Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Controversy Explained

What was behind the controversy that led fans to question many aspects of the Netflix's live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender in the live-action series (meditating) and in the animated series (angry.)
Photo: Netflix/Nickelodeon

“We will have no involvement in the project moving forward. We ultimately came to the belief that we would not be able to meaningfully guide the direction of the series.”

This 2020 Instagram post from Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) co-creator Bryan Konietzko set off an explosion whose shockwaves are still being felt to this day. After the 2018 announcement that the original creators of the beloved animated series would take the reins of a Netflix live-action series, the Instagram post left massive questions in its wake. Questions still on the minds of fans everywhere, a controversy that won’t go away, as Netflix finally releases their live-action ATLA series.

What happened between the original creators of ATLA and Netflix? Why aren’t they involved in the live-action series anymore? What does this mean for both that series and any animated ATLA projects moving forward? To answer those questions and more we trace the long history of this controversy.

2018: The Live-Action Series Is Announced

In September 2018 the original ATLA animated series had been finished for over 10 years, with sequel series The Legend of Korra bowing out four years previously. While new graphic novels were being released it was a relatively quiet period for ATLA. Suddenly, it was announced Netflix had ordered a live-action series.

Ad – content continues below

ATLA’s abysmal live-action track record, thanks to the 2010 film being a massive flop with fans, was quickly forgotten when the news stressed that original ATLA creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino would be helming the series. Considering the two had little involvement with the live-action movie, this was clear proof to worrying fans that the live-action series would be handled right. The creators even took the announcement as a chance to make some not so-subtle digs at that film when they jointly stated,

“We can’t wait to realize Aang’s world as cinematically as we always imagined it to be, and with a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast.”

The live-action series, where development had only just begun when the announcement was made, was promised to build upon the work of the original animated show. They would go deeper with the characters, story, action, and world-building. Critically, the creators stated, “Netflix is wholly dedicated to manifesting our vision for this retelling, and we’re incredibly grateful to be partnering with them.”

2019: Crafting Something Powerful

News went quiet for the most part after the initial announcement, with only two posts shared on Bryan Konietzko’s tumblr blog in May 2019. One was simply a photo of the creators with original Toph voice actress, Michaela Murphy, where she shared, “some great insights on being a child actor that will surely benefit our future cast.”

The other post was more substantial, Konietzko stating that they were transitioning into “the next phase of production.” The core team working on the show was growing and they were, “writing, planning, and testing.” At this point Konietzko described that “everything seems slow” and that “we’re itching to speed up” but predicted that everything would soon be happening all at once.

Konietzko also addressed fan inquiries about when a trailer would be dropped by explaining that, “you wouldn’t want to see a version of this series that was made within 9 months. Too much Hollywood fare is fast-tracked and the results speak for themselves.”

Ad – content continues below

He praised Netflix for their commitment to doing right by ATLA, promising that, “we’re trying to make something special that will stand the test of time.” He noted all the planning that would be involved for a fantasy series with tons of VFX, CG creatures, martial arts, and more. It was assured that everyone involved in the show was making good use of the extra time so they could, “craft something beautiful and emotionally powerful.”

Casting was seemingly being considered at this time, with Konietzko stating they’d be starting it “before too long.” He encouraged those who planned on auditioning to keep taking acting lessons along with martial arts and movement classes.

Around this time or in early 2020, writer and executive producer Albert Kim (Pantheon, Sleepy Hollow) was brought on to the team. He later explained in a 2024 Entertainment Weekly interview that when he joined, the original creators “had done a fair amount of visual exploration, as well as narrative [work] and how to translate the show.” This work included writing on the show, with both the original creators credited as writing the teleplay for the premiere episode with Kim. Konietzko will also be credited on the teleplay for episode 6 with writers Emily Kim and Hunter Ries, based on a story from Konietzko and DiMartino.

Albert Kim was in awe of the two creators and the work they’d done on the original show and was especially impressed with their commitment to authentic casting. The creators shared deep insight into the ATLA world with Kim, including the real-life analogs to every location, which helped Kim cast real-life actors from those real-world locations.

Everything seemed to be in perfect harmony and proceeding well.

2020: Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino Leave the Project

With the original announcement and Konietzko’s two tumblr posts as the only publicly available information on the live-action series, fans assumed everything was proceeding as planned. Then, well, everything changed. 

Ad – content continues below

In August 2020, both Konietzko and DiMartino simultaneously shared lengthy social media blasts announcing they’d chosen to leave the live-action series. Both explained that while Netflix publicly promised to support their vision for the series, there was no follow-through. DiMarinto stated that, “I realized I couldn’t control the creative direction of the series.” 

Konietzko stressed that while he got to work with many great individuals both from Netflix and the creators’ own development team, Netflix’s general handling of the project created, “a negative and unsupportive environment.” 

For both the original creators, the project was not what they’d hoped or been promised it would be. They knew the production would be challenging but whatever happened between them and Netflix was far and beyond the normal trials and tribulations of getting a TV show made. According to Konietzko, their problems with Netflix were, “not a simple matter of us not getting our way… We did not need all of the ideas to come from us. As long as we felt those ideas were in line with the spirit and integrity of Avatar, we would have happily embraced them.”

But that didn’t happen and the two walked away from the project in June 2020, both calling it one of the hardest and most difficult decisions they’d ever had to make. DiMartino stated, “it was necessary for my happiness and creative integrity.” Konietzko more bluntly hoped that future projects would afford him, “trust and respect.”

Though the two hoped those they’d hired onto the live-action show would get to make something fans of the original animated series and new audiences would enjoy, DiMartino made one thing clear. 

“Whatever version ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make.”

Ad – content continues below

Netflix’s response to the two’s exit was given by an unnamed spokesperson, simply saying that they respected and admired the two and that while they had chosen to leave the project, “we are confident in the creative team and their adaptation.”

The Hollywood Reporter shared sources which seemed to confirm DiMartino and Konietzko’s side of events, claiming there had been creative differences not only between the original creators and Netflix but, “other creatives throughout the development process over how to adapt the animated series to live action.”

No specific examples of changes were cited by the two creators in their posts or anyone else involved with the show since their departure.

The changes proposed by Netflix must have been ones that would have ripped the very soul out of what ATLA was. This would explain why the creators felt disrespected, unhappy, and their creative integrity couldn’t be maintained. It also points to the idea that while Netflix promised the two major creative control, when push came to shove, Netflix wanted the final say. That alone is more than enough reason for the two creators to have departed, since getting to tell the series as cinematically as they’d always imagined it was such a core part of why they wanted to work on this project. If they didn’t have control over that, what was the point?

2021-2024: The Netflix Show Struggles On Without Its Creators

Albert Kim was left as the showrunner of a series without its original creators, a task that intimidated him according to an interview in Entertainment Weekly. Still, he remained motivated by the opportunity to bring a fantasy TV epic to life that, unlike series like Game of Thrones and The Witcher, would be rooted in Asian culture. He stated that such a series is incredibly rare and that a live-action version would set, “new benchmarks for representation by featuring an all Asian and Indigenous cast.” 

Kim also stressed that the original creators presence will still be felt on the series with all the input they gave while still involved with the project.

Ad – content continues below

In 2021 Konietzko and DiMartino were announced to be heading up Avatar Studios, which would be solely dedicated to creating Avatar-related media for Paramount+ and Nickelodeon. The first of these projects, an animated feature film set to follow lead ATLA character Aang, is set to be released in 2025

With Konietzko and DiMartino still working in the world of ATLA, albeit away from Netflix, it’s doubtful we’ll be getting many more details about their departure from the live-action project anytime soon. The two have been with Avatar Studios for three years now and we can assume they’ve been given the creative respect and control that Netflix didn’t provide.

When the live-action Netflix series debuts, fans will no doubt scramble to identify what changes caused the original creators to leave. Perhaps it’ll be obvious but with so much time having passed between when they left and the show’s release, it’s more likely that it won’t be so easy to tell who contributed what. 

Even if the live-action show receives a positive reception, the mystery behind the creators exit is a controversy it’ll never be able to escape the shadow of.

All eight episodes of the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender are available to stream on Netflix now.