drove a talented young man like him to such rage and self-loathing. I feel like it's a slap in the face, that they can't be played by Asian actors, that they can't even be played by white actors, but they're reduced to mere caricatures of "terrorists", an insult to Middle-Eastern people, and the American audiences whose buttons Hollywood thinks it can push.

And lastly, the cartoon is just fine as-is. I have no need to pay eight dollars to see the same story retold, with different (less-talented) actors, compressed and edited into a fraction of the time. Part of the joy I got from the original series was its blend of Asian and American storytelling styles. Like an American TV show, any episode could be watched on its own, in any order. But like an Asian series, the show had a unified story arc which stretched across the season, allowing those who watched regularly to gain a deeper understanding of the characters.

In conclusion, I borrow the words of Angry Asian Man, a much better blogger than myself, who quite eloquently summed it all up in a few words, during an interview with Mr. Shyamalan himself: "...[T]his is not about a bunch of fanboys being upset about how you’ve messed with their favorite cartoon. This is about an absolute failure to acknowledge and understand the broader context of race and representation, and how it’s being played out, once again, in this movie — a project many believed would be an unprecedented opportunity for Asians in a major Hollywood project."


  1. 1. If the word 'refuse' wasn't in the title, your reader might come to this article feeling with less pre-conceived antagonism.

    2. You ended with a long quote from another writer on this subject. I would hate to think that you are simply parroting someone else's opinions, especially as you can't argue from the other side of someone who HAS seen the movie. (Not me.)

    3. This seems like it's about the translation from tv show to movie. If it weren't a tv show already, would you have similar prejudices about the race issues? Would you think it was worth seeing based on the fantasy elements?

    4. I disagree with your assessment of American TV show storytelling styles. It all depends on WHICH TV show you are watching; your description of the American style as being individual episodes is a two-dimensional way of looking at it.

  2. I wanted to say, too, that I don't dislike this piece, although there are a few quirks. However, the force of your opinion gives the reader little wiggle room when agreeing or disagreeing.

  3. Yeah, I guess it does come off as antagonistic. I was just annoyed that it's the #2 highest-grossing film in America right now.

    Also, I think you may be right about the long quote thing. Better to avoid using the words of others, if at all possible. Still thinking like a student looking for sources.

    And I guess American TV is a lot more focused on long story arcs in the last decade or so (Firefly, Veronica Mars, Grey's Anatomy, etc.). But still, it doesn't require the religious devotion of, for example, Dragonball, where a single encounter can last for several episodes. I meant more that American TV is... less "demanding" of your attention.