Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ has shot straight to No. 1 — but critics aren’t convinced

Gordon Cormier as Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender
(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix’s new live-action adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is one of the streamer’s biggest bets of 2024. So, it’s not a huge surprise to see it rocket straight into the Netflix most-watched list, and it’s even claimed the coveted No. 1 spot. 

The eight-part first season dropped last week (Feb. 22), and already ranks above popular hits like “Love is Blind”, “Resident Alien” and “One Day”. Although, its rapid rise to the top of the service’s library was almost a foregone conclusion. Netflix has been heavily promoting its Avatar show in recent weeks likely to ensure its sizeable investment wasn’t wasted. 

If you haven’t given “Avatar: The Last Airbender” a shot yet, you might be wondering if it’s worth your time. And that’s where we can help. Here’s everything you need to know about this new Netflix show, as well as how it compares to the beloved animated original series.  

What is ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ about?  

Based on the Nickelodeon animated show of the same name, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is set in a fantasy world split into four nations, each named after one of the four elements: Water, Earth, Air and Fire. 

Each nation houses unique individuals capable of manipulating (or “bending”) the element that corresponds to their home nation, but the fabled “Avatar” is a being that can control all four and is destined to bring peace to the war-torn land.

This legendary hero is a 12-year-old Airbender named Aang (Gordon Cormier) who has been frozen in a gigantic block of ice for hundreds of years. After being awoken by two siblings, Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley), who belong to the Water Nation, Aang sets out on a quest to master the four elements and fulfill the legend. 

However, Aang's journey will not be an easy one. The ruthless Fire Nation has plans to conquer the world and is hellbent on destruction. Plus, adding further obstacles is the Fire Nation’s exiled prince Zuko (Dallas Liu), who relentlessly pursues the Avatar as his allies in the hopes of capturing Aang and restoring his honor.  

Avatar: The Last Airbender reviews — here’s what critics say 

Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has received a fairly lukewarm critical response. It currently holds a score of 61% on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes

That’s quite a step down from the original show which holds a perfect 100% rating on RT. But at least it's audience score is better at 75%, but that’s still a steep drop from the 99% score the animated version holds.   

Devan Coggan of Entertainment Weekly labeled it a “charming but imperfect adaptation” noting that it “never soars quite as high as the original animated show.” Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall felt the show would appeal to both longtime fans and newbies:“ This new Last Airbender is entertaining enough to work for newcomers to this world, and respectful enough to remind the cartoon’s fans why they loved that world in the first place.”

Angie Han of the Hollywood Reporter was less enthusiastic, "Rather than breathe fresh life into a familiar world, this Avatar serves only to remind that some beloved properties might be better left on ice." And USA Today’s Kelly Lawler declared that the show “fails in every way” and branded it “infuriating” in a particularly cutting write-up. 

A more mixed review came from Zaki Hasan of the San Francisco Chronicle who called it “an earnest and admirable attempt to reignite the original’s magic. And Empire Magazine’s Kambole Campbell said the strong casting “can’t rescue the show from uninspiring craft and tonal confusion.”

While the critical consensus isn’t overwhelmingly positive (but there plenty of praise for the young cast), Netflix can at least take comfort that reviewers almost unanimously agreed that its adaptation is a step up from the 2010 movie version. 

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and often cited as one of the worst movies ever made, "The Last Airbender" scored an appalling 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. We can comfortably say Netflix’s live-action version of the cartoon is an improvement.

Should you stream Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix?  

If you’re a dedicated fan of Nickelodeon's “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, and/or its excellent sequel show “The Legend of Korra”, then you might find yourself compelled to watch Netflix’s take on the series just out of sheer curiosity. And the good news is that you might like what you find as Netflix didn’t totally fumble this adaption.  

If you’re unfamiliar with “Avatar: The Last Airbender” there’s definitely an argument that you should give this Netflix adaptation a chance. It sports a strong cast, solid special effects and a compelling narrative. But it doesn’t stack up to the original series according to critics, so may want to give the animated show a chance first (Assuming you don’t mind cartoons!). 

The good news is that watching the original “Avatar” show is super simple. All three seasons (61 episodes total) are currently streaming on Netflix as well as Paramount Plus (with the first season also on Amazon Prime Video). So, if you really want to dive into the world of “bending” I would suggest starting with the animated show. It’s the original and best version of Aang's adventure.  

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Rory Mellon
Entertainment Editor (UK)

Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team. 

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