SPOILER ALERT! This post contains story details from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Thanks to its recent debut on Netflix, the beloved Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender has been finding a new audience, who are finally seeing what fans like me having been raving about for years. Originally airing from 2005 to 2008, the Emmy Award-winning show was heralded for its stunning animation, its depiction of East Asian culture, and its handling of mature themes like discrimination, oppression, war, imperialism, and more. Somehow, the people behind the series were able to do this while creating some of the most likeable yet three-dimensional characters to be featured in any children’s cartoon. The main hero, Aang, is a fun-loving 12-year-old monk who struggles with realizing his destiny as the next Avatar—the reincarnated arbitrator of the nations—and his duty to defeat the imperialist Fire Lord Ozai. However, despite the potential stories this premise already provided, another character became even more pivotal. His name is Zuko, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, son of Ozai, and Aang's primary antagonist—at first. Throughout all three seasons, Prince Zuko proved himself to be the greatest element of the series and the biggest contributor to its success.
I don’t know what it is about a good villain story that leaves such an indelible mark in my memories. My earliest one, from 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, was the two-part episode introducing Clayface; I was so heartbroken over his story. (Of course, Batman has arguably the greatest collection of villains, so no surprise there.) I also remember reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, when I actually started to feel sorry for Count Olaf near the end, as author Daniel Handler suggested that maybe Olaf was more a victim of tragic circumstance than we realized. And of course, the excellent portrayal of Killmonger in Black Panther had everyone—even T’Challa himself—questioning if we were rooting for the right person. Comics and literature are filled with examples of antagonists with complex histories and motivations.
However, children’s TV and movies tend to be more straightforward with their characterization: Villains are bad because they are bad, and not much thought is required beyond that. In Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Rita Repulsa was jealous of Zordon's power and wanted to rule the world. In The Lion King, Scar was jealous of his big brother’s power and wanted to rule the kingdom. In Home Alone, the robbers were jealous of everyone’s stuff, and wanted to rule the…suburban Chicago neighborhood? Hey, everyone’s got to have some goals, I guess. Whatever their desires, we as the young audience were not meant to empathize with them. Instead, we saw ourselves in the heroes and wanted to vanquish the borderline faceless evil.
To an extent, Avatar was still a kids’ show, and it followed a lot of the same conventions as well. Fire Lord Ozai was literally covered in shadows for a large portion of the series, and he most certainly wanted to rule all of the lands. But until the end, he was mostly relegated to the background. Most of Aang’s episodic encounters dealt with evading Zuko, and the Crown Prince had the hallmarks of a typical bad guy. He had a distinguishing, ugly facial scar. His attitude was sullen. He was occasionally beset by his hubris, believing he was better than he actually was and clashing with his subordinates. If that was all there was to him, the audience would have had no problem seeing him potentially fall to Aang.
But the writers embraced Zuko’s humanity, and that’s what made the series so refreshing to watch. We got tidbits of it in the beginning, learning at first that he was banished from his nation. Then in the middle of the first season, we dove headfirst into what essentially amounts to Zuko’s origin story. His banishment came about not because of any of the negative aspects I mentioned, but instead because he didn’t want to see any of his fellow countrymen and soldiers be used callously as sacrificial lambs. Wait a sec, the bad guy has…a conscience? As if that weren’t enough, he was then forced to duel with his own father. Unwilling to do so, he desperately pleaded for forgiveness, with tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice. It was at that moment, when he ungraciously received his scar from his father, that the audience would never look at Zuko the same way again.
The secret weapon, the real final step the writers used to make us care about Zuko, was his relationship with his uncle, General Iroh. With a mixture of aloof wit and an endless pool of sage wisdom and advice, the character of Iroh became a quick favorite among the audience. And by witnessing the love and care he had for his nephew, we were able to begin empathizing with Zuko. When Iroh was kidnapped early in the series, we rooted for Zuko to take down the perpetrators. In Season Two, when Iroh was injured at the hands of Zuko’s sister, Azula, we felt Zuko’s pain as he rejected the compassion of Aang and the gang. Finally, when Zuko recognized that Iroh had been more of a father figure to him than his actual father, he decided to reject his destiny and join the Avatar in defeating Ozai.
It’s difficult not to talk about this series without bringing up the disastrous 2010 live-action film adaptation. There were so many things wrong with it, from its whitewashing casting, to the bad acting, and all of the laughable special effects in between. One of its few highlights was Dev Patel, who did a decent job portraying Zuko. However, even if everything else had gone right, I still struggle to see how the intended film trilogy would have worked, because given what they wrote in the first film, they would have never been able to properly show the dimensions of the prince. Without those, the moment when he joins the heroes wouldn’t have made sense. Because we were able to witness Zuko's backstory, his love for his uncle, and his internal struggles of conscience throughout the entire series, his eventual redemption felt completely earned.
Zuko’s story arc from contentious baddie to righteous do-gooder is one of the best turnarounds ever presented. And as Netflix continues to move forward with producing their own live-action television adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the showrunners would do well to remember that. Given the amount of money Netflix tends to put into its series, and that the creators have already vowed to cast culturally appropriate actors, I have no doubt that the show will look phenomenal. Their biggest challenge will be finding an actor for Zuko who is capable of expressing the complexities the character presents. If they can make his arc feel just as great as it did in the original, it’ll be a guaranteed recipe for success.