The Inverse Interview

Avatar: The Last Airbender Grows Up

Showrunner Albert Kim talks to Inverse about adapting the beloved animated series.

The Inverse Interview

Albert Kim was at a loss. It was August 2020, and the creators of the beloved Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, had just dropped out of the Netflix live-action adaptation, leaving him the sole showrunner.

“I was very concerned,” Kim tells Inverse. “I wasn’t quite sure that the show could continue without them.”

It was a sentiment shared by a fandom that had been burned by a live-action adaptation before. The last time was M. Night Shyamalan’s abysmal feature film The Last Airbender, a critical and box-office bomb that most fans refuse to even speak of. But when Netflix announced its live-action TV series adaptation in 2018, fans let themselves get excited again. Konietzko and DiMartino were attached, after all, and Netflix was dedicated to casting Asian and Indigenous actors (unlike the mostly-white cast of Shyamalan’s film). Kim, who served as showrunner for Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, joined the production to work as showrunner alongside Konietzko and DiMartino. But when they left, he got an unexpected promotion to sole showrunner.

“I have an enormous respect for not only what they created, but for what they brought to this project as well,” Kim says. “And when they decided to leave for personal reasons, that was out of my hands, but their departure didn’t mean we threw away everything we had done.”

Konietzko and DiMartino are still credited on the teleplay for the first episode, but Kim says when he and the duo were working together, they collaborated on shaping the entire season. “You’ll see [their] influence throughout the season,” he says. Now, as sole showrunner, Kim is determined to honor the spirit of the original show and “everything Bryan and Mike had created, because it wouldn’t be worth it if it wasn’t.”

“It’s a matter of looking at the overall arc of the first season of the original, seeing where certain themes emerged.”

Netflix clearly thought it was still worth it. Kim says the company was “confident enough in the vision that I had set out, for both the first episode and the season, that they felt like we should continue.”

That vision is a little different from the original series. The show tells the same story: in a world divided into four nations — the Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, the Air Nomads, and the Earth Kingdom — select people can manipulate (“bend”) the elements, while only one special person can bend all four. That person, the Avatar, is tasked with keeping the nations in harmony, until the latest incarnation, an airbender named Aang (Gordan Cormier), disappears right before the tyrannical Fire Nation plunges the world into war. The show picks up 100 years later when Aang is awoken by a waterbender Katara (Kiawentiio) and her brother Sokka (Ian Ousley), and the three embark on a quest to bring down the Fire Nation. The broad beats are all there, but by necessity of adaptation, there are a few departures.

First, Season 1 of the Netflix show, which adapts Book 1 of the animated series, is only eight hour-long episodes compared to the cartoon’s 20 half-hour episodes, meaning some streamlining was necessary.

“That was probably among the toughest decisions, figuring out what we could drop or needed to drop to make it fit into an eight-episode format,” Kim says. “It’s a matter of looking at the overall arc of the first season of the original, seeing where certain themes emerged.”

Jet’s storyline was combined with another’s.


Storylines get merged, and a few one-off adventures are dropped. The show spends significantly more time in the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, for example, thanks to the merging of the storylines concerning the eccentric inventor Mechanist (Danny Pudi) and the Freedom Fighter Jet (Sebastian Amoruso). Kim cites that combination as one that emerged when the team was in the process of finding those overarching themes, pointing out the parallels between the two characters: “They’re both characters who have been driven to extremes by the war. They both have good intentions and are good people, but they would be on the opposite ends.”

But while the Netflix adaptation may be shorter, Kim says it still preserves the most important theme from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“The journey of that first season from the original series,” he says. “It was a journey of these kids going from one end of the world to the other end of the world, and then all the lessons they learned along the way as well as the message they impart to people they meet.”

“Because we knew more about their story, and I felt like it was a great way to balance out the story a little more.”

Kim is aware that fans who are intensely loyal to the original show will find issues with some characters, episodes, or even sequences that are cut. “Believe me, it kind of kills me as well,” he says. But Kim and his team also have the benefit of hindsight. The original cartoon is almost 20 years old and has since spawned spinoffs and comics that expanded the lore dramatically. That allowed Kim to feature stories and details that originally appeared after Book 1.

“We pulled some elements from the second season into the first season because when we laid everything out and looked at exactly the story we were trying to tell, we realized there were certain things that they did in the second season that fit very well with the story we were telling,” Kim says.

That also means there’s a chance your favorite cut storyline could return in future seasons — if Netflix renews the show.

“I personally would love to see a lot more of June,” Kim says, describing the bounty hunter played by Arden Cho in Season 1. For now, those cut storylines exist as background dialogue or characters mentioning offscreen adventures. But Kim says they could become more than Easter eggs. “There’s a chance you could always return to stories that we didn’t do in the first season.”

Arden Cho’s June is one character Albert Kim wants to see more of.


Kim wasn’t the only one approaching Season 1 with the benefit of hindsight. The show’s stars performed with their characters’ entire arcs in mind, including Kiawentiio, who tells Inverse that her Katara is just as much informed by where she’s going as where she’s been.

“The stuff that comes to mind is like when Aang gets shot down in the Season 2 finale, and she has that reaction and rushes to him and then carries him away. The fight between her and Hama, with the blood bending, was important to me. Those things were important [in shaping Katara] to see her character in those situations,” Kiawentiio says.

Knowing where everyone ends up allowed Kim and his team to do more with characters that would become more important or complicated later. “Knowing Azula’s arc and Zuko’s arc really helped inform how we treated those characters in the first season,” Kim says.

Unlike the cartoon, where she’s only properly introduced in Book 2, Azula (Elizabeth Yu) plays a prominent part in Netflix’s first season. And Zuko (Dallas Liu), who would become one of the cartoon’s breakout characters and enjoy the show’s most lauded redemption arc, is even more sympathetic off the bat.

“Because we knew more about their story, I felt like it was a great way to balance our narrative and give a little more depth to Zuko now,” Kim says. “It helped that we weren’t always with Aang, Katara, and Sokka.”

“As an Indigenous person and especially a young little Native girl on my reservation growing up, I never really expected myself to be in this position,” Kiawentiio says.


The darker events in the cartoon’s later seasons have always stood in stark contrast to the goofier early episodes, and the Netflix series attempts to balance that by treating some of its dark material with the gravity it deserves.

“I feel like you feel the weight of those themes so much more because of how insane it is,” Kiawentiio says. “We see lots of turmoil in Katara’s trauma and in her past with losing her mom, but I feel like there’s room to expand on that in further seasons.”

Kim says they haven’t even talked about Season 2 yet, though they’ve made plans to accommodate for time elapsing in the real world, just in case.

“Fans will know that the original series, all three seasons, take place essentially within the course of a calendar year. That wasn’t something we could do. Our human actors will change and grow during that time,” Kim says.

“Our human actors will change and grow during that time.”

So if the show returns for a second season, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the child actors were four years older than when they were first cast. Kiawentiio, who was 14 when cast, is 18 now. And she’s eager to do Season 2 and “see what I would do with the character now.”

Kiawentiio, in particular, wants to meet Toph, the fourth member of Team Avatar, who joins the group in Book 2. “I think that’s something I’m most excited for, to be honest,” Kiawaentiio says. Kim was mum on whether the production had even begun looking for their Toph yet, but the more diverse Earth Kingdom (which, in the Netflix show, encompasses ethnic backgrounds across East Asia and Southeast Asia, but is predominantly South Asian), suggests Toph could hail from the Indian subcontinent, like the show’s King Bumi (Utkarsh Ambudkar). But again, that’s all far in the future.

“Right now, all I’m focused on is bringing Season 1 across the finish line,” Kim says.

The actors are growing up fast, but that’s been accommodated for.


For now, while Kim knows fan skepticism of the show has grown since Konietzko and DiMartino left, he assures viewers that “it’s true to the spirit of the original.”

“We were very careful to make sure that all of our characters have really strong journeys throughout the season,” he adds. “And I think viewers will appreciate that when they finally get to see the show itself.”

Avatar: The Last Airbender premieres on Netflix on February 22.

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