When I was younger, I used to dream of having superpowers. I would pretend that I could shoot fireballs out of my hands, and I would dream of the day I would get to use my powers on anyone who was mean to me. I think I even got as far as giving myself a superhero name and considering costume design before it finally occurred to me that if my powers hadn’t manifested themselves by the tender age of fifteen (don’t judge), they probably never would.
Maybe that’s why I like watching movies and TV shows about people who can do things like that: X-Men, Heroes, Sky High, Frozen… I like watching people become more than the world around them. I like watching them discover who they are and who they were meant to be. And I really like watching people shoot fireballs out of their hands. So it makes sense that I enjoyed this show as much as I did.
At the start of the first episode, Katara says:
“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the War. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.”
Shortly after that, Katara and her brother Sokka discover a boy frozen in an iceberg. This boy, Aang, is the last of the Air Nomads, frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years—and he’s the Avatar. What follows is a year-long journey around the world, giving Aang the education he needs as he trains with masters of each element. But they’re under a bit of a time crunch; Sozen’s Comet will soon cross the sky for the first time in a hundred years, giving Fire Lord Ozai and all the other firebenders enough power to end the war once and for all.
Much like Thom said about Community, Avatar: The Last Airbender is largely an ensemble series that doesn’t work as well when you like one individual character better than the rest. This show focuses on character interaction and personal development more than action (although there’s a pretty huge amount of that, too). It’s about a group of children who are forced to grow up in adversity and find hidden depths of character in the process, which is a pretty great message for kids today, whose greatest adversity is getting the black iPhone instead of the white for Christmas.
Aang is the product of a different time and a different way of life. He grew up with the monks of the Air Nomads, high above the world in a mountaintop monastery. He became an airbending master and found out he was the Avatar at the age of twelve, four years before previous Avatars did. He couldn’t cope with the huge responsibility thrust on him, and so he ran away, leading to his hundred-year sleep beneath the ice.
Once he’s freed, though, Aang is like no other character I’ve ever encountered. He’s fun-loving, free-spirited, and absolutely incorruptible in spite of the enormous pressure he’s under and the tremendous difficulties he faces on a regular basis, like being hunted by Prince Zuko, Princess Azula, and Combustion Man. He also has his moments of deep calm and maturity beyond his years, though, especially when it comes to his relationships with his friends and the final battle looming before him.
Speaking of his relationships with friends, he also has his moments of absolute rage when their safety is threatened, like when his sky bison Appa is kidnapped by sandbenders. For several episodes, Aang is like a vengeful god raining down punishment on the puny mortals who made the most colossal mistake of their lives, and he doesn’t stop until Appa is safely returned to him. I’m not sure whether this is a major character flaw because of the rage, or a tremendous character strength because of his fierce loyalty and protectiveness, but it’s a stark contrast to his normally easygoing self.
Somehow Aang manages to find harmony with all these disparate character traits and use them in his final battle against the Fire Lord. He uses his towering rage and infinite patience and deep creativity to rise to the occasion and find a solution that hasn’t been used since the time of legend: stripping the Fire Lord of his bending abilities and dooming him to an ordinary life. This is the kind of behaviour that defines Aang: he does his own thing, in spite of the entire world telling him to do something else, and it all manages to work out in the end.
Even though he faces what is essentially the embodiment of pure evil, Aang somehow manages to hold onto his optimism and idealism. Not only does he end the war, but he manages to maintain what makes him unique in the process: his hope for a broken world and his vision for its future.
Katara is kinda the mother of the group, even though she’s only a year older than Aang. She’s the last waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe and Sokka’s younger sister, and she becomes a waterbending master at a pretty early age. She’s got insane talent to the point where she forces another master to teach her things, learns the highly questionable art of bloodbending, and even manages to defeat the bat-crap-crazy Princess Azula.
She’s also really identifiable for any girl who’s not entirely sure of who she is. Katara struggles with the fact that she’s more mature than the other group members and doesn’t like that it’s her defining quality, especially since it confuses her relationship with Aang. She knows she has tremendous talent, but she’s constantly fighting herself and her past, especially where her mother is concerned. She feels everything on a deep emotional level and isn’t afraid to share those emotions with the rest of Team Avatar, even when it creates conflict in the process.
Of all the characters in the show, Katara is probably one of my least favourites. But given that I still like her pretty well, that’s not much of an insult, I think. I was cheering for her and Aang all the way through, so when they finally got together at the end, I may or may not have had a huge emotional reaction that involved various fluids leaking out of my face.
Sokka is Katara’s older brother. He’s pretty darn silly at times, especially in comparison with Aang and Katara. I mean, he has a boomerang named Boomerang (their relationship is my OTP, BTW). But as the series progresses, with the fate of the world resting on the group’s shoulders, he manages to keep everyone from snapping just by cracking a joke or two.
Even though he’s kind of a goofball, Sokka goes through a lot in the course of the series. His mother died before the story began, and he was separated from his father, who was fighting in the war. He’s seen firebender raids and huge battles and widespread devastation. His first girlfriend turned into the moon, his second girlfriend was imprisoned by the Fire Nation, and worst of all, he lost Boomerang in the final battle.
Sokka really doesn’t have much luck in general, actually, seeing as he keeps finding himself in all sorts of situations that don’t really befall the rest of the group. But out of everyone, he’s probably the most well-adjusted. Sure, he’s got his doubts. At one point he’s travelling with three benders and feels like he’s just slowing them down because he doesn’t have any special powers.
But he turns this doubt into a desire to improve himself, which develops into a formidable military mind and incredible skill with a sword. He takes all the misfortune that comes his way and finds a solution hiding somewhere inside it. He plans battles, orchestrates jailbreaks, and organizes complex invasion plans on the fly, adjusting to changing situations with creativity that not even Aang possesses. Sokka is a pretty amazing character, the kind of character most writers dream of being able to come up with (and the kind of boy most girls dream about meeting, actually. I mean, what?).
Formerly a competitor in what was essentially the WWE of earthbending, Toph is hard inside and out, despite or possibly because of all the challenges that life has given her. She may have been born into a life of privilege and with the ability to bend earth just so hard, but she was also born without eyesight and without the ability to grow taller than about 4’6″.
I absolutely adore Toph. She kinda got on my nerves at first with her “I don’t need help from anybody” act, but it turns out that it’s more accurate to say she didn’t want sympathy from anybody. Now she’s a stone-cold badass who can see by feeling vibrations in the earth and who can bend metal like it’s no big thing (even though yes, it’s a very big thing, because nobody ever did that before).
Toph joins the group partway through season 2 as Aang’s earthbending instructor, and she manages to get him over a pretty significant roadblock (which is to be expected when he’s a master in the opposing element and thus a little ill-suited to it). She pushes him hard and doesn’t take any crap from him or from anyone else, especially the Dai Li or those idiots her parents sent after her. She’s fierce and temperamental and not afraid to make fun of herself or anyone else.
Toph has just as much right to be upset about her lot in life as anyone else, but she takes that frustration and channels it into some pretty dang ferocious bending that makes even King Bumi look like a friggin’ beginner. And she does it all while wearing pom-poms, which somehow is an even bigger accomplishment.
Oh, man. Prince Zuko, you guys. He’s just twenty different levels of complex. At the start of the show, he’s a banished prince who’s trying to regain his honour by capturing the Avatar. As the story progresses, he fights against his uncle Iro’s counsel at every turn, convinced that his destiny is to find the Avatar, destroy him, and retake his place as the crown prince of the Fire Nation.
It takes acting as the Blue Spirit to save the Avatar, a huge falling-out with Iro, a rise to glory, and a new insight into the Fire Nation to make him realize it, but Zuko finally realizes something: honour isn’t something other people can give you. It’s something you find for yourself. In that realization, Zuko finds peace with his new destiny and becomes Aang’s firebending instructor. He joins Team Avatar to fight against his father and take his place as the rightful Fire Lord, ending the war and ushering in a new era of peace.
It’s so strange to see Zuko at the start of the show, with his ponytail and his anger issues and his giant battleship, and then to see him at the end, with his long hair and his inner peace and weird bun-crown. He’s still pained and broken, but his rage has turned to conviction, and his hatred has become hope. He finds redemption in himself and in his new destiny, and in a way, I think this show is about the relationship between him and Aang than anything else. In the series finale, they stand side by side as friends, facing a world as shattered as Zuko once was. And they’re ready to work together to make something amazing out of it.
For some reason, I ran into a pretty serious writer’s block with this review. Maybe it’s because I got so emotionally invested in the characters and in the story that I found it hard to be critical of anything. It’s hard to be objective when it’s something you care about, and it’s even harder to criticize something when it’s meant for children, because it isn’t supposed to be perfect.
But maybe that’s why this show succeeds. So many other children’s shows just mail it in with stories about Pokeballs and tank engines named Thomas and bilingual toddlers with anthropomorphic accessories. Avatar realizes that its audience needs something more than just entertainment, so it provides them with useful lessons in the process.
Sure, it’s based on a comic series, so it can’t exactly take all the credit for the story. But it breathes new life into the tired-out Hero’s Journey, and in the process it makes you cheer and gasp and cry and laugh (so, so much laughing) and enjoy the wild, beautiful ride. So watch it, because you deserve to see a story this magnificent.
Final Grade: A+