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How 'Airbender' defied the critics scorn: 4 theories

Though almost universally panned, "The Last Airbender" has hauled in $70.5 million since its Thursday opening. What's behind its unlikely success?

Despite being widely panned, 'The Last Airbender' did well at the box office last weekend.

Blockbuster success did not seem in the cards for The Last Airbender given critics' notably vicious reaction (reflected in a Rotten Tomatoes score of 8 percent) and director M. Night Shyamalan's spotty track record. Yet, counterintuitively, the film came in second at the box office, earning $70.5 million over a 5-day holiday weekend. Here, a few theories: (Watch one of Airbender's brutal reviews)

1. The Nickelodeon franchise's fans don't care about critics: Like any film based on a TV series, Airbender has "a built-in audience," says Matt Pais at Chicago Now. Even if the rest of the earth's population said that this "deeply boring" film "deserved to be incinerated and thrown off a cliff," that core fanbase would still come out.

2. It filled the "family film" void: "Families who loved Karate Kid" clearly saw Airbender as a passable contender, Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of Hollywood.com told The Wall Street Journal. It offered a "counter-programming alternative" to "more racy" offerings like the Twilight series film, Eclipse (the weekend's top performer).

3. People crave their Independence Day action fix: It's "the July 4th effect," says Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times. Traditionally, the weekend is "reserved for action releases." And while Airbender "doesn't exactly match the pyrotechnics" of Transformers and War of the Worlds, "absent a Michael Bay-a-thon this weekend," it was enough to give Shyamalan his best returns in years.

4. It's not as bad as you might think: Based on reviews, "I was expecting ridiculous wire-fu and a slow-paced action movie," says Tara Clapper at Culture Mob. But I think Shyamalan has actually improved on the small-screen version by bringing "universally-understandable symbolism and themes" to a confusing television program. Then again, I'm "one of the few proud fans" of Shyamalan's The Village.

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