Why Vulture’s Defense of Shyamalan Makes No Sense.


After much prodding from G.D., I finally watched Avatar: The Last Airbender well before the disappointing reviews of the film based on the Nickelodeon series came out. If I hadn’t known what a phenomenally good cartoon it was from the start, I definitely would have figured it out by Chapter 12 of the first season, an episode called “The Storm.” In it, the show explains how Aang, the last airbender of the title, finds out he is the Avatar, the one person reborn to each generation who is able to master all four of the earth’s basic elements: water, earth, fire and air. Aang is told his destiny early because the war that will take over the world is brewing, and the monks in his charge want him prepared. The one monk who is kind to him is overruled and the other monks plan to send him away to train in earnest, so Aang rejects his destiny and runs away. This explains how it is we found Aang in the premiere, frozen in an iceberg for 100 years, while the world was nearly destroyed in his absence. Aang is the only person who can stop the war, and Aang abdicated his responsibility the first chance he got.

In a parallel storyline for the episode, the show explains how Zuko, the prince of the Fire Nation, was exiled after he spoke out against one of his father’s general’s abhorrent war plans. He is challenged to a duel, only to find out it is his father he must face. He refuses to fight, and his father scars him for life and banishes him for refusing to defend his honor. He can only return to his father’s good graces by capturing the long-lost Avatar, and it’s this search we found him on in the beginning. Before then, he had been a villain who was rather, well, cartoonish. The two stories serve as yin and yang: we see our hero’s one moment of weakness, and we find out the true nobility of the man we had thought was our enemy.

I bring this up because this central premise: the story of two characters isolated by their own actions and uniquely capable of solving the world’s problems, should serve as a sound rejoinder to Bilge Ebiri’s defense of M. Night Shyamalan’s movie adaptation of the story on New York Magazine’s Vulture blog. In it, he says Shyamalan is actually the master of such moments, of loneliness and grief, and if we had only The Sixth Sense to judge him on I would be inclined to agree. After all, Haley Joel Osment plays a character uniquely suited to help those stuck between the two worlds in letting go. Aang is a character uniquely suited to restoring balance to a beleaguered universe.

But Shyamalan’s strengths as a director are formidable, and unlike other auteurs we’ve written off, we’re genuinely hoping he can get his groove back. His films are at their best when they focus on grief and regret: Even for those of us who think The Sixth Sense is overrated, the climactic “Grandma says hi” scene between Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette in the car gets us every time. And for all of Lady in the Water’s problems, it’s hard not to be moved when Paul Giammati’s bottled-up, stuttering maintenance man finally lets himself talk about his dead family. Signs is one of the loneliest alien-invasion movies ever made; Unbreakable, possibly Shyamalan’s best work, is certainly the saddest superhero movie.

My fear, and this is supported by his other movies, is that Shyamalan misunderstood what was so good about his star-making feature, and therefore must misunderstand the point of original cartoon. The philosophies, based on those from many different cultures, serve only to ground the watcher. The idea that there are four basic elements to be kept in balance is so familiar that viewers don’t need to question it, and so universal as to be unobjectionable. Investing responsibility and power in one individual to such an extent that he or she struggles to bear it is a familiar narrative to any reader of comic books. Avatar isn’t a children’s cartoon, but a familiar story expertly converted to a fun children’s tale.

All the reviews seem to indicate that Shyamalan took the philosophy way too seriously, and made a ridiculously serious, stilted movie, much as he did with Lady in the Water. But the source material would seem to play to exactly what Ebiri thinks are Shyamalan’s strengths. Both Zuko and Aang  are lonely and grieve, and the point is alienation, loneliness and reclamation. It’s almost as if someone served up a perfect Shyamalan redemption vehicle, and he managed to screw it up. That’s why he garners such visceral hatred. He seems to routinely miss the point. It’s hard to argue that he is a good director because he has good moments, yet lets so many good moments pass him by.

  • awesome post. when i saw it i similarly felt a disconnect with the characters. when watching the series, even having seen those episodes before, there were many tear-jerk moments for me. i felt an emotional connection with these characters, and, as you said, the series offered up something perfect for Shyamalan to adapt with little effort on his part. that he trainwrecked the whole thing suggests that he’s not as good as people think. i mean, why defend such a horrific movie?

    my overall perception of the movie is that it seems like Shyamalan never even saw the series, but rather made a movie based on hearing about the show second hand. it was lazy, each scene felt rushed, and there was no character development (which he says he cut back on due to plot, but um…character development is part of plot. duh).

  • Darth Paul

    The director’s bottom line is that it’s animation and that he believes that any race can be transposed onto the characters and that you see what you will in the animation…which is fine for animation! This isn’t animation though, and it makes me wonder if he sees white as default even when the animated characters had brown skin. THAT is my beef with this nonsense. I don’t hate him for that if that’s the case. It’s his own shortcoming and identity issue to (not) deal with, but I sure as hell won’t love him or support him for it; much less make an apologist decree for him.

    Other than that, he’s a distinctly mediocre director. Unbreakable was his last decent work, and I’m using the term decent very liberally there.