Neither of these movies is good.
You know this already. That’s why you’re here.
You’re here for the sweet, sweet therapy of hearing someone else complain about the movies that desecrated something perfect and broke your heart.
Well, unbuckle your seat belt and grab some carrot sticks. While I can direct you to several cathartic analyses of both films in question, today we delve in the direction of fan culture and its relationship with creators of media fans are “supposed” to love. So let’s check out the situation:
On one side, we have The Last Airbender, a film so misguided that fans and critics have skewered it over and over until there’s really nothing left to say. Even though we all continue to say it, as if enough voices will summon the power to make it un-exist: The Last Airbender is terrible. It’s really terrible.
On the other: Fullmetal Alchemist: a movie that attempts to condense 64 perfectly plotted anime episodes (or 27 manga volumes) into 135 minutes. The result: it doesn’t quite fit together and you wonder why you didn’t just spend the time on your six favorite episodes instead.
Both are live-action movies based on successful animated television shows, both are known for their ensemble casts, and although the ages of their target audiences are different, both have developed an extremely loyal fan base.
The difference here? One movie understands it cannot live up to its source material. So rather than try to do something, anything, to make a quick buck, it decides to have delightful, pure fun. And invite you, my friend, to join in.
I bet you already know which film I’m not referring to.
Fullmetal Alchemist, rather than trying to create a dark, realistic version of an animated fantasy world that doesn’t obey the laws of physics, sticks to the bones of the original and puts on a pageant of sorts for the fans to enjoy.
It can’t include everything—it doesn’t have time. So it picks the things its fans love the most and includes as many of them as possible on the ride to a passable version of the anime’s conclusion.
Don’t get me wrong: watching a high-grade cosplay skit does not miraculously grant the film a coherent plot or inject the meticulous character development that made the manga and anime so good. Fullmetal Alchemist certainly relies on the audience’s devotion to the original story to know what’s happening and pick up on emotional beats. But that’s okay, because that’s what the movie lives for. The characters in every shot might as well have Anime Expo signs taped to their backs.
Fullmetal Alchemist, in that way, becomes a bit of what I like to call a Checklist Movie.
[noun] Very official film term. (origin: United States, someone named Hannah)
- An adaptation that collects the best parts of its source material and makes sure that somehow, each of these things makes it into the new product, whether it’s natural for them to be there or not.
I attribute such a designation across all genres, though the film in question must be an adaptation. A Checklist Movie can be a good film in its own right, or mediocre. It’s usually not bad, because irredeemably rotten movies won’t have checked off enough boxes to make it at least partially good.
So, Fullmetal Alchemist. What iconic moments, characters, or items appear?
- Ed in a red coat.
- Ed dramatically clapping to transmute.
- Winry yelling at Ed for ruining her automail.
- Gluttony, Lust, and Envy: the original trio of Homunculi baddies that got people hooked in the first place.
- Mustang setting things on fire.
- Hawkeye backing him up.
- Hughes’ hospitality and adorable love for his family.
- Hughes’ murder in a telephone booth.
- Mustang getting revenge on the one who murdered Hughes by lighting them on fire.
- Mustang slipping into insanity over revenge.
- The Elrics’ fateful attempt at human transmutation.
- The Gate of Truth and the toll it takes.
- An evil scientist taking
- The brotherly moment when Al goes crazy and thinks that Ed created him because he wanted a brother, so he was never really human at all.
- The quest for the philosopher’s stone.
- The philosopher’s stone’s evil secret.
- The militaristic government totally knowing about said evil secret and using it for their own gain.
That’s a lot, folks. So much to love, to celebrate! Just watch it and watch all the best stuff they could fit in play out before your eyes. You knew you weren’t getting the anime anyway. If you didn’t sit down on your couch ready for wigs and yet another round of Nina/Hughes torture, I’m not sure why you didn’t rewatch Brotherhood.
But let’s try the same exercise with The Last Airbender.
- Iroh is still the best character.
You may have come to see live-action bending and real-life Air Nomad robes. And you shall see them. But they come with neither fun nor love so obvious in Fullmetal Alchemist.
Airbender produces such a strange combination of direct homage to and bizarre departure from the ATLA that one might suppose it did so on purpose. But it’s just not a cohesive movie, period. Take to YouTube and you’ll find critics from armchair to amateur to professional who agree on that. The Last Airbender decided to take its changes to such extreme levels that it left barely a whiff of the original, let alone the things fans would have wanted, and forgot a plot completely.
Beckoning to longtime fans of the show, the first few minutes copy the show’s opening display of martial-arts-inspired elemental manipulation (“bending”) from each of the world’s four nations. Yet apparently the film has paradoxical goals: the rest of the film establishes a separate universe, where the rules of bending have changed and characters act like they all have glass shards up their butts.
Really, I think the magic of the bad movie lies in the love. The respect for the Fullmetal Alchemist fan base shines through in every word taken from the source material; the only difference come when the film tries to connect a couple disjointed threads. And honestly? I think they left room for a sequel.
So don’t let the naysayers get you down! If the movie’s hosting a theme party for its friends, you should definitely show up with a bottle of wine. But if the event is a lecture on how to talk down to your friends while at a museum, only spend $3 on the wine. There’s only one reason you’ll want to drink it.
Cover images (clockwise): Amazon.com (product page), https://www.wattpad.com/471992424-the-avatar%27s-guardian-chapter-48-day-of-black-sun, TheMarySue (https://www.themarysue.com/fullmetal-alchemist-live-action-netflix/), and Amazon.com (product page).