Avatar: The Last Airbender- The Catalyst of the Animation Renaissance

 

In my first episode of Hope Makes Chris Watch Cartoons podcast, I claimed that Avatar: The Last Airbender was the show that kicked off our current animation renaissance. I fully stand by my declaration that it’s one of the greatest shows ever made. Not one of the greatest animated shows. One of the best shows ever made.

Avatar changed the face of animation. They showed that children could handle and enjoy deep, complex storytelling. It gave an adult audience a gateway outside of anime to enjoy an animated series that wasn’t “just for kids.” Many animation creators of today like Ethan Spaulding, Giancarlo Volpe, and Justin Ridge worked on the show. Most notably is Dave Filoni who has become a household name for Star Wars fans after creating Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, Resistance, and The Mandalorian.

Avatar is the reason we have shows like Gravity Falls who also pushed the boundaries of horror in children’s television. It’s why we have shows like Steven Universe exploring mental health and sexuality. So many think pieces have been written comparing Avatar’s Azula and Zuko to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s Catra. Azula and Zuko’s characters had to walk so Catra could now fly. We wouldn’t have the animation of today if Avatar didn’t come first. It changed the course of everything and made network CEO’s from adult media pay attention to animation really for the first time ever. Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most important pieces of media ever created.

With the series coming to Netflix on May 15th, I’m so excited about new fans discovering the show. People who were kids or teenagers as the series ran from 2005-2008 now get to share this adventure with a new generation of fans.

Back in 2015, I worked for a website called What the Fangirl. One of the first editorials I wrote was about Avatar. I’m reposting it once again, because I still feel the same way about the show. The article has been edited and updated. For the most part though, it’s the same piece I wrote five years ago.

Please enjoy!

What can I say about Avatar: The Last Airbender that hasn’t already been discussed? It’s sequel, The Legend of Korra, concluded in December of 2014 with a spectacular finale that broke ground for queer representation in animation. Both shows have won or been nominated for a plethora of awards. They spurred memes, jokes, and great one liners that are still quoted today. The animation is beautiful. The characters are far more complex than many adult shows. Their continuity is spot on. They built a rich world full of mythos where nothing feels superfluous. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are arguably two of the best shows ever created. They defined how children’s television should be done and set the bar higher than ever before. Avatar was the catalyst that kicked off the animation renaissance we’re in today.

Over a decade later, Avatar is still analyzed, discussed, and rewatched for good reason. But what about it makes it so good? Why is Avatar so important? How did it change everything?

It all comes down to it’s story, pacing, characters, use of female characters, diversity, and the understanding that children can handle complex storytelling that is compelling for adults as well.

What is Avatar: The Last Airbender about?

There are four nations in the world that used to live in balance with each other. There’s the Air Nomads, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Water Tribes. Each nation is unique. The Air Nomads were monks who didn’t need extravagance to be happy. The Fire Nation was the most technologically advanced with a large complex military. The Earth Kingdom was the largest of the four and had farmers, merchants, and a royal family. Finally, the Water Tribes are similar to Inuits living on the water and hunting for a living. There is also a parallel dimension called the Spirit World where animal like creatures live. People seldom travel to the spirit world and vice versa.

Each of these nations have people called “benders” who can control the elements. For example, a fire bender can control fire and other similar elements like lightning and lava. They’re unique to their nations for reasons fleshed out in Korra.

There is a figure called the “Avatar” who is the most powerful person in the world. Only they have the capability to bend all four elements. Their purpose is to keep balance between the four nations and act as a bridge to the Spirit World. An Avatar will die and the Avatar Spirit will be reincarnated in the Avatar Cycle. This cycle goes in the order of fire, air, water, and earth. The Avatar also has what’s called the Avatar State. In this form, they have limitless power. They are practically unstoppable at these moments. There is one major flaw to it. If they are killed in the Avatar State, it will break the Avatar Cycle ending the line right there. They have all the power in the cosmos, but it’s also where they are at their weakest.

Aang is the newest incarnation of the Avatar. He’s a child when the Fire Nation declares war on the other nations. Since the last Avatar was from the Fire Nation, the kingdom sets their sights on defeating the Air Nomads first to wipe out the new Avatar. The Air Nomad monks have no choice but to tell Aang who he really is before he’s of age. Confused and scared, Aang flees from his home with his animal companion, a sky bison named Appa. He ends up crashing into the sea during a terrible storm. He goes into the Avatar State to protect himself and Appa. They fall into a deep sleep frozen in time for a hundred years. During this time, the Fire Nation has an all out war defeating the Air Nomads in a mass genocide and decimating the Southern Water Tribe. The only holdouts are the Northern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom.

Avatar: The Last Airbender begins when siblings Katara and Sokka awaken Aang from his slumber in an iceberg.

The difference between Avatar and it’s sequel Korra

If you’re a fan of Avatar you’ve either watched or at least heard of it’s sequel The Legend of Korra. It continued the story with the next Avatar, a teenage girl named Korra. It mixed a new cast of characters with old favorites to tell the next chapter and broadened the world as a whole.

There’s no way that I can say Avatar is better than Korra or vice versa. It’s comparing apples and oranges grown in the same orchard. They’re similar in a lot of ways. But they’re also two different shows doing two different stories. In Korra, they make a lot of callbacks to the first show, but you don’t need to see it to follow what is happening. I do advise people to watch Avatar first, because it enhances Korra that much more.

To me, the biggest difference between Avatar and Korra is the demographic the shows were aimed at. Avatar was written for a younger age group. It was supposed to be for the 6-11 age range but clearly reached well beyond that. Korra had the same range, but as they progressed into darker and more complex stories, it was quite clear who they were writing the show for. This was for those eleven year olds from Avatar that were now fifteen years old. Korra is a teenager herself and at a different point in her life than Aang who started his journey at twelve.

This is where Avatar: The Last Airbender ended up surprising me. It’s the more childlike of the two shows, but it definitely didn’t feign from introducing some pretty dark plot lines. I was in no way prepared for the depth and severe storytelling of Avatar. The entire show took me by surprise.

Season one through the first half of season two is fairly light and fun. It’s very adventure of the week and building the story. The stakes don’t feel as high as the Gaang (Aang’s group) mosey their way through their journey. They know they have to defeat Fire Lord Ozai to end the war. Aang must master the four elements to do so. They don’t really feel a rush to get it done as there’s no pressing timeline to push them along. It allows for their character arcs to get established.

They do lay out some heavy tones through season one. I mean in freaking episode three, Aang finds the skeleton of his father figure and mentor, Gyatso. He then discovers his people were destroyed in a genocide and that he, as the title says, is the last Airbender. It’s a devastating moment for him very early in the series.

Later in the season, they lay down why Zuko is the honor seeking villain obsessively seeking to capture the Avatar. When he was thirteen years old, his father Ozai challenged him to a duel to the death for speaking out of turn. He burned his son’s face scarring him for life and banished him from the country as the dishonored prince. It’s an incredibly traumatic moment that set Zuko on his villain course.

That’s some pretty heavy stuff for season one. Luckily the rest of the season is pretty lighthearted. Most of the darker moments are handled off screen. You don’t see, for example, Zuko get the life changing blow. You only see his Uncle Iroh close his eyes as it happens. There are some major battles that go down over the course season, but there’s nothing pressing to make the story move faster. It allows the viewer to really get to know the characters and fall in love with them. We truly understand who they are.

Even as season two rolls along, it’s at a pretty slow pace. The Gaang wanders from episode to episode without any pressing urge to defeat the Fire Lord. Then there are three events in season two that make the show turn to not only a faster pace but also subject matter that changed the face of animation:

  1. Meeting Toph Beifong
  2. The episode called “The Library”
  3. Ba Sing Se

Toph Beifong

Toph Beifong might possibly be one of my favorite characters ever created. Plot wise, her arrival pushed Aang to learn his third element to grow as the Avatar. He was finally one step closer to defeating the big bad. She helped balance the team by adding another female.

Toph also made her mark on children’s television for one huge reason. She is blind. While this shouldn’t be a huge deal, it is. You have a main character with a disability. Usually in animation they would have “a very special episode” that teaches kids the benefits of being nice to people with disabilities, how we’re all equal, and falling into those PSA tropes. It’s been done time and time again.

Toph changed everything about that. She states in her first episode that she never had trouble seeing. She senses seismic waves through her feet. It allows her to “see” objects and people similar to how bats use echolocation. She’s not a damsel in distress. She can take care of herself, but it’s also not below Toph to accept help when needed. She’s uncomfortable when they fly on Appa or walk on a wooden dock, because she can’t feel the earth to “see.” In those moments, she’ll hold onto someone’s arm, but no one makes a huge deal about it. She’s just another member of the Gaang.

Along that same vein, Toph openly makes jokes about being blind. It doesn’t bother her. This is where Avatar struck out away from the traditional PSA format. No one tip toed around her lack of eyesight. Everyone rolls with it as if it’s a normal day in the world of Toph.

Because it’s normal for her.

I read a story on Tumblr about a mother upset over her child getting a disease where she would lose her sight. The little girl told her mother it would be alright because she would be strong like Toph. This is why representation matters. Animation can be used as a tool to help children and adults learn to cope with their own struggles of reality in the safe space of exploring story.

“The Library”

Aside from the fact that this is one of my favorite episodes of Avatar, we finally have an incident that give the show a time clock. This episode is where the pace of the plot finally picks up, and Avatar never slows down after this moment. This is also a defining episode where we question the morals of all wars in general. Sokka discovers that a solar eclipse is coming in a few months. Fire benders lose their abilities during solar eclipses marking the perfect time to attack the Fire Lord. But the Owl Spirit who guards the library calls them out on using this knowledge to their advantage. A being as old as this spirit sees this violence, even from the heroes, as a senseless act. You can really see where Dave Filoni might have gotten ideas for the Bendu in Star Wars Rebels from this type of character.

From “The Library,” a lot of stuff gets thrown at the viewer. Appa is kidnapped and suffers traumatic animal abuse. After losing his people, Aang must deal with losing Appa as well. Zuko is well into his redemption arc. He struggles with the abuse from his father but also whether or not he wants to be good or evil. Zuko is also dealing with classism. He was raised as a prince in royalty. On the run as a refugee with Uncle Iroh, he experiences poverty for the first time. Season two is Zuko’s defining arc in my opinion.

The Gaang moves from “The Library” to the most disturbing part of Avatar which is…

Ba Sing Se

Where do I even begin with Ba Sing Se? This series of episodes in Avatar is where I had to sit back and go, “Wow, they really pushed all the boundaries of animation.” These are the episodes that defined Avatar for me and separated it from Korra. As mentioned above, I expected complex storytelling from the more adult Korra. I had no idea how dark Avatar, this children’s show, would become. They handled such mature storytelling in a way that a child could comprehend, but it reached well beyond the demographic to where older viewers would truly understand what was happening.

So what exactly is Ba Sing Se?

Ba Sing Se is the only metropolis in the world. It’s so big that they had to build a monorail system, because it took at least two days to walk from one end to the other.

Here’s a map of then entire world of Avatar:

See those two circles I pointed out in red? That’s the city of Ba Sing Se. It takes up about 1/5 of the Earth Kingdom. The creators of Avatar said it’s bigger than Los Angeles. It’s the Manhattan Island of this world.

To get why Ba Sing Se is so messed up, you need to understand the layout of the city. There are two massive walls that protect this place. Inside the Outer Wall is the agrarian system where they have farmlands, lakes, and even mountains. The Inner Wall is where the actual city is. Within this massive section, there are rings that separate the class systems.

The Lower Ring is where the majority of the population lives. It also had the most poverty and crime. Refugees escaping the war fled to Ba Sing Se, because the walls had only been breached once in it’s 5000+ year history. It was considered the safest place on Earth. The Middle Ring is your middle class sector with restaurants, shops, and merchants. It has parks, rivers, and flora unlike the crowded Lower Ring. Finally, the Upper Ring is where the wealthiest people in Ba Sing Se live. These are your government and military officials as well as the royal family. Unlike the other two rings, they are protected by a secret police called the Dai Li who enforce the ruler’s will.

Just looking at the set up of the city, you can see where Aang might have a big problem. His one job is to bring balance to the people of the world. People are nowhere close to being equal in Ba Sing Se. The walls and class system are major plot points for several episodes and even comes back in Korra.

Ba Sing Se was created based on real world examples from China and North Korea. For example, the Gaang is given a handler named Joo Dee. She keeps them distracted away from the “unsavory” parts of the city. When they want to see the Earth King to recruit him for the war, she answers with “There is no war in Ba Sing Se” and actively tries to gaslight our heroes. They’re later informed it’s actually against the law to talk about the war inside the city limits.

This is when the entire tone of the show changes. Ba Sing Se is a series of eight episodes where just about every terrible thing imaginable happens. This includes a totalitarian dictatorship, secret police that’s similar to the Nazi SS, murdering a teenager, more animal abuse, and brainwashing. What Avatar does so well is present it in a way where it’s never too scary for children. It’s broken down to where they can understand what’s happening in the plot. But any adult watching this show can see the deeper themes and plot going on.

In my opinion, this is what sets Avatar apart from Korra. They pushed the boundaries of what the 6-11 year old demographic is watching. They trusted that they’re young audience could understand what was happening. A child might not get the deeper historical contexts of using real world examples, but they would know that bad stuff is going on through the eyes of it’s heroes. We had never truly seen animation do this before.

 

The Women of Avatar: The Last Airbender

One of the greatest qualities of Avatar and later on Korra is the amount of well rounded and complex female characters. They feature just about every kind of woman imaginable. They have mothers who love being at home with their kids. They have princesses obsessed with power who want to conquer. They have great warriors who also love being feminine and like boys. You have young girls forced to grow up too fast and become the mother in the family. And of course, Toph who is blind and still rips airships out of the sky.

Since I already covered Toph, I want to touch on some of the other women of the show. Here’s are some of my personal favorite women from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Katara

Katara is the archetype of how to write a proper female character. Yes, she is the romantic interest for Aang and helps him in his journey. But Katara also is allowed to have her own personal journey outside of Aang where she betters herself, because she chooses to be better for her own self. We also see over the course of the show how hard she works. Katara doesn’t magically get better overnight. When we meet her, she can barely waterbend. The audience sees her practice, get better, practice more, fail, fail some more, continue to practice, and work incredibly hard until she is a waterbending master. The other great trait is she doesn’t take crap from anyone. When Master Pakku say that women can’t be waterbending fighters, Katara bests him in a fight. Sokka is a little sexist in the beginning of the show, but Katara calls him out every single time. She is not afraid to stand up for her own self worth.

Also as the voice of reason, she’s constantly nurturing the group to bring out the best in everyone. Katara’s empathy is endless, and she refuses to leave people in need. We see her take personal missions outside of Aang’s main story, because it’s important to her. And the Gaang supports her for it, because they respect her agency.

Katara is the ideal leading lady for this show. She has patience and strength. She shows that you don’t have to be a sword wielding warrior type to be a fighter. You can be motherly, girlie, feminine and then go out and kick ass.

Azula

Azula is the best villain in the show. Her father Fire Lord Ozai is your stereotypical mustache twirling bad guy. Zuko ends up switching sides. Azula is an antagonist through and through. The great thing they do with Azula is show the progression of how she turned out this way. From a young age, she was the prodigy groomed by her militaristic father. She’s cruel, often threatening death to her servants for the mildest transgression. Azula controls everyone through fear. Being trained in military history, she’s a brilliant tactician usually two steps ahead of the Gaang. Like her brother Zuko, the trauma and abuse run so deep where it’s even more tragic when you remember she’s only fourteen-years-old. In her young life, she’s never had the chance to be normal. Her father wouldn’t allow that.

There’s a wonderful episode called “The Beach” where they bring out Azula’s more human qualities. She struggles talking with a boy she has a crush on. She’s jealous of Ty Lee who’s the center of attention. She doesn’t know how to function with normal people that aren’t out to conquer the world. She even flat out says she’s a monster a few times, and she’s okay with that. Azula recognizes that she has her flaws. She chooses to ignore those faults. In the end, it’s her narcissism and pride that’s her downfall.

Azula is one of the best animated characters ever written. She (with Zuko) is the reason we have the complex villains in today’s animation.

Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai

The supporting women bring so much to the series as well.

Suki is introduced early in the show, but she doesn’t officially join the Gaang until pretty late in the series. Like Katara, she’s a romantic interest for Sokka, but she has her own agency and story outside of him. I love that she’s the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors and a badass in combat. But they allow her to still be feminine. She has a crush and likes Sokka. They’re adorable together. But their relationship doesn’t hold her back. They’re better together and compliment each other. Once he realizes it, Sokka is okay that Suki doesn’t need him to protect her. They trust each others skills to get the job done.

Suki, Sokka, Katara, and Aang all represent the “Now” of war. While the future and the past might seem bleak, it’s important to enjoy the “Now” and take that happiness when you can with the ones you love.

Ty Lee is the heart of Azula’s evil girl group being the happy and bubbly side character who loves how pink her aura is. But Avatar never infantilize her for being overly feminine. She’s still a warrior and able to disable a group of benders even though she has no powers. She also choose to be “a freak” to break away from the conformity of her family. She joined the circus to find her own path and identity which is so admirable.

Mai is the other character that rounds out Azula’s group. Also from an upper class Fire Nation family, she was groomed to never have an opinion or speak her mind. But Mai is so crafty that she figured out how to use this for her own advantages. She is also a character where her actions are far more important than her words. While she might appear apathetic, she actually cares deeply for the people she loves. She shows this in a pivotal moments that changes the course of the series. Mai is a prime example of taking the abuse you were raised under, overcoming it, and doing what’s right in the end despite your past.

One of Avatar’s strongest point is how they write women in their shows. Their women love, laugh, cry, mourn, choose to fight, choose to be mothers, choose to stay at home or explore the world, and are all still powerful in their own right.

Few more things you should know about the show

The adults in Avatar, and later in Korra, are actually smart. One of my biggest pet peeves in children’s television is when adults are portrayed as idiots. I’ll never forget an episode of iCarly that infuriated me. Carly’s adult older brother and caretaker Spencer told her she couldn’t go to a wrestling match. Carly then tricked him into going. He got terribly injured, but Carly ended up the hero since she had bested the adult. She was never remorseful about hurting her brother. It pissed me off, because I was a nanny at the time. I didn’t think it was a good lesson to teach a child. I watched a lot of Disney Chanel, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon with my nanny kids. I noticed a ton of trends where they would portray adults as idiots. There was a lack of respect that the child characters refused to show them.

What’s great about Avatar is the kids and teenagers recognize that adults are smart, and they use that. They seek help from their mentors. They learn from the lessons taught to them by the older generation. In return, there are plenty of lessons the adults take from the kids as well. This is how the world actually works.

Another one of my favorite things about Avatar is they humanize the villains. There are points where you’re rooting for Azula just as much as Aang. There’s many great moments where they show that the “evil Fire Nation” are still people. They’re not all power hungry maniacs. In the episode “The Headband,” we actively see how propaganda works in this world. The children are raised under lies with no outside influence that they’re in the wrong. We see the Fire Nation soldiers are people with families. We get to see those who live in the lowest class of the Fire Nation are forgotten by their leaders, and they just want to survive. The leaders are the monsters, while normal people are just as much caught in the conflict. They were actually the first victims of the war. It adds so much to Zuko’s story when he wants to overthrow his father’s reign to save his own people.

Finally, every character has their weakness. They’re given a space where they can fail, and it’s not magically better the next episode. Their actions have consequences which can showcase their worst faults. Each have one or more episodes where they recognize their flaws and overcome it. My favorite example is when Sokka felt useless for not being a bender. All his friends had these amazing abilities, and he was the funny guy. He moped for about a second before going, “I’m not going to stand for this. I can be better. I’ll learn a new skill so I can contribute to the group.” Sokka sought out a teacher. He learned the sword and became a master at it. Each character hit these points where they chose to better themselves. Aang struggled with the destruction of firebending. Toph invented metalbending while captured by the enemies. Katara learned bloodbending and chose not to use it after seeing how deadly it was. Zuko overcame his father’s abuse to become a protagonist. Choosing your own path and to overcome your weaknesses is probably the best message Avatar: The Last Airbender has to offer.

What else can I say?

Avatar: The Last Airbender changed the face of animation. It set a new bar that every show should reach for. We’re seeing the ripple effects in today’s shows like Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, The Owl House, Adventure Time, Clone Wars/Rebels, and so many more series.

Avatar is one of the most important shows ever made. It changed everything, and animation will never be the same because of it.

Thank you Avatar for everything you have done.

 

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