Avatar: The Last Airbender debuted in 2005, introducing a legion of fans to the world of Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Water Tribe, and Air Nomads. The follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, followed in 2012. In 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, Avatar and Korra became available to stream, bringing comfort to longtime fans and inviting new fans to take the plunge. The two series proved a sensation, and their resurgent popularity helped inspire the formation of Avatar Studios, bringing creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino back to create new stories in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe.
While fans await the first new fiction to come out of Avatar Studios, an animated feature film, they have a special opportunity to revisit what's come before. This month, Janet Varney (Korra in The Legend of Korra) and Dante Basco (Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender) launched Avatar: Braving the Elements, the official Avatarverse podcast. The podcast sees the hosts recapping and digging into a different episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in each installment, sharing stories from behind-the-scenes and interviews with other cast and crew members.
ComicBook.com caught up with Basco and Varney over Zoom to discuss their return to the Avatar franchise. We asked how today's fandom compares to when they were voicing characters on their respective shows. In a word?
"TikTok," Basco said, discussing the social media response to Avatar arriving on Netflix in 2020. "I get on Tiktok and there was a time, even now, TikTok became like an Avatar music video platform. You couldn't go anywhere on the platform without seeing something about Avatar on Tiktok. I ended up getting on TikTok and then TikTok ended up just out scaling all my other platforms in less than three days… I can't believe a project that we did 15 years ago coming up again during this pandemic and then the wildfire that it catches and how everyone feels about it."
If someone had told Basco he'd still be talking about Avatar: The Last Airbender more than 15 years after the show's debut, he wouldn't have believed it for a minute. He says he had "Zero. No idea at all" that the show would have such staying power. "I had no clue that this show would even make the air when I first did the pilot episode… This is not really Nickelodeon, this is an epic Asian-inspired, anime-inspired tale of some kid trying to save the world. That doesn't really feel like SpongeBob or a Catdog to me. That doesn't feel like a Nickelodeon thing."
"That's how [as actors] we're conditioned," Varney interjects. "The more special we think something is, the more we are like, 'I can almost hear the death knell. This is too good. They'll never let me keep doing this.'"
Basco says the show's popularity didn't start getting back to him until its second and third seasons. "I still didn't understand the phenomenon that Avatar was until years later," he says. "I mean if I had known, I probably would've kept every single one of my scripts at that time."
He could have used those scripts for homework. As they revisit Avatar: The Last Airbender for Braving the Elements, Varney and Basco say they're digging deeper than they ever have before.
"We both have spent a lot of time talking about how big picture and how big the themes, how heavy some of those themes are," Varney says. "I think we both know it in the sense that we do these conventions and we have these deep conversations with these amazing fans who have life stories to share and that leaned on the show to help them get through difficult things. In rewatching it and really coming at it knowing that we were going to be digging deep into it and talking about the meta experience of doing it and being fans of this universe, just what gets packed into a single episode, and how intense and deep some of these themes really go, we've just consistently felt a sense of wonder and awe about that, I think. For me, this time around is especially resonant, possibly because of what has been going on in the real world. And so those things pop out more and they sit on your heart in a heavier, deeper way."
Their experience with the show isn't the only thing that's changed over the decade and a half since Avatar's debut. The stars also say that technology has changed the way they interact with fans and how new fans discover and digest Avatar and Korra together.
"There was social media during Korra," Varney notes, "but somebody who discovers both shows essentially at the same time within one summer, it's really interesting to get a different perspective on what that feels like to them, versus people who grew up with Avatar: The Last Airbender and then had this span of time in between, and then were wondering and waiting when they found out there was going to be another series, 'What's it going to be? What's the story?' and the connection that they had with the formative years that they were in when they saw the first series versus how that affected their reaction to the second one is so different from a big block of people from all different age groups who came to them, finished Avatar and then couldn't wait to get into Korra, and then just loved them both, and then watched them both again, back to back. That's been cool because it's just a different way of experiencing those shows to just be able to jump right in those 75 years and get right in with Korra.
"So that's been cool to see, but for both of us, I think it's just cool to know that that there's a whole new set of people, especially young people who are just discovering it for the first time."
You can watch our full interview with Basco and Varney in the video above. Avatar: Braving the Elements is available now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and other major podcasting platforms. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are booths streaming now on Paramount+ and Netflix.