Because fans should be critical, too

Reached a Dead End, Taking a Detour

For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about the next few episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender on my playlist, and failing miserably. Have I reached the limits of what I can say about this show?

Yes and no. In fact, I want to take a conscientious break from the episode retrospectives for a while to do a one-off piece on something that continues to perplex me, and which I’ve found very little written up on. Just how is it that Avatar became so popular and so critically acclaimed in its heyday, and yet seemed to leave such an insignificant mark on the animation landscape as a whole? Inversely, what did its spiritual successors, namely Adventure Time, do so right that made them the most influential cartoons in the last decade that the show’s actual successor The Legend of Korra did not? Was there something intrinsically flawed about Avatar that prevented it from having a more lasting influence? How much is M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty of an adaptation really to blame for Avatar‘s lack of mainstream acceptance? Is Avatar simply the Elvis Presley to Adventure Time‘s Beatles, the Pixies to Adventure Time‘s Nirvana*? Were creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko too self-consciously revolutionary for their own good (an impression reinforced by numerous interviews in which the two postulate that Avatar was intended as an antidote to the sitcom model that dominated the television animation circles that worked in, from King of the Hill to Family Guy)? Or was Avatar always destined for cult status no matter what?

I have no idea. But I’d like to do a post exploring a few theories of my own. I’m letting you all know because: 1) I’ve already been shitty for not updating in the past couple of weeks; and 2) I’m sure some folks have theories of their own–or maybe even some disagreements–and would want to throw in their two cents.

This will be my focus for the next couple of weeks, and then the retrospectives will continue like normal. For now, though, what exactly is your take on what I’ve dubbed “the Avatar Problem?”

*It’s generally acknowledged by everyone, including Kurt Cobain, that Nirvana adapted the soft/loud dynamicity of the Pixies, substituting the absurdity, the humor, and “hipper-than-thou” attitude with a more basic, more accessible, and more emotional approach (though no less melodic). Between Avatar and Adventure Time, the same kind of trade-off occurs, but almost in reverse: the expansive world building fantasy aspect is retained, but instead of the strict adherence of Avatar to a specific worldview and art style (i.e. Asian- and anime-inspired), the rules, style, and worldview of Adventure Time are borderline random, yet the show is smart enough to make this a key source of its humor and excitement, and the writing, the characters and performances are strong enough to make it entertaining. 

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18 responses

  1. Rosemont

    It’s nice to see you back, and the writing process sounds quite difficult indeed. Maybe it’s time you moved on to a different cartoon, as Tumblr has already beaten this horse to death (and it’s moved on to Steven Universe). You raise a good point about the “Avatar problem.” Perhaps, like Danny Phantom before it, Avatar just paved the way for future shows to do what it did in terms of serialization & take it a step further. Not to mention the topic of homosexuality, which future shows (such as The Loud House) were able to make more explicit.

    Maybe what was considered “risque” back in 2005 is no longer shocking or revolutionary, such as strong female characters or darker drama. I don’t know exactly how Avatar was allowed to be serialized in the first place, considering Nick is the network famous for Spongebob, but I imagine there may have been some apprehension from the executives.

    I’d dub pushback against the deviation from the episodic sitcom model as the “Wander over Yonder problem;” this refers to a Disney show whose creator wanted a more over-arching storyline from the start but was denied the opportunity by executives who preferred an episodic sitcom structure for easier reruns. The creator, Craig McCracken, eventually got half of his way in the show’s more ambitious 2nd season by being allowed a hybrid with four tentpole specials connected by filler episodes. He expressed the limitations of the old episodic sitcom model succinctly on his Twitter: “That’s the reality of having to make cartoons that can be played in any order. No growth.”

    July 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    • I think the rerun issue is probably a major reason we don’t see more arc-like stories. Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” noted that television episodes don’t like barriers to entry as that hurts viewership. Ideally, each episode can be seen without any other.

      August 15, 2017 at 8:59 pm

  2. lukepearson

    I always thought the exact same thing, why did avatar just seem to fade out instead of becoming this really big franchise. Why doesn’t have any fighting games it has a big cast you would think with such a big cast or any TV movies. I always though it should have been as big as Naruto or one of those big animes, instead we just have Korra and a gay relationship comic to continue it.

    July 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    • lukepearson

      Another reason is that the fan base is poison and full of people who couldn’t care less about the story, all you have to do is look up all the reviews and see that there isn’t anywhere they talk about the story.

      July 27, 2017 at 3:31 pm

  3. (3 part comment)
    This is a cool topic. I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

    I can’t say much about the animation stuff, because I don’t watch “Adventure Time”, but I can comment on the larger cultural legacy.

    I think the biggest reason “Avatar” might not be a bigger cultural phenomenon is the thing Mr. Plinkett commented on—the funnel effect. He argued that “Star Trek” was business worthy of a reboot because people had some impression of what it was, since it came from a period when there wasn’t much to watch.

    Today, though, we’re in a media rainforest. There’s so much stuff to consume it’s probably easy to forget “Avatar”. This wasn’t as true when “Avatar” aired (2005-2008), but right after I think we had a social media boom with the iPhone, a content boom with Netflix and maybe even a mythology-culture competition with superhero movies (2008 is also the year “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” came out). The last one may have fought off the memory space for “Avatar”, since it’d be an easier cultural reference and had serialization going for it—fans could speculate about what would come out next for a very long time. This probably makes them more invested in the franchise.

    By comparison, “Avatar” kind of abruptly ended. The counterpoint to this may be the “Lord of the Rings” movie (I assume this is a cultural phenomenon, but my reference pool is small), but the difference here may be sheer viewership and the gargantuan world “Lord of the Rings” is a part of. By comparison, the world of “Avatar” is still growing.

    Mythologists, sociologists and/or others may even argue that the ideas represented by superhero movies don’t mesh well with “Avatar”—Western versus Eastern ideas—so we gravitate towards the one that fits our social surroundings. (I don’t actually know whether this is a thing, but Joseph Campbell may have talked about it in some capacity. Not sure how well it applies to ideas from the same culture though.).

    Additionally, the slow beginning for “Avatar” probably prevents it from growing its fanbase (the first six episodes are about the length of a movie). It was maybe easier in 2005 to 2008 to sit through passable tv episodes. Today if something is slow or isn’t great early on, we’ll just switch to something else.

    August 15, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    • For the “Avatar” movie being a big reason it isn’t more popular, there is a case for it. I think the max viewership for “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was around 6 million people for the four-part series finale—I think this may have been US only, but maybe it was for the world.

      By comparison, “The Last Airbender” may have reached 13 million people in the US (assuming $10 a movie ticket and no repeat viewings) and 32 million worldwide. (The Box Office numbers are ~$132m domestic, ~$320m global). This number was for a bad movie. If it was good, it could have gotten between 60 to 100 million viewers worldwide ($600m to $1b box office).

      Since the movie was bad, we can say that a net 7 million people in the US had a bad impression on “Avatar” (13 million movie – 6 million tv). In a different universe, where “Avatar” was super successful, it has a net 60-100m people who like it. So—this argument might be a stretch—a bad movie was maybe something like a 67-107 million people impression.

      For maybe a better perspective, using the numbers above, in our world today, we have something like 1 person who likes “Avatar” for every 1 person who dislikes the movie. In the other world, we’d have a fanbase that was at least 10 times larger. (10 people in this alternative world like “Avatar” for every 1 person who likes it in ours.)* The global fanbase may actually be useable in the case since the Asian theming of “Avatar” may have resonated in Asia (they may have thought it was too westernized, it’s hard to say)**.

      This is just an argument though and it assumes a movie series would have not only been good but lasting. For example, “The Dark Knight Trilogy” and “Lord of the Rings” seem to have struck a mythological chord—at least for the male half of the audience. Maybe something similar happened to girls with “Frozen” and “Harry Potter” (not sure whether these were fads or not since I forgot about them)***.

      I don’t feel “Avatar” could be properly translated to live action though, at least not as a direct adaptation and even if it could be adapted, I don’t know if the mythological elements, those extra themes which make “Avatar” stick would translate. As you’ve said, Zuko carries the show, but would he have been able to do that in three (or six) movies? (An interesting thought on Zuko, does Zuko carrying the show hold truer for guys? Do girls maybe feel more drawn to Katara or Toph? Another thought I just had, is our cultural memory more tied to what guys like?)

      Ironically, “Korra” might work on screen, at least as something animated—I just don’t know if live action bending would make sense on screen since I don’t know how much Americans like “magic” barring “Star Wars”. Maybe Tenzin’s prologue could open the movie and fans would wonder about this predecessor. “Korra” would arguably benefit from the time compression.

      *I’ve assumed:
      -every person who watched the show liked the show
      -every person who watched the show watched the movie
      -every person who watched the movie but did not watch the show left with a negative impression of “Avatar”
      These assumptions aren’t true and I think they undersell the net bad impression the movie left in our world, since an even more positive world would include people drawn in by the movie series.

      **The Asian theming may have potentially hurt “Avatar” in the US as I’m not sure how well Asian culture does away from the American coasts.

      ***I don’t know why but while “Harry Potter” was probably equally big for girls and boys when it was coming out, I get the impression girls care a lot more about it now than guys do. It’s super weird.
      To also compare to “Avatar”, it sold something like 400 million books and probably got another pull from nonreader movie goers.

      August 15, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      • As for the animation landscape, I think the influence of “Avatar” is just a matter of time. Extra Credits—a videogame and history channel on Youtube—said that complaints about videogame movies being bad are probably inevitable for the time being, because the people who grew up with the game and understand the source material are still rising within the industry. In time, they’ll have the reins of power and videogame movies will be awesome. Their parallel was comic books, a lot of early comic book movies were bad, because no one understood what made these icons great. Now they do and we have an endless stream of superhero movies…

        From what I understand a lot of kids decided to become artists because of “Avatar”. I think in a decade or two, they’ll either make works inspired by “Avatar” technically, stylistically, narratively, etc… or be bringing the “Avatar” universe to a new generation—arguably like “Star Wars” today. Given how desolate our current social context is, I think we’ll want the next generation to have more positive role models in the media. I’d welcome an optimistic, hopeful Superman in a heartbeat. Maybe someone like Aang could work as well.

        I’m assuming you’re a Millennial, but just looking at this blog and various other parts of the internet, I feel the above is inevitable. The “Avatar” fandom won’t let “Avatar” go and all we need is a dedicated group of them to bring it to the next chapter.

        August 15, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    • Correction on Harry Potter, the whole series sold 500 million books. The first book sold 100 million or so and the last book sold 50 million.

      August 16, 2017 at 2:22 am

  4. lukepearson

    Are you still there

    September 2, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    • Still here, still suffering.

      September 5, 2017 at 1:13 am

      • lukepearson

        Oh thanks, I thought you had given up.

        September 5, 2017 at 4:23 am

      • If you don’t mind me ask, what are you suffering from?

        October 1, 2017 at 7:04 pm

  5. Rosemont

    If anyone is curious, a popular cartoon reviewer’s long-awaited Korra review is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1ekVcFsa2A

    September 15, 2017 at 7:09 pm

  6. lukepearson

    Have you given up?

    September 16, 2017 at 9:21 am

    • No

      September 16, 2017 at 10:24 am

      • lukepearson

        Just wanted to know do you have an opinion on the legend of korra comics.

        September 16, 2017 at 1:31 pm

  7. Ian Wattles

    Hey Marshall! Hope your ok buddy. Keep up the great work as always, we’ll be here 🙂

    Perhaps a twitter would allow you be able to keep us updated on your whereabouts without having to make update posts on here. I just more want the Twitter account so we can consistently know if your fine in real life. I know the “are you dead?” question is a bit silly but a lot of us do actually care to see that your still in one piece, even if that means you haven’t even touched working on an avatar post. We’re here for your opinions, whatever they may be and one what ever topic.

    Have a nice day my friend 🙂

    September 16, 2017 at 10:22 pm

  8. lukepearson

    Could you at least give up an up date or something.

    October 12, 2017 at 10:34 am

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