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This is a "Wild Mass Guess" entry, where we pull out all the sanity stops on theorizing. The regular entry on this topic is elsewhere. Please see this programme note.
The Last Airbender
The Firebenders were Able to Conquer the Other Three Nations by Bending Magma.
Without the ability to create their own fire, the Firebenders (or, at least, the most powerful ones) had to learn to summon the magma from the very core of the planet. With this power, they were able to take over the world by flooding town after town with molten lava (as well as the fires that they create). Additionally, they're also capable of erupting and then controlling volcanoes- specifically, supervolcanoes, which literally have the potential to wipe out the entire human species. Given all these powers, it's easy to understand how Firebenders were able to get the other nations to surrender.
  • Granted, magis arguably more earth than it is fire, but then again, where there is lava, there is certainly fire, and it's plausible to believe that the Firebenders are more powerful than the Earthbenders, so their control over the substance would be more powerful as well.
    • Considering earthbenders are apparently very, very stupid, based on the prison camp, it doesn't seem like the Fire Nation would need anything more than pointy sticks to conquer them.

The movie Avatar was actually the true adaptation of the Avatar cartoon.
  • Alternately, both the cartoon and the movie are adaptations of the real in-universe events produced many years later, as Liberty's Kids and 1776 come at the same time period and feature many of the same characters. (I would prefer closer analogs, but haven't found them yet.
  • After season 4 of Korra, this becomes significantly more plausible. Since the opening of the spirit portals, the ecosystems from the spirit world and human world start to compete. Spirits - both plant and animal - are generally more intelligent and more powerful than most animals, so in time they take over the human world ecosystem, resulting in the weird glowing animals and the huge jungles reminiscent of the Republic City vines. Both the Avatar and Last Airbender planets have a huge "spirit tree" connecting all life. Unobtainium is either spirit world weirdness, or rocks somehow imbued with Guru Laghima's weightlessness. The avatar cycle was broken, and the human population has died out because the ecosystem turned too hostile for them to handle, because they lost a war against sapient spirits (confirmed to exist, via Wan's story), or some other reason, and that's why nobody is using bending. Completely independently from that, humans evolved on the nearby actual planet Earth as well (which lacks spirits, and therefore bending), and traveled to the Avatar world for the precious unobtainium.

The word "Avatar" is blessed as a title.
A cartoon and a film with "Avatar" in/as the title became instant sensations. The Last Airbender failed because they dropped the magic word from the title.

The 'friends' that were to be sacrificed during the battle were Mai and Ty Lee
During the scene when the boy and Zuko are relaying the story of the Fire Nation prince, Zuko mentions that he was trying to defend his friends from being sacrificed in a battle. What better bait than a pair of children of influential Fire Nation aristocrats?

They will inevitably write around the plothole caused by Avatars being unable to have a family by...
Keeping in the plot point that Zuko and Azula were descended from Avatar Roku, but it will have been an affair.

Alternatively, Avatars are not allowed to have a family, but Roku broke the rules.
With disastrous results, as his desire to settle down with a family prevented him from taking the necessary steps to preserve peace, which would have required a much greater time commitment.

M. Night's real twist is that Zuko joins Aang rather than Azula at the end of the book 2 movie
It would help cut out a lot of what he would need to do to adapt book 3 into a movie by not having to show Zuko going back to the Fire Nation and could jump into Aang's firebending training right away.

The cameraman was Koh.
That's why the acting is so dead; they literally couldn't show any expression to keep from having their faces stolen.
  • You are awesome, good sir/madam.

Shyamalan was attempting to make the anti-Ember Island Players
He just went too far in the other direction. Thus, movie-Sokka lost the comedic side of his character, movie-Aang lost his bounciness, movie-Katara never got to make her stirring speech about hope to the imprisoned earthbenders, and Movie!Iroh is skinny.

Movie!Iroh got his dreadlocks during his spiritual quest.
This assumes that the movieverse Fire Nation has Indian influences beyond Dev Patel and a few references to Agni. In some strains of Hinduism, dreadlocks are associated with asceticism and spiritual power, and the Vedic "Hymn of the Longhaired Sage" mentions mastery of fire.

The Film is a case of Unreliable Narrator.
Obviously it is in no way connected to the cartoon but instead is a story about a plucky nation deciding they no longer wish to be under the oppressive thumb of the Spiritworld and by definition the Avatar, only the story is told from the point of view of the oppressors. This way it is logical why the Earthbenders are kept in an open place with no attempt to cover the ground with something they couldn't use, the Firebenders kill people (it's a revolution after all), but see no point in killing needlessly. Also explains why we never really see the much talked about Machines and why the most sympathetic people in the film are the guys playing the Firebenders, it was genius casting by M.Night. The entire film is in fact a propaganda story told by the supporters of the Avatar, Katara and Co might never have actually existed and are simply badly thought through characters in the story.

Shaymalan thought the real hero was Iroh.
He was certainly more heroic than any of the actual protagonists. His giving Yue the idea for her Heroic Sacrifice rather than it being her own choice all along was just the icing on the cake. Movie!Iroh was more Qui-Gon Jinn than the tea-crazy, wise-but-world-weary Defector from Decadence that ATLA!Iroh was.

Shaymalan intentionally made the world's most elaborate Fix Fic.
The sheer number of things that were changed and cropped out make little sense, for such a supposed "fan" of the series, other than he wanted to do the Avatar story his way - the "right" way.
  • That's quite possible-it certainly reads like a Fix Fic. I mean, look at all the unnecessary changes, the skewed characterization, the change in perspective (more focus on Ozai, less on Katara, Sokka, Momo, and Appa), the different tone, shortening a lengthy plot, events working out differently. Now I understand that Film Adaptations have to change some things, but did they really need to change so much? Some of the changes, I think, were necessary (mainly leaving a few things out due to time constraints), but a lot of them were pure Author Appeal (changing the name pronunciations, the change in firebending) since they didn't really have any affect to the plot and served more to piss people off than anything else.
  • More possible evidence with racism and a side of Misplaced Nationalism.
  • The characterization of Sokka in the film seems closer to his original characterization in the cartoon's test-pilot, rather than what we got in the official cartoon series.

Due to near universal panning of the first film, the other two planned films will never be released.
It's been two years, and opinions have not changed. The film also flopped financially.

The movie was intentionally done poorly
As theorized on the Awesome, Dear Boy page, the movie may have been written to intentionally flop and ensure an animated continuation instead of converting to a series of live action movies. I mean, two more movies were planned and they're likely not to come out now. Add into the fact that Shaymalan is a fan of the series...and...

The movie was Ba Sing Se propaganda
There is no war in Ba Sing Se... at least, not one worth fighting. The movie was made to make the heroes out to be dull, unlikable people fighting against dull, less-than-threatening villains. That way, people won't get involved if they see the 'heroes' or 'villains' and leave them to their own devices.

The whole movie is part of the Shayamalan movie universe.
The planet Earth used to be a relatively normal world with questionably intelligent people until The Happening occurred, wiping out almost all of humanity and leaving a small percentage of the world population alive. For the next thousand years, the remaining survivors developed advanced enough technology and left Earth, with those who decided to stay behind left to die, which leads to the plot of After Earth. After the plot of that movie ends, enough humans have gathered together and decided to terraform and repopulate Earth.

Before society was established, however, a portal from another dimension suddenly appeared and interdimensional aliens came out of it. Being much more advanced and incomprehensible, humanity fell to these aliens and their technology and intelligence was wiped out, sending them to the Stone Age. The aliens realized their mistakes and decided to look into humanity's past and try to recreate their world as it was back then. However, before the process was complete, they succumbed to the incompatible natures of the reality they were residing in and altogether collapsed into four massive interdimensional-spliced, barely sentient tortoises. They became the landmasses of the modified planet Earth, which the modified (and incomplete) humans have come to live on and procreate. From these tortoises came a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that filled the planet and reacts with the tampered DNA of some of the humans that allowed them to control the elements, among other abilities. Humanity has created entire religions and cultures around these miracles, thriving off of their advantages.

And thus sets forth the plot for this movie.

Source
Last Action HeroWMG/FilmLast Man Standing

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