Netflix’s highly-anticipated Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) live-action series recently released on Netflix. And, in celebration of its arrival, Nerdist talked with Avatar: The Last Airbender showrunner Albert Kim about the series, including the wonderful expansions it made to the ATLA cartoon, the ideas left on the cutting room floor (which we still might see!), and welcome changes the series made in terms of queer representation.

Uncle Iroh, Zuko, Sokka, Katara, and Aang from the Avatar the Last Airbender live-action netflix show

Of course, the meaning of the word “adaptation” varies slightly on a case-by-case basis. As ideas evolve, one area that fans are always particularly interested in is the realm of romances between characters. The Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, of course, went down specific roads. But in fandom, there has long been ardent support for a non-canon ship, namely between Zuko and Katara, a.k.a. Zutara. This author actually ships Zukka (Zuko/Sokka), and so has no dogs in the race. But I was as curious as the rest to know where the boundaries of change are drawn for this specific Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action adaptation. Although showrunner Kim is wisely not going to weigh in on any ship debates directly, he did address how shifts from the cartoon could (or could not) come about. Good news, Zutura fans (and I guess Zukka fans, why not, hope springs eternal), there isn’t a 100% guarantee romances will change in the new Avatar live-action series, but the door also remains open for the possibility of it. It all depends on authenticity on many levels.

Let’s dive into all the insights that Kim had to share about bringing Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action to life.

Nerdist: You’ve mentioned before that the live-action Avatar is a remix and not a cover. But are there any tenets of the cartoon, like character fates or relationships that you consider to be set in stone? For instance, I know there’s a passionate group of people who would love to see a Katara and Zuko (Zutara) romance explored. Would we ever see something so major change?

Albert Kim: You’re not going to lure me into that debate! But in terms of what was set in stone, it’s more about understanding what the spirit of the original was and keeping faithful and true to that. I think there are certain elements of the characters that we all knew were never going to change, so we paid attention to that. The thing I’ve talked about in the past is that our byword for the whole production was authenticity, and that meant being authentic to the original source material, authentic to the cultures that inspired the stories, and authentic to the characters.

Beyond that, everything could possibly change and be fluid. And it’s a hard thing. It’s not like an objective measure. It’s not like this plus this plus this equals Zuko. It was more about understanding subjectively who that character was and that was a combination of both writing and direction and performance and all of those things. So that’s kind of the guidelines we had both with the characters and for the story.

Going off that idea, today marks 19 years of the Avatar cartoon existing in this world. So there’s been a lot of fan thoughts about what they could ever wish to see in the cartoon, like the “Gaang finds out about how Zuko got his scars,” is a super popular fan trope. Did you consider any of these throughlines as you planned the season, and was there anything you feel like you tried to specifically bring to life for the fans?

Kim: Well, one of the good things about a franchise of the Avatar, like you said, it’s been 19 years since the original, and there’s been a lot of follow-up materials that have come out, whether it’s the comic books or the novelizations or Korra and all that stuff. And we were very, again, we were first and foremost fans, so we were really into all that as well.

So we dove into all of that stuff, and die-hard fans will recognize some influences from all those works. In terms of fan expectations and theories, I’m sure we were, especially within the writer’s room, aware of various sentiments. And so again, it’s not a process of making a checklist; we should do this, we should do this, we should do this. It was more about going with our gut in terms of what felt true to the spirit of the original.

So I can say that I personally never went through and said, “Oh, the fans want this, so we should do it.” That never entered my thinking, at least. But again, I will say I was a fan, so there are certain things I knew I wanted. So going into the season, even before I wrote a word in the script, I’m like, “I’m going to have Cabbage Man in this season.” I don’t care. I was like, whether or not he fits in, we will find a way to fit him in. Those are the things I brought to the show from my perspective as a fan.


As a queer fan, I was absolutely delighted when I realized that the tale of Oma and Shu is now a queer love story. I thought that was a really beautiful and powerful change to make to the mythology of the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe. How did that come to life, and what do you think it adds to the narrative?

Kim: I’m glad you noticed that. It was a subtle thing because it wasn’t the type of thing we wanted to hammer people on the head with. There is a tendency to try and pound messages in, especially if you’re doing an update of a story, and that’s not what we wanted to do. But when we took a look at the story of Oma and Shu, it occurred to us that this was really a story about forbidden love in a time when it wasn’t looked upon well.

And that naturally lent itself to being a story about two women lovers. Again, I just go to this principle we had, it felt true to the spirit of the original, and so that was a fairly easy change to make. It was like it felt right, and once you put it into place and you saw it in the show, it feels like that’s what it always should have been. That’s the feeling we had with it. So I’m glad you picked up on that. I hope others do as well. It’s a good example of a change that we hope gives fans a new way to look at something they already know about and maybe deepen their understanding of.


I loved that it did feel really natural, which I think is an important element to have when telling these stories, and that a whole group of benders now has this queer origin story. I thought it was very beautiful. The Legend of Korra, which you mentioned earlier, had a powerful central queer relationship with Korra and Asami and a few other characters that were queer as well. But the original Avatar series really didn’t have much of that sort of arm of representation. Do you think we might see a little bit more of that within the characters of the live-action Avatar, should the series get more seasons?

Kim: It’s possible. To be honest, no one here has really thought about that future yet just because it’s been such a monumental task bringing this first season across the finish line, which is finally here. So that’s really more of a tomorrow question, than anything, but it’s not like it’s out of the realm of possibility. And, like I said before, those other follow-up works, whether it’s Korra or the novelizations, are all ones that we really liked and followed and will mine for the future. There are elements from Korra that we pulled into this season. They’re subtle, but fans, really die-hard fans will know what they are when they see them in our show.

I thought some of the scene extensions that we got in the live-action were really beautiful. I especially love the early bonding scene with Aang and Zuko after they escaped from Pohuai and the parallels that set up because Zuko’s journal really helped Aang when he was lost, and Aang’s, in return, helped Zuko when he was lost. Why did you feel it was so important to give that expanded time in the live-action? And obviously, you’re not looking ahead yet, but do you think we would see more sort of early friendship peppered in between the two?

Kim: That’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole season. And it’s actually the scene we used when we did, I think, some of the chemistry reads in auditions for the actors because I always knew about that scene even way back then. To me, that scene exemplifies really the point of doing the live-action, being able to take something that was either suggested at or there’s a kernel of in the original, because it is there, and just expanding it and giving it a little more room to breathe. And that helps make it feel a little more grounded for an audience who’s watching a live-action story, being able to see these two human beings connect in a situation where they think that they’re on opposite sides but realize they have much more in common.

Again, it was all there in the original, the notes of it were there. We just, like I said, gave it a little more room to breathe and let the actors inhabit those characters a little more. And Gordon [Cormier] and Dallas [Liu] did such a beautiful job with that scene. Someone else had asked me about some of my favorite days on set and that was one of my favorite days on set. Just watching them go through that scene multiple times, and they nailed it each time, and it was so great to watch. And again, for me, one of the primary reasons for doing an adaptation of such a beloved source material is being able to do scenes like that.

Another live-action Avatar twist that I thought was so powerful was making the 41st division be the men on Zuko’s crew in exile. I was like, “Oh God, this is genius,” and I think it also is interesting because Ozai clearly did that as a punishment, but then it leads to this moment where Zuko is actually honored in this way that he really hopes to be. Do you think he begins to understand how important his compassion is in that scene, and how did that sort of idea manifest?

Kim: Absolutely. I’m glad you brought it up. It’s probably my favorite change that we made because it is subtle. It’s not like a huge earth-shattering plot twist or anything we changed from the original. But again, it goes to the things that I’ve talked about in terms of adapting the show, just tweaking it here and there. We’re adding a little more depth and going out in a slightly new direction that enriches the original story.

We came upon this idea in the writer’s room while we were talking about that story, like what if the 41st division was the one that ends up becoming Zuko’s crew with him? And it just opened up this world of possibilities for both Zuko’s character and for Lieutenant Jee’s. Ruy Iskandar, who plays Lieutenant Jee, he played it so well because we do this slow burn through the season of how he’s demeaned and belittled and really builds up resentment against Zuko.


But then it all flips in that moment when he realizes what Zuko sacrificed. Zuko saved his life. And that scene when Zuko walks down the gauntlet and gets the respect of his crew, when he realizes, he thought he’d lost everything, he thought he’d lost his family. He thought he didn’t have that respect from his father. And then he realizes this family he’s built gives him the respect that he deserves for being the person he is. It makes me cry every time. I’ve seen that scene a zillion times. Still brings a tear to my eye every time, and that’s all because of the incredible performances by the actors there.

Is there anything you really wanted to include from the cartoon in season one of the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender that you couldn’t quite make fit in?

Kim: Oh, there’s a ton. I think my biggest regrets were the things we left on the cutting room floor. Not that we shot them, but the stuff that we couldn’t adapt from the original because there’s so much great material. I know fans are going to come at me for this kind of stuff, “Why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that?” I’m first in line. I’m like, I really wish I could have done that. In the original series, the sequence when Aang is able to enter Roku’s Shrine by unlocking the lock is one of my favorite sequences in the whole season. And we couldn’t do it mainly for practical reasons, because it’s one thing to draw a sequence like that in an animation, it’s another to do it in live-action. There’s a huge investment in time and money and resources and story time.

And so it’s one of those things that we had to leave out, but it still kills me. I wish we could have done it. That’s just a small sequence, but it’s an example of things that I wish we could have done. I wish we could have done more with June. I really do. She’s a character who can come back, which is good. But given the amount of running time we had and how much story we had to get in there along with the new stuff that we’ve added that you saw, there were inevitably going to be casualties.

And that, like I said, that is among some of my biggest regrets, not being able to do that stuff. I’m sure there are entire episodes and characters that fans will go, “How could you not do that?” I’ll just say I agree. I asked myself that, like “How could you not do that?” But no, we just had to make those choices, and they were hard.


Absolutely. And I feel like since it is a remix, yeah, maybe in the future, something from the past will come forward—who knows!

Kim: We pulled down certain elements from season two into season one, so there’s no reason we can’t do it in reverse.

What is the Easter egg or Avatar: The Last Airbender universe reference that you’re most proud of sneaking into the live-action?

Kim: It depends on what your definition of an Easter egg is. For me, it’s like, things that fans will pick up on that new viewers might not. And so there’s a lot of little things in there. Some of them are more subtle. There’s one point when Sokka and Katara are walking through the caves, and he starts talking about “hunch, intuition,” which actually echoes, in the original series, a running gag in the Jet episode when it kind of makes fun of Sokka for his hunches.

But then one of my favorites is when Aang comes into Bumi’s Palace, and there are giant statues of Flopsie, which new viewers won’t know what it means, and it’s like, what is this weird creature that he’s looking at? But fans will know who Flopsie is. And we couldn’t do Flopsie, the real Flopsie, in our version, but we made sure there were giant statues. And the art department made incredible statues and paintings on the walls. If you look really closely, there are lots of paintings of Flopsie on the walls that we put in there. So that was, to me, a fun Easter egg to do.


And, I remember one other one! In the cartoon, when they sneak into Omashu, Aang calls himself as Pippinpaddle Oppsokopolis, which we didn’t do in our version, but then we snuck in that name later when Sokka is talking to the little girl in the forest [in episode five of the live-action, “Spirited Away”]. So those kinds of things were fun like, oh, we couldn’t get that in here, but let’s sneak it in here, and so no one will know except for the die-hard fans. But it made me laugh.

When you’ve talked about this season, you’ve talked about there being kind of a few big gaps in Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, one of which was not getting to see the Air Nomad Genocide that the cartoon left open. Can you tell us about some of the other gaps that you kind of just see as places that the live-action could fill in?

Kim: Well, the big one obviously is the Zuko and Ozai’s Agni Kai. You never see that in the animated series, and we wanted to show that. That was a big one. The Southern Air Temple attack was obviously a big one. Those were two really monumental moments in the mythology of the show that weren’t actually depicted in the original series, and we had the opportunity to do that. So it was great to be able to finally see that.


Yes, Zuko’s Agni Kai with Firelord Ozai was so intense. What was it like imagining what that fight would actually look like and also what aftermath scenes and things of that nature to include?

Kim: Roseanne Liang, who directed that episode, she directed it brilliantly. She made sure to carve out an entire day just for the duel, and so we spent a lot of time setting that up, both in terms of stunts, VFX, the performances. It was one of the great days on set, being able to see Dallas [Liu] and Daniel Dae Kim do the whole sequence. And if you watch carefully, it’s not just about action and choreography, there are character beats in there. There’s a very important moment when Zuko gets the upper hand but doesn’t use it, and Ozai feels it’s a weakness. But in the end, you find out it’s not. It’s a strength. And so all of those moments had to be reflected within the battle itself. So that was one of the really fun things about being able to do a sequence like that.

And like we talked about before, it led to a lot of fun emotional scenes afterward, like the one with Lieutenant Jee on the deck of his boat. And speaking of, the scene right after that, which is Ozai and Iroh going to Zuko when he’s wounded, that’s also a scene that was never seen. That’s something that we filled in. Oh, now they’re all coming back to me. The scenes in the fourth episode with Iroh at his funeral.

Again, that’s one of those gaps we filled in, the scene with the, the ending scene of that episode when Iroh first comes on board Zuko’s ship and says, “I’m coming with you,” that’s a scene we never got to see before. It’s all there in the original mythology. We just gave it life.


Those new scenes were incredible.

Kim: Now that we talked about those scenes, I don’t know whether it’s an Easter egg, but in the funeral scene, we play “Leaves From The Vine.”

So again, new viewers, it won’t mean a whole lot, aside from it’s a beautiful piece of music, but for fans it’ll just add that extra emotional punch when you hear that, and Takeshi Furukawa, our brilliant composer, did such an incredible. I listen to that track on my own, just on its own in my car because it’s so good, because it goes from the piano to the strings and just wrecks me every time. So that’s a great Easter egg.

The live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender series is now streaming on Netflix.