The Turbulent History of Avatar the Last Airbender’s Fandom

Does the Avatar the Last Airbender fandom have a complicated history with adaptations not heavily supervised under direction of the animated series co-creators?

This article has been updated for 2022.

Although Avatar: the Last Airbender is a much-loved American animated series, it hasn’t always had the smoothest run during its production.

Are chaotic remakes and adaptations an ongoing pattern, or a result of the co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino’s influence continually being swept away from the show?

Blast From The Past

Before I begin, I would just like to point out that the irony is not lost on this older post about AFNYCC 2018. In it, I talked about New York Comic Con’s upcoming revival of their Anime Festival.

I pointed out that production staff and even voice actors of the original ATLA series would be in attendance. Yes, this is to promote their new Netflix series, The Dragon Prince, but it also just felt like something was in the air.

After this news initially dropped, I’ve waited about two days for my emotions to settle. The good, the bad and the in-between all resurfaced with this development.

Like Natsume Yuujinchou, Avatar: The Last Airbender is just one of my all-time favorite series. They both premiered around the same time frame as well, becoming a part of my collective nostalgic memories for years now.

I also gave myself more time to try and find posts that I wanted to use to source some of the things I would like to cover. Sadly, because it has been so long, some of the accounts associated with them have been deleted. I specifically remember reading and learning certain things years ago, but without proof, it’s all null.

What Is The Story Behind Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Early 2005, ATLA premiered on Nickelodeon. The show aired from February 21st 2005 to July 19th, 2008. It garnered love worldwide and strong fandoms formed on DeviantArt and Tumblr.

Adding to Tumblr’s prominence in the community, co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino joined the site with blogs. Production staff and show consultants like Sifu Kisu also held blogs, but other creatives have unfortunately deleted their blogs years later.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding the ATLA Book 3 ending.

This led to numerous comprehensive critiques concerning the show and even chatter speculating if there would be a Book 4.

Around this time gossip and leaked information from the writer’s room was rife. I am still in the process of confirming elements and tidbits that proved true to the outcome of the show’s story.

What Made Avatar the Last Airbender Series Special?

ATLA was special because it depicted the horrors of war and colonialism.

It showed that despite facing an overpowering evil, ordinary people – teens, even – can come together to create a better world for themselves, and future generations to come.

Team Avatar Gaang Group Hug in Book 3
Team Avatar Gaang Group Hug in Book 3

After discovering his destiny as The Avatar, Aang ran away as any twelve year old would do. While fleeing, the boy got caught in a storm and was encased in an iceberg. Fire Lord Sozin decided to expand the Nation’s reach and unfortunately, Aang had awoken with the realization that his people were gone.

Aang wakes up to a new world one century over with a brother and sister duo at his helm. Katara and Sokka are from the Southern Water Tribe, a small settlement in the South Pole that has been decimated by the Fire Nation. The Northern Water Tribe bolsters greater numbers and is more fortified. We visit this settlement later on in the series.

Katara is the last waterbender amongst her people, the rest kidnapped by the Fire Nation. There is also a looming secret surrounding her mother which I will not spoil here.

Her brother Sokka was a misogynistic jerk in earlier seasons and seemed to overcompensate for his lack of bending out of jealousy. Sokka also felt inadequate concerning his masculinity, since he was too young to participate in his culture’s rite of passage before the departure of his father and the other warriors of his tribe.

During the course of the series, Sokka grows more confident in his abilities. He even learns from a master and creates a nifty space sword from a fallen meteor! Sokka meets Suki during the gaang’s travels, the leader of a fierce group of women called the Kiyoshi Warriors. Suki has to knock Sokka on his ass a few times which in turn knocks some sense into him.

The gaang meets the blind bandit, Toph. She learned bending from badger moles who were blind just like her, sensing the vibrations in the earth to “see”. Later in the series Toph even invents a new form of bending!

Then there is honorable Prince Zuko, Princess Azula, and their Uncle Iroh. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Zuko is my favorite character from the series and he had the greatest redemption arc of all time. OF ALL TIME.

Not to mention all of the colorful characters the gaang meets – from fan clubs to bands of misfits in the woods to entering a literal police state that captured and brainwashed dissidents.  And that’s not even factoring in the spirit world shenanigans!

Why Is The Avatar Movie So Bad?

Director M Night Shyamalan admits that The Last Airbender was a spectacular flop.

Citing his daughter’s desire to dress up as Katara for Halloween as one of the reasons he became interested in the project. Shyamalan’s casting of actors different from the ethnicities in the animated series, along with horrible CGI and weird name pronunciation made it universally hated by ATLA fans everywhere.

Comparing the title screen of ATLA to the ill-fated The Last Airbender movie
Comparing the title screen of ATLA to the ill-fated The Last Airbender movie

So much so, that the film is often not even acknowledged during discussions or discourse in the fandom. If memory serves right, even the creators disavowed the film in old interviews during that time.

The Last Airbender movie that which shall not be named...
The Last Airbender movie that which shall not be named…

For some reason, many people didn’t see the problem with the racebending that went on in the film that shall not be named. I see this argument in the anime community a lot.

It’s not related, but I just want to put it out there as I associate the two in my mind.

Is Avatar the Last Airbender An Anime or Cartoon?

This should go without saying, but Avatar: the Last Airbender is an American animated series or ‘cartoon’ created for Nickelodeon. Not all cartoons are meant for children, despite a rather disturbing popular consensus.

Animation is simply another medium of storytelling that can be aimed at any age group and/or demographic. It gives freedoms that traditional film, digital cinema, rotoscoping, and CGI simply could not exhibit.

You wouldn’t put Dora the Explorer in the same category as The Legend of Korra now, would you? I mean if you would, it’d be pretty weird…please don’t.

While Avatar: the Last Airbender takes many stylistic design choices and tropes from Japanese anime, it remains an American TV show.

A General Opinion on Japanese Anime Characters

In anime, generally if a character has a Japanese first and last name they are interpreted as Japanese, despite their “western” features.

If the character has blonde hair, blue eyes, a foreign first name or a Japanese last name, they are usually haafu.

Haafu character Kirisaki Chitoge from the anime series Nisekoi
Haafu character Kirisaki Chitoge from the anime series Nisekoi

If they are a full-on gaijin best believe the anime will mention they are from England, Germany, Scandinavia, etc. at least five times each episode to hammer it home.

Also, the ‘foreigner’ or gaijin will usually have stereotypical terrible spoken Japanese.

This argument also comes up a lot in the cosplay community. There is always someone offended at actual Japanese cosplaying anime characters believed to be ‘white’ based on appearance.

It is always the same tired argument despite what year it is.

What Ethnicity Are The Characters In Avatar?

The general consensus for years in the ATLA fandom has been that Sokka, Katara, and other Water Tribe members are based on the Inuit people, indigenous to Alaska, and the North and South Pole.

Aang and the Air Temple Nation full of monks is based on the people and monasteries of Tibet and Nepal in Asia.

The Fire Nation takes great influence from Imperial Japan, while the Earth Kingdom is considered to be mainland China during the Qin Dynasty.

The show uses various schools of martial arts that make up the elemental bending of the show.

Avatar Co-Creators Bryan Konietzko  and Michael Dante DiMartino consult Sifu Kisu regarding Chinese martial arts that formed bending in the tv show. Image from Bryan Konietzko's Tumblr Page
Avatar Co-Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino consult Sifu Kisu regarding Chinese martial arts that formed bending in the tv show. Image from Bryan Konietzko’s Tumblr Page

The showrunners consulted Chinese martial arts masters like Sifu Kisu for the best practices.

There are Chinese characters written throughout the series.

The show’s opening credits, along with “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” and “The Cave of Two Lovers” episodes for their heavy usage of traditional Chinese characters immediately comes to mind.

Katara reads the Cave of Two Lovers legend on a wall
Katara reads the Cave of Two Lovers legend on a wall

Even Zuko’s Blue Spirit wanted poster had Chinese characters.

Zuko's Blue Spirit wanted poster written in traditional Chinese characters
Zuko’s Blue Spirit wanted poster written in traditional Chinese characters

Some characters even bear names inspired by their cultures and this carries over to the next series (i.e. Tenzin, Asami Sato, Mai, etc.).

This is off-topic, but I can’t help but laugh every time I think of Asami Sato or Toph Beifong. There used to be this joke that they were the only characters rich enough to afford last names.

Unanswered Questions and Plot Points

From start to finish minor and major controversies surrounded the show. None sent fans into a fever pitch like these five words:

What Happened To Zuko’s Mother?

Long ago, there was a rumor that the search for Zuko’s mother was supposed to be a TV film.

Nickelodeon reportedly turned down ATLA creators when they presented the idea, and through the comic book series “The Search” Zuko and Azula’s journey to find their mother is explored.

A screenshot from DiMartino's website explaining the fate of Ursa, Zuko's Mom
A screenshot from DiMartino’s website explaining the fate of Ursa, Zuko’s Mom

In a now unarchived post on Co-Creator Michael Dante DiMartino’s personal blog, he writes:

“While we were working on Book 1 of Korra, Bryan and I pitched a tv movie version of the search for Zuko’s mom to Nickelodeon. They weren’t interested in doing animated TV movies, and chose to pick up Book 2 of Korra instead.”

Michael Dante DiMartino on Avatar: the Last Airbender TV movie

This led to the creation of the proposed tv movie’s plot being added to the plot of Avatar: the Last Airbender’s The Search a three-part graphic novel collaboration between ATLA Creators Konietzko, DiMartino, and artist Gene Yang.

(The 2013 post from DiMartino shown above seems to have a broken link, but can be found in the archives of his website. )

The Search Graphic Novels

The Search Part One Graphic Novel
The Search Part One Graphic Novel

In The Search, Ursa disappears from the palace during the timeframe of ATLA Book 2, Episode 7 “Zuko Alone”. Prince Ozai, wanting power by any means necessary, confronts his father Azulon after the death of heir-apparent to the throne Iroh’s only son, Lu Ten while in the Earth Kingdom.

Infuriated by Ozai’s blind ambition and disrespect for his brother’s loss, Azulon commanded Ozai to kill his own heir and son Zuko, in order to “feel the pain of losing a first-born” child.

Why Did Zuko’s Mom Leave Him?

Azula warns Zuko of their father's planned assassination attempt on him
Azula warns Zuko of their father’s planned assassination attempt on him

Do you remember during the Zuko Alone episode when there was a flashback of Azula barging into Zuko’s room late at night to tell him “Dad is going to kill you”?

Well, Ozai really was going to kill his firstborn son, as he later tells Zuko during the failed Day of Black Sun invasion in Book 3, Episode 11.

Ozai admits Ursa did “treacherous things” before leaving under the cover of night, to which Zuko cries and replies “she’s alive”. After discovering her husband’s plot, Ursa agreed to kill the Firelord for Ozai in exchange for sparing Zuko’s life.

After doing all she could to save her son, Ursa tells Zuko to always “remember who you are” before leaving, choosing to save her beloved son over her own banishment over Ozai’s insane desire for control and power.

Does Zuko See His Mom Again?

In The Search, Zuko tracks his mother down to a small village called Hira’a.

Ursa promises to tell her son Zuko everything about her life after finding her in The Search
Ursa promises to tell her son Zuko everything about her life after finding her in The Search

Zuko learns that Ursa petitioned a spirit called the Mother of Faces to take her beautiful face and erase her memories in exchange for a new life. Ursa then lives as a woman named Noriko, getting married and starting a new family with her first love, Noren (Ikem).

Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix Adaptation Announcement

Nickelodeon announces the ATLA Netflix adaptation on Twitter
Nickelodeon announces the ATLA Netflix adaptation on Twitter

I happened to come across Avatar: the Last Airbender Netflix live-action adaptation announcement news on Twitter and Reddit simultaneously.

Avatar: the Last Airbender live-action adaptation announcement on Twitter
Avatar: the Last Airbender live-action adaptation announcement on Twitter

Given the history, I am excited but can’t help but feel a bit weary. I will be covering news concerning the show’s development and full reviews when it does premiere, which I’m estimating could be late 2021 or even 2023 at the latest, as they are in the very early” stages of development.

I have cut a good portion of this article out as I need to research a few more leads first. When I have enough information, I will go further into some of the “unsolved mysteries” and urban legends in the fandom.

Are The Creators Of Avatar Working With Netflix?

Although enthusiasm was at an all-time high at the announcement of the live-action series, this has since waned as Avatar Co-Creators Konietzko and DiMartino walked away from the production.

Signaling the same traumatic ripple effect that was The Last Airbender movie, many fans on Reddit and Twitter have expressed that they may not even watch the series, as Netflix promises a ‘mature’ take on the series – its characters in the original animated show having ages ranging from 12 – 17 years old.

Hope On The Horizon?

Shortly after Bryke left production on the Netflix adaptation of ATLA, Avatar Studios was introduced.

Said to be a division of Nickelodeon Animation, the studio is set to expand the rich universe of Avatar: the Last Airbender and explore its lore in new productions. As of June 2022, three animated theatrical films are said to be in various stages of production.

Zuko cries after learning his mother Ursa is alive
Zuko cries after learning his mother Ursa is alive

Could we one day see Zuko and Azula’s search for their mother come to the big screen?

Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more Avatar: the Last Airbender News and Discussions!        

We are also creating Anime and Japanese fashion-inspired merchandise for fellow fans, Visit our Redbubble store if you have a chance – you get cool gear, and it helps support the blog!        

☆ In Asian Spaces     

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Author: In Asian Spaces

I write in my personal time and I haven't published much at all. I don't know if that qualifies me as a writer or not, but I'd like to change that. I have a deep passion for travel, cinema and (mainly) East Asian things, but I plan on writing various things to keep it spicy. Let's prosper together ~ よろしくおねがいします。

17 thoughts on “The Turbulent History of Avatar the Last Airbender’s Fandom”

    1. Thank you! Yeah, that adaptation does not exist lol it was all a bad fever dream.
      How are you liking the story? I think I stopped reading them around The Rift part 2. I gotta pick up the rest of the sets next time I go to Barnes & Noble.


  1. Let’s not talk about the M. Night live-action adaptation movie (wait, what were we talking about again)? The Netflix original looks promising. The concept art looks different than what I would imagine, but that picture was in the testing stages, of course.

    Yeah, it gets annoying to explain Avatar isn’t an anime. I have to explain that it is Eastern influenced and created by 2 American dudes, haha.

    Btw, do you go on the r/TheLastAirbender subreddit? I usually surf there to explore the fandom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol the show was never adapted into the movie, the Earth King has invited us to Lake Laogai. I agree, it does look promising. Netflix allows more creative freedom as well, so I’m looking forward to how the series is reimagined with the fanbase who grew up watching it in mind.

      Lol people seem to think that if it’s animated and isn’t completely Americanized it’s anime.

      Yeah I do! I’m subbed, but I haven’t been there in a while. Every now and then it pops up on my feed so I check it out. I need to go there more.


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