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Netflix announces cast, creatives for the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender

‘This was a chance to showcase Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people’

Aang and Appa hover above the ice in concept art from netflix’s avatar the last Airbender series Image: Netflix
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Though it’s been years since Netflix announced plans to adapt Avatar: The Last Airbender into a live-action series, someone has finally mastered the elements enough to bend the show into existence. On Thursday, the streamer revealed the first wave of casting for the tentpole series, along with the creative team bringing it to life.

Spearheading Avatar: The Last Airbender are showrunner Albert Kim (Sleepy Hollow, Nikita) and executive producers Dan Lin (The Lego Movie), Lindsey Liberatore (CW’s Walker), and Michael Goi (Swamp Thing). Goi, Jabbar Raisani (Lost in Space), and Roseanne Liang (Shadow in the Cloud) will direct the series, with Liang also serving as a co-executive producer. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, creators of the original series, were set to reprise their roles on the new adaptation, but departed the series in August 2020, saying that they “would not be able to meaningfully guide the direction of the series.” (The duo are now working on several animated Avatar projects for Nickelodeon.)

That direction seems to have been for the casting and creative team of the live-action series to better reflect the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the characters as represented in the animated series. As Lim laid out in a blog post for Netflix, “a live-action version would establish a new benchmark in representation and bring in a whole new generation of fans. This was a chance to showcase Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people. Not just in a cartoon, but in a world that truly exists, very similar to the one we live in.” The show makes good on the mission statement with its core casting.

The cast of the Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series Graphic: Nickelodeon/Netflix

Four key roles have already been cast for the production. Gordon Corimer, who recently appeared as Joe on CBS’ The Stand, will play Aang, the 12-year-old Avatar unfrozen from a block of ice and sent on a mission to save the world. Kiawentiio (Anne with an E) and Ian Ousley (13 Reasons Why) will fill out Aang’s fellowship as the Water Tribe go-getters Katara and Sokka. On their tails will be the exiled Fire Nation prince Zuko, played in the adaptation by Pen15’s Dallas Liu.

In the blog post, Lim also explained why he felt compelled to take on the adaptation, and the hesitation he felt on translating something as cherished as Avatar: The Last Airbender into live action, which did not go well in the past.

My first thought was, ‘Why? What is there I could do or say with the story that wasn’t done or said in the original?” A:TLA had only grown in popularity and acclaim over the last decade and a half, which is a testament to how complete and resonant a narrative experience it had been. So if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

But the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. VFX technology has advanced to the point where a live-action version can not only faithfully translate what had been done in animation — it can bring a rich new visual dimension to a fantastic world. We’ll be able to see bending in a real and visceral way we’ve never seen before.

Also, Netflix’s format meant we had an opportunity to reimagine a story that had originally been told in self-contained half-hour episodes as an ongoing serialized narrative. That meant story points and emotional arcs we’d loved in the original could be given even more room to breathe and grow.

The crew behind the Avatar the Last Airbender live-action series on Netflix Graphic: Netflix

Lim also promised that “we’ll be expanding and growing the world, and there will be surprises for existing fans and those new to the tale,” but said that his main goal was authenticity, both in adapting the story and in finding the right people to do the adapting.

“Authenticity is what keeps us going, both in front of the camera and behind it, which is why we’ve assembled a team unlike any seen before—a group of talented and passionate artists who are working around the clock to bring this rich and incredibly beautiful world to life.”

Netflix did not announce a release date for Avatar: The Last Airbender, but with a cast and crew on board, the show seems closer than ever.