With the Legend of Korra complete, I thought a dissertation on its predecessor might be in order. Plus it gives me a golden opportunity to gush about one of my favourite shows. To wit, Avatar: the Last Airbender.
The Avatarverse is more formally known as the World of the Four Nations. The Four Nations are the Air Nomads, now virtually extinct, the Water Tribes at the North and South Poles, the Fire Nation, an industrialized and militaristic empire, and the large but stagnant Earth Kingdom.
Each of these countries is distinguished by a portion of their population called ‘benders;’ people with the power to telekinetically channel and control their respective elements. Traditionally, to maintain the balance between them, they were overseen by a spiritual leader called the Avatar. Able to bend all four elements, he or she reincarnates as the new Avatar after each death, following a cycle of being born in a different nation every time.
As of the beginning of the series, the Fire Nation has been waging a war of conquest against the other nations for the prior hundred years. The Air Nomads were wiped out in an attempt to kill the new Avatar, and he has been missing ever since. Large parts of the Earth Kingdom are now occupied and colonized by the Fire Nation.
The series, like Korra, is divided into three seasons, or ‘books,’ with each episode a ‘chapter.’
In the first season, we meet 14-year-old Katara and her 16-year-old brother Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka is an aspiring warrior who tries to lead his people while their father is leading the men of the tribe aiding the war effort in the Earth Kingdom. Katara is the sole remaining waterbender in the tribe, the others having been casualties of the war. They discover a 12-year-old boy trapped in a kind of suspended animation in an iceberg. The goofy, fun-loving boy, Aang, proves to be an Airbender. He’s been trapped, along with his flying bison (yeah, yeah I know) for 100 years. And, per the title, he is indeed the long-lost Avatar.
Shortly after his (rather conspicuous) awakening, the Tribe sights a ship of the dreaded Fire Navy. The ship is commanded by Zuko, the teenaged, disgraced crown prince of the Fire Nation, who has been hunting the missing Avatar for years to try and prove himself to his estranged father, Fire Lord Ozai.
Katara is inspired by Aang’s appearance to hope for an end to the dark days the war has brought, and when he flees to draw off Zuko’s forces, she and Sokka follow him as he heads to the Northern Water Tribe to begin his training in all four elements. All the while they indulge in hijinks that spread the word of the Avatar’s return, and try to elude the single-minded Zuko and his rival for glory, Admiral Zhao (voiced unexpectedly by Jason Issacs).
Book 2 sees Aang embark on seeking a teacher to add Earthbending to his skills. He, Katara and Sokka find one in the person of Toph Bei Fong, a 12-year-old, blind Earthbending prodigy who runs away from home to fulfill her own potential as much as to help Aang (and for the chance at a good fight now and again). Zuko continues pursuing Aang, while being hunted himself by his manipulative and cruel younger sister Azula. Team Avatar travel to the Earth Kingdom capital and pit wits against Azula to decide its fortunes as the grand prize in the war.
Book Three has Team Avatar trying to catch their breath and prepare for the decisive confrontation with the Fire Lord himself. Aang has to master Firebending, and pull together all the allies he can get – no matter who they might be – to have a shot at vanquishing Ozai, restoring peace to the world.
There are a lot of things that can be said about the series. I do not think I’m overreaching to say that as a character-driven drama, a childrens’/young adults’ story and as an epic tale, it stands equal with the Harry Potter books. You really come to care about all the characters and even the villains and secondary characters you only see once in a while have remarkable depth. The series has been lauded in particular for its effective female characters. The series knocks the Bechdel Test out of the park, damsels in distress are nowhere to be found and Katara and Toph rose to almost memetic status as young female icons. It is also noted for the fact that the heroes are depicted as including people of colour –which earned it great fame when M Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation committed the most shocking case of whitewash casting in recent memory and so coined the term ‘Racebending.’
The animation blends anime styles with classic Disney style to create something that looks a lot like a top-flight Miyazaki film.
There is a risk of getting bored with the first season; Aang’s rather lengthy Refusal of the Call phase results in a great deal of wandering around and goofing off, some of which is important later but it’s a while before you find out how. Having said that, there are few true filler episodes and even those aren’t terrible. Without spoiling too much, it’s been said that the series finale does suffer a minor case of Deus Ex Machina, but in my judgement it’s forgiveable and doesn’t take away from the epicness and emotion involved in reaching the end of the journey.
Older audiences might also get a little frustrated with the way the series has to pull punches in battle scenes to suit a wider age range. A lot of the time, our heroes will come up against, say, some bad guys with spears, slice off the tips of the spears and then the baddies pretty much vanish. Particularly funny are the Fire Nation’s warships: armour-hulled, steam-powered, but armed with batteries of steel trebuchets instead of gun turrents. Again, this is mitigated somewhat since everything from forced conscription to genocide goes on, or is at least talked about with all due seriousness.
The scenario of four nations seems a little overly simplistic (especially given the scale – we’re talking a whole planet here) but there’s enough thought behind all this for an older viewer to bring their own imagination to bear.
The civilizations, technology and politics informing the world gives it a genuine sense of history, something which, as I’ve said before, paid off big time with Legend of Korra. All the different kinds of element-bending are based on real-life martial arts like Tai Chi, and the show actually had a Sifu (a martial arts master) on staff as a consultant. Any history or world-building geek (and I’m both) can derive a lot of satisfaction from deducing possibilities about the world this is happening in. If you know anything about the Sino-Japanese Wars, Tibet, Buddhism or martial arts then you’ll be able to discern the effort put into this world.
Plus if you check out its ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar’ page on TVTropes you’ll see how many jokes for older audiences they managed to slip in.
The fact that everyone from the intended audience to 20-somethings like myself can get into this series, much as we did with Harry Potter, is a testament to its quality of writing and characterization. I said all I could about cartoons as a broadly appealing medium in my Legend of Korra entry. Focusing on it being a cartoon is missing the point. The important thing is that this is a really good story. Thematically a classic, setting-wise breathtakingly original, and like the Legend of Korra , Avatar: the Last Airbender is part of a generation of cartoons that recaptures the quality of the early to mid 90s. Check it out!