Long ago children were okay with watching mediocre cartoons on television. Then, everything changed when Nickelodeon piloted a new series. Only “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” master of stunning animated visuals and story, could end the tirade of sub-par animated series, but when fans wanted it most, Nickelodeon reduced it’s run-time to three seasons. Ten years passed, and I stumbled across the series to watch it for a second time. Although “The Legend of Korra” was great, it still had a lot to live up to because I believe “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was one of the greatest televisions shows of all.
When “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was first shown on Nickelodeon in 2005, I was in the fifth grade. At first glance, it looked like American animators trying too hard to copy Japanese animation. The music and character designs all appeared similar to other shows I had seen like “Inuyasha,” “One Piece,” and “Naruto.” When I first watched the show, I liked it, but I did not appreciate it as much as the second time I viewed the show in college. What I initially liked about the show was the action, the humor, and the stellar animation. After my second viewing, I still respected the action, humor, and animation, but I gained huge respect for a show that was meant to not only entertain children, but also challenge them.
The writers decided to deviate from a stereotypical children’s show about good versus evil, and decided to focus on what a person is destined to do, what they want to do, and what they need to do. This plays a part of the show’s overall tone of spiritual understanding. The main character Aang is expected to end a 100 year war despite being only a child. He has moral support along the way, but he feels a sense of guilt for running away from his responsibilities because it lead to pain, destruction, and even death and slavery in some cases. For a show targeted towards children, those were some very harsh concepts for kids to deal with.
Rather than giving a blanket statement that “War is bad” the show also showed the characters on the other side of the war like Zuko, Azula, Iroh, and Firelord Ozai. Ozai was the final product of years of hatred for the other nations. Iroh initially favored the war, but discovered what was most important after the war claimed the life of his son. Azula and Zuko both want to please their father the Firelord, but they take separate positions on the war after experiencing it for themselves. Zoo gains sympathy for the other nations after making connections and bonding with the other nations while Azula goes psychotic after she loses the support of her friends as she is overwhelmed with responsibility.
Aside from Aang, the two main characters are siblings Katara and Sokka. They lost their mother as a result of the war when they were children, and they have not seen their father in years because he is off fighting in the war. As products of the war, they both feel a sense of duty to save the people they love. Sokka wants to protect his village because his father left him in charge. He is concerned about the war as a whole, but he believes in keeping his friends and family safe first. Katara wants to go bigger. She wants to use her bending abilities to take down the fire nation, but the loss of her mother has given her motherly qualities that make her primary concern the safety of those she loves.
As the story progresses, Toph is introduced. Toph is a blind earthbender who proves that she is a force to be reckoned with despite her disability. Her goal is to prove her strength to everyone, and she proves her goal by inventing metalbending, thus becoming the most powerful earthbender in the world. Rather than playing sidekick to Aang, the supporting characters prove to be just as important as Aang as the show progresses.
Many fans of the show make comparisons between “Avatar:The Last Airbender” and “Star Wars.” Both have a first part featuring a hero destined to bring peace to the world, and who accomplishes a notable feat at the end; a second part featuring an ending where the hero leaves his training with a wise old master to save his friends, but ends up suffering a great wound; and a third part where the rebels fight the evil, and our hero defeats the series’s main villain not by killing him, but by introducing something that many thought to be impossible.
Quite possibly the greatest accomplishment of the series was their ability to connect the show’s main hero to the initial main villain. In what was possibly the best episode of the series, “The Storm,” both Aang’s and Zuko’s backstories are shown. This is done to not only offer exposition to the character, but also show how they are similar. Both characters no longer have a home to return to, they were overwhelmed with responsibility, and they are trying to regain their honor. Rather than despising the show’s villain because he is evil for the sake of being evil, the audience instead sympathizes with him, and understands why he does what he does. Keep in mind that this was a children’s show featuring an anti-hero aired during the same time that adults were watching a little show featuring an anti-hero called “The Sopranos.” All of this relates back to the theme of challenging the viewer.
When the show was initially conceived, the plan was for the show to have four seasons, but after negotiations with Nickelodeon fell through, the show had to settle for three. During the middle of the final season, the show does seem to rush towards an ending. However, the writers take the hand they are dealt, and use the final episodes to bring closure to each character, offer the best animation and fights yet, and have a final showdown that needed to be seen to be believed. In the final battle between Aang and Firelord Ozai, Aang overcomes his fears, and battles the most feared man in the world. Going into the fight, Aang is faced with the decision to kill the Firelord or not. Aang, who respects all life, does not want the war to end with death despite all of Ozai’s actions. However, each person who Aang goes to for guidance, including past Avatars, tells him that the only way to end the war is to kill the Firelord.
In the end, Aang, unlocks an old form of bending that allows him to take away another person’s bending abilities. This was something that was not on the table. On first glance, this appears to be a giant deus ex machina, but throughout the series, there are hints to the ability in several episodes. However, even if those hints did not exist, the show was not about good versus evil. Aang’s actions are based off of who is destined to be, who he wants to be, and who he needs to be. He is destined to bring peace, and he needs to end the war, but he wants to do it peacefully. Aang goes full circle, and saves the world from destruction.