A friend of mine recently watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, and says it has become her favorite show ever…by a good margin.
You can read my full review to get all my initial thoughts, but I think the basic element that held this show back was:
KID VS. GROWN-UP CHARACTERS
You might be thinking, “But it’s a kids’ show! All the principle characters are kids!”
I’m not talking age. I’m talking maturity.
And while it’s understandable (and almost expected) for characters to start with some immaturity (especially young characters), it should be something they grow out of. The plot should force them to develop.
It shouldn’t be celebrated.
SPOILERS: Avatar‘s Kid Power
(I’m probably the last person on earth to watch Avatar – well, except for my grandparents, and they don’t read this blog 🙁 – but you’ve officially been warned: SPOILERS!)
The biggest kids in Avatar are Katara and Aang. Aang, as the Avatar, is the main character, and suffers many issues.
He doesn’t take his responsibilities seriously.
Aaaand…he’s twelve years old. That’s to be expected. It’s only realistic.
While it makes sense that Aang starts as a kid, who just wants to have fun, doesn’t have the power to do his job yet, etc. – the whole point of the story should be to Grow him into something more.
Just like Peter Parker had to learn that “with great power comes great responsibility,” Aang would realistically need to learn how much the world is depending on him…and the huge potential consequences should he fail.
But the show writers never force him to face real consequences for poor choices, to reconsider his deepest held beliefs, or humble himself before others in order to change himself.
Let’s start with Season 1.
In Episode 18, the gang has reached the North Pole where there’s a Water-Bending master to teach Aang.
This is important, because he has to learn each of the elements in order, and master them, in order to be a full Avatar.
However, the Master refuses to teach Katara – because she’s a girl. Gasp!
The gang deals with this for a while by having Aang study during the day, then teach Katara what he’s learned by night…until they are discovered and the Water-Bending Master cuts off their lessons for defying his wishes.
Katara throws a tantrum (because Equality), when it’s suggested that she swallow her pride and apologize to the Master so he’ll continue teaching Aang (which, y’know, is kind of a necessary step to defeating the Fire Nation).
- a) show humility, apologize for ignoring the values of the Master (even though she disagrees with them), and resign herself to not learning deeper Water-Bending (at least not at this time, or in this way)
- b) throw a hissy fit, and challenge the Master to single combat?
So…after clinging to her pride and yelling at this older man like a petulant child, they fight with Water-Bending.
Little does he suspect she also has Plot-Bending!
Instead of getting totally demolished by this older, more experienced, more level-headed, and actually trained Water-Bender, they go toe-to-toe until Katara gets her butt kicked (but not as hard as my brother and I were hoping).
The Master is preparing to walk away from her when she (still not humbling herself and learning anything) yells at him some more, then he realizes she’s the granddaughter of his childhood sweetheart, and…
Wait, wait…He agrees to teach her Water-Bending (rethinking his vision of gender roles, which was apparently a deep part of his world-view?) all because she’s descended from the girl who dumped him and ran away from their engagement?
(All of which is treated like a victory for Gender Equality…because ripping up the fabric of our culture based on a sixty-year-old crush and one sassy girl makes so much sense!)
Let’s compare to Episode 4!
Sokka faces a similar challenge to his way of thinking when the gang is captured by the Kioshi Warriors – who are all girls. Sokka is outraged and insists he couldn’t possibly be overcome by a mere girl – whereupon the Warriors’ leader, Suki, kicks his butt.
When the gang later makes friends with the Warriors and their village, Sokka – gasp – humbles himself and apologizes to Suki, and asks her to teach him how to be a better fighter. He even submits to wearing the girls’ traditional combat dress…which is literally a dress.
In all of this, Sokka demonstrates some Grown-Up qualities we never see from Katara or Aang:
- allowing his view of the world to be challenged,
- letting himself look like a fool,
- submitting to others in order to learn.
- letting himself be brought down in order to be built back up.
This episode also carries the idea that girls can be stronger than boys, but it’s not handled in such a cartoonish manner.
The Kioshi Warriors genuinely have more training, more discipline, and better techniques than Sokka. He’s just a kid, used to being the oldest boy in his entire village, and acknowledges that he needs to be taught by others.
Let’s jump ahead to Season 2, Episode 1
Katara and Aang have been studying under the Water-Bending Master. (By the way, the upheaval this causes in the Water-Bender society is never even mentioned…nor are the reasons that the gender divide was such an integral part of the Master’s personality. ‘Though maybe it wasn’t that important, since he dropped it like a hot potato as soon as Katara showed him her grandmother’s necklace.)
Where was I?
So…Katara, in whatever short time they’ve been studying, has developed to the point where she can kick the butt of every other student in the class.
No matter than some of these students are probably older than she is, and they’ve undoubtedly been practicing and studying for far longer.
After all, the entire series takes place over a year or less, so she couldn’t possibly have studied more than a semester (and probably far less).
But because she is SERIES PROTAGONIST KATARA, she is handed this proficiency, and we never see her dealing with the realistic obstacles that her late start and lack of previous training might cause.
In contrast, Aang hasn’t gotten past the basics.
This is explained by saying he was goofing off and doing easy things while everyone else was training…which fits with his character. He’s reveling in being a kid, and doesn’t want to embrace his responsibilities yet.
However – he’s never really forced to deal with the consequences of this lazy behavior. They have to leave the Northern Water Tribe before he’s completed his training – but that’s okay, because Master Katara is going with him!
Consequences for actions? What consequences?
Let’s talk about how much I dislike the finale.
In case you didn’t catch it earlier, I did enjoy the show. I’m glad I watched it. My brother and I had some good times watching it together.
But, after so much else was done right, the big finale in Season 3 really upset me.
I’m not talking about Sokka, Toph, and Suki taking out the airships. That was awesome.
I’m not even talking about Katara taking out Azula instead of Zuko…which mostly sucked because I thought Katara was too OP already, and I really wanted to see Zuko get something go his way.
I’m talking about Aang throwing down his lightsaber like a Buddhist baby – and the show-writers rescuing him like they’re his Dad-ex-machina.
There’d been this thread throughout the entire show that Aang was on the “green and woolly” end of the spectrum…but this was amped up in Season 3.
Aang decides that his pacifist upbringing means he can’t kill Fire Lord Ozai – despite every single past Avatar ghost-dading him to say, “YES! THIS IS LITERALLY YOUR ONLY JOB!”
(Side note: this is the Fire Lord Ozai who mutilated his own son, killed or exiled his own wife, imprisoned his own brother, and would happily burn the whole rest of the world down just because he can. If you’re looking for a personification of Evil Emperor Cackle, this is it!)
It’s a moral dilemma. The whole rest of the world – including all Aang’s friends – are counting on him.
If he doesn’t take out the Fire Lord, countless hundreds are going to die.
And yet he’s a vegetarian so he doesn’t hurt the cute animals, and doesn’t want to kill a human being.
At this point, there’s no doubt he will beat Ozai. It’s just a question of how.
It’s a devil’s choice. Will Aang MAN UP, Grow Up, put the good of others before his own, and do the one single thing he’s on this planet to do?
Psych! A single episode before the battle, the lion-turtle descends ex machina and hands Aang a special, un-foreshadowed, final battle power-up to side-step ALL of this careful character work and allow him (like Katara before him) to ignore the words of all his elders (meaning the Avatars before him) with no consequences.
Know what else makes me mad? The lion-turtle warns Aang that if he tries this magic new “Energy-Bending” and his spirit is too weak, he himself will be “bent.”
And after sitting through three seasons of Aang’s spineless waffling, I call hacks on him being any stronger than Ozai…even in this brand new magic dimension we’ve never heard ANYTHING about before.
To which my brother replies: Well, he believed firmly enough in pacifism to defy all the previous Avatars.
And that’s a weaksauce thing to cling to in order to win a world-stakes arm-wrestle.
In all this, Aang never
- considers that his view of the world might be flawed,
- admits that there’s no right choice, but he has to do what will protect the most people,
- submits to the advice of the past Avatars and accepts his role of Justice Dealer,
- realizes that Avatar Roku’s failure to kill Fire Lord Sozin is what sparked off this hundred-years’-war in the first place, or
- decides to sacrifice his own dreams and ideals so that others may live.
All of which paints him firmly in the CHILD corner…and after three long seasons with someone, you’d think they’d have grown up a little bit…
(Okay, Tucker didn’t start maturing until Season 11 of R.v.B…but the plot wasn’t really focused on forcing him to, either. It wasn’t his story until that point…)
I Don’t Like Authors’ Pets
Neither Aang nor Katara ever
- has their view of the world radically challenged,
- is forced to submit to a higher authority in a meaningful way,
- has their Awesomeness questioned, or
- apologizes for being wrong.
Even when Sokka is allowed a moment of brilliance, or happens to be more perceptive than the other two, there’s never a moment where they say, “Hey, Sokka, you were actually right, and I was wrong, and I’m sorry for mocking you.”
The closest we get to this is probably when Katara and Toph are first getting used to each other, and bicker over their opposing viewpoints. But although Katara gets close to being in the wrong, here, the series as a whole goes out of its way to make her right, look awesome, and get what she wants.
(Ask my brother what he thinks if you want an extensive rant.)
In Season 3 when Zuko turns good, Katara is initially hostile and suspicious (although she usually tries to be the voice of reason and see the good in people).
Even when Zuko goes out of his way to help her get closure about her mother’s death, the show never gives her a chance to say, “Well, I guess I was wrong about you. Sorry.”
It just jumps into the next adventure – “Oh, we’re all friends now” – without giving Katara that moment to bring herself down a couple notches and admit fault.
The entire trajectory of the show is to build Katara and Aang up…
Which makes them much less interesting than Sokka and Zuko, who are forced to claw their way up, earn every victory, and adapt their internal worldview to the truth of the world around them.
Katara and Aang float along…Sokka and Zuko are forced by the plot to Grow Up.
Am I Consistent?
Say, doesn’t a certain series come to mind? Like, a series where the primary characteristic for the majority of the characters is…childishness? Don’t I inexplicably love that series?
Am I…bearing a double-standard?
While it’s true most of the Red and Blue soldiers are foul-mouthed, self-destructive idiots, that’s kind of the point.
Their antics are played for comedy (it’s essentially a comedic show), and the stuff the authors tell us is Awesome (you know, the parts where the music swells with inspiration, the camera pans dramatically, and the plot shifts up a notch) are the parts where the characters:
- stop acting selfishly,
- work together as a team,
- put the good of others before themselves,
- behave like Real Soldiers, and
- actually get important stuff done! (Like butt-kicking.)
And in the midst of their malarkey and stupidity, there’s always a Grown-Up in charge…who takes the blame for everything that goes wrong and is never listened to. And keeps doing his job anyway.
Actually, very much like a (dysfunctional) family with a bunch of rowdy kids and a dad trying to keep them alive (and sort-of in line).
This book is an interesting fantasy, but what kept it from greatness is the same issue as Last Airbender.
It’s a portal fantasy, so the first third of the book consists of the protagonist freaking out and complaining that he doesn’t know what’s going on…and his mentor character chewing him out for not knowing what’s going on (even though he literally just showed up in this world).
Yes, it’s important for characters to grow and change by the end of the book (which these do), but hanging out with whiny eight-year-olds is not fun.
Bob starts out a little immature – wanting to recapture his days of glory and of feeling awesome – but the plot doesn’t coddle him or let him stay there.
It radically challenges his view of the world, and it’s not until he accepts this different reality (and trusts his wife) that he becomes the Big Boy able to take out the villain.
Why is this an awesome movie? It’s not just Tony Stark’s magnetic personality…it’s the way the plot takes this self-centered, ignorant man-child and fires him in a crucible until he emerges on the other side:
- taking responsibility for his actions (and the actions of his company),
- abandoning his former play-boy ways in favor of stability,
- applying himself to fix problems that aren’t really his,
- humbling himself in front of his assistant, the press, and the company, and
- willing to sacrifice his own life for the good of others.
Captain America: The First Avenger
What about a paragon character?
Well, then we have a Grown-Up right from the get-go. Steve Rogers has always:
- put the good of others above his own,
- not been afraid to look stupid or weak,
- listened to others smarter or more experienced than himself,
- submitted himself to the authority structures (while still doing what he believed to be right)
- taken responsibility for his own actions…even when that could get him into trouble.
One Punch Man
We can’t NOT talk about One Punch Man!
There are a lot of immature characters in this. Most of the professional heroes are focused on their popularity ratings, their ranking in the Hero Registry, and how others perceive them…rather than on actually protecting civilians from monsters.
However – these characters are not the focus. Their role in the story is as contrast for the truly heroic characters…the ones who are Grown-Up enough to:
- put others’ needs before their own,
- not care about public perception, and
- let themselves look like fools.
The main character Saitama is frequently mocked, embarrassed, and made to look a fool…but although he’s hurt by this he never lets it stop him from helping others.
And the story doesn’t take petty revenge on the people who persecute him (Tornado and Amai Mask, especially, get away with their thin-skinned shenanigans)…rather the story allows Saitama to be broken down and despised – because he’s strong enough to take it and keep doing his job.
The “children” in One Punch Man serve to make Saitama, Genos, Bang, and Mumen Rider MORE Awesome…and making the thesis of the show that “Being a Grown-Up, a Big Boy, and Emotionally Mature is AWESOME.”
Instead of “Doing what you want and not facing consequences is awesome.”
The Lord of the Rings
Every “wise leader” character in the trilogy turns down the chance to take the One Ring because they’re smart enough (and humble enough) to know they wouldn’t be able to resist its temptation.
They don’t need to tempt fate to look cool. They know their own limitations, and are willing to let a “little guy” do the real work of saving the world. Because it’s not about them…it’s about the needs of everyone and about defeating the Ultimate Enemy.
They’re all Grown-Ups!
Don’t let the movies fool you, now.
Gandalf, Galadriel, and the others have already made up their minds, and they turn down the power of the ring because they have the strength of will and character to do that.
When Movie Theodin asks, “Why should we help Gondor in battle?” he’s acting like a CHILD – since Gandalf literally just laid out what was at stake and why all humanity needs to be united at this point.
Which just goes to show: when you sacrifice actual adultness for cheap character drama, you get…children.
Have you seen the deleted scene on YouTube where Captain Marvel steals a man’s clothes and motorcycle because he hit on her?
I heard someone compare it to Doctor Strange being a jerk to his coworkers, Tony Stark acting like he’s the smartest man in the room, etc., etc. but the difference between these two things is crucial.
Steven Strange and Tony Stark have to change and become better people, learning to be empathetic and kind – the plot won’t let them stay in their rut of being jackanapes, and the whole point of showing their jerk-ness is so we can follow their journey of Growing Up.
The narrative focus of the Captain Marvel scene is very different.
The scene is structured to make us root for someone who overpowers and robs random strangers who pose no threat to her.
The dialogue, camera cuts, and narrative focus are like the authors saying, “Hey, isn’t she cool? Wouldn’t you like to be able to overpower everyone who annoyed you?”
And, well…while escapist power fantasy has its place*…we need something else to hold on to for a character to be truly Heroic. Heroes are all about justice, right and wrong, and self-sacrifice.
Someone who wants nothing but to enforce their own personal will on everyone around them is called a Two-Year-Old…and a story that doesn’t force them to Grow Up isn’t compelling – or at least isn’t lastingly meaningful.
(*Note: I picked this video for “escapist power fantasy” deliberately. From this scene alone, Yang appears aggressive, domineering, ruthless, and cocky – assaulting people who weren’t bothering her, or even aware of her. However, the arc of the show doesn’t let her stay this happy-go-lucky sociopath, and forces her to learn some self-restraint and tact.)
Avatar Was Fun…Just Not Great
I understand why so many people like it. The themes are elegantly woven in. Each of the four cultures feels distinct and internally consistent, while also fitting into the broader world. The story deals with serious things while maintaining a light tone, and I find the humor to be well-placed (and thankfully not cringe-worthy!).
It’s a show you can watch with anyone, and have a good time with…and there’s a reason Zuko’s Villain Redemption Arc makes him one of the most memorable characters of all time.
But we’re not meant to stay as kids.
We’re supposed to grow, learn new things – and new perspectives – humble ourselves, and change our behaviors to match new ideals.
We have to learn to put the good of others before ourselves, to not worry about stupid things (like ROMANCE or eating) when there’s serious stuff going down.
(Remember Season 3 Episode 17, where the gang watches the Fire Nation play to recap the plot? With the end of the world hanging over them, Aang is seriously going to worry about whether Katara “likes” him? Remember, dude, YOU’RE TWELVE! Also, you’ve got the fate of the world to deal with right now!)
It’s fine to start with skewed perspectives. But life is supposed to challenge us and make us more.
Stories should be about kids learning to be adults…not magic systems that let them stay immature.
All right. Go for it. Write that lengthy comment telling me how stupid I am.
I can take it, because I’m a Grown Up.
She currently lives somewhere in the American Midwest with her family (including the brother people mistake for her boyfriend), bracing for the collapse of society by baking, knitting, writing, hobby-farming, and reading as much Twitter as possible before the web goes dark.