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Home Tech For Netflix’s live-action Avatar to work, Zuko had to find his heart a little faster

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

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

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The original Avatar: The Last Airbender series was three seasons long, developing its arcs patiently over 61 episodes. That allowed it a slowburn approach to exploring characters like Prince Zuko, whose emotional interiority played a huge role in making his trajectory so satisfying to watch. But one of the first things people are going to notice about Netflix’s new live-action Avatar adaptation — which is much shorter at eight episodes — is how much more quickly it starts to unpack the origins of Zuko’s rage and pull back the steely emotional mask he wears to hide his feelings from the world.

The shorter runtime of Netflix’s Avatar makes it difficult to revisit every single plot point that made the original show great. That’s part of why many characters, like Zuko — portrayed by Dallas Liu — feel a little different even as you’re seeing them in pivotal moments ripped right from the cartoon. The new Zuko is still a temperamental hothead whose dark family history keeps him from being able to see the Fire Nation’s fascism for what it is. But from the very first episode, you can also plainly see a lot of the pain, fear, and uncertainty roiling inside him, which were all things the original took longer to tease out.

When I spoke with Liu recently, he explained that as much as the new Avatar’s creative team wanted to do right by the original show, the changes made to his Zuko were all meant to present him as a more dynamic, human-feeling foil to the core group of heroes. “Our Zuko is pretty similar to the original animated series, but we give him a little more depth beyond being this rageful, angry character,” Liu told me via Zoom. “I wanted to make this Zuko feel like a real person with real anger as opposed to a guy throwing temper tantrums, which was often what it felt like in the original show early on.”

Introduced as a villain hell-bent on capturing 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 framing Zuko as a ruthless warrior in its early episodes and then delving into how his bloodlust was rooted in years of suffering psychological abuse, Avatar was able to illustrate some of the individual horrors that come with being born into and upholding fascist systems of power. 

In both Avatar shows, we meet Zuko years into a devastating exile from the Fire Nation that’s left him embittered and hostile toward 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 ring true to season 1 cartoon Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco). But Liu explained that in order to really illustrate Zuko’s capacity to form meaningful relationships, it made sense for Netflix’s Avatar to immediately telegraph more of his vulnerability — if only to show how in denial about that softness he is.

“Everyone likes to think of themselves as being fundamentally good people, but that’s something that really comes from being self-aware and thinking about how your actions impact other people around you,” Liu said. “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 down in the shadows of his heart.”

It doesn’t take any familiarity with Avatar’s source material to see how dysfunctional the relationships are between every member of the Fire Nation royal family years into Fire Lord Ozai’s (Daniel Dae Kim) war to crush the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom. Much to the twisted delight of Zuko’s sister Azula (Elizabeth Yu), it’s Ozai himself who forbids Zuko from returning home until he’s found and captured the Avatar (Gordon Cormier) — the world’s last living Airbender. But as confident as Ozai is in his violent approach to parenting, his brother — Zuko’s uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) — is one of the few people willing to acknowledge it as abuse and stand by his nephew through his exile. 

Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh.
Image: Netflix

Because Ozai and Zuko are pretty much stuck in a toxic holding pattern, Liu told me that he and Kim didn’t really need to spend that much time figuring out what kind of energy they needed to bring to their scenes together. When it came to finding a sweet spot for Zuko and Iroh’s on-screen dynamic, however, Liu said that being able to work closely with Lee set him up to deliver a far more nuanced performance.

“There were times while Paul and I were shooting together when I maybe didn’t really feel like listening to him on a specific take, and I was just going to go off and figure it out for myself,” Liu recalled. “But Paul would come over, help me work out the scene together, and when we got back on-camera, the scene would just run so much smoother because we’d figured it out together. It was sort of like the way Iroh’s always nagging at Zuko and giving him advice that’s meant to get him thinking and wound up being a great thing because of how much time our characters spend together on-screen.”

As Liu was initially beginning to map out how he planned to inhabit his character, he also took to YouTube in search of fan-produced videos digging into the substance of who Zuko is. Liu already had an idea of how he could put his own mark 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 get into this, and I can’t think of their exact titles, but the general idea was about how Zuko is almost in denial about what he really wants for himself,” Liu explained.

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

“Our show doesn’t have as much time as the animated series, but we still wanted to put a spotlight on those tiny day-to-day moments between characters like Aang and Sokka that made you love them,” Liu said.

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