The Last Word on The Last Airbender

Update: The speculation in this piece required corrections, the substance of which may be found here.

The Last Word on The Last Airbender

I’m really looking forward to having you guys on the set… I might even let you say ‘action’ once.

M. Night Shyamalan to Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, mid-2007

Just before the four-part series finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, there was an episode that was essentially a play within a play—”The Ember Island Players.” In it, the main characters covertly visit a theater, wherein a troupe of actors from the antagonistic Fire Nation has created a play based on the events of the show so far. What follows is the stuff of absurd parody; a caricatured mockery of the characters’ actions as viewed through the distorted lens of Fire Nation propaganda, each character reduced in turn to cardboard cutouts of themselves, played by actors hilariously, insultingly unsuited to the role.

When their writing staff penned that episode, did show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko already have some inkling of how their series was being adapted by M. Night Shyamalan? It is impossible to know for sure, but one thing is clear—the collaborative process that the production of The Last Airbender should have exemplified broke down very early in the film’s production, with the result that Shyamalan exercised complete and final creative control, with DiMartino and Konietzko mostly or completely uninvolved.

The three appeared genuinely excited about the prospect of collaboration back in September 2007. The Season 2 DVD collection included an interview wherein DiMartino and Konietzko interviewed Shyamalan about the prospect of a live-action film. The pair spoke apparently genuinely of their respect for Shyamalan’s craft; Shyamalan in turn praised the series’s mythology.

At that point, Shyamalan seemed to still be in the process of outlining his script for Airbender, an outline that had apparently been so long that a film based on it would have made a seven-hour movie, so reluctant was he to omit anything. It is clear that he genuinely loved DiMartino and Konietzko’s creation, and that they were excited to be involved with and learning about live-action filmmaking.

What’s less clear is how the pair felt about Shyamalan’s ongoing efforts. In fact, since that interview—which by now is almost three years old—they have been utterly silent about the live-action adaptation of A:TLA. At the 2008 New York Comic Con, they jokingly introduced character drawings from “The Ember Island Players” as “live action feature concept designs,” but at their San Diego Comic Con panel later that year, they said nothing about the film, and at the next year’s Comic Con—by which point early casting news had broken—they did not so much as host a panel, appearing only at an informal gathering to autograph posters and pose with costumed fans.

How could they have been so thoroughly cut out of the film’s creative process? It’s not hard to imagine. Hollywood genre films—that is to say, SF/fantasy films—are big bets. If they’re not a sure thing—i.e., based on an established property that a studio believes has built-in credibility with audiences—then they need a charismatic advocate who can drum up support with his or her name alone. Shyamalan is uniquely positioned to do this, so no doubt Nickelodeon was ecstatic over his interest in A:TLA, a show that had been very successful, but—one senses—didn’t fit their brand and programming strategy the way SpongeBob or Fairly Oddparents did. So when Shyamalan came to Nickelodeon wanting to turn DiMartino and Konietzko’s opus into a big-budget, live-action film, the network must have fallen over itself to give him everything he asked for in terms of creative control.

And who can blame DiMartino and Konietzko for being excited about this opportunity? Their baby, a long-shot by any standard, had not only found success enough to carry it through its planned three-season arc, but was now getting a shot at big-time mainstream exposure and success. The A:TLA film was attached to a director whose oeuvre may have been uneven, but whose name could bring audiences in, and who genuinely seemed to understand and love their work.

But it would turn out that Shyamalan didn’t understand A:TLA at all, and his efforts to make Airbender “edgier” and “more real” seem to have amounted to him exercising complete directorial fiat over the project.

DiMartino and Konietzko have had any number of chances to speak out in support of the film, yet they have taken none. The controversial casting choices that have dogged the film’s marketing ever since they were announced have received no endorsement from either creator.

In what can only been seen as a desperate attempt to drum up some good buzz for the film, Paramount held screenings of a rough cut as early as February of this year, then again in March; responses were mixed but mostly negative as audiences failed to connect with or even understand what Shyamalan had to show so far.

What is going on here? This is mostly supposition, but given how these things generally work, it seems likely that Nickelodeon perceived Shyamalan as being higher up on the entertainment totem pole, and were thus eager to hand creative control over to him—he is the writer, director, and producer of this film. Later, though, as Paramount began to assemble their summer 2010 lineup, Airbender went from Shyamalan’s pet project to a major part of the studio’s strategy. At this point, senior studio executives—i.e., the people giving the director his money—would’ve wanted to see the work in progress.

But did they like what they saw? The answer seems to be “no.” The stakes are high for Paramount. Airbender is a tentpole film for them. A large part of their summer movie strategy is built around it, and they need it to succeed. Recent casting calls for extras of “asian descent” hint at last-minute reshoots for a project that has perhaps gone off the rails. The fans that should be the film’s biggest cheerleaders are divided; a few are cautiously optimistic, but most are either resigned to its mediocrity or actively campaigning against it.

And why shouldn’t they? DiMartino and Konietzko have practically unlimited credibility with fans of the show; with a single positive interview they could turn thousands of A:TLA fans into advocates for the film. A better box office return surely puts money in their pockets. Yet their silence is deafening. Why?

There is only one reasonable conclusion: They aren’t saying anything positive because they don’t have anything positive to say. For whatever reason, DiMartino and Konietzko lost their faith in Shyamalan’s ability to tell their story as early as two years ago. Since then the only publicly-facing project they’ve worked on is an A:TLA art book, which notably is being published by Dark Horse Comics, rather than Paramount partner Del Rey. Did they go with Dark Horse in order to avoid any studio tampering?

Whether or not they choose to use the art book as an opportunity to obliquely voice their opinions on the film, their silence tells a clear story—a story of trust they extended to a filmmaker with all the best intentions but who ultimately lacked the ability as a writer and director to deliver on those intentions.

Even now, a few fans try to stay optimistic about The Last Airbender, but to them I say, Mike and Bryan gave up on this movie a long time ago. Who do you trust—them, or the guy who made The Happening?

35 responses to “The Last Word on The Last Airbender

  1. Great piece, thank you so much for bringing this up. Silence on the part of the original creators is rather telling – why would they say absolutely nothing if they had faith in the film?

  2. Really great article, these guys are so involved with their fandom they would love to do stuff to get everybody pumped. The fact that they aren't with no explanation screams that they don't support this film. The chair moving thing looks like they're try to escape, like in a game of chess.

  3. Thank you for persuasively and concisely articulating the implications of the creators' silence. It's such an elephant in the room but many fans don't want to think about what it really means.

  4. Very well said and definitely an argument that *needed* to be addressed. Too often, people interpret the ATLA creators' silence on the film as consent and acquiescence. But creator silence does not make good marketing. Having public sanction by creators help to promote, generate positive buzz and market the subsequent films (JKR about the Potter films or Stephanie Meyer about the Twilight films, for example). In the case of The Last Airbender, this is not the case.

  5. I hope you are wrong. One of the biggest factors for Shyamalan to not completely ruin it is that he'll have to live with his daughters' wrath for the near future. The stakes are high. I wonder how many nastygrams David Lynch got when Rafaela DiLaurentis gave him carte blanche to change the Dune story. (talk about ruined property). and it's also probably the reason why Orson Scott Card is keeping his cards to close to the vest.

    OK. Now to play devil's advocate. Brian and Michael aren't keeping quiet on purpose. Their energies are elsewhere and they may feel that the animation material sufficiently paints the story they need to paint. Any input from them would be redundant. They haven't given up on the film, but rather are careful on setting our expectations too high. The luke warm response to the early viewings – well – yeah that's troubling to be sure. As are the added casting calls for late reshoots. That, I think is more indicative of a problem with Shyamalan's management snafus rather than a mangling of the Airbender story.

    Let's be thankful we have the toon version. No director can take that away. I'll probably spring for the collector's edition and pray that the quality is better than the initial DVDs that were released. Perhaps that's where Brian and Michael's energy has been going to.

  6. This article is rather misinformed. Mike DiMartino commented on the teaser trailer when it was released. So much for all of that “silence”

  7. He did, he said something about how it seemed like the movie would be able to capture the epic scale or something like that, I'll try and find the actual quote. Still, though, that's the only thing either of them have ever said, except for Bryan letting people know that he had nothing to do with the casting. Actually, aside form talking about the “epic scale” or whatever it was, they haven't said anything at all about the *casting* which is also pretty telling.

    I think their *continued* silence lets people know that it was probablly PR obligation. After all, Sifu Kisu, the show's martial arts consultant also gave a statement supporting the movie but his behavior afterward pretty much runs totally counter to that…which suggests that the comment praising the movie was either not him, or something he was simply obligated to and he hasn't really cared about people knowing he's against the film.

    I mean, he posed with protesters at SDCC '09, took home an iron on from one of them, he's had nothing but criticism for the casting (and the sloppy martial arts.) Heck, they made a new documentary on the making of the series for the Season 1 collector's set that he almost didn't participate in because he didn't wanna promote the movie!

  8. The date on that article is July 27, 2008, shortly after SDCC '08. The casting calls asking for “caucasian or any other ethnicity” were released in August, '08 and the main cast itself was announced in Entertainment Weekly on December 9, 2008. That IGN article doesn't reflect their feelings on the movie when any of the casting choices and creative decisions had been made public.

  9. Mai Pai I don't think it's fair to call the man a jackass especially when the movie hasn't even premiered yet. No one here has seen the movie in its complete form so no one has any right to assume that Shyamalan has “messed up the story”. From the trailers it actually seems as if he has remained quite true to the series. Let us please be rational and mature and reserve our judgement for AFTER the film comes out.
    As for this article, I find it to be based heavily on assumption. Frank Marshall the producer of the movie, said at least twice on his twitter that Mike and Bryan had visited the set during filming. Just because they have chosen to stay silent about all the blown out of proportion “controversies” surrounding this movie, it doesn't mean they disagree with what Night has been doing. It may just mean that they are doing what we all should be doing. Reserving their judgement for AFTER the film is actually finished.

  10. Don't bother listening to someone like Sharkman_Jhones.
    Not only is he a Mexican, but he's also a /b/tard.

  11. Didn't firebenders have a source in the series?

    Anger being the most common with the sun being the most outdated?

  12. I hate to be a stickler, that's just the trailers. Trailers are almost always way better than the movie. The reviews from the pre-screenings have mostly been either lukewarm or negative. I mean, just to point out two particular changes, Firebenders can't make their own fire anymore, only the best can do it without a preexisting source, and he has Zhao punch the moon spirit Koi fish to death, rather than fire blast it (Which pre-screenings said was hilarious, more than scary or dramatic.)

    Plus, visiting the set isn't actually doing anything for the movie. They're listed as executive producers, which are either business and legal managers, or it's a fancy title given to authors and creators of original works so they can be acknowledged, but still left out. The thing is, why are they reserving judgment if they visited the set and are a part of the movie? That's not how the Hollywood spin machine works.

  13. I agree with you Sharkman.
    @Evan. The majority of the fans aren't happy and are concerned about the casting of the movie among other things. Don't you think if they really want to support this film they would have at least addressed some of these issues to reduce all the skepticism, wouldn't they openly defend the casting calls, justify the changes made etc. Do you really think as executive producers who want the best out of this film which represents their creation they would keep quiet while the movie before its even out is getting negative reviews?
    Just think about it, say you write a book and it's being made into a movie. If this movie is getting negative reviews before it's even out would you just stand there quietly and say “let's just wait and see” or you would address the issues that the fans are having concerns about and defend the film in order to make the film gain the support it needs.
    It is more than an assumption to say that them staying quiet shows that they themselves are not satisfied by the film. They have the power to turn around all the protesters overnight. Them simply showing up saying “This movie is accurate to our creation, we recommend everyone to look out for it” can make the racebending movement lose half it's supporters against this film. Surely if they care about the success of the film they would have done something to quieten down the disappointed fans. Instead they do worse than keeping quiet, they even do a drawing of Aang authentically looking Asian:
    http://www.racebending.com/v3/featured/the-last
    Now is that supporting the movie or it clearly shows their stance in this? The fact is they no longer want anything more to do with the film as Bryan Konietzko said, “I have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CASTING WHATSOEVER for the feature film.”I agree with you Sharkman.
    @Evan. The majority of the fans aren't happy and are concerned about the casting of the movie among other things. Don't you think if they really want to support this film they would have at least addressed some of these issues to reduce all the skepticism, wouldn't they openly defend the casting calls, justify the changes made etc. Do you really think as executive producers who want the best out of this film which represents their creation they would keep quiet while the movie before its even out is getting negative reviews?
    Just think about it, say you write a book and it's being made into a movie. If this movie is getting negative reviews before it's even out would you just stand there quietly and say “let's just wait and see” or you would address the issues that the fans are having concerns about and defend the film in order to make the film gain the support it needs.
    It is more than an assumption to say that them staying quiet shows that they themselves are not satisfied by the film. They have the power to turn around all the protesters overnight. Them simply showing up saying “This movie is accurate to our creation, we recommend everyone to look out for it” can make the racebending movement lose half it's supporters against this film. Surely if they care about the success of the film they would have done something to quieten down the disappointed fans. Instead they do worse than keeping quiet, they even do a drawing of Aang authentically looking Asian:
    http://www.racebending.com/v3/featured/the-last
    Now is that supporting the movie or it clearly shows their stance in this? The fact is they no longer want anything more to do with the film as Bryan Konietzko said, “I have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CASTING WHATSOEVER for the feature film.”

  14. That's still generating the flame from within. In the movie they can't do that, they can only manipulate flames that are already in existence.

  15. Thanks for the link.

    I'd like to think Shyamalan has the right idea in his casting process (I'm not as picky about the ethnicity for the characters, I guess) but there's more than that that makes Avatar such a great show, and I think that's Paul's point. To see Shyamalan primarily interested in making a movie with “cool fighting scenes” tells me that all of the charm and wit of the series is either on the back burner or been scrapped altogether.

  16. noah ringer is ugly, no if's, and's or but's about it. even if he was asian, which he's not, he wouldn't be fit to play aang as the martial art he knows and the one aang uses are not the same nor similar. the people playing sokka and katara in this movie just don't fit at all. i've seen the trailers and clips and no just no. just because some of the voice actors were white doesn't mean the characters should be white. the only thing ambiguous about these characters are their voices and that's open to interpretation. i think each showing of the movie should have 5 people in it: 1 person who will love the movie no matter what, 1 person who will hate the movie no matter what, 2 people who don't really care one way or the other and 1 person to bootleg it for the people that want to know just how bad the movie is w/o supporting it in the boxoffice.

  17. I agree with most of what you said, but let's leave the name calling out of it. There's no need to insult Noah Ringer, even if he is the wrong actor to play Aang.

  18. This is a friendly reminder to not listen to Sharkman_Jhones because he doesn't know a single thing about anything and the fact that he passed any educational challenges is beyond a miracle. He is also a well known troll of the Internet. I would not trust anything this person says.