The Avatar Returns on Netflix

In the mid 2000s, Nickelodeon was arguably at its peak in terms of cartoons. Ranging from Spongebob Squarepants to Danny Phantom, Nickelodeon produced so many iconic cartoons of that era. However, a cartoon that many had forgotten for a while before the 2020s was a show many would say did not fit the style Nickelodeon usually went for. I am talking about none other than the Asian-inspired fantasy TV show known as Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The show specifically ran from 2005 to 2008 and is about a boy named Aang who has been chosen as the Avatar, a protector who has the power to bend four elements that are based on the nations that make up the world: water, earth, fire, and air. He is tasked with defending the world from the wrath of the Fire Nation after being trapped in a block of ice 100 years ago. With the help of his many friends that he makes along the way, he hopes to bring balance to the four nations and put an end to a one-hundred year war. The cartoon is considered not just one of the best shows to come out of Nickelodeon but on television. Its unique blend of clever storytelling, creative set pieces, and their ability to show the beauty of Asian and Indigenous culture has made the show stand out among its contemporaries.

Despite the massive success of Avatar, there have been some pits the franchise has dealt with. This includes a failed live-action movie in 2009 called The Last Airbender that many of the show’s fans refuse to acknowledge. Also, there was the mixed reception of its sequel cartoon, The Legend of Korra. For years, Avatar has continued to never have a live-action version (again, 2009s version does not exist) and the franchise during the early 2010s was stagnant. However, by the end of the 2010s/start of the 2020s, things began to change. After Netflix added the show into its catalogue in 2020, it became one of its biggest hits to watch during that year especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I should know, as I was one of those people who did that. And it was well worth my time.

 In 2018, it was announced by Netflix that there would be a live-action adaptation of the show being put on their streaming service in the near future. After dealing with the pandemic, writers’ strikes, and key individuals leaving this project, the live-action Avatar TV show is expected to release as 8 one-hour long episodes on Netflix on February 22, 2024. Here’s what you should expect before it comes out:

Accurate Casting/More Love To The Show

To begin, the entire cast of characters set to be in this show will consist primarily of Asian-American and/or Indigenous actors in accordance with the show’s portrayal of East Asian and Inuit culture within all of its episodes and storylines. The cast will properly cast the actors as of Asian and/or Indigenous descent, which already makes the show a better adaptation than its predecessor. Some of these actors may not be well-known by mainstream audiences, but will include the likes of Gordon Cormier (a Filipino-Canadian who will play the main character Aang) Kiawentiio (a First Nations/Mohawk actress who will play the waterbender Katara), Ian Ousley (who will play Katara’s boomerang-wielding brother Sokka), and Dallas Liu (an Asian-American actor who will play as one of the show’s antagonists, Prince Zuko).

This may seem obvious but that was one of the reasons why the 2009 movie failed so miserably. For whatever reason, the main Indigenous characters in the show (such as Katara and Sokka) were played by white actors whereas the Fire Nation, who were influenced by imperial Japan, were played by Indian actors including Dev Patel, an actor who rose to fame from the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire and ended up portraying Prince Zuko in the movie. It was stated by many to be a terrible miscast and showed a lack of appreciation of Asian and Indigenous culture altogether. It made it even worse that the film’s actors were seen as lifeless and did not capture the characters’ original essence from the show.

Albert Kim, the current showrunner of the Netflix Avatar adaptation, mentioned how he loved that this was a fantasy of sorts that was rooted in Asian culture, which is not common in major blockbuster fantasies these days. He said, “That was incredibly rare as it is. A live-action version meant setting new benchmarks for representation by featuring an all Asian and Indigenous cast.” [1]

Speaking back on the Netflix show, it seems that from the photos and trailers that have been released online, they look very accurate to the cartoon which is a great sign. In fact, they add extra details that capture the characters’ unique looks. Some could argue that they look too cartoony and colourful for a live-action take, but it has been proven from many comic-book movies in the last decade that having comic-accurate suits makes an adaptation much better. In addition, there will be many beloved characters (big and small) that will appear in the eight mentioned episodes and the bending abilities from what was shown in the trailers look impeccable. It will for sure be a spectacular attempt to be a love letter to the show.

Changes To The Original

To begin, the show will be rated TV-14 for a more mature audience in comparison to the rating of TV-Y7-FV (refers to a show for a minimum age of 7 years that is more intense) to take into the account the show was originally aired for children on Nickelodeon. Expect more gore and violence from this version of Avatar.

Furthermore, one of the major things to recognize with this adaptation is that the story of the original cartoon will be modified to compensate for the continuous growth of their child/teen actors over time. The original Avatar show consisted of three seasons over three years. However, to avoid the scenario of their actors getting too old for their roles (due to the time it takes to complete a season of television), certain components of the entire story will be skipped as means of getting to where they want to be. For instance, certain characters who were originally prominent in the second and third seasons of the show will be added into the first season of the Netflix show in a specific manner. This includes antagonists such as the sly Princess Azula who will be played by Elizabeth Yu and the powerful Fire Lord Ozai who will be portrayed by Daniel Dae Kim. It has been told that these characters will be included earlier into this story in comparison to the cartoon. 

However, a major component that the crew mentioned will change in the Netflix version is removing the backstory associated with Sozin’s Comet. For those who have not watched the show, Sozin’s Comet was a plot device in the show that essentially enabled the Fire Nation to have unlimited power to which very little could stop them. It was weaved into the cartoon where Aang would have to master all four elements of bending in a dire manner in order to save the world from the villains. Without this storyline at a first glance, there does not seem to be a direct motivation for Aang to train in all four elements in a quick period of time. It will be interesting to see what the show does to compensate for this plot being removed.

Success of Live Action Adaptations of Cartoons

Finally, the last remaining question is this: Will this adaptation be faithful? From what has been shown and discussed from this, it seems it will reflect the TV show quite well. Plus, live-action adaptations of animated properties have been booming in the 2020s, including Sonic the Hedgehog and One Piece (the latter of which is from Netflix). However, there is one detail that I haven’t mentioned yet. 

Initially, the creators of the original show, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino worked on the live-action adaptation for two years alongside Kim and the rest of the crew. However, at some point, they left the project altogether because of creative differences. DiMartino said leaving the Netflix Avatar show was “the hardest professional decision [he’d] ever had to make,” while also adding it has the potential to still be a good adaptation [2]. While one could take this as at least hope this show can be done well, the creators who made the show great leaving so suddenly is not the best sign coming into February.

Nonetheless, this version of Avatar: The Last Airbender can only go up from the travesty that was the 2009 film version. And when the world needs it the most, the show doesn’t have to disappear. It can rise up to the occasion and bring new balance to the fandom, both old and new.


[1] “‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ boss on original creators departing,” EW.com. Accessed: Jan. 31, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://ew.com/avatar-the-last-airbender-albert-kim-original-creators-departing-8416094

[2] Z. Sharf, “Netflix’s ‘Avatar’ Boss Says Making Live-Action Series After the Original Creators Left Over Creative Differences Was ‘Absolutely’ Daunting,” Variety. Accessed: Jan. 31, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://variety.com/2023/film/news/avatar-last-airbender-netflix-boss-original-creators-exit-1235846157/

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