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Netflix’s The Last Airbender live-action cast photos prepare fans for Avatar cold war

The live-action series and a new animated movie are both incoming — but can it all work?

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The 2023 edition of Netflix’s fan event Tudum made room for every possible fandom-friendly tease and IP flex, even if there wasn’t much to show. At the center of the event: The most basic of looks at the streamer’s upcoming live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been in the works for half a decade. Promising to once again follow Avatar Aang and his pals Katara and Sokka as they quest to unite four elemental nations by defeating the conqueror Fire Lord Ozai, Netflix’s The Last Airbender took the spotlight with a teaser — or maybe more of a vibe check? — that showed off the symbols for the Water, Earth, Fire, and Air tribes, as well as images of the four main principle cast members in costume.

The Tudum segment also revealed that the show would premiere [waves hand] in 2024. That’s 366 potential drop dates — it’s a leap year, baby! — for Avatar: The Last Airbender. But to die-hard Airbender fans, it’s also one year out from the return of the original Aang gang to screens. Things might get weird.

Netflix first announced plans for a live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2018, and at the time, it felt like a coup: Original creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko would return to oversee what they saw as a “reimagining” of the Nickelodeon animated series, which unlike the M. Night Shyamalan film version, would try to do right by the identities of the characters. “We can’t wait to realize Aang’s world as cinematically as we always imagined it to be, and with a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast,” they wrote in a statement at the time. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build upon everyone’s great work on the original animated series and go even deeper into the characters, story, action, and world-building.”

Live-action Aang in Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Image: Netflix

The music to fans’ ears quickly died down as theoretical work began. But two years later, DiMartino and Konietzko resurfaced to say they were leaving the project.

“To be clear, this was not a simple matter of us not getting our way,” Konietzko said in an Instagram post in August 2020. “Mike and I are very collaborative people; we did not need all of these ideas to come from us. As long as we felt those ideas were in line with the spirit and integrity of Avatar, we would have happily embraced them. However, we ultimately came to the belief that we would not be able to meaningfully guide the direction of the series.”

DiMartino echoed the sentiment in a post on his personal blog, encouraging fans to give Netflix and the new creative team the benefit of the doubt on the finished product. But he also made one thing very clear: “What I can be certain about is that whatever version ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make.”

Dallas Liu as Zuko in Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series Image: Netflix

Netflix and producer Dan Lin (The Lego Movie), who brought on Konietzko and DiMartino originally, eventually found a new crew to take over the show, and one primarily made up of creatives of Asian descent. The version arriving in 2024 boasts Albert Kim (Sleepy Hollow) as showrunner, with Michael Goi (Riverdale), Jabbar Raisani (Lost in Space), and Roseanne Liang (Shadow in the Cloud) directing the first season. The cast was also stacked: While Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko (Ozai’s son who’s in hot pursuit of the trio for most of the show) would be played by relative unknowns, names like Daniel Dae Kim, Amber Midthunder, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Danny Pudi, and George Takei all imbued the show with major cred. But showrunner Kim, in his opening remarks on the new approach, shaded it all with a bit of skepticism.

“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?” he wrote on the Netflix blog in 2021. “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 [...] 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.”

Ian Ousley Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series Image: Netflix

As DiMartino said when he departed the Netflix series: This could be good. Heck, it could be great. Don’t mind the Cowboy Bebop live-action remake over there in the corner, the Tudum teaser silently insists, look over here at these emblems. But the debut of Kim and company’s pursuit to reinvent Avatar: The Last Airbender with new technology is a reminder that Konietzko and DiMartino left because they weren’t doing what they wanted to do — and they left to go make more Avatar in their medium of choice.

In February 2021, Viacom, the conglomerate in charge of Paramount Pictures and Paramount Plus, announced the creation of Avatar Studios, a new home for Konietzko and DiMartino to make whatever Avatar-related content for whatever brands made sense. Until then, the only expansion of the Avatar story was the Nickelodeon sequel series The Legend of Korra, and the Konietzko-and-DiMartino-approved books and comics. Now there’d be more — probably lots more.

Key art of Aang, Katara, Sokka, Momo, and Appa from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Image: Nickelodeon Animation Studio

Most of Avatar Studios’ plans are locked up in a spirit library buried under a desert, but the team’s first project is an untitled theatrical feature film from director Lauren Montgomery, whose credits include DC’s badass animated Wonder Woman movie, the Netflix Voltron series, the theoretical Spider-Gwen Spider-verse spinoff, and of course, lots of amazing episodes of Airbender and Korra. All we know about the movie is that it stars adult versions of Aang and friends and that Paramount will debut it in theaters in 2025. If you love Airbender, you are likely pumped.

In 2024, Avatar: The Last Airbender is in competition with itself. Netflix and the creative team will establish a show fans should like in theory, with action-forward storytelling and an emphasis on racially aware casting. Meanwhile, the creators who made the original show what it is are off trying to replicate that themselves, while reimagining the rights and wrongs of that series for an ever-growing audience. Who will do it right? What does it even mean? What is Avatar, and is there room for this much of it?

Kiawentiio Tarbell in Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action series Image: Netflix

Most franchises do not have to deal with this — no one was making alt-Star Wars when George Lucas returned to his prequel trilogy or when Lucasfilm was cracking an expanded cinematic universe. Star Trek creators have always passed the baton as the franchise jumped between movies and television, while each inheritor reckoned with canon and kept it tidy for the next crew. The MCU (with Sony’s kinda-connected-kinda-not chaos), the DCU (where the Snyderverse continues but is clearly over… but not?), and even Middle-earth (WB making more movies to spite Amazon for their billion-dollar, hobbit-free prequel) feel like obvious parallels for a weird situation, but even then, none of these empires involve the original creators rubbing against well-intentioned imitators.

The future of the Avatar franchise looks robust, but fractured. But maybe after years of dormancy, that’s exactly what this still-ripe series needs. Aang brought together the Four Nations to achieve harmony. Surely he can lead a blockbuster-sized series and an animated tentpole at the same time? We’ll have to wait to truly find out — for now, all hype is limited to a few cast photos and a bunch of familiar emblems.

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