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Photo: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’/Nickelodeon
The classic Nickelodeon animated series ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is widely regarded as one of the best cartoons of all time, and it still stands up to the hype. Balancing all the humor and exciting action sequences that children can enjoy with the more mature themes and compelling character arcs that adults can also appreciate, it’s no wonder the series captured the hearts and minds of viewers when it first aired in 2005 and continues to find new fans today.
‘Avatar’ is set in a fantasy world inspired by Asian cultures and mythologies. The four nations—each with unique societies based on the elements of water, earth, fire, and air—have been at war since the imperialistic Fire Nation began taking over the world. Certain people in ‘Avatar’ have the ability to manipulate or “bend” their nation’s element through martial arts and at any given time there is one person in all the world who has the power to bend all four elements. This person is the Avatar, whose duty it is to master the art of bending all the elements and to unite the four nations despite their differences.
The Avatar should have stopped the Fire Nation’s war 100 years ago, but no one has seen the Avatar since the war began. Then one day, two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe discover a 12-year-old boy frozen in an iceberg. He’s the missing Avatar and also the last airbender. And he’s got a lot of catching up to do.
The Enduring Popularity of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’
Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the three-season series ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ premiered on Nickelodeon in 2005 and ended in 2008. The idea for ‘Avatar’ grew out of character designs created by Konietzko and inspiration DiMartino drew from documentaries about Shackleton’s explorations in the Antarctic that he was watching at the time. “[Konietzko] came over and pitched this idea of fire people attacking a water tribe,” DiMartino said in a documentary about making the series. “That was […] a big moment where the idea of the four nations sort of gelled together.”
Most people who have watched the epic saga about the boy in the iceberg and his friends have seen it all the way through multiple times, whether they watched it when it was first on TV or later on streaming services. After ‘Avatar’ hit Netflix at the beginning of 2020, it had a resurgence in viewership, staying in Netflix’s Top Ten for a record 61 days. Why is the show still so popular after 16 years? Its compelling characters, worldbuilding, and epic storytelling are the heart of why it maintains its high-caliber reputation. If you’re not yet convinced of the show’s merits or are just looking for an excuse to rewatch the series, here are three reasons to watch ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ right now.
#1 Nuanced Characters
The hero’s journey is at the heart of this series, with young airbender Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), the missing Avatar, embarking on a quest to master the other three elements, defeat the Fire Lord (Mark Hamill), and bring peace to the four nations. Aang struggles to accept his Chosen One destiny at first, preferring to go penguin sledding in the snow or find his friend Bumi (André Sogliuzzo) in the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu. But with the help of his flying, six-legged bison Appa (Dee Bradley Baker) and his newfound friends—compassionate waterbender Katara (Mae Whitman), her goofy and clever brother Sokka (Jack De Sena), and blind earthbending master Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy)—Aang finds the love and support he needs to complete his journey, and each of the main characters in Team Avatar also grow up in the process.
One of the best things about ‘Avatar’ is that the antagonists of the series are equally as compelling as the heroes. Disgraced Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) of the Fire Nation begins the series with the sole aim of capturing the Avatar and restoring his honor, but over time and through his travels around the world, he begins to realize he’s on the wrong side of the war. He’s aided by his humorous, tea-loving uncle, Iroh (Mako, then later Greg Baldwin), who has a complicated past but does his best to teach Zuko the importance of peace.
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Zuko’s redemption arc is plotted masterfully and given the space and emotion throughout the series to make it realistic and meaningful. The morally gray antihero is indeed captivating, and ‘Avatar’ portrays many different antiheroes with nuance, but every story needs a great villain. Aside from the Fire Lord, Zuko’s formidable, sociopathic sister Azula (Grey Griffin) is that great villain, and she’s magnetic and terrifying in every one of her scenes.
#2 Spectacular Worldbuilding and Animation
The imaginative world of elemental bending and hybrid animals in ‘Avatar’ brought something unique even to the fantasy genre. On top of that, the worldbuilding is primarily inspired by Asian cultures and history and populates the world with Asian and non-white characters. In the Western-dominated fantasy genre, as well as TV as a whole, this is still a big deal for representation. The intricate and beautiful animations in the show are mesmerizing to look at, but also flesh out the world of the story, from the Kyoshi Warriors’ elaborate costumes and makeup to the sprawling cityscape of the Earth Kingdom capital to a firebender sending out an arc of flames along with a round-house kick. The facial expressions and body language of the characters are complex and malleable, which allow for details that elevate moments of comedy and drama with equal finesse.
DiMartino and Konietzko wanted to create a show with epic mythology and awesome fight sequences that weren’t too violent for children to watch. Their solution was the elemental bending, which is inventive, engaging, and exciting without being too brutal. Each of the bending styles is based on different Chinese martial arts that best characterize the qualities of the element. For example, waterbending is based on tai chi. The fluidity and softness inherent in tai chi match perfectly with the element of water. “Tai chi is less about strength and more about alignment, body structure, breath, and visualization,” said ‘Avatar’ martial arts expert Sifu Kisu in an interview. Every fight involving bending looks different, and the bending is applied in such creative ways that are specific to the situation and environment or how far along the characters are in mastering their bending powers.
#3 Impactful and Epic Storytelling
Animated series aimed at kids are typically episodic, with each story being self-contained without much change in the setting or in the characters because those kinds of cartoon episodes get the most rerun views. ‘Avatar’ was unique in that regard, as it skillfully juggled the narrative, serialized storytelling that portrayed long character arcs with the one-off episodic storylines typical of children’s cartoons. In his quest to master the elements and bring peace to the four nations, Aang and his friends travel to every corner of the world from the Northern Water Tribe at the icy North Pole to the legendary walled city of Ba Sing Se in the Earth Kingdom to the tropical beaches at the heart of the Fire Nation itself. With each visit to a new location, the series further fleshes out the lore of this fantasy world.
On their travels, the protagonists meet many different kinds of people with varying life experiences, finding ways to connect with the essential humanity of the people they encounter despite differing goals or upbringings. Though most episodes leave the viewer with a clear message to take away from the team’s adventures—like the importance of choosing forgiveness over revenge, for example—each episode still advances the characters’ growth and the overarching narrative that culminates in Aang’s confrontation with the Fire Lord and the goal of ending the war.
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Intertwined with the compelling character arcs and well-paced storytelling are more mature themes that still resonate today. With grace and honesty, ‘Avatar’ depicts topics like imperialism, genocide, intergenerational trauma, gender inequality, self-doubt, and redemption. The series also packs lighthearted comedy and awesome action sequences into every episode along with its important life lessons and mature themes. ‘Avatar’ can make you laugh and cry and laugh again in the span of only 24 minutes, all while delivering on the epic tale of the Avatar’s journey.
The fact that ‘Avatar’ is still so widely beloved years after its release is a testament to the impact it has had on viewers. Watching the characters learn and grow throughout the series continues to be emotionally resonant whether you’re a first-time viewer or a dedicated fan. The long-form storytelling in ‘Avatar’ allowed the characters to develop organically and realistically, giving them depth and dimension that was unique for children’s cartoons at the time. And because the series was planned for three seasons, the creators were able to meticulously plot out the character arcs and build toward the epic climax in the series finale.
The animators of ‘Avatar’ used the way the show looks to provide insight into each of the four nations and their societies while also hinting at things that are unseen. The elemental bending and fantastical animals like badger moles and eel hounds are still just as enchanting and exciting to watch no matter your age. ‘Avatar’ is also bolstered by its important life lessons and mature topics. Its anti-imperialist themes and messages of equality, which are still relevant today, are poignantly distilled by a previous Avatar named Kyoshi (Jennifer Hale): “Only justice will bring peace.”
Although ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is a fantasy cartoon made for children, people of all ages can appreciate its incredible worldbuilding and important themes, as well as relate to its characters whether they’re a hero or a so-called villain. Now is the perfect time to watch this incredible series. And once you finish it, you can continue exploring the world of ‘Avatar’ in comic form and in the animated sequel series ‘The Legend of Korra’, which follows the adventures of the Avatar who succeeds Aang. If its recent resurgence in popularity is any indication, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is sure to continue resonating with audiences for years to come.
Stream ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ and ‘The Legend of Korra’ on Netflix now.
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Claire L. Wong is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area who strives to advance intelligent analysis, diversity, and compassionate storytelling in her work. She especially likes writing about science fiction, action, AAPI, and LGBTQ+ stories. She believes that visual storytelling through film and television increases the practice of empathy, which aligns with Hollywood Insider’s goal to use meaningful entertainment as a unifying tool. (she/her)