To make Netflix’s live-action Avatar work, Zuko had to find his heart a little faster

The original Avatar: The Last Skybandr series lasted three seasons and patiently developed its arcs over 61 episodes. That made it possible to slowly explore characters like Prince Zuko, whose emotional interiority played a huge role in making his journey so satisfying to watch. But one of the first things people will notice about Netflix’s new live-action Avatar Adaptation—which is much shorter at eight episodes—is how much faster it begins to unravel the origins of Zuko’s anger and pull back the steely emotional mask he wears to hide his feelings from the world.

Netflix’s shorter runtime Avatar makes it difficult to revisit every plot point that made the original show great. That’s part of the reason why many characters, like Zuko – played by Dallas Liu – feel a little different, even when you see them in pivotal moments ripped straight from the cartoon. The new Zuko is still a temperamental spitfire whose dark family history prevents him from seeing the Fire Nation’s fascism for what it is. But from the very first episode, you can also clearly see a lot of the pain, fear, and insecurity in him, all things that took longer to tease the original.

When I spoke with Liu recently, he explained that as well as the new Avatar‘s creative team wanted to do right by the original show, the changes made to his Zuko were all intended to present him as a more dynamic, human-feeling foil to the core group of heroes. “Our Zuko is quite similar to the original animated series, but we’re giving him a little more depth than this raging, angry character,” Liu told me over Zoom. “I wanted to make this Zuko feel like he’s a real person with real anger, as opposed to someone who throws tantrums, which is what it often felt like in the original show in the beginning.”

Introduced as a villain determined to capture the Avatar, the animated Zuko gradually became one of The last airbender‘s most fascinating characters thanks to the time the show took to explore Zuko’s traumatic upbringing. By portraying Zuko as a ruthless warrior in the early episodes and then exploring how his bloodlust was rooted in years of psychological abuse, Avatar was able to illustrate some of the individual horrors that come with being born into and maintaining fascist systems of power.

In both Avatar Shows we meet Zuko years into a devastating exile from the Fire Nation, which leaves him bitter and hostile towards the small crew of soldiers sent with him on his mission to earn back his honor. In the new show, Zuko’s arrogance and tendency to lash out at his subordinates are similar to the season 1 cartoon Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco). But Liu explained that it made sense for Netflix to really illustrate Zuko’s ability to form meaningful relationships Avatar to immediately telegraph more of his vulnerability – if only to show how much he denies that softness.

“Everyone likes to think of themselves as fundamentally good people, but that really comes from being self-aware and thinking about the impact of your actions on other people around you,” says Liu. “That’s what Uncle Iroh is trying to teach Zuko in our show, and their relationship is so crucial to how we discover the kindness that exists within Zuko, very deep in the shadow of his heart.”

It doesn’t require any fame Avatar‘s source material to see just how dysfunctional the relationships are between each member of the Fire Nation royal family, years after Fire Lord Ozai’s (Daniel Dae Kim) war to crush the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom. Much to the delight of Zuko’s sister Azula (Elizabeth Yu), it is Ozai himself who forbids Zuko from returning home until he finds and captures the Avatar (Gordon Cormier) – the world’s last living Airbender. But as confident as Ozai is in his abusive approach to parenting, his brother – Zuko’s Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) – is one of the few people willing to recognize it as abuse and help his nephew during his exile. to stand.

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Because Ozai and Zuko are pretty much stuck in a toxic holding pattern, Liu told me that he and Kim didn’t have to spend as much time figuring out what kind of energy they needed to bring to their scenes together. However, when it came to finding a sweet spot for Zuko and Iroh’s on-screen dynamic, Liu said working closely with Lee allowed him to deliver a much more nuanced performance.

“There were times when Paul and I were filming together that I might not really feel like listening to him on a specific shoot, and I would just go out and figure it out for myself,” Liu recalls. “But Paul came over to help me work out the scene together, and when we got back on camera, the scene went so much smoother because we figured it out together. It was kind of like the way Iroh always nags Zuko and gives him advice meant to make him think, and it ended up being something great because of the amount of time our characters spend together on screen.

While Liu initially began mapping out how he planned to inhabit his character, he also took to YouTube in search of fan-produced videos that delved into the substance of who Zuko is. Liu already had an idea of ​​how to put his own stamp on Zuko, but he was surprised to discover how much detail and attention fans put into their dissections of Zuko-centric episodes and all their layered meanings. “There are a few videos that touch on this, and I can’t think of the exact title, but the general idea was about how Zuko almost denies what he really wants for himself,” Liu explained.

Like many of the new ones Avatar‘s inspired set pieces, how the series handles Zuko’s relationship with his mother is something fans of the original show will want to see for themselves. But such key moments, along with smaller, quieter scenes reminiscent of the original’s slice-of-life episodes, are things Liu is confident people will enjoy for the way they show the love of the new creative team for this world to reflect.

“Our show doesn’t have as much time as the animated series, but we still wanted to highlight the little everyday moments between characters like Aang and Sokka that make you love them,” Liu said.

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