How 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Sank M. Night Shyamalan
Any discussion about M. Night Shyamalan's career is missing a crucial element if it doesn't include just how goddamn excited people were about the dude in the late 90s and early 00s. He was gonna be the next Spielberg, a talented director that used the blockbuster, star-filled format to deliver thrilling and often thoughtful stuff. So when his grip on audiences started slipping in the mid-00s, it wasn't just a director not making films that lived up to his earlier ones. Plenty of directors do that. No, it was a letdown. We had championed this dude and in return, he had made ... Lady in the Water.
I think the closest comparison you can make to Shyamalan is probably Tim Burton, a guy who seemed like a wunderkind creator by any definition of the word who was undone by his adherence to his own specific style and eventually very, very misguided blockbuster adaptations. For Burton, it was stuff like Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, and his reliance on putting Johnny Depp in different wigs that made us rethink his approach. And for Shyamalan, it was the one-two punch of The Last Airbender (which turns 10 today. Celebrate by forgetting it ever happened and watching the cartoon instead) and After Earth.
I firmly believe that without the disaster that was The Last Airbender, we wouldn't have spent the better part of a decade trying to undo the hype we created around Shymalan. Yeah, he would've still made stuff like The Happening and Lady in the Water, but those were smaller, and when you look back at them, now seem like Shyamalan just sorta farting around with his own inclinations. You can ignore them pretty easily, or just ride them out until he returns with a hit.
But The Last Airbender was a movie that we needed to be good. The cartoon, Avatar, had been more than just a really well-made fantasy saga. It's THE cartoon of the 00s -- great for children but never talking down to adults. The writing is fantastic, the animation and fight scenes are impeccable, and the voice acting is empathetic and memorable. It remains a stunning piece of work.
So to attach Shymalan to it is immediately a misstep. Shyamalan isn't great with action. If he was and knew he was, Unbreakable probably would've featured more fisticuffs and less Samuel L. Jackson expounding on comic book mythology. He isn't good with adventure. If he was, The Happening probably would've been a more tense experience rather than just a group of people exasperatedly moving from scene to scene. And that's not even counting his extremely casual and depressing attempts at casting Airbender, a film that will forever be known as perhaps the prime example of modern Hollywood white-washing.
If he'd never made The Last Airbender, we probably would've cared less about After Earth. I mean, we already didn't really care about it. But as soon as we learned that he was being given a $130 million budget for a sci-fi film, Oh boy. Grab your popcorn. Let's see how Shyamalan can waste some producer's money this time.
And to be clear, I like the dude. The Sixth Sense is killer, Unbreakable is nearly perfect, Signs has some great scenes, The Village is a fun way to pass out in front of TBS, The Visit also had some solid sequences, Split was pretty rad, and Glass is every small scale weird thing I need from the guy. But even looking back on it knowing that I've been on Team Shyamalan for most of his career, Airbender remains hot trash. There is no secret redeeming factor, no "Actually, this scene is strong" aspects. It made the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender boring. HOW?
Anyway, the creators of the original show are gearing up to create a live-action version of the show for Netflix, and I hope it succeeds.
Meanwhile, I hope that directors like Shyamalan and Burton continue to work on smaller stuff that allows them to play to their strengths, rather than try to apply themselves to stories that they're not a good fit for. Shyamalan's career does not need another Airbender. I don't think it could withstand one.
Daniel is a writer for the internet. He has a Twitter, which is average at best, honestly.
Top Image: Nickelodeon