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The Avatar: The Last Airbender Moment That Mirrors Empire Strikes Back's Most Iconic Scene

The "Golden Age of Television" that we're living through has been marked by all sorts of grand feats of episodic storytelling in various different media, genres, and styles. There's no shortage of 21st century shows that could be undoubtedly described as pop culture phenomena. But even amid such a saturated TV landscape, there is one series that stands out for the way it revolutionized the high fantasy genre, by presenting a host of iconic characters, delivering massive thrills and epic narratives, fully realizing a dense inner world with nuanced political mechanics, melding rapturous acclaim with incredible success for the entirety of its run, and raising the bar of what was once thought possible for television to deliver. We're referring, of course, to "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

The Nickelodeon animated series has become legendary for the near-flawless, profoundly satisfying way it carried out its three-season arc, delivering moments and episodes that have ingrained themselves into the collective memory of a whole generation. It is undoubtedly one of the most definitional pieces of family-oriented audiovisual entertainment to have come out in decades — the kind that gets held up as a benchmark against which all subsequent efforts in the genre are measured. And, in that sense, it should come as no surprise that one of the most unforgettable "Avatar" moments — the moment, some would say, which saw it graduate from a fun kids' action series to a landmark piece of media — took significant inspiration from another landmark in family entertainment: the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

Zuko's Agni Kai with his father mirrored a classic Star Wars scene

Fans of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" will usually have no trouble pinpointing the episode on which the show went from good to great. Up until the 12th episode of Book One, titled "The Storm," "Avatar" was already a fun and fresh new series, but it was still missing the deep psychological and political import that would come to set it apart from other series of its ilk. It was on that watershed episode, which gave us flashbacks to the backstories of both Aang and Zuko, that it became clear "Avatar" was something out of the ordinary.

Zuko's story, in particular, was shocking both for its matter-of-fact presentation of horrifying fatherly abuse, and for how deeply it humanized a character theretofore presented as a straightforward villain. Reprimanded for speaking out of turn during a war council meeting presided by his father, Fire Lord Ozai, young Prince Zuko gets sentenced to an Agni Kai — i.e., a duel between firebenders that ends when one burns the other. Then, in what may well be the entire series' most upsetting moment, Zuko discovers that his opponent will be his own father, and, after begging for mercy and refusing to fight, gets punished for his weakness with a grisly burn to the face.

This unforgettable moment was largely inspired by a similarly iconic "Star Wars" scene that came 26 years earlier, also featuring one of the "Avatar" voice actors in question and a fraught-father son bond.

Dante Basco felt like he got to do the Luke-Vader scene with Mark Hamill

The Agni Kai between Zuko and Ozai in "Avatar: The Last Airbender" mirrors the legendary scene from "Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back" in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in the span of a few minutes, (A) gets his right hand cut off by a lightsaber, and (B) learns that the man who did it, Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones), is the father who he thought was dead, and whose legacy inspired him to become a Jedi in the first place. In both scenes, the POV characters find themselves overwhelmed in combat and permanently maimed by their own scarily mighty fathers, who also happen to be the main villains of their respective franchises. Zuko's refusal to fight his father even mirrors a later scene, in "Return of the Jedi," in which Luke does the same thing.

Both scenes, incidentally, feature the same Mark Hamill, who provided the voice of Fire Lord Ozai across all three seasons of "Avatar." This tidbit was not lost on Dante Basco, who voiced Zuko, as he revealed in a 2020 interview with Great Big Story. Basco, who grew up as a "Star Wars" fan, recalled doing the Agni Kai scene with Hamill and then realizing what had just happened. As the actor revealed thinking to himself at the time, "'Oh my God, I just did the Vader-Luke scene with Mark Hamill! And I was playing Luke Skywalker and he was playing Darth Vader!'" 

He added, "It was the most surreal moment of my career, and it was amazing."