How the Creators of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Made the Smartest Kids Show Ever

'Avatar' and 'Korra' both explored mature themes like death, war, and depression.

by Luis Paez-Pumar
Aang from the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon

While it’s not uncommon for shows ostensibly aimed at kids to tackle mature themes, few shows have ever done so with more intelligence and generosity than Avatar: The Last Airbender. The beloved Nickelodeon series (and its sequel The Legend of Korra) owed that clarity of vision to two men, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who set out to craft epic stories that remained, at their core, deeply human. Throughout the run of both shows, the pair of showrunners injected narratives not only with real stakes, but with personal problems and personal decisions that helped children understand contingency, accountability, and how one thing leads to the next.

On Avatar, death was always in the cards; from the moment that Aang found out his destiny – to stop the Fire Nation from conquering the world – he believed that he had to kill Firelord Ozai. The series never shied away from the morbid nature of his quest, even using it to create some of The Last Airbender’s stickiest dilemmas. In “The Storm,” for instance, Aang runs away because he does not think that he can kill someone, even if it means stopping a war. He’s scared despite being all too familiar with the consequences of inaction. His personal narrative runs counter to the flow of the show and feels, because of the nature of DiMartino and Konietzko’s work, more important.

But the realities on the show were never just internal. Along the way to Avatar’s extremely grand finale, the Aang Gang also encountered genocide, collateral damage, corporal punishment, and war. And none of this could be written off to a one-dimensional evil. The Fire Nation, while at odds with the protagonist, is not assumed to be homogenous or purely malicious.

To get such a mature and consistent point of view across three seasons and 61 episodes, the creators of Avatar had to finesse what they would show without ever transparently retreating from a hard truth. Learning how to do this took time and doing it required a willingness to push back on the studio and on each other.

Fatherly spoke to both DiMartino and Konietzko about the process of making a truly smart and challenging children’s show and that one thing that Nickelodeon wouldn’t let them put on kids television.

At what point in the creation process of Avatar did you realize that you could discuss mature topics in a way that kids would both understand and be intrigued by?

DiMartino: There wasn’t a specific revelatory moment. Mature topics like genocide, abuse, war, spirituality, and matters of life and death were baked into the concept of Avatar from the beginning. Bryan and I were always concerned with telling a complex story with serious themes, while at the same time ensuring the show remained fun, entertaining, and exciting to watch. I honestly don’t know how to write a story without delving into mature topics, since that is where I find meaning in a story. The longer I’ve been writing stories, both for TV and now in novels for young readers, I’m impressed by how those deeper themes resonate with kids. There’s a quote by Philip Pullman – author of The Golden Compass – that I always go back to: “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”

Death was always a part of the Avatar universe – right down to the Avatar being reincarnated after death. Aang grapples with having to kill the Fire Lord for the entire series. Was there ever any hesitancy to focus on such a dark topic?

Konietzko: In a lot of entertainment for adults, death is depicted so frequently and casually that it loses any weight. On the contrary, in much of kids’ entertainment, it is often swept under the rug as if it doesn’t exist. Right off the bat, Mike and I felt strongly that in order for our series to be truly epic, there had to be high stakes — namely, death. But it was never in an effort to make some edgy, irreverent show. We tried to approach those subjects with care, and sought to find a balance in tones that would make the Avatar world deeper and richer, and serve the story as best we could.

What does the medium of animation allow you to do with regards to mature content that you couldn’t do in a live-action TV show or movie?

DiMartino: In a general sense, the animation makes it slightly more permissible to depict action or intense imagery. In a practical sense, we could show big battles and large-scale elemental effects that would be prohibitively expensive on a live-action TV show. We were constantly pushing the limits of what we could accomplish creatively with our budgets and schedules. Looking back, I think we were crazy for trying some of the things we did, but time after time, the artists and animators rose to the challenge, always surpassing my expectations of what was possible.

Was there anything that was rejected by the studio because it was just too dark for Nickelodeon?

Konietzko: Mike and I tried to police ourselves in terms of pulling back from things being too gratuitous throughout both productions. Even so, there were certainly still notes from the network, as there always are. On the original Avatar series, they were very hesitant for us to be explicit when a character died, or even having our characters say any variations of “die” or “kill” more than once in an episode.

Years later, on Korra, those restrictions were significantly looser, and that series as a whole was far more mature in its tone. However, we did butt heads with the network on the final scene of Korra, where we wanted to show a same-sex kiss. We lost that battle, but we’ve been able to continue that story in the Dark Horse comics Mike is writing. Korra and Asami finally got their kiss.