Avatar: The Last Airbender has cool characters, awesome moments, great fights scenes, and interesting world-building…mixed in with immaturity and Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. But, hey, it’s all about the #siblingtime, right?
Avatar has piles of characters – and for the most part, does a great job keeping them all straight, distinct, and interesting.
Except for the leads.
The Core Trio
The series starts out with a brother and sister, Sokka and Katara, who ground us in this new fantasy world. Some people have the gift of “bending” the different elements, while only the Avatar can bend all four. However, there’s been a hundred year war between the Fire Nation and the other three races, while the Avatar has been mysteriously absent.
Sokka and Katara – and the Airbender boy they befriend, Aang – are obviously the “good guys,” but except for Sokka they come across pretty bland.
Katara is the idealist, the one who seizes on the hope of the Avatar and pushes her team to do whatever they can to help others. She’s also annoyingly headstrong, with the ability to “bend” the plot to make her look good. Her poor decisions are rarely met with consequences.
She doesn’t make me froth at the mouth like she does my brother, but it’s clear the authors favor her in most situations.
Aang likewise is good-natured, compassionate, naïve, and pretty much unprepared to save the world. Granted, he’s only like twelve years old…but his inability to take threats seriously or deal with problems head-on was irritating.
Sokka is the comic relief character…but that means he actually has a personality. He’s also actually smart at figuring out solutions to their different problems. Perhaps most importantly, he’s the brunt of a lot of stuff – whether the slap-stick humor is at his expense, or the other two in the party are ridiculing him and his ideas, or whether we’re just learning more about the magic system (“bending”) which leaves Sokka out because he can’t do it…Sokka is the underdog. Which makes it that much more satisfying when the plot acknowledges his worth.
No, I did not hate the Avatar and Katara! But their struggles were based on childish angst (and romantic tension, believe it or not), rather than compelling backstory or working from a position of weakness.
Speaking of which…
The main antagonist throughout Season 1, and much of Season 2, is Zuko – a Fire Nation prince with a menacing scar and a single-minded obsession with capturing the Avatar.
He’s accompanied by his fat, old uncle who seems more interested in a good meal than actually getting something done…but is that true?
Even from the earliest episodes, Zuko’s plot goals, skill set, and uncle made him much more interesting to hang out with (even though you knew he was the bad guy and “wanted” the good guys to win in the end).
Then his tragic backstory started peeling back…and then his character arc geared up…and he became a way more compelling character than Miss Prissy Perfect OP Katara or Vegetarian Spirit-Bridge Aang. Even Sokka was interesting because his every victory felt hard-won…not because he or his story goal felt particularly urgent or compelling.
The world-building of Avatar is founded on the idea of “bending” the elements, but that incorporates the ideas of “balancing the world,” spiritual enlightenment, and spirit beings that interact with the human world.
Also, the central premise of the “Avatar” is the reincarnation in different bodies of this “being” blessed with the ability to bend all four elements. The current Avatar has access to his “past lives” through magic, giving him access to the wisdom and abilities “he” previously acquired. (Some of these past lives are/were female, but the show doesn’t explore any of the potentially awkward consequences of that.)
While I don’t jive with this mumbo-jumbo, most of it was handled comprehensibly in terms of the plot. The worst offender for “hand-waving plot resolution” probably comes at the series climax, where an un-foreshadowed power-up gets the writers out of a philosophical dilemma.
The Buddhist mantra of peace really falls apart when presented with an evil Fire Lord who will literally burn the rest of the globe to ashes just because he can.
Avatar has one good example a character refusing to kill the manifestation of evil in their world because it’s “not their job” to deal justice, and they would be over-stepping someone else’s destiny to do so.
However, Avatar also has a DISAPPOINTING, PATHETIC example of someone refusing to kill the bad guy when it is literally his personal and specific reason for existence to punish this guy and stop the suffering.
Exactly like Luke Skywalker throwing down his lightsaber and making a speech rather than ending the Physical Concentration of Badness in the Galaxy (which is kind of the ENTIRE JOB of the Jedi, what with “preserving peace and justice” and all).
But that’s the failure of Buddhism.
It tries to find the source of goodness and light within ourselves, rather than admitting we are literally the source of evil and suffering in the world and we can only find redemption, transformation, and “peace and justice” by submitting to the rule of God over us and the work of God within us.
Okay. With that metaphysical discussion over, will Avatar: The Last Airbender turn your kids into God-hating pagans? Will it teach them that reincarnation is real and men and women are interchangeable? Probably not…but if they do come back to you with a question, that’ll be the perfect opportunity to discuss some of these deeper issues!
Last point: Romance
There was some kissing, but it wasn’t obscene. What got really tiresome was the old, cliched angst of “Does she love me? Doesn’t she?” and “It’s not that I don’t like you – I’m confused; it’s not the right time!” when we’re sitting in the middle of enemy territory and SERIOUSLY YOU’RE ALL TWELVE…AND YOU ACT LIKE YOU’RE TWELVE!
Which prompted me to posit that the five- to seven-year gap between puberty and the legal marrying age is one of the core problems with our modern society.
Anyway, if the characters behaved older than twelve (by, say, focusing on important issues, listening to the adult advice, using decent communication, and grappling with the ramifications of a long-term relationship) it would come across more mature…not so much like a bunch of kids wrestling with puberty without any adult guidance. Now that I put it that way, it’s amazing it came out as clean as it did.
As I mentioned, an animated series for kids is not something I’d ever experienced before. It was fun and enlightening in a number of ways.
Made for kids
I’ll call the humor “accessible”…there were no poop jokes or foolishness like that. No references to Socrates, either…but the sort of thing parents and kids alike could both laugh at without it feeling like losing intelligence points.
Other elements were more embarrassingly aimed at the audience…like the way all three of the Avatar’s element-bending teachers are under the age of twenty. Seriously, he can’t learn from someone who’s too many years older than he is?
In the same way, the core adventuring party was kept reduced to preteen or early-teen ages. Because heaven forbid we send the SOLE HOPE FOR THE WORLD off with a single responsible adult to take care of him!
Another element of the focus on their younger audience is the “in a previous episode” recaps during the intro. This highlights and reinforces one of the shows strengths…set-up and pay-off.
You could also call it internal references, but the show does a great job of recalling characters and events from before and using them again. To the point that I was surprised when certain characters weren’t brought back for the climax or given so much as an extra bow on top.
The world of Avatar is clearly inspired by Oriental and Buddhist elements, but it spins those elements into a world that feels fresh and unique.
Each of the four elemental nations have a different way of approaching the world, from the Air Nomads’ mysticism and withdrawal from physical concerns the better to be “free” – to the Earth Kingdom’s way of stubbornly facing problems head-on.
This makes the whole world a bit bigger and richer.
My personal favorite piece of world-building is the animal mashing. Take for instance the platypus-bear, the turtle-duck, or the ostrich-horse!
While at first it might seem weird or gimmicky…but it’s such a cool way to make this world unique and interesting, without requiring any laborious exposition or plot complications!
I enjoyed this experience; I enjoyed the world, the fight scenes, the animals, and the way things from earlier episodes kept coming back later.
I enjoyed “binging” a long-format story, with an overarching plot that spanned three seasons. And if course I enjoyed #siblingtime.
Some might find it a little…under-baked compared to your regular fare, but if you’re looking for a clean time investment that the whole family can enjoy together (and you should enjoy it together) then Avatar: The Last Airbender is a solid choice!