Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.
Rejoice, Avatar: The Last Airbender fans: The Avatar universe is about to expand in a big way. A new movie is imminent—and we’re not talking about Thursday’s news that Netflix has cast the stars of its upcoming live-action adaptation. That film ran into some roadblocks last year when Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko dropped out of the project, citing creative differences with Netflix. Seven months later, the pair emerged with an exciting announcement: ViacomCBS, Nickelodeon’s parent company, would create Avatar Studios, an entire new production house based completely around The Last Airbender and its sequel series, The Legend of Korra. The studio plans to roll out a new catalog of films and television series; first on the agenda is a new animated theatrical film, set to start production later this year.
Details on the new movie remain sparse, however—the public is still in the dark on what the movie will be about, or which characters it will feature. So, in honor of Nickelodeon Week, the staff at The Ringer decided to offer some unsolicited advice to the Avatar Studios team, along with predictions for what could happen in the franchise at large. Let’s dive in:
Let’s establish the basic timeline: Should the new Avatar movie be set Before Aang, After Korra, or sometime in between their two series?
Kaelen Jones: Personally, I would love to see the movie navigate the time period immediately following ATLA, especially considering the comic book series offers The Promise as a guide. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if DiMartino and Konietzko would rather not touch any of that and instead allow everything that’s already been done to exist as is.
It would make sense for the movie to follow adult OG Team Avatar during the post-Imbalance and pre-Korra period. That would probably erase my hopes for a Zuko-Ursa on-screen moment to rejoice/cry over, though.
Alison Herman: I like the idea of Before Aang! Let’s see the Air Nomads in their prime. Also, we’ve already seen the avatar aesthetic fast-forwarded into the steampunk age; let’s wind it back to something more primeval. Besides, as the Game of Thrones arms race has shown: Where there’s well-crafted lore, there’s ample opportunity for prequels.
Kellen Becoats: I’m vaguely sure there are already comics that explain some of the time gap between The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. That being said, the way my attention span functions, I’m gonna need those moving pictures on my TV. Give me midlife crisis Team Avatar!
Zach Kram: After Korra. Unless the movie plans to adapt the well-received Kyoshi novels, it should avoid journeying to the pre-Aang past. As Ben Lindbergh wrote last year about the problems with prequels, “Storytellers typically start at the most interesting stage of their stories, when some kind of conflict is happening.” Sounds like ATLA! “If whatever happened before the first episode were so interesting,” Ben continued, “the story would’ve started there instead.”
In other words: If the events of ATLA constituted the most exciting battles with the highest stakes to that point in this world’s history, as we’re led to believe, then anything before them will feel like a letdown by comparison. So jump into the future instead, past the known events of the comics and four seasons of Korra, to show something new. (Plus, as we saw with Iroh in Korra, the evolution of the spirit world offers the possibility for fan favorites from long ago to return in snippets, anyway.)
David Lara: Something in between would be amazing, to call back to so many of the great characters from the original series. Seeing Aang and Katara’s relationship grow as they age would be awesome, especially since we got only a bit of what Aang had to deal with as he got older in the first season of The Legend of Korra. But if I have to pick just one, let’s go into the future with Korra’s kids—assuming she has any. Seeing an avatar in modern times—after the industrial revolution—would be interesting.
Miles Surrey: There’s no reason for the movie to be set between the two series when the biggest selling point of the franchise is that the avatar reincarnation cycle invites new storytelling opportunities, be it in the past or future. The Aang to Korra transition bringing about an industrial revolution was quite fascinating, but for a change of pace, it might be fun tracing the origins of an earlier avatar.
Jomi Adeniran: We’ve already seen the world After Aang. I’d love to see the world before him, when it was relatively at peace.
Arjuna Ramgopal: I know there are plenty of comics set between the two series, but I need more adventures with the OG Team Avatar. One of the biggest things we missed was seeing our original heroes grow up and go on more adventures as they became adults. While we got little peeks of that in The Legend of Korra, I’d love to see that in a movie.
Who would you like to be the focus of this film? It can be a character(s) we’ve already met or someone yet to be seen in the Avatar universe.
Kram: Someone new. The next Avatar story should go in one of two directions. Option one: The protagonist is the next fire-bending avatar (two after Korra, in the four-part cycle), who will also be the first fire-bending avatar since “everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked” and must reckon with that legacy while adjusting to new powers.
Option two: The protagonist isn’t an avatar, or even a bender at all. Korra was a divisive show, and I will defend most of it—while ATLA is better overall, with much more compelling characters, Korra, with its more mature themes and focus on world-building, has stuck with me longer—but its politics were misguided at best and harmful at worst. Most notably, Amon was right in Season 1: Society in this world inherently produces and then does not address a caste system based on genetic abilities. A renewed Avatar story should examine this imbalance with more care; after all, fantasy stories that feature an unpowered protagonist surrounded by superpowered characters often result in creative masterpieces. (See: Lord of the Rings, Spirited Away, etc.)
Ramgopal: I’d love a Zuko movie. Zuko’s redemption story is one of the greatest that we’ve ever seen played out on screen. It’s bittersweet that we get only a handful of episodes with our fully reformed Zuko in the last season. Seeing Zuko lead the Fire Nation and repair relationships would be fascinating, especially from his point of view. As we know from the comics, his relationship with Aang was not 100 percent smooth for the rest of their lives. It would be cool to see another conflict between the two of them, but from Zuko’s perspective.
Becoats: Sokka had his moments in the original series. I get emotional talking about Yue and/or Sokka’s sword episode, please don’t get me started. So I need my man to have a more sustained role. All of us watching (unless y’all got something to tell me) are non-benders, so let him, as one of us, be a key part of the narrative. That doesn’t mean we have to miss out on all the bending, or that Sokka has to be the main protagonist—but how awesome would it be if the character without powers got his proper shine? I can feel my editor grinning at me behind his Sokka Slack profile picture.
Lara: I’d like to meet new characters again! So possibly a kid of someone in The Legend of Korra, maybe even one of Korra’s own? Or maybe Bolin and Opal’s kid. Or maybe someone with no connections whatsoever, to introduce a whole new world.
Surrey: We’ve had avatars who’ve started out as an Airbender (Aang) and a Waterbender (Korra), so why not give an Earthbender a shot? My only worry for an Avatar Kyoshi film is that her impressive height might inspire the same [clears throat] fervor as Resident Evil’s Tall Vampire Lady.
Adeniran: The only answer here is Avatar Kyoshi—7 feet tall, violent, and extremely powerful? To be honest, we need a trilogy of films just on her.
Herman: I’d be into a Planet Earth–style mockumentary featuring sky bison, polar bear dogs, and the assorted wildlife of the Avatar universe. (This is not a serious suggestion. Or is it?)
Jones: Young adult/adult Aang. ATLA was Aang’s coming of age and Korra allowed us to see the repercussions of his decisions. The comics go further by showing us his initial run-ins with the Fire Nation colonies, various bender/non-bender relationships, spirits inhabiting the physical world, and more. (I know, I know. Sounds like Korra!) Watching Aang address one or more of these issues, or making them more widespread, would be fascinating. We just need more Aang!
The Avatar franchise has much lore surrounding the elements, the avatar reincarnation cycle, and the spirit world, to name a few examples. Which part of the mythology are you eager to learn more about?
Aderniran: I’d love to know exactly how the avatar gets picked. Like, is it random? Does Ravva decide? It doesn’t have to be an entire film or series, but I’d like to see it touched upon.
Lara: The avatar reincarnation cycle would be my pick. How is an avatar chosen following the previous one? Is there some sort of spirit selection that leads to that? I want to know it all!
Surrey: They’ll never explain it, but I’d love to know why there are so many hybrid animals (i.e., the Badgermole and Mongoose Lizard). Is this the Spirits’ doing, or does Avatar take place after a nuclear holocaust?
Jones: I would love a map of the Spirit World. But I am also curious whether there are other secret groups like the Sun Warriors out there, and I’d like to know their purpose, history, and whether they are also hiding dragons or something. Alternatively, there are several groups we already know of that could be further explained, like the Red Lotus, White Lotus, Dai Li, and New Ozai Society.
Herman: Again, I’d really like to see more of the Air Nomads, pre-genocide. (Avatar has some heavy themes for a YA cartoon, huh?) So much of what made Avatar fun was exploring a whole new civilization each season, with one glaring exception. Let’s run it back and check it out!
Kram: I want to see more specialization within the four broad bending areas. This would be another advantage of placing a new story in the After Korra era: ATLA showed the invention of Metalbending, and Korra showed its expansion—what will another century of scientific advancement look like? And how can innovation within the other elements follow suit?
Ramgopal: What’s better than one avatar? How about multiple? Much like the popular multi-doctor Doctor Who crossovers, let’s get multiple avatars to team up in the Spirit Realm and save the day. Korra losing her connection to the previous avatars was devastating in The Legend of Korra. Let’s either fix that, or have an older Aang connect with avatars from the past … and the future!
Becoats: One of the coolest elements (sorry) of the Avatar franchise is that nothing is ever set in stone. There are only four elements for people to master, unless you’re blessed with the ability to do just a little more. I’d be fascinated to dive deeper into that lore.
If you could incorporate one distinct feature—a plot line, character arc, bending style, etc.—from either The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, what would you choose?
Lara: Bloodbending. It seems to be the most powerful and illegal bending one can do. And it seems to give avatars the most trouble.
Surrey: The utter creepiness of Bloodbending will never get old. Beyond that, I’d love to continue exploring all the kingdoms—like Game of Thrones’ Westeros, Avatar is an immersive world that gives the impression there’s something cool to check out around every newly introduced settlement or faraway island.
Herman: If there isn’t a brooding antihero with a gradual, hard-won redemption arc, I don’t want it. Facial scar optional.
Ramgopal: The dragons. Dragons are always cool, and it was a delight to discover they weren’t extinct in Avatar. A dragon-centric movie would be amazing. I need to see the dragons make a comeback and for avatars and regular benders to fly them regularly.
Jones: Azula’s arc. The comics show us what initially happens with Azula after ATLA, but I am really, really curious to see how and when she and her new posse appear again and (potentially) clash with Zuko and OG Team Avatar.
Aderniran: BRING THE RED LOTUS BACK. Zaheer was a menace; streets need that unabashed mix of violence and wits. Seriously, watch Season 3 of The Legend of Korra and tell me Zaheer isn’t the best villain in the series.
I’ll be waiting.
Becoats: Since we’re in a bit of an Industrial Revolution era in the Avatar universe, why not go the extra step and make it a gangster movie? “Kellen,” you might say, “that sounds ridiculous.” May I present to you these scenes from The Legend of Korra? Sokka as a judge? Toph as the hard-nosed police captain with a metal tongue and a heart of gold? Aang dishing out justice when normal procedure doesn’t cut it? Yeah, go ahead and give me AT LEAST 120 minutes of that. Add to that an entertaining and wildly dangerous antagonist, like the Red Lotus terrorists before they get locked up, and an R rating. A man can dream, à la Amazon’s Invincible, and I’m all the way in.
Kram: Does the music count? Because the music in these shows absolutely rules—from “Leaves From the Vine” to Aang’s favorite dance track to the pensive ending Korra theme. (In fact, while writing this very blurb, I am listening to a wonderfully relaxing collection.) Past soundtrack success does not necessarily predict future soundtrack success, though—for instance, the score in the Star Wars sequel trilogy didn’t match those from the original and prequel trilogies—so I hope the next Avatar score can equal its predecessors.
Make a wild prediction for something that will happen in this movie that would catch Avatar fans by surprise.
Jones: Somebody dies. I hope it’s not Sokka …
Kram: M. Night Shyamalan has a cameo.
Surrey: We will discover the lost art of Cabbagebending.
Lara: We’ll finally find out what happened to Zuko’s mom.
Herman: That the movie is wildly good and successfully channels the originality, allegorical power, and emotional resonance of the original in a way that doesn’t feel like a cynical nostalgia grab.
Ramgopal: Time travel! Like I said earlier, have Aang connect with avatars in the past and future. Tease some future avatars, while also showing off some of the previous ones. Time doesn’t have to go in one direction.
Becoats: Somehow, the benders, including the avatar, can’t find a way to defeat the enemy. So they call up an old friend. [Cut to scene of Sokka in his judge’s quarters as Aang and Toph ask him for assistance.] “I’m getting too old for this shit,” Sokka grumbles as he carefully takes his trusty boomerang off a frame on the wall. He cracks his neck, and then goes to work. Sidenote: I would also like a scene of Zuko handling the day-to-day operation of Iroh’s tea shop in Ba Sing Se, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.
Aderniran: As it turns out, the cabbage merchant spent years in his bag trying to get revenge on Team Avatar, only to find out the kids he was trying to beat saved the world. So he just cries for 30 minutes straight.
Nickelodeon president and CEO Brian Robbins recently said that ViacomCBS plans to pursue a “full-fledged franchise strategy [to create] films and spinoffs out of Avatar.” As a humble fan of the series, what is your best advice for how to make Avatar Studios succeed?
Herman: Trust the creators! Netflix wanted the Avatar cachet, but didn’t want to empower DiMartino and Konietzko to actually exercise their vision. And look how that turned out!
Kram: Stay animated. The 2010 film didn’t fail just because it went live action—but that change certainly didn’t help. The animation in ATLA and Korra allowed for fast-paced action and limitless imagination with the illustration of bending; live action, uh, did not, with the infamous rock toss as the best example:
This isn’t to say that a live action rendering is doomed to fail; Netflix is apparently optimistic, for one. But animation offers storytelling possibilities that live action does not, and the Avatarverse should embrace this identity that has already powered it to a phenomenon.
Becoats: As someone who got just the right amount of intoxicated to see the Old movie, for the love of Iroh, don’t let M. Night Shyamalan anywhere near this franchise ever again.
Jones: Mandate a restraining order against M. Night Shyamalan and keep bringing back Dante Basco to voice Zuko’s descendants. The creators already do a great job of diversifying their content between shorts, comics, and the series on a smaller scope. So I trust Avatar Studios will do a fantastic job utilizing additional resources.
Surrey: As Disney has learned the hard way after acquiring Star Wars, quality is more important than quantity.
Lara: I would love them to do exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing. Give us everything. Movies, TV shows, spinoffs. I’m in for all things Avatar. There’s enough history pre– and post–The Last Airbender that could give us such amazing content. What did Asami and Korra do after they got back from the Spirit World? What was it like for the avatars post-Wan? Tons of questions, and they could bring us along for all of that!
Adeniran: Try something new. With the live-action Netflix series on the way, the streets could use a brand-new story set in the vast Avatar universe—and not all of it has to revolve around Aang, Sokka, Katara, Toph, and Zuko.
Personally, I’d watch six seasons and a movie of Meelo doing just about anything.
Ramgopal: Take your time and don’t lose sight of what made the first two series so great. The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra were always about the big and little moments. Make these characters three-dimensional. Push them to make interesting choices. Have stakes in your story. Adhere to that, and you’ll be golden.