“Avatar” is Back — Here’s Why That Matters

This children’s cartoon is one of the greatest and deepest TV shows of all time.

The Avatar has returned.

This time, he’s not here to save the entire world from an pyrokinetic imperialist dynasty, but instead from our collective quarantine boredom. Avatar: The Last Airbender (the beloved animated series, not the blue-people movie) has dropped on Netflix, marking its resurgence for an entire new generation of fans.

And not a moment too soon. Despite its cheery exterior and marketing to children, Avatar is a deeply complex show — filled to the brim with love, hope, and tolerance.

Aang and his lemur Momo

The original series ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon for three seasons. After its series finale, it languished in streaming purgatory, notoriously difficult to watch online. Not until its Netflix distribution in May 2020, no doubt to generate buzz for an upcoming live-action remake, has it now fully available online.

Despite its difficulty in access, it has created a verifiable cultural impact for children and adults alike. It created a spin-off series, The Legend of Korra, a (truly terrible) movie, and created an entire legion of die-hard fans. Very few people simply like this show; they absolutely love it.

As explained in the show’s iconic credits sequence, it all takes place in a fictional world in which many people, called “benders”, have the ability to psychically manipulate one of the four elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Humans have collected themselves into nations corresponding to the element they can control. The Avatar, named Aang, is the only person capable of manipulating all four elements, and also has other abilities, like communicating with the spirit world. Every time the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated into a new body, destined to bring peace and stability to the four nations.

But then, everything changes when the Fire Nation attacks.

The Air Nomads are wiped out by the Fire Nation, and the remaining two countries, Water and Earth, declare war on Fire. The world plunges into a 100 year conflict, one that can only be stopped by the Avatar.

The majority of the series follows Aang and his friends — Waterbender Katara, warrior Sokka, and Earthbender Toph , among others— as he tries to learn all four elements in order to defeat the Fire Nation.

If this all sounds like a classic fantasy plot, it is. But don’t be fooled, Avatar has an extraordinary depth not indicated from its colorful and zany outward appearance. For one, its themes are far more complex than they first appear. By the third episode, Aang is dealing with the genocide of an entire race of people and how its grief manifests in survivors. By the its end, the series will tackle imperialism, war crimes, animal abuse, institutionalized sexism, prisoner of war mentality, the ethics of killing soldiers, and children bearing the burden of their parents’ actions. Pretty heady stuff for a show about telekinetic children.

No theme is skipped by or ignored in favor of lively action setpieces. No action is shown without its repercussions, no character gets to live without consequences. If a battle occurs, the characters have to pick up the broken pieces of the fallout. If a country is at war, Avatar shows us the refugees desperately seeking safety.

If superhero films are interested in heroes and villains battling it out in a metropolis, Avatar is interested in the aftermath: the everyday civilians whose homes are leveled by the chaos.

Zuko and Iroh aboard a Earth Nation refugee boat

The cartoon, heavily inspired by anime, blends Eastern and Western culture with aplomb. Every costume, every building, is inspired from a blend of Asian countries. Katara and Sokka hail from Inuit-inspired Water Tribes while Ba Sing Se of the Earth Kingdom has the architecture of Beijing, China.

The world is an eclectic mix of world cultures. By the series’ start, each Nation is completely isolationist and separate from the others, but these cultural divisions are less enforced as the show wears on. Aang learns more about each Nation; teaching us that every culture has good and bad within it.

The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation. Things you think are separate and different are actually one and the same. We are all one people, but we live as if divided.” — Guru Pathik

Ba Sing Se — reminiscent of Chinese cities

The action scenes are a visual feast: with each element being manipulated in more and more creative ways. The bending is inspired by various Asian martial arts disciplines; I praise the animators for their inventiveness with blending martial arts with exhilarating elemental magic.

Any Avatar fan worth their salt has waved their arms around and pretended to be a bender. Heaven knows I’m guilty.

Aang having mastered all four elements

Unlike the vast majority of children’s television, Avatar is a serialized show, not an episodic one. It’s not like an episode of Spongebob, wherein every character ends the episode more-or-less where they started it. Each episode contains long-running plotlines and if you miss even a single episode, you may be left confused. Each season is actually called a “Book” and each episode is called a “Chapter”. From the get-go, viewers know that they’re in it for the long haul.

I remember being nine years old, learning to how to operate DVR on the remote control just so I could watch each and every episode of the show. My eager eyes lapped up the complicate story-lines. Avatar was special because it understood that children deserved entertainment more substantive than silly. We deserved entertainment that challenged us.

The serialized structure, combined with the deep characterization, creates some of the most impactful coming-of-age storytelling of the twenty-first century. Zuko, the Firebending antagonist, has one of the richest character arcs in children’s entertainment ever, as he wrestles with the consequences of his and his family’s evil actions. Katara grows from a novice Waterbender, to a master over the course of months. We don’t just see this through a montage, we see her grow episode after episode, battling enemies and sexism and her own insecurities along the way. Avatar teaches children that everything changes — but we have the choice to grow through this change.

Toph, a blind character introduced in Book 2, is not limited or defined by her disability. Instead, she uses her blindness to create a new form of Earthbending in which she uses her toes to feel the physical location of objects around her: a magical form of proprioception if you will. She turns her weakness into her greatest strength; she is groundbreaking in all the right ways.

Toph, an Earthbending prodigy

Finally, the character of Aang is downright revolutionary, flipping the common “Chosen One” narrative on its head. Aang has amazing abilities from his birthright, yes, but he isn’t comfortable with the ethical consequences of his powers. Many, many episodes — including the exceptional “The Storm” and the series finale — show Aang wrestling with the unintended consequences of his seemingly heroic nature. Who is a Chosen One that refuses to kill his nemesis? Avatar is fascinated by these difficult questions.

“It’s easy to do nothing, it’s hard to forgive.” — Aang

I cannot articulate how powerful it is for a children’s hero to be defined by qualities of pacifism and sensitivity. In a world where action movies are bombastic block-busters with the violence nob turned up to 11, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a work of television dial in to the emotional consequences of violence. Aang has an unwavering notion that peace is also possible. For a sensitive kid like I was, that message can work wonders.

Watching these main characters grow and evolve over the course of the show was a fundamental part of my childhood. Avatar teaches children to always look past the stereotypes, the obvious, the first impressions. It teaches us that there are always consequences to our actions and we have to always be mindful of how we impact others. I can’t wait for another generation of fans to fall in love with these beautiful themes.

Just like the titular character, Avatar: The Last Airbender is reborn for a new generation of eager admirers. Just in time.

But, for the love of Aang, please never watch the movie version. Please.

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

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