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Fun:Avatar: The Last Airbender
| Our Feature Presentation|
Films and TV
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a critically-acclaimed animated television series that aired from 2005 to 2008. The show has achieved lasting recognition, with viewers and critics praising its story, character development, and deft portrayal of complex moral and philosophical issues.
Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a fictional reality where humanity is divided into four nations: the Air Nomads, the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation. Within each nation, a certain subset of the population has the power to psycho-kinetically move, or “bend”, one of the four elements. Water Benders, who predominate in the Water Tribes, can move water, freeze, and melt water; Air Benders, who predominate among the Air Nomads, can concentrate and move air for a variety of purposes, including flight; Earth Benders, who rule the Earth Kingdom, can move, excavate, and rearrange dirt and rocks; and Fire Benders can produce and control fire. While each nation is peopled principally by its corresponding benders, not everyone has the ability to bend the elements.
Only one person can bend more than one element: the Avatar, master of all four elements! There is only one Avatar, who has been reincarnated again and again for a thousand lifetimes. With each reincarnation, the Avatar takes on a new body with a distinct appearance, personality, gender, and nation of origin. With each new reincarnation, the Avatar must relearn how to bend each of the elements, typically starting with the element of their nation of origin. Through meditation and spiritual connection, the current Avatar can communicate with past versions of themselves, who can give them advice or remind them of key historical events.
The series opens in the midst of a century-long war, in which the Fire Nation has gradually conquered most of the world. The last Avatar, who was the only person capable of bringing peace, disappeared shortly before the start of the war, under mysterious circumstances. Knowing that the new Avatar would be born among the Air Nomads, the Fire Nation carried out a genocide of Air Benders at the start of the war, completely eliminating them as a people. Since then, the Fire Nation has largely subdued the Water Tribes while pushing the Earth Kingdom to the brink of defeat.
The first characters introduced are Katara and Sokka, two siblings from the southern Water Tribe whose parents were taken from them in the war. Katara is a water bender, while Sokka is not. The siblings discover a boy frozen in ice, who once thawed proves to be alive and well preserved. The boy, whose name is Aang, has the power of air bending, a fact that suggests he has been frozen since before the start of the war. Katara and Sokka suspect that Aang is the Avatar. Aang eventually admits this to be true, and it is revealed he was frozen after running away from the Air Nomads, who had revealed his status as the Avatar shortly beforehand. Aang accepts that he must learn to bend water, earth, and fire, confront the Fire Nation, and end the war.
The series follows Aang, Katara, and Sokka as they travel the world, seeking teachers to help Aang master the elements. Along the way, Aang must confront the genocide against his people, a traumatic event that Katara and Sokka struggle to help him cope with. Katara and Sokka must confront their own traumas, including those related to the war crimes against the Water Tribes, the disappearance of their mother, and the absence of their father. Aang, Sokka, and Katara also form connections with the communities they encounter, often struggling (but generally succeeding) to find common ground with people of different nations, cultures, lifestyles, and appearances.
Aang, Katara, and Sokka are trailed by a series of villains and anti-heroes, most of whom are Fire Nation soldiers and agents. The chief anti-hero is Prince Zuko, the disgraced Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, who along with his wise uncle Iroh seeks to capture the Avatar and regain honor in the eyes of his father, Fire Lord Ozai. There is also Commander (later Admiral) Zhao, an ambitious military official whose lust for glory and power blind him to all moral (or even practical) restraint. Most dangerous of all the villains is Azula, Zuko’s prodigy of a younger sister, who seeks to one-up Zuko in capturing the Avatar and take his place as heir-apparent of the Fire Nation.
Why We Loved It
In addition to being a highly original story with beloved characters, quality writing, and crisp animation, Avatar excelled at presenting complex, challenging themes in a format children could understand. It addresses a wide range of topics, including:
- Trauma— Aang is confronted with the atrocity committed against his people from the very beginning of the series, and is deeply, visibly traumatized. Aang never truly recovers from this trauma, and Sokka and Katara can never fully comfort him, despite their best efforts and the fact that they’ve lived through something close to genocide themselves.
- Race— The Four Nations, and many communities within or outside of them, are culturally and phenotypically distinct not unlike different racial and ethnic groups in the real world. Many of these groups have toxic prejudices against one another, and some are more privileged or powerful than others. The protagonists often find prejudice, both in others & within themselves to be a barrier. But they continually discover that the heights of human kindness and depths of human depravity are all contained within all races.
- War, Imperialism, & Genocide— The Fire Nation conquests are textbook imperialism, and come with all the rhetoric of imperialist endeavors. The Fire Nation claims to be engaging in a “march of civilization” and “sharing our greatness with the world”. But it is clear from the horrific consequences of its expansion, up to and include genocide, that lifting up other nations is the last thing on the Fire Nation’s mind.
- The Patriarchy— Katara battles sexism in myriad forms throughout the series. This ranges from casually sexist comments made by Aang (occasionally) & Sokka (frequently) to the institutionalized misogyny of many of the nations, including the Northern Water Tribe. Katara consistently overcomes this sexism and earns the respect of her male peers— but only by being four times smarter, quicker, and more skilled than those men. Viewers are left wondering why a girl should have to be four times better just to be thought equal to the boys.
- Family— The series explores the many forms and meanings of family, including found families, families of choice, and families of necessity. Uncle Iroh proves more of a father to Zuko than the abusive, neglectful Ozai ever was. Aang loses his family among the Air Nomads, but rediscovers it in Sokka and Katara. The series conceives of love, including familial love, as something that transcends individual lifetimes, and that is constantly being reborn and rediscovered.
- Coming of Age— Aang is twelve, and Katara and Sokka are only a few years older. The series never forgets how young they are, and doesn’t pretend that they can magically become mature adults just because the war requires them to. These three, and others their age who later join them, deal with all the emotions and awkwardness of growing up, but have to do so while juggling enormous responsibilities.
Avatar is also noteworthy for the diverse, multicultural world it takes place in. Each of the four nations bring together elements of different cultures from across the real world. The Fire Nation, for instance, resembles Imperial Japan in some ways, but also adopts artwork and other cultural elements from Southeast Asian. The Earth Kingdom seems principally based on Late Imperial China, while the Water Tribes combine elements of Aleutian, Inuit, and other cultures.
Why It Wasn’t Perfect
As sensational as Avatar was, it had its share of flaws, including how:
- While the characters are non-white, most of the actors who voice them (including those who voice Aang & Katara) are white;
- Aang & Katara have a “will they or won’t they” romance that would be perfectly acceptable with adult characters, but is at least a little creepy with children
- Some of the violence depicted in the series (notably, a form of water-bending called "blood-bending") is arguably too graphic and disturbing for a children's show. Though this could be a strength, considering that many children's shows portray sanitized violence in ways that lead children to believe such behavior is consequence-free
- The series spawned a god-awful adaptation directed by M. Night Shyamalan (by most accounts, it was somehow worse than his last movie, The Happening) that butchers the story and disrespects the characters, and that is even more blatant in its whitewashing
- The series is frequently confused with a mediocre James Cameron movie of the same name—though that’s arguably Cameron’s fault
Despite these flaws, Avatar stands out as far ahead of its time, and will serve as a positive example for TV series far into the future.
Spinoff Series: The Legend of Korra
Beginning in 2012, Nickelodeon created a spinoff series known as The Legend of Korra, which concerned Korra, the next Avatar after Aang. A 17-year-old hailing from the Southern Water Tribe, Korra is portrayed as tough & ambitious, but also hot-headed & belligerent, in contrast to the calm, meditative Aang. Korra addressed and further developed many of the same themes as Avatar, but also explored new ones, including intergenerational trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, the cyclicality of time, and the vagaries of sexual orientation. The latter theme made Korra a prime target for criticism by conservative Christians, who viewed the show's casual portrayal of a bisexual protagonist as an act of "hijacking" in service of the homosexual agenda.