'Avatar: The Last Airbender' is on Netflix now, and it still stands up as one of the best animated TV series ever
- "Avatar: The Last Airbender," one of the most beloved cartoons of all time, hit Netflix in its entirety on May 15.
- The series, which aired originally from 2005 to 2008, is still one of the best animated series ever, set apart by its complex worldbuilding and empathy for its characters.
- "Avatar" set a precedent for cartoons in the 2010s, demonstrating the complex stories that can be told in 23-minute chunks.
- This article contains spoilers for "Avatar."
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To this day, no animated series — and arguably, few television series in general — have managed to achieve the lasting impact of Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender." The series, which initially ran from 2005 to 2008, is a masterclass in animation, character development, and complex storytelling. Moreover, it still resonates with audiences today, coming to Netflix in full on May 15, much to the joy of the series' fans.
—carla (@carla_pgb) May 12, 2020
It's easy to recognize the ways that "Avatar" set a precedent in Western animation in the 2010s, precipitating a wave of ambitious, character-driven storytelling that's easily seen in series like Wonderstorm's "The Dragon Prince" (it's showrunner, Aaron Ehasz, is an "Avatar" alum) or Cartoon Network's deeply empathetic "Steven Universe."
What sets "Avatar" apart in 2020, 15 years after its debut, is its incredible worldbuilding, fleshed-out characters, and ability to make topics like war, trauma, and death comprehensible for younger audiences without pulling its punches.
[Ed. Note: This article contains spoilers for "Avatar: The Last Airbender."]
"Avatar" deftly crafts an immersive universe that its characters inhabit.
For the uninitiated, the series takes place in a fantasy world split into four elemental nations: The Earth Kingdom, the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. As Nicole Clark reported in Vice, the series draws from a variety of Asian cultures, particularly that of China. The series brought on the vice president of the group Media Action Network for Asian Americans as a consultant in order to check that everything from character design to the show's art style was done sensitively.
In the show, certain people have the ability to "bend" one of the four elements, with bending styles drawing upon martial arts styles ranging from Tai Chi to Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. One individual known as the Avatar is gifted with the power to bend all four. In return, they're tasked with maintaining balance in the world and serving as a bridge between mortals and spirits.
In "Avatar: The Last Airbender," that's Aang, a whimsical 12-year-old Airbender who learns in the series' first episode that his people were wiped out as a result of a genocidal war waged by the Fire Nation while he was frozen in an iceberg for 100 years. In turn, the world has been without an Avatar for a century, leaving the balance skewed.
The initial device of Aang being an Avatar displaced in time helps to flesh out the history of the universe. He consistently harkens back to things he remembers from his childhood, whether it's bygone Fire Nation slang or old schemes he used to get up to with a friend in one of the Earth Kingdom's biggest cities. From the get-go, it's clear that "Avatar's" vibrant history is key to understanding the political machinations of its present. While the Fire Nation is the indubitably the biggest enemy, the Earth Kingdom capital city, Ba Sing Se, is fraught with corruption; the Northern Water Tribe closed itself off in the face of the war, leaving the Southern Water Tribe to fend for itself.
The "Avatar" universe is so compelling that its creators have regularly revisited it. There's "The Legend of Korra," a sequel series that follows the next Avatar, Korra, through her own struggles 70 years after the events of Avatar. Going into the past, there's "The Rise of Kyoshi" and its forthcoming sequel "The Shadow of Kyoshi," YA novels penned by F.C. Yee that dive hundreds of years into the past to focus on Avatar Kyoshi's origin and life.
"Avatar" is character-driven, exploring complex themes through personal stories
While Aang is the Avatar, he's not alone in his quest: early on in the series, he groups up with Katara and Sokka, the pair of Southern Water Tribe siblings who awaken him from his 100-year slumber.
Along the way, the trio picks up accomplices like Toph, a blind Earth Kingdom heiress who teaches herself how to use her Earthbending to "see," or Suki, a warrior from the Earth Kingdom who follows traditions set by Avatar Kyoshi. Each of "Avatar's" primary characters go through extensive character development across the course of the series' three seasons, suddenly seeming much older than their 12 to 16 years by the end of it all.
Just as crucial, however, is the show's ensemble cast, who ground the show's narrative by showing the impact that the war has had on people outside of the Avatar's inner circle.
"Avatar" features one of the best redemption arcs ever.
Zuko, the disgraced Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, is arguably the series' most compelling character. He's first introduced as a villain, attempting to capture Aang in order to bring him back to his father, the Fire Lord, and restore his honor. Like others, he's also been wounded by the Fire Nation, and he bears it in a visible scar that occupies half of his face.
Guided by his uncle Iroh, a military hero who typically prefers to wax poetic over a cup of tea, Zuko's change across the series is the most dramatic. Initially guided by a single focus — capture the Avatar to restore his honor — repeated interactions with Team Avatar and others outside the Fire Nation continually challenge Zuko's worldview. In one pivotal moment, he and Katara learn that even as rivals, they share something in common: both of their mothers were taken by the Fire Nation. Down the line, Zuko and Aang learn the secrets of Firebending side by side.
Zuko's journey is far from simple, and involves quite a bit of prodding from his uncle Iroh, who serves as one of the series' moral centers. Across three seasons, Zuko's worldview fundamentally shifts as he comes to terms with the fact that his honor isn't tied solely to appeasing his father. From the get-go, it's clear that his path will be the least straightforward out of any of the main cast, particularly as he falters, realizes his mistakes, and tries again and again.
"Avatar: The Last Airbender" set a precedent for cartoons in the 2010s
At this point, "Avatar" feels like canon in the world of cartoons — returning to the series in 2020 makes it clear how its empathetic storytelling and ambitious worldbuilding set a precedent for series like its sequel spin-off, "The Legend of Korra," or shows like "She-Ra and the Princesses of Power," a Dreamworks series helmed by "Nimona's" Noelle Stevenson that released its final season on May 15 as well.
Elements of "Avatar's" ruminations of inherited trauma and war are apparent in series like Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe," which focuses on a half-human, half-alien boy who is continuously forced to deal with the implications of his deceased mother's decisions while ensuring alongside his mentors that Earth doesn't become part of an intergalactic conflict.
There are echoes of Zuko's redemption in Catra, one of "She-Ra and the Princesses of Power's" villains, as she grapples with pursuing her ambitions in an organization that's tearing her apart and her lack of willingness to admit defeat in any way to Adora, her former best friend turned sworn enemy. The ambitious worldbuilding in "The Dragon Prince" tackles a new universe with the potential to be just as vast as that of "Avatar."
That's not to say that the animated canon of the 2010s drew directly from "Avatar's" pedigree. Rather, "Avatar" set a standard in storytelling, proving that it was possible to tackle difficult stories in 23-minute chunks ostensibly targeted towards children and young adults. Continued interest in the franchise today and across the past decade is also testament to its impact: aside from the fact that there's still new canon yet to be added into the universe, the series also established the popular "Avatar & Benders" fanfiction subset in which writers imagine characters from other franchises taking on the Avatar role. That's not to mention the "Avatar" memes that are still pervasive online.
It's not a reach to call "Avatar: The Last Airbender" one of the best TV series of all time
While it's easy to be dissuaded by overarching, superlative claims that certain series are "must-watches," "Avatar" truly fits the bill. Aside from the aforementioned points, it has a laundry list of redeeming qualities ranging from its anime-influenced animation style to its lush, percussive score to its unflagging goofy sense of humor. Ultimately, though, the series' compelling characters and overwhelming sense of empathy is what makes it truly great. With the series coming to Netflix, it's once again set to be easily accessible for those with a subscription, opening the door for everyone to re-experience one of the best animated series together — no matter if it's for the very first time or the 50th.
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