First up, I’m always late on the bandwagon. I’ve known about Avatar for years, not just because of the Legend of Korra hype, but I’d seen the first episode and wasn’t especially enthralled. Which confuses me now, because I really like the first episode! Right off the bat, a viewer will see that the writers have comedic timing down perfectly. Also: four winged penguins! I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender all the way two weeks ago, for the first time, and damn.
Since I’m the last one to a party, you probably already know the TV show (not the movie!) is fantastic. But I’m going to talk about it anyway, because it’s cool, and it will give some context to my Legend of Korra review. That’s Part 2.
The basic premise of Avatar is that there are four nations divided into the classical elements: earth, air, fire, water. Some people in their respective nations can ‘bend’, or manipulate through martial arts, these elements. The Avatar can—and must—learn all four elements to keep balance between the nations. However, a hundred years ago the Avatar vanished—and the Fire Nation attacked, destroying the Air Nomads and covering the world in war.
The show starts when two teenagers from the Southern Water Tribe (an Inuit-inspired culture), Katara, a water bender, and her older brother Sokka, are out fishing. They find a small boy trapped in a block of ice. This boy is Aang, the last airbender, frozen for a hundred years.
Thus, our three heroes decide to go out into the world so that Aang can master water-, earth-, and firebending to defeat Firelord Ozai, all the while being hunted by Zuko, the Firelord’s son, and a whole host of other enemies.
Standard fantasy fare. But it really, really stands out from any TV show I’ve ever seen (which I confess is few, since I’m not a huge fan of TV) and even more interestingly, from many books I’ve read.
On the surface level, the animation is slick and beautiful, the voice-acting is great, but most importantly: all the nations are inspired by predominantly Asian cultures. (I’m reminded of Laurence Yep’s Dragon of the Lost Sea books, which I adored as a kid and reread all the time.)
The Water Tribes, as I’ve mentioned, are inspired by the Inuit, the Air Nomads seem Tibetan, the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom remind me of China. It’s very cool and very refreshing to see an American TV show actually used these elements in a way that seems respectful, informative and imaginative at the same time.
I read or watch fantasy specifically for two things: magic/a sense of wonder, and a glimpse at another culture or another aspect of culture. I firmly believe each culture in the world has something profound to say that can teach me—and others—to grow and change, to increase empathy and understanding. The Last Airbender delivers. While the philosophy and customs are watered-down, due to Avatar being a show for kids, it’s still there. There’s a spiritual, holistic feeling to the story that gives it another dimension—literally, in that there’s a spirit world, and also at the meta-storytelling level.
However, all the gloss and Asian culture aside, The Last Airbender would never stand up if it didn’t have likeable, round characters. All the characters are complex.
BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
Even Sokka, the comic relief, is treated with dignity even when in the story he’s not being dignified at all. He grows and changes. To use a Buffy parallel, he’s the Xander of the group, but while in Buffy Xander never really grows into an exceptional person—he’s always the straight ‘normal’ guy—Sokka does come into his own. By the end he’s still a goofball, but he’s a goofball with valuable knowledge and skill: he’s the tactician, and while he’s not always right, he clearly shows signs of creative genius.
Katara, the female lead, is also a great character. She’s flawed: temperamental, sometimes quick to judge, bossy. But she’s also a skilled waterbender who becomes a master of her art, a cool head in a fight, a healer. She’s supportive, practical, and motivated. Her arcs are satisfying, she grows and matures, and she’s a great role model.
Aang could have easily gone wrong. The main character can sometimes wash out of a story, or the creators could focus too much on their ‘precious’, but Aang is a main character given just the right balance. He’s got bucketloads of personality: he’s instinctive, he loves to have fun, he loves animals, he’s passionate, he’s afraid of himself and his destiny, he’s compassionate, he’s brave, he’s able to calm himself and keep a steady head. He grows and changes, and sometimes takes second place to the development of other important characters. While his character is practically built around the notion of deus-ex-machina, he struggles with that part too, to control the ‘Avatar State’ when he basically is all powerful. Ultimately, he works very hard to achieve the power he needs to restore balance.
Toph Bei Fong is interesting to me, because her thing is that she’s a blind girl who sees through earthbending. Now, the disability-cum-superpower is a tired trope, but I thought they did a good job showing how she used earthbending to get around her disability—but gave her weaknesses. In fact, I would say that despite her earthbending powers, she still has a disability: not seeing impedes her. She’s vulnerably to air attacks, is uncomfortable on the water, can’t read and write and there’s no Braille or audio books to help her there, and ultimately can’t, well, see: there’s a world of colour and visual subtleties she misses out on. Yet she’s strong and never less of a person for it, which I think is far better treatment than if her earthbending actually just ‘fixed’ her sight.
And then there is Prince Zuko, who is my favourite character. He’s on a mission to restore his lost honour by presenting his father, Firelord Ozai, with the Avatar. His story is one of the best redemption stories I’ve seen or read. It’s engaging, it hurts to watch, because Zuko makes so many mistakes on his path, which eventually leads him to join forces with the Avatar. Guiding him along his path is his hilarious Uncle Iroh, who wants only good pleasure, tea and Zuko’s happiness out of life.
That the writers actually managed to succeed in Zuko’s storyline boggles and amazes me. It’s clear that he’s headed to redemption: the question is, will it be deft or will it be clumsy? Turns out, it’s really moving and handled well. It’s complex for a kid’s show. Also, Zuko being such an angsty wet blanket makes for some hilarious scenes.
There’s also plenty of strong female characters, such as Suki and Azula, a couple outright feminist episodes (‘The Warriors of Kyoshi’, ‘The Waterbending Master’). Bonus.
Ultimately, even though everyone, including his own past lives, says Aang needs to kill the Firelord, Aang chooses not to, and takes away his firebending instead. The implication is that like his son, the neutered Firelord might find peace and redemption. The kindness and compassion that Aang shows is moving and wonderful. It’s a maturity I would not expect out of a kid’s show. It’s not a copout—let’s not show death!—but instead it’s an expression of the spiritual ideas that informs the culture in the show. Aang struggles to learn this different option. I wholeheartedly support media and fantasy that show peace as an option.
Avatar: The Last Airbender reminds me a lot of Laurie J Marks’ Elemental Logic series. As in those books, the four elements inform philosophy. The warmakers, the Sainnites in the books, Fire Nation in the show, are given dignity and humanity. Their sides of the story are told. Peace is hard work and considered of utmost importance. Belief in the positivity of the human spirit are fundamental notions.
If the show has flaws, it’s mainly in that the episodes are so short, there’s some that leave you wanting more, such as the episode in which Katara goes to war with the sexist North Water Tribe customs, where waterbending females only are allowed to heal. I thought the whole episode was clumsily handled and the solution too easy and a bit unexplained. But I’m actually having trouble seeing flaws, because this show pushed my buttons so well. This, however, was not the case for the Legend of Korra, which really drops the ball.
In sum, if you haven’t watched Avatar: The Last Airbender already, give it a chance! It is for kids, and the first half of season one is less serious and mature, but it’s worth it.