When an incredibly popular story is retold in another medium, it’s never going to please everyone. So, it’s hardly surprising that Netflix’s live-action remake of Nickelodeon’s animated hit Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) has not gone down well with a number of fans.

Having said that, the new version of ATLA shot to number one globally within two days of its Netflix release on February 22, and while there are obviously a range of differences between the new series and the beloved cartoon, people are still watching it.

Plenty of viewers will be kids and youth – given that the four main characters are aged between 12 and 16 – but regardless of viewer age, Christians need to get to grips with the complex spiritual world the series inhabits to talk wisely and well into the space with friends and family.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set on a version of Earth in which there are four people groups: the Fire Nation, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads. Within each of the groups are people known as “benders”, who can telekinetically manipulate their element in a range of ways to support and/or defend their people. 

Only one person has the capacity to master all four elements – with the purpose of maintaining peace and balance in the world – and that is the Avatar. Much like the Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism, after an Avatar dies he or she is reborn, in a never-ending cycle, moving into a different people group with each incarnation but always with the same mission.

The Avatar of the title is Aang (Gordon Cormier, above), a 12-year-old Air Nomad who fled his home, overwhelmed by the responsibility of a role he does not feel prepared to face. A massive storm results in Aang becoming trapped in ice, where he remains in a kind of hibernation for a century – until Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley) from the Southern Water Tribe find him and restore him to a world now desperately out of balance. Why? Because there has been no Avatar for 100 years, and the power-hungry Fire Nation has been waging war against everyone else throughout that time.

This is a world in which everyone is damaged – by loss, by experience, and by the corrosive effects of power. Even Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), heir to the throne of the Fire Nation, bears the scars of his father’s disapproval, and is desperate to prove himself worthy of his lineage by capturing the Avatar. 

As for Aang, he’s still a kid, so how can he play the role expected of him, heal a society that is so broken and put an end to the war? Especially when he is yet to master three of the four elements that undergird his power.


There’s no doubt Avatar: The Last Airbender is a masterful exercise in worldbuilding. The creators of the original animated series built a complex and rich environment, with each people group echoing elements of the history and culture of nations such as China, Japan, Korea, India and Tibet, as well as countries in South-East Asia and First Nations peoples in North America. 

During production of the Netflix remake, the creators of the Nickelodeon series pulled out due to creative differences, but I’d have been surprised if the producers of the new show didn’t want to put their own stamp on the story.

In any case, with only eight 50-minute episodes, it was impossible for the new series to include all the storylines from the first season of the animated show (which contained 22 episodes of about half the length). And while devoted fans have complained about Netflix picking elements from the original and mixing them into other storylines, I’m not as fussed. Time is at a premium, we’re  still told an excellent story and it retains a good portion of the first show’s wit – as well as some of its wacky characters like the hippy minstrels, who I will welcome wherever they appear. 

In the world of ATLA, spirituality is key. It isn’t drawn from one particular faith, but from a range of religions and worldviews including Buddhism, Hinduism and indigenous cultures in the Americas. Those whose lives are not in harmony with the world around them seem emotionally stunted, and it’s clear as you travel through the series that everything on Earth is part of an unseen spiritual balance. In addition, there are spirits and spiritual places that are dangerous in themselves, or perilous to tamper with.

How to respond

So, how should Christians view and respond to this show? While we could immediately dismiss elements as false or misleading, that doesn’t exactly encourage discussion. Yes, we can point to the Bible’s teaching in response to what the series says about reincarnation, talking to the dead or the indwelling of spirits in animals or places, but there is value in considering connection points that will help our conversation.

For example, Aang is clearly a type of messiah. He doesn’t quite grasp the nature of his role in Episode 1, but by Episode 8 he is very clear that the Avatar lives in service of others, even if that means sacrificing himself for their sake. 

There is also a long list of serious issues and life lessons to consider, whether it’s who or what to trust in, the crippling power of grief and trauma, the value of love and sacrifice, or wider concepts such as care for the Earth, the domination of others, the danger of meddling with forces beyond our control, and understanding that this world is not all there is. 

There are so many entry points for conversation about the faith we profess and hope in, if we can do it with the gentleness and respect encouraged in 1 Peter 3.

Finally, is Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender any good? It’s clearly a contentious question, but before March-April's Southern Cross went to press the show had a very respectable 75 per cent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes (although reviewers were harsher) and a score of 7.4/10 on on IMDB.  

Is it as good as the original? No, but the same was (and is) true of the hugely popular, multi-award-winning adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from book to screen. Netflix’s ATLA is also aimed at a slightly different audience to the animated series, having an M rating rather than the cartoon’s PG. There’s no sex or swearing, but a good deal of violence and scary scenes that will always pack more of a punch because live actors are onscreen.

Speaking of actors, young cast members are a little stilted to begin with, but the old hands are solid and dependable – and everyone finds their way amid a fantastical blur of CGI backdrops, strange creatures and, of course, fire, water, earth and air bending. And before long you’ll be sucked into the story with them.