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