Failbender: Rant the First! Characters and Characterization

Failbender Rant, Part The First
So, if you saw my review, you know I hated, hated, HATED “The Last Airbender” (aka “The Last Failbender”). I hated it for a lot of reasons, but they pretty much boil down into two categories:

  • Things that would suck in any movie (like racism)
  • Things that got changed from the source material

Since the source material is largely devoid of the first category of stuff (because “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is awesome), there’s a lot of overlap. See, in order to get things like racism in the film, M. Night Shyamalan (aka Man-was-that-a-bad-movie Night Twistalan) had to change the source material. He had to go out of his way to ADD shittiness when he could have just done his job and adapted the existing stuff.

In this series of rants about why The Last Failbender is shit on shitty toast, I won’t really be separating the two categories.

Onward! Let’s start with the characters, who are hamstrung by a shitty script.

The film’s characters suck in a number of ways aside from the racism and sexism that run rampant through the film (which I will deal with in a later post). The script sucks. the actors (with only a couple exceptions) utterly fail to transcend the script and in most cases actively make it worse (if such a thing is possible). Plus, the characters are changed in such a way that they are not only noticably different from the source material, but are weaker/less interesting/stupider than they need to be.

As an example, let’s take a look at our hero. Aang (in the show) is a nigh-irrepressibly cheerful 12-year-old. He’s a gifted Airbender and picks up Waterbending so quickly that it makes Katara (who is a powerful Waterbender in her own right) jealous. He’s a pacifist, which turns out to be very important near the end of the series, and when he found out that he was going to be separated from Monk Gyatso (his father-figure at the temple where he was raised) when he started his Avatar training, he freaked out and ran away.

failbender_ongIn the film, Ong (seriously, it’s pronounced “ong” in the film, instead of the correct “aang.” WTF?) is a very, very serious little kid. He spends pretty much the whole film looking either sad or angry (or both, like someone kicked his puppy and then mocked him about it). He has to be told by his magical spirit-dragon that as the Avatar, he’s not supposed to hurt people, and he ran away because apparently in the film’s version of things, the Avatar isn’t allowed to marry and have a family. Which: What? The Avatar’s descendants are important! Aang’s romance with Katara is important! Plus, what twelve-year-old is so determined to marry and have kids that he’d run away from the only home he’s ever known when told he can’t? WHAT THE FUCK, TWISTALAN?

Oh, and he has trouble mastering Waterbending, apparently because he’s not letting himself grieve over all the Airbenders he knew when he was a kid being dead, and emotional blockages impede Waterbending because water is the emotional element. Which, as I’ll rant about later, IT’S NOT, but that’s for another day.

There are a number of problems here. For one, it’s hard to like a twelve-year-old who wields cosmic power, has no sense of humor, and has to be told not to hurt people. Aang is a hilarious kid (I don’t even like children and I like Aang, that’s how engaging he is) and it’s easy to trust that he’ll grow up into a good Avatar because he is friendly and likes people and doesn’t want to hurt them. Ong is kind of a scary little fuck. When Aang realizes all the people he loved are dead and freaks out, entering the Avatar State and causing a miniature tornado, it’s scary because he’s usually so sweet. When Ong does it, it’s par for the course — and it’s in his third major scene so we barely know him. Tell me again why we should like this kid?

Sokka and Katara also suffer greatly in the transition from cartoon to film. In the first season (from which the film is adapted), Sokka is the only member of the group who can’t bend. He’s kind of a doofus, and if something gross is going to happen (like getting covered in sewage), it usually happens to him. He’s cynical and sarcastic — but he’s a decent fighter, and pretty crafty when it comes to building things. He’s a good guy, and provides a lot of comic relief. Katara is one of the strongest female characters I’ve run across in a cartoon — she’s a very powerful Waterbender (her anger at Sokka for being a jerk is what causes the massive icequake that reveals Aang’s sphere in the first episode), loves her brother but won’t take sexist crap from him, and she’s maternal but can kick your ass, too. Near the end of the season, she really comes into her own as a Waterbender and winds up being Aang’s teacher. She rocks!

Now let’s look at their film incarnations, whom I will call Soaka (yeah, his name is mispronounced too) and Whitara. Setting aside the fail casting, they go from engaging, complex characters to cardboard cutouts. Actually, that’s an insult to cardboard. Soaka isn’t good at anything, really. His romance with Princess Yue is tossed in almost as an afterthought, and doesn’t seem to affect him at all (and we hardly see it aside from being told it happens in a voiceover). Whitara isn’t all that good at Waterbending, and is passive most of the time. Her job in the film is mostly to handle the exposition (which I’ll be ranting about later). Neither of them gets any character development. Boooring.

failbender_mukovszukoAnd don’t get me started on Prince Zuko — he’s an awesome character in the show, an exiled prince whose only hope of regaining his honor and becoming the heir to the Fire Lord again (not to mention maybe, maybe getting his father’s approval for once) is to capture the Avatar. He’s a good guy at heart (shown by his standing up to a general who was planning to sacrifice a bunch of inexperienced soldiers as part of strategy — which action got him humiliated and exiled by his father), but passionate and angry, and completely obsessed. Interesting! Complicated! Sympathetic, even!

Movie!Zuko, who I think I will call Muko cos he’s more of a mook than a prince, is just going through the motions. Poor Dev Patel is a great actor, and shines a little in his scenes with Shaun Toub as Iroh (Toub is good enough that his skillz overcome Shyamalan’s shitting directing and rub off on his costars), but even he can’t overcome a script which changes Muko’s backstory (instead of standing up to the general on principle, he’s doing it to save his friends), fails utterly to show why his father’s treatment of him is so devastating, and gives him zero depth.

Hell, even his scar, which in the series is so severe he can’t open his eye all the way and his ear is mostly gone, is reduced to looking more like a bad sunburn combined with an unfortunate haircut. Look at the image here!


Coming up: the more systemic fails like racism, sexism, and mythology.

This entry was posted in Geekery and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Failbender: Rant the First! Characters and Characterization