The Biggest Changes in Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Compared With The Cartoon

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Biggest Differences Animated Live Action Avatar The Last Airbender

Picture: Netflix

We cover some of the biggest changes Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender made when adapting the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon into live-action. 

Long ago, the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom lived in harmony, safe in the knowledge that the beloved animated show was as perfect as it could be. But then came along Netflix, pumping a huge budget into a live-action remake of the original — and offering plenty of changes to the story and tone along the way. 

We knew from the outset that Netflix’s Avatar would see plenty of changes from the source material, whether for better or for worse. It’s simply impossible to squeeze 20 episodes worth of story into 8 live-action installments. And so liberties are taken, and story arcs are merged, leading to some exciting changes.

Let’s look at some of the most noticeable changes from Netflix’s adaptation, starting with the very first scene. 


The Fire Nation attacks.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Source: Netflix

The cartoon opens with both Katara and Sokka sailing outside Wolf Cove and coming across Aang, trapped in the iceberg. However, the live-action version takes 100 years earlier, covering a much more brutal, lore-filled approach.

The Netflix show opens with the Fire Nation genocide of the Air Nomads, all but eradicating their existence from the world. This was the catalyst event of the Hundred Year War. And when it occurred, Aang was away, completely unaware of the massacre back home. 

This was one of the more welcome changes to the story. We’d never seen this event play out on screen before, and it set the dark tone of the series really well, giving fans some key lore along the way. 


Azula features in season 1

Avatar The Last Airbender Netflix Azula Season 2

In the original show, Princess Azura doesn’t feature until season 2. However, given her status as a fan-favorite, the creators of the live-action show decided to expand her story into season 1. The daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and sister of Crown Prince Zuko, Azura is a fearsome fighter, holding a long-standing sibling rivalry with Zuko.

Played by Elizabeth Yu, it was a welcome change seeing Azula’s story begin in season 1. It really helps to flesh out her character, putting the pieces in place for her larger role in future seasons.


King Bumi

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Source: Netflix

One rather unexpected change was Aang’s encounter with King Bumi. The story is very much a remix of its animated counterpart. The King of Omashu, Bumi is both eccentric and goofy, but the live-action show makes him a little more serious. Plus, in the original, both Sokka and Katara are held hostage until Aang completes Bumi’s games. Whereas in the Netflix series, the siblings don’t show up until the final game, nor are they held hostage at all; they even join the fight.

Bumi’s more serious manner in the live-action show helps further portray that Aang must make impossible decisions in the war against the Fire Nation. While this version better fit the darker tone that the creators were aiming for, we do miss out on the more fun and goofy version of Bumi in the cartoon.


Jet

Avatar The Last Airbender

Source: Netflix

In episode 3, the live-action show started getting a little messy, merging several storylines from the animated show in one swoop. It made everything feel a little uneven. Most notably, Jet joins the show in episode 3. A Freedom Fighter from the Earth Kingdom, the live-action show sets his story in Omashu. However, he is based in the Earth Kingdom’s biggest city, Ba Sing Se, in the original; a location that the live-action show has yet to introduce.

Jet’s role in the Netflix show only lasted for one episode. It would’ve been nice to see him play a larger part in the story.


The Cave of Two Lovers

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Source: Netflix

Netflix’s Avatar really remixes the secret tunnels near Omashu in a way that many fans have not taken too kindly with. One of the largest story changes, the animated episode, The Cave of Two Lovers, doesn’t happen until season 2. However, the Netflix show sees fit to implement the story into episode 3. In doing this, they limit the screen time of the story, balancing it with the game Aang plays with Bumi.

Moreover, in the cartoon, Aang joins both Sokka and Katara in the cave, and it leads to some really important plot details, especially between Katara and Aang. It just felt a little weird, and resulted in a brilliant story being turned into a so-so side plot.


Violence and brutality

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Credit: Netflix

While not a change story-wise, countless fans have brought up a huge change of tone when the story has been translated into live-action. Of course, the cartoon is ostensibly a children’s show. It’s whacky, goofy and fun. And while the live-action remake retains some humour — thank’s largely to Ian Ousley’s Sokka — it dials the violence up much further.

From the aforementioned Fire Nation attack on the Air Nomads, to Azula watching a man get burned alive, the level of violence took many viewers by surprise.

That said, showrunner Albert Kim has already stepped in to explain the brutality of the adaptation. “It was about setting the stakes for this world,” he told Variety. “One of the things we wanted to do was show how dangerous bending can be. Firebending should feel dangerous; it should feel something that could hurt you.” He goes on to mention the benefit of hindsight, acknowledging how the animated show gets darker in later seasons.

Whether this change was welcome or not depends on taste, but it certainly was a change that got people talking.


Avatar Kyoshi

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Source: Netflix

Thanks in part due to her extended story in a series of Avatar novels, Kyoshi has become a fan-favorite figure in the fandom. The writers of the live-action show knew this, and decided to leverage her character for season 1. In episode 2, when Team Avatar arrives at Kyoshi Island, they are pursued by the Fire Nation.

What ensues is a battle, but instead of Aang fighting, Avatar Kyoshi connects with him from within her shrine and fights in her physical form. It’s an epic, fan-pleasing scene that never happens in the original show. Former Avatars connecting into the active incarnation to enter their physical form is rare, but not unheard of. We’ve seen it occur with Avatar Roku in the animated show.

While I liked this scene, I’m disappointed that they left out Aang riding the Unagi — that would’ve been fun!


The Spirit World

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Credit: Netflix

The ability to master all four elements isn’t the only thing the Avatar can do. He can also enter the Spirit World. And in episode 5, “Spirited Away,” Aang makes his first trip to the alternate world… where both Sokka and Katara join him simply by being in his presence. The differences don’t stop there, however, for we get a surprise appearance from Wan Shi Tong, the giant owl-like entity that we don’t see until season 2 of the animated show.

These changes were certainly a bold move, which set the series on a different trajectory.


Commander Zhao

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Credit: Netflix

Commander Zhao has no loyalty to Prince Zuko and doesn’t care for his final plea go gain back respect from his father. Zhao only cares about himself, and capturing the Avatar with force, as efficiently as possible. The show alters his character slightly, changing how certain aspects of his journey play out. For instance, how he learns the identity of the Moon Spirit’s mortal being.

Actor Ken Leung was open to changes from the outset, and explained to Metro why changes were made. “Like for example, when he discovers in the secret spirit library how to kill the Moon Spirit,” he said. “I think we felt that maybe that was a little convenient, that he just happens to… and so things like that we changed a little bit.”

If you enjoyed this post – we also did a comparison between Netflix’s One Piece and its animated counterpart.

Written by

An expert in all things geek with a particular emphasis on DC, Marvel, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones. On Netflix, Ashley is an expert on The Sandman, Dead Boy Detectives and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bylines at Winter is Coming and Comic Book Resources and notably runs a fan page social account for Netflix's The Sandman.

 Poster Rating: TV-14
Language: English
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Cast: Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, Ian Ousley
Season Additions:
  • - Season 1 was added to Netflix on February 22nd, 2024
  • - 3 Seasons was added to Netflix on May 15th, 2020