There’s been no shortage of iconic Nickelodeon shows over the years, but Avatar: The Last Airbender is truly something special. It’s often hailed as one of the “greatest cartoons of all time,” offering viewers something completely different than Nickelodeon’s usual roster of programs at the time.
With mature writing, gorgeous animation, fully-realized characters, and high-concept world building, The Last Avatar became a massive commercial and critical hit, respected by kids, teenagers, and adults.
Spanning three seasons and 61 episodes, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino managed to capture lightning in a bottle.
Even though there’s been a sequel show, a comic series, a collection of video games, and even a terrible live-action movie we all pretend didn’t happen, The Last Airbender remains as the most iconic out of the bunch.
However, the show we now know and love wasn’t always the show that was envisioned. It may shock you to learn that a twist of fate could have altered entire moments.
Below we’ve compiled shocking nuggets of information that change your favorite earthbender, alter heroes to become traitors, explain unresolved mysteries, and place the events of the show in an entirely different time period.
With that said, here are the 15 Crazy Things You Didn’t Know About Avatar: The Last Airbender.
15 The Show Almost Aired Without Zuko
Despite his relentless attempts to hunt down Aang for the first two seasons, Zuko ended up becoming perhaps the biggest fan-favorite of The Last Airbender.
His arc, from a hate-filled prince who is desperate to win his father’s approval to a confidant leader who earns his nation’s trust, is one of the most fulfilling of the show’s run.
Given his significance and popularity, it’s almost astounding to learn that the show almost aired without Zuko at all, as the young Prince of the Fire Nation was one of the last characters to be written in.
Originally, the writers had intended the Fire Lord to be the big bad of all three seasons. However, they soon realized that they couldn’t do enough with the Fire Lord just sitting on his throne, and wrote in Zuko’s character instead.
14 Toph Was Originally a Really Buff Dude
Although she looks like a helpless little blind girl, Toph is actually one of the most powerful earthbenders in the history of the series and is responsible for inventing the technique of metalbending.
That fact that she’s small but powerful gave Toph enormous appeal, but it’s almost scary to think that this iconic earthbender came close to ending up as a big, bulky meathead.
Initially, the writers’ plan was to make Toph a ginormous-looking dude with the physique of someone like Hulk Hogan or the Rock. Worse yet, the character wasn’t written as being blind, and was even pitched as a potential love interest for Katara.
Thankfully, the idea was scrapped, and a much more creative design led to the Toph we all know and love today.
13 Azula’s Arranged Marriage
Another powerful female bender was Azula, Princess of the Fire Nation and older sister of Zuko. As the daughter of the Fire Lord, Azulu exhibited immense strength, and a sadistic, evil attitude to go along with it.
Given her authoritative and insidious nature, it’s almost unthinkable for her to get romantically involved with anyone in the show, but that’s exactly what the writers intended to happen towards the tail end of Book Three.
One of the subplots of the final season was going to involve Azula being set up in an arranged marriage.
However, the writers didn’t think there was enough meat to the story and scrapped the idea. Good thing, as it would have been unfortunate for the viewers, and even more unfortunate for anyone who wound up with Azula.
12 Lake Laogai is Based on a Real Chinese Labor Camp
One of the best episodes came towards the end of the second season with “Lake Laogai.” In it, Aang and the group run in to former antagonist Jet, who’s been brainwashed in a secret underground lab led by a faction of the Earth Kingdom.
Though “Lake Laogai” is a thrilling episode, it’s also one of the most culturally relevant, because the underground prison camp is actually based on a true story – sort of.
In Chinese, Laogai is short for Laodonggaizao, an even longer word that actually means “reform through labor. Laodonggaizao was also the name of a Chinese political prison camp used in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Hundreds of political prisoners were actually sent to this camp and brainwashed, much like the fictional underground base in “Lake Laogai.”
11 The Legend of the “Cabbage Merchant”
If you’re a fan of The Last Airbender, then chances are you recognize this unlucky street merchant who is constantly trying to save his wagon of produce from utter destruction.
The “Cabbage Man” or “Cabbage Merchant” originally showed up in season one when his cart of tasty cabbages was completely destroyed by a group of overenthusiastic earthbenders.
Originally written in as a one-off joke, the Cabbage Merchant was such a hit with fans that the writers decided to make him a running gag throughout the series. The Merchant shows up in three more episodes, his cart usually being destroyed by Aang and the crew with the Merchant exclaiming “My cabbages!”
In the follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, we discover that the Cabbage Man heads up a super-successful company named Cabbage Corp., so at least this poor guy’s story has a happy ending.
10 The Tale of Two Irohs
The entire cast of The Last Airbender did a phenomenal job in bringing their characters to life, but legendary voice actor Mako Iwamatsu (known simply as Mako) did an especially nice job with Uncle Iroh.
Powerful, wise, and commanding, Mako was the perfect choice to play the old, jovial firebender who provided the emotional backbone of the series.
However, tragedy struck in the middle of season two when Mako unfortunately passed away from esophageal cancer. In a scramble, Nickelodeon tried replacing the actor the quickest and best they could.
They accomplished that task by hiring Greg Baldwin, Mako’s understudy. The actor did such a fine job filling in that some years later he also took over Mako’s role of Aku for the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack.
9 The Boy in the Iceberg is The Live Action Movie
The Last Airbender is a sweeping epic with limitless world building and fully-realized characters. With such rich material to mine from, it would only make sense that the series would eventually be adapted into a live-action film.
However, some ideas are best left on paper. The 2010 adaptation, directed by none other than big-time director M. Night Shyamalan, was chewed up and spit out by hardcore fans for glossing over pivotal moments of the story and turning the characters into one-dimensional stock types.
Actually, the movie’s failure is foreshadowed in “The Boy in the Iceberg,” the fictional Fire Nation play from the show that retells Aang’s story. Embarrassed, the gang describes the play as bad but with decent effects, which is pretty much the film in a nutshell.
At least the play didn’t continually pronounce Aang’s name wrong like the Shyamalan movie.
8 Mark Hamill voiced the Fire Lord
Though we don’t see a lot of him until the third season, Fire Lord Ozai is one of the most powerful benders of the series. He’s the incarnation of pure evil, a domineering, sadistic ruler who is consumed only with rage and power.
He’s the kind of malevolent bad guy who scars his son for simply speaking out of turn or burns down the entire Earth Kingdom just to prove a point. With such a big, scary personality, Nickelodeon was tasked with finding a voice that could provide the right candor to bring this evil-doer to life.
They found it in none other than Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. Hamill, who had past experience with bringing animated bad guys to life with the Joker, was the perfect choice for Ozai, whose voice is just as fierce as the fire he bends.
7 Co-creator Michael DiMartino Left Family Guy to Work on Last Airbender
Sure, The Last Airbender is a kid-friendly adventure program and Family Guy is an adult-based comedy with enough raunchy humor to terrify any conservative parent, but the two shows actually have a little in common.
One of the co-creators of Airbender, Michael DiMartino, actually worked on Family Guy for years, directing and writing a number of episodes. DiMartino eventually left the Fox sitcom in 2002 in order to spend his time on his passion project, The Last Airbender.
Prior to creating the Nickelodeon cartoon with Bryan Konietzko, DiMartino worked for 12 years at Film Roman, during which time he worked on Family Guy and also directed several episodes of another Fox program, King of the Hill.
Konietzko and DiMartino have also worked on other Nickelodeon shows over the years, including cult-favorite Invader Zim.
6 The Show Was Going to Take Place Thousands of Years in the Future
The Last Airbender was first conceived in 2001 by Bryan Konietzko off nothing more than his sketch of a bald kid herding bison in the sky.
He showed the drawing to fellow animator Michael DiMartino and the pair soon began work on a concept about an “air guy” with some “water people” who were getting pressed down on by some “fire people.”
That barebones concept is a far cry from the final product. However, even weirder is the fact that during this early stage, Konietzko and DiMartino were tinkering with the idea of placing the world of Avatar thousands of years into the future!
In the end, the pair decided to scrap the sci-fi concept in favor of the older time period in which the show is set. Good thing, as Aang riding around in a flying car is far less interesting than a flying bison.
5 The Comics Reveal the Fate of Zuko's Mother
The fate of Zuko’s mother Ursa is the biggest unsolved mystery of The Last Airbender. While the writers were intending on solving that question in the series finale, there just wasn’t enough time and the idea was ultimately scrapped.
Thankfully, that lingering question was answered in The Promise, The Search, and Smoke and Shadow, a series of comics that take place after the show and detail Ursa’s upbringing, her past love, her marriage to Ozai, and, eventually, her disappearance.
Although it’s hinted at in the show, it’s revealed that Ursa was responsible for poisoning Ozai’s father so her husband could claim the throne. After she’s banished, she’s granted a new identity by a mystical being and starts a new family.
She’s finally given the happy ending she deserves when Zuko meets up with her and ends her banishment once and for all
4 Commander Zhao Was Played By the Actor He Was Based On
The Last Airbender is loaded with real world inspirations. Monk Gyatso was named after the Daliai Lama, the Hippo was inspired by Andrew the Giant, and the Boulder was modeled after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
However, it is Admiral Zhao that provides the biggest pop culture collaboration of the show. While crafting the character, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino asked casting director Maryanne Dacey to find someone who could provide a voice just as menacing as the villain William Tavington from the 2000 movie, The Patriot.
Surprisingly enough, Dacey was able to find the perfect candidate: Jason Isaacs, who actually played Tavington in The Patriot.
Luckily, Isaacs happened to be available and wound up playing a character that was based on a villain he already played. It was probably the easiest role an actor ever had.
3 Zuko and Katara Almost Ended Up Together
Although Katara finally gets romantically involved with Aang in the series finale, she almost wound up with the Prince of the Fire Nation himself, Zuko.
The idea of Zuko getting together with Katara was an idea that floated around the writers’ room for most of the series. It’s no surprise they would toy with the concept, considering there was already plenty of evidence from the show to support it.
For one, Katara is a lot closer to Zuko’s age than Aang’s. There’s also that scene in the season two finale where they open up to each other and it even looks they might embrace right then and there.
But sadly, for those who desperately wanted to ship the two benders, their romance just wasn’t in the cards, ended up with the Avatar instead.
2 Momo’s Crazy Original Design
Remember when we mentioned that The Last Airbender was almost going to take place thousands of years into the future?
Well, the creators of the show took that idea seriously, and some of your favorite characters were almost significantly changed into works of science fiction as a result.
More specifically, we’re talking about Momo, everyone’s favorite half bat, half lemur creature. Although He wound up looking furry and adorable, that’s a far cry away from his original design, which involved robotics.
The first rough sketch of Momo depicted a robot monkey cyclops that looked like it came straight out of the mind of Neil Blomkamp, and was going to be named Momo-3.
Eventually, the creators decided to change the time period, and Momo became the fuzzy, mischievous creature we all know and love today.
1 Uncle Iroh Almost Betrayed Zuko
If you were to make a list of impossible things that could have happened in the series finale, sweet Uncle Iroh stabbing Zuko in the back would probably be at the top.
There isn’t a more likeable character than Iroh in the entire series. He’s wise, funny, powerful, and he’s completely responsible for putting his troubled nephew on the path to redemption.
However, Iroh’s original role in the series was intended to betray Zuko in the series finale, acting as a double agent and throwing all of the character’s rich history out the window in favor of a lazy twist. What a kick in the pants that would have been.
Thankfully, the writers came to their senses, and Iroh finished the series with the happy ending he so deserved.
Can you think of any other crazy facts about Avatar: The Last Airbender? Let us know in the comments!