Since its debut in 2005 on Nickelodeon, Avatar: The Last Airbender has garnered a massive fanbase thanks to its fresh approach to animation and storytelling. From stunning fight sequences mixing real world martial arts with supernatural powers to stories focusing on the cost of war and the nature of politics, the series took a refreshingly adult look at the world through the lens of the fantasy genre. Along the way, it also featured plenty of heart and lots of absurd humor, winning over fans of all age groups.
Across 61 episodes, the show told the story of Aang and his friends’ efforts to free the world from the yoke of oppression and stop an unjust war. And between the original show’s three seasons, or "Books", along with a spinoff series, a bunch of video games and graphic novels, and yes, even a terrible live-action movie, the series unfolded the tale of the Avatar and the manipulation of the four elements. It’s also inspired a devoted following and won numerous awards, while gaining heaps of critical acclaim. As such, Avatar has a rich behind-the-scenes history full of abandoned stories, funny anecdotes, and lots of captivating trivia.
Here are 16 Things You Never Knew About Avatar: The Last Airbender.
16 Toph Was Originally Designed As a Bulky, Sighted Man
One of most beloved characters across the Avatar franchise is the blind Earthbender Toph. Though her small stature and physical impairment are often used by opponents to underestimate her— making her inevitable victory all the sweeter—she was originally conceived as a very different character.
When Toph was first being designed as the show’s primary Earthbender, she was envisioned as male. At one stage she was a teenage boy, at another she was a bulky adult. Those latter mock-ups would later factor into the looks of a few other characters, but the pitch to make her a small, blind girl originally started as a pipe-dream.
Series writer Aaron Ehasz pitched the idea of the eventual Toph, thinking the juxtaposition with the massive wrestlers she first faces would be highly entertaining. Co-creator Bryan Konietzko at first rejected the idea, but the new take on Toph was still thrown into the mix. In the end, the concept would make its way onto the show, with Konietzko eventually naming Toph one of his favorite characters on the show.
15 The Identities of the Benders in the Opening
For fans of Avatar, the opening of each episode is well-known, with each element named and demonstrated along with a particular practitioner. Early in the show’s run, each of these Benders appear to just be random warriors, with no connection to the show. As the series progresses, however, it becomes clear who each is.
The first to be recognizable is Roku, who demonstrates the power of the Avatar as the person who preceded Aang. We then encounter Azula as a young girl in episode 12 before going on to meet her more formally in Book 2. By then, it’s plain to see she’s the Firebender in the opening. Master Pakku, the Northern Water Tribe master is the Waterbender, with the Earthbender being the more obscure teacher Sud. Though shown to be Roku’s Earthbending teacher later in the series, Sud is also based upon the early designs for Toph.
The Airbender is the most contentious of the group. Many claim it’s an older version of Aang, though the Bender in question looks noticeably different from the older Aang seen in Korra years later. Others claim it’s Monk Gyatso, with still more claiming it’s simply a background Airbender seen during the series.
14 Katara and Zuko Were Supposed to End Up Together
In most genre shows, shippers have to cull the smallest crumbs of a potential relationship in order to envision it as a possibility. For those hoping to see Katara and Zuko end up together, however, there’s plenty of evidence. Given TV tropes, Katara ending up with Aang or Zuko had plenty of evidence. Many of the creatives behind the show, though, long planned for Zuko and Katara to finally fall in love.
Given the age gap between Aang and Katara and the more obvious nature of them ending up together, the plan for a long time was to put the Waterbender and the Firebender in a relationship. Even the voice actors for each character have publicly stated that they believe their characters have feelings for one another, but that ultimately their love was unfulfilled.
Even before Zuko, Aang didn’t stand a chance, as the male version of Toph was originally conceived of as a love interest for Katara.
13 Katara and Zuko’s Voice Actors Worked on Another Animated Martial Arts Show Together
For many, Dante Basco and Mae Whitman are most recognizable from their work on Hook and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, respectively. Their voices, however, have been a part of a number of animated projects over the past few decades. From 2005–07, while Avatar was in full swing, Basco and Whitman co-starred in another animated series involving martial arts.
Premiering on Nickelodeon rival The Disney Channel in January of 2005, American Dragon: Jake Long, the story revolved around Basco as Jake Long. A New York teen who could transform into a dragon, he must face a clan of dragon slayers, including his crush Rose, played by Whitman.
Rose and Jake have to balance their two-pronged relationship in a Romeo and Juliet story involving less suicide and more dragons. Lasting just two seasons, the series lacked the critical acclaim of Avatar, but is still a fun side project worth looking into for the fans of the pair of actors.
12 The Story Has Continued As Comic Books
While Legend of Korra touched on the later years of Team Avatar 1.0 a bit while also exploring the new world they helped create, it mostly focused on the new Avatar and her friends. For fans hoping to spend more time with the Aang Gang, however, their story has continued in a number of comics and graphic novels.
In 2011, a series of side-stories that were published in Nickelodeon Magazine were collected to form The Lost Adventures. The following year, series creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino began working on new stories involving the characters. Working with Gene Luen Yang to craft the story, five total graphic novels were written between 2012 and 2017. With illustration collective Gurihiru, best known for The Unbelievable Gwenpool, the new set of stories kicked off with The Promise.
Following directly after the conclusion of the show, The Promise sees Aang attempting to fulfill his duties as the Avatar while Zuko tries to rule the fractured Fire Nation. All told, the many comics help to further flesh out the world of Avatar and set up Korra.
11 The Fate of Zuko’s Mother Was Revealed In the Comics
One of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the Avatar series is what happened to Zuko’s mother Ursa. Originally, an entire storyboard was drafted up for the reveal before being abandoned by the creators. There was even a plan at one point to make the whole thing into a TV movie. In the end, the comics picked up the torch and told the rest of Ursa’s story.
Over the course of The Promise, The Search, and Smoke and Shadow, we learn all about Ursa’s past and former love. Eventually, she comes to the Fire Kingdom and marries Ozai and births Zuko and Azula. When it comes to her infamous departure, it’s revealed that she crafted the poison that killed her father-in-law so that her husband could ascend to the throne. From there, she travels home and is gifted a new face and life by a mystical being. Eventually, she has a new child, encounters Azula, and even confronts Ozai while he’s imprisoned.
10 There Have Been A Bunch of Video Games
Considering how big of a hit the animated series was, it’s no surprise that it was spun-off into other media. Aside from the comics and the maligned live-action film, the show was frequently turned into games. Online, Nick created dozens of different games featuring the characters of the show and its sequel. On the console, meanwhile half a dozen titles appeared as well.
The first one, named after the show, featured the three main characters and blip-on-the-radar Haru traveling the world to fight evil machines. From there, subsequent games followed various elements of the show, from the invasion of the Fire Nation to finding Aang an Earthbending teacher. There have also been puzzle, baseball, and chibi-style games, proving that there’s no end to the content that can be created from the franchise.
9 The Show Used a Real Fight Choreographer
The verisimilitude of Avatar is something truly unique. From the attention to graphic detail to the musical score, everything about the show helps to transport you into the world. Aside from the heart and humor of the series, the action has long been praised. Unlike other animated shows, Avatar excels at fight scenes thanks to employing an actual martial arts consultant. Sifu Kisu from the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association worked alongside the show’s creators to help craft not only the fight scenes, but the bending styles used.
Drawing from Chinese martial arts, each form of bending has a unique real-world style that it emulates. Tai Chi is the most recognizable and is used for Waterbending. Meanwhile, Baguazhang was used for Airbending and Northern Shaolin for Firebending. For most Earthbending, Hung Gar was used, but Toph personally employs a version of Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis style for her unique approach.
8 Each Book Starts On a Ship and Features Aang Waking Up
One of the nerdiest pieces of Avatar trivia may seem like it lives up to the name, but it’s actually a perfect encapsulation of the series. When we first open on the series, Sokka and Katara are in a small boat, rowing their way between icebergs. They soon meet the boy in the ice, with Katara’s Waterbending helping to unlock his prison. From there, the young Avatar wakes up aboard the ship before proving to be relatively spry for a 100-year-old.
The opening episode of each subsequent Book follows this example, with the action beginning on a boat and Aang waking up. In season two, it’s Master Pakku’s ship and Aang is awakening after his lengthy jaunt in the Avatar State. Season three opens with the team on a Fire Nation ship with Aang waking up after his brush with death from Azula.
All three openings serve to set up the road trip nature of the show while also showing Aang mirroring his initial absence. It’s a small set of details, but a great framing device for the beginning of each new adventure.
7 There’s Debate As to Whether the Show Is a Cartoon or Anime
In art, one style often influences another, leading to a point where certain works don’t have a clear distinction between them. While most animation is lumped into one category, Japan’s iconic output has long been classified as anime. Like their comics being manga, certain stylistic and story elements have led to the separate categorization. Of course, some have argued that it’s that style rather than a country of origin that connotes anime.
There’s no doubt that the structure, story, and art style of Avatar relies heavily on anime. Though borrowing from a lot of Chinese iconography, many other Eastern styles are employed in the show. As such, fans to this day still debate whether Avatar (and Korra) are cartoons or anime—and it will likely never be resolved.
6 Only Water Bending Wasn’t Taught By an Animal
Though the backstory of Korra offers a somewhat contradictory story for the origin of bending, many of Avatar’s episodes make it clear where the power came from. In real-world martial arts, many styles are based upon animal forms and movement. Avatar literalized this by having three out of the four styles be taught to humans by animals.
An entire episode is dedicated to the lore of badger moles teaching the first pair of humans how to Earthbend, and Toph herself learned firsthand from one. That episode also features Aang confirming that the sky bison taught the monks how to Airbend. Firebending, meanwhile, was taught to humans by dragons, in one of the most ornate examples of the three styles.
Waterbending, by contrast, was taught by the moon. While still a natural force, it does break the chain a bit. Of course, it could be that the moon spirit, a coy fish, taught the first Waterbenders, thus preserving the trend.
5 The Hippo and Boulder Were Inspired by Andre the Giant and the Rock
Though set in the far past in another reality, Avatar still managed to pull in plenty of pop culture gags from our world. One of the biggest comes in the form of the wrestlers Toph faces when we first meet her. Though he prefers eating rocks to speaking, the Hippo is based loosely upon infamous wrestler Andre the Giant.
The Boulder, meanwhile, was styled after the Rock, noticeable in his look and speaking style. The creators even tried to get Dwayne Johnson for the role, but ended up with Mick "Mankind" Foley instead, a worthy substitute. The Boulder is also interesting as his design borrows from some of Toph’s initial sketches. The Boulder and Hippo proved such a hit that they were even brought back for a few more episodes, helping Toph and Team Avatar with the invasion of the Fire Nation.
4 Commander Zhao is Based on Jason Isaacs’ Character from The Patriot
Like the Boulder and the Hippo, another piece of pop culture synergy revolving around yet another villain came together for the show—but this time in a much less obvious fashion. While most Avatar audiences of a certain age have likely never seen the 2000 film The Patriot, the creators of the show had.
When designing Admiral Zhao (later Commander), they looked to Jason Isaac’s character William Tavington from the film. When hunting for an actor, casting director Maryanne Dacey was even tasked with finding a voice with the same level of menace. As luck would have it, Isaacs was both available and interested, completing the loop. It also allowed Isaacs to add another deplorable character to his resume, alongside Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter film series.
3 Mark Hamill Voiced Zuko’s Father
Like most modern animated shows, the voices on Avatar likely conjure up memories of other shows. If, for instance, Fire Lord Ozai brought chills reminiscent of the Joker, that’s because Mark Hamill provided the voice for the rogue. After proving he could play the good guy in Star Wars, Hamill went on to have a sizeable voice acting career. Thanks to his gift for menace, he’s often cast as a villain, most famously as the Joker in many animated Batman adaptations.
Aside from Hamill, noted fan Serena Williams played Ming, George Takei played the Warden in the Fire Nation prison, R&B singer Tinashe played On Ji long before her music career took off, and SNL alum Rachel Dratch played the actor Aang in the "Ember Island Players" while Dante Basco’s older brother Derek played Zuko.
2 Lake Laogai is Based on an Actual Chinese Labor Camp
Never one to shy away from the darkness of the real world, much of Avatar focuses on adult themes like death and war. Even more impressive for a fantastical kids show, but the series used many historical events and locations to form the various nations and governments on display throughout the series. Likewise, a number of the more sinister concepts from the show are based in the reality.
Lake Laogai, for example, is based on an actual Chinese phrase, which is short for the word Láodòng Gǎizào and means "reform through labor." Not only is it the slogan for China’s criminal justice system, but Laogai long served as the de facto name for Chinese prison camps. Though hypnosis wasn’t part of it, brutal labor and treatment led to a form of brainwashing, along with many deaths. The name of the prisons was eventually changed in the ‘90s, but the idea remained the same. Again, it’s a reference likely lost on many viewers, but shows the dedication the creators have to history and social issues.
1 Monk Gyatso is Named After the Dalai Lama
We don’t meet too many Airbenders in Avatar besides the titular last one, but the ones we do encounter leave a lasting impression—none more so than Monk Gyatso, Aang’s closest friend and the kindly teacher who helps him on his journey. It’s the abandonment of Gyatso that provides Aang with a lot of his guilt. It’s even more heartbreaking for the audience, as we know Aang’s removal from his Air Temple would have been averted by Gyatso.
Like many elements of the series, Gyatso draws inspiration from the real world. His name is a reference to Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama. And as is probably clear, he was once again used as inspiration for Korra’s Airbending teacher Tenzin, who couldn’t be any less like Gyatso. Bonus fact: at one point a subplot was considered involving Momo being the reincarnation of Gyatso, something many fans simply take as canon.
What are you favorite pieces of Avatar: The Last Airbender trivia? Let us know in the comments.