Avatar: The Last Airbender may be a kids’ cartoon, but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome.
I’m a big fan of cartoons. I’ve recently gone back and watched a few from my childhood, and while some have stood the test of time (Recess, Batman: The Animated Series) some, sadly, have not (here’s looking at you, Pinky and the Brain). And while I was in my early teens when Avatar came out, I knew even then that it was going to be a timeless classic.
Avatar is set in a land where many people possess an ability known as “bending”, or the capacity to manipulate the elements to their will. Of the four elements- air, water, fire, and earth- most of these people can only bend one. However, there is one- the Avatar- who can bend all four. Avatar follows the adventures of Aang, the latest incarnation of the Avatar, and his friends: Katara, a Waterbender who acts as the “mother” of the group; Sokka, Katara’s brother, comic relief, and non-bender; and Toph, a blind Earthbender who is one of the best characters in all of cartoon history.
Each element is separated by nation. Naturally, because fire is super evil, the Fire Nation is the villain of the piece, invading and conquering all the other lands because its leader, the Fire Lord, is just plain evil, I guess. They’ve even wiped out the Air Nomads, the tribe where Aang was born, making him the last Airbender. See? The title of the thing is in the thing!
This show doesn’t shy away from big issues. Tribalism, for example, is the biggest running theme, and with all the crazy shit going down in the US of A at the moment, it seems particularly poignant. Unlike a lot of shows, however, it doesn’t glorify violence or killing, and tries to convey the horrors of war in a way that kids can understand. It does a great job of it, too.
Sexism is also dealt with in a great way. Sokka is notoriously sexist, which is eventually beaten out of him- quite literally, in some cases- by his encounters with various women throughout the first season. Katara chafes at her brother’s ideas of masculinity and traditional gender roles, but it’s not until he meets the Kyoshi Warriors, a group of female-only fighters, does he truly learn how wrong his views have been.
I mentioned the main villain before. Given that the show is full of so many well-developed, amazing characters, the Fire Lord is strangely two-dimensional. He wants to conquer the world just because. He has no real discernible motive other than being born power-hungry. On the other hand, his daughter, Azula, is a fantastic villain. She’s briefly seen in season one but doesn’t really join the action until season two, where she hunts both the Avatar and her brother, Zuko (who is portrayed as a villain in season one, but eventually defects to Team Avatar).
Azula is a Firebending prodigy and a textbook psychopath. She uses fear and intimidation to control everyone around her, including her “friends”. Over the course of the series, we discover more about how she became who she is and we see her mental state begin to break down. In the end, her lust for power becomes her downfall.
In some ways, Azula and Toph, whom I mentioned earlier, are quite similar. Both have issues with their parents, both are supremely self-confident and have a superiority complex, and both have prodigious abilities beyond those of other characters (hell, Toph even creates a whole new type of bending because she’s so awesome). The biggest difference between the two, however, is that Toph has a conscience. She does love fighting, but she doesn’t enjoy killing. That, and she has a wonderfully sarcastic sense of humour, often making jokes at other people’s expense or even, at times, at her own blindness. Azula takes herself far too seriously.
I haven’t even got around to mentioning my other favourite character, Iroh, but I won’t because his greatness can’t be contained in one post. I guess you’ll just have to watch it to find out. In all seriousness, though, if you’ve never seen the show, watch it. Because of its depth and sophistication, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a kids’ show. In fact, I think adults would have a greater appreciation for it, due to its messages and some of the humour. It’s definitely worth a watch (or three).