It feels like prequel series are a dime a dozen these days, with barely a franchise that hasn’t dipped its hand into the origin story well. We know how Han Solo got his last name, how Poirot got his mustache, and soon enough, we’re probably going to find out how Gandalf got his hat.
It’s not just the frequency of attempts that makes them an easy target for derision, it’s the sweaty mania of making up origin stories for things nobody has ever wondered about the origin of. But it’s good to remember there are still good reasons to do prequels. There are franchises that can sketch out a setting vividly and lightly, leaving comfortable room for a toothsome and gripping story even though we all know how it ends.
So for me, there will always be room for at least one more prequel series — that is, until the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender finally sign off on a gosh dang Young Iroh series.
If you like Avatar: The Last Airbender, you like Uncle Iroh, who begins the series as a long-suffering voice of reason to the exiled Prince Zuko and gradually pulls back the curtain on his calculated, oafish facade to reveal the Most Interesting Man in the World.
Iroh is a man of contrasts: an advisor of genuine wisdom and a man who can’t tell tea from a poisonous plant except by eating it. Leader of a secret society of pacifism and a military genius. One of the greatest living firebenders and a traitor to his nation. Iroh was once the heir apparent to the Fire Lord who attempted the genocide of the Southern waterbenders, and yet he spent enough time with waterbenders to incorporate their style into a new firebending technique. He’s still known as “the Dragon of the West” for exterminating the last dragons in the world — but that was just a smokescreen to save the last dragons.
It would be easy for Iroh to have been more of a plot device than a character — he is always on the right side of an argument, he has an infinite well of patience for some of the series’ most prickly characters, and even in his paunchy 50s he’s leaping around breathing fire like warriors decades his junior. But it’s an invulnerability tempered by the continual reveal of his past.
Iroh led a ruthless two-year-long military siege of Ba Sing Se, and his view of the Fire Nation only changed after the deaths of his son and father, and the loss of his birthright to his brother’s machinations. Iroh spent so much time in the spirit realm he can see spirits even when they’re traveling invisibly through the material world. And somewhere in there he had the time to secretly become a leader of the Order of the White Lotus.
The juicy facts of Iroh’s past are only eclipsed by what we don’t know, and what we’ve never seen realized in any episode of Avatar. What was the relationship between the ruthless Azulon, who sentenced a child to death because of his father’s disrespect, and his heir apparent, the cheerful Iroh? When did Iroh become disillusioned with the Fire Nation? Did it start after his son’s death or were there inklings of it earlier, as when he spared the last dragons?
Not to mention: Who was his wife? Who managed to bag the hand of the Most Interesting Man in the Avatar World? No, seriously, who — we don’t even know her name. For all the information that exists in canon, Lu Ten, the tragically fallen crown prince of the Fire Nation, just budded off from Iroh like coral.
It’s not hard to imagine the answers to these questions. It’s easy to say that Iroh probably broke with the Fire Nation’s imperialism after the siege of Ba Sing Se, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to spend two years attempting to conquer the city. Iroh’s time in the spirit realm was spent looking for his dead son, according to tie-in “scrapbook” Avatar: The Last Airbender: Legacy of the Fire Nation. And Iroh ultimately returned to the Fire Nation to act as the role model and ally he knew Zuko wouldn’t get from the rest of his family, treating him as his adopted son, at least according to Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko in a 2012 fan interview.
But what sets Iroh’s past apart from, say, a movie that reveals that Cruella de Vil’s mother was murdered by Dalmatians is not that the answers to the questions of his past are entirely known. It’s that what we know would make an incredibly cinematic story if fleshed out — and not just dropped as tidbits in an interview, DVD special features, or a note in a tie-in book.
Themes of generational legacy and conflict, and the idea that all the old folks you know used to be cool young people just like our heroes, are so central to Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra that the official role-playing game just announced an entire module based around allowing heroes to grow old as play moves to the next generation. And while there have been canonical Avatar graphic novels that have solved mysteries like the disappearance of Zuko’s mother and extended the stories of Fire Nation villains like Ozai and Azula, none of them have reached backward to give us more of Iroh’s youth. (He did invent boba tea in one of them, though. Truly, we owe him so much.)
But I hold out at least a little hope. At Paramount’s Avatar Studios, Konietzko and DiMartino are apparently already on contract for three Avatar animated films, one about Aang and his friends as young adults, and two that remain unannounced. That’s two whole movies with the potential to be a Young Iroh feature. Two whole movies with the potential to be a franchise prequel that actually makes sense.