Daniel Dae Kim has been cast as the Fire Lord Ozai in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which may indicate that things may move differently than in the cartoon. When a tale is adapted into a new media, it is to be expected that some of the source content will be modified or eliminated entirely. In that aspect, Netflix’s version of Avatar is unlikely to differ, and this casting announcement may hint at where the deviations may begin.
Fire Lord Ozai was the original series’ major enemy, the leader of the Fire Nation, and the one Aang needed to kill in order to finish the Hundred Year War and restore balance to the world. Despite his centrality to the plot, Ozai’s face is never exposed to the viewer until the first episode of the third and final season, with his face concealed in some form in all of his previous appearances. As a result, the program was able to maintain Ozai apart from the rest of the case and sell him as a figure above the rest of the villains – a position suitable for the overall nemesis.
The fact that Ozai’s live-action series actor, Daniel Dae Kim, has already been announced may imply that this will not be done in the same way in the Netflix version of Avatar. While it would be simple to hide Kim’s face in the shadows, doing so for two seasons of television and many years of real-time would be strange given that the actor’s identity is already known, thus it’s probable that the program isn’t intending on doing so. In this case, it’s possible that Ozai’s involvement in the plot will be enlarged, whether through appearances in areas of the story where he wasn’t originally present or simply through enhanced characterization.
For the former, the program may follow in the footsteps of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Fire Lord Ozai, played by Cliff Curtis in the film version of the series, appears multiple times during the film to discuss plans with Admiral Zhao, with the production making no effort to conceal his existence. The Netflix version may be aiming to do the same thing with Kim, inserting Ozai into portions of the plot where he wasn’t initially there in order to understand his special viewpoint on things.
For the latter, the concept of Kim’s Ozai getting greater screen time might be used to give Ozai more characterization than he had on the program. In the original series, Fire Lord Ozai existed only to provide Aang with one specific challenge to conquer in order to rescue the world, therefore he wasn’t given much to work with other than being an evil dictator attempting to take over the globe. If Kim’s Ozai gets more screen time, it will most likely be used to flesh out his character in some way. According to the official description for Kim’s Ozai (via Deadline), his “desire to conquer and unify the globe under firebender dominion is a familial responsibility.”
Whatever happens, it’s apparent that Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender won’t be the same as the original series, and the casting of Fire Lord Ozai might be the first indicator of that. Whether via more characterization or simply more screen time, Kim’s Ozai is sure to play a larger role in the tale, and who knows what further alterations may follow.