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?