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An Extended ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Universe Is In The Works

"Avatar: The Last Airbender."
"Avatar: The Last Airbender." By Courtesy of Nickelodeon Network/Everett Collection
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

Thirteen years after the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series finale premiered, and six years after the series finale of its sequel, “The Legend of Korra,” it looks like the franchise may not be finished after all. On Feb. 24, Nickelodeon announced the creation of Avatar Studios, a production company which will make new content set in the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Even more exciting, original “Avatar” creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko will be on board as co-chief creative officers. In a statement on Instagram, both creators expressed that they were “exceedingly grateful” and “excited to be back at Nickelodeon where Avatar began,” looking forward to returning to the fantasy world they helmed so many years ago.

This announcement, while seemingly out of the blue, can likely be credited to the show’s resurgence in popularity over quarantine. While the show has previously aired in reruns on Nickelodeon as well as on Amazon Prime, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was released on Netflix in May 2020 and soared to the number one most popular offering on the site within the week. Since then, it has spent a record-breaking 61 consecutive days on Netflix’s top 10 list. Similarly, “The Legend of Korra” also reached number one when it was added to the streaming site in August 2020.

In addition to reigniting interest in the series, paving the way for Avatar Studios to even happen, Netflix may have contributed to this announcement in other ways. In 2018, Netflix announced a live action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series was in the works. After the critical flop that was the 2010 live action “The Last Airbender” — which received a dismal 5% on Rotten Tomatoes — fans were skeptical, but the involvement of DiMartino and Konietzko was widely taken as a good sign. However, last August, both creators announced they were leaving the project, citing creative difficulties. In a later statement, DiMartino even wrote that “whatever ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I intended to make.” After this announcement, fan interest in the project waned; the announcement of Avatar Studios has now eclipsed news of the upcoming live action adaptation, effectively killing any lingering interest in Netflix’s project.

However, this announcement does raise some concerns. During the production and airing of the last “Avatar” property, “Legend of Korra,” Nickelodeon made confusing decisions: Last minute schedule changes and a mid-series switch from airing on cable and exclusively online acted as barriers to fans who just wanted to watch this fantastic cartoon. Similarly, from the onset, Nickelodeon was reported to have interfered with production, allegedly disliking that protagonist Korra was a girl and later requiring that the romantic relationship between two lead female characters only be strongly implied, rather than directly shown. While Nickelodeon is where the Avatar universe began, it may not have always supported the properties or the creators’ vision. Hopefully, the popularity of “Legend of Korra” despite production issues, and the continued smash success of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” more than a decade later will give the creators more leeway and control this time around.

Another cause for concern is whether Avatar Studios will play into the current reboot craze that has been shaping new releases. The practice of releasing stale, unoriginal remakes to capitalize on nostalgia is best epitomized by Disney’s seemingly unending parade of live action remakes. While it is a good sign that the Avatar Studios announcements emphasize the upcoming release of new content, the timing is suspect. There was a four year gap between the end of “The Last Airbender” and the beginning of “Legend of Korra” while the creators carefully planned the sequel. It was intentional, and DiMartino and Konietzko have since been clear about not returning to the franchise until they had a story to tell. Yet there appears to be a direct correlation between the series’ sudden increase in popularity last year and the recent announcement. Similarly, part of the critical acclaim of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” as a whole series is how satisfyingly all of the subplots and character arcs are tied up in interesting and compelling ways. Considering how final the show’s finale was, it is difficult to determine what loose ends remain to prompt a whole new movie or series. The search for Zuko’s mother (covered in the comics) and the founding of Republic City to bridge Aang’s series with “Legend of Korra” would seem to be the primary candidates, though Avatar Studios has yet to release more specific information about any projects in the works. While a surplus of derivative content is not desirable, the “Avatar” franchise has yet to disappoint in this way: From the two animated series to nearly a decade of comics, Avatar’s creatives have always made and distributed each addition with care.

Regardless of the quality of any new “Avatar” content, the original series will remain considered by many to be one of the best cartoons of all time. And in the end, the promise of more stories about Aang and his friends is certainly anything but bad news.

— Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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