What is happening in our world? Who is doing what? what is going on now? These are questions that will be answered. Enjoy.
The Last Airbender’ on Netflix
A confession: I slept on Avatar: The Last Airbender when it originally aired from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon. The series premiered during that strange period of my life when I was too old to watch cartoons, but too young to realize everything I was missing by ignoring animation. The only exposure I had to the franchise was M. Night Shyamalan’s famously bad live-action film adaptation. I remember seeing it and hearing my college friends (who were fans of the show) talking afterward about how it bastardized the source material of that original cartoon. They weren’t alone in hating on it. The film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 5 percent. That is, unfortunately, not a typo. It’s widely considered one of the worst films of the 21st century. Roger Ebert literally called it “alienating.” And, having seen the disaster that was Shyamalan’s Avatar, I never bothered to give the original show a chance. And wow, was I wrong. Admittedly, upon writing this, I’m only a season deep, but I can already see exactly why this show has become a cult classic. Throughout the first season, Avatar has proved to be a touching, nuanced show that touches on themes ranging from imperialism to genocide. All this is lurking beneath the surface of what’s packaged as a lighthearted children’s adventure comedy.
To give a quick rundown for beginners like myself, the series centers around a 12-year-old child named Aang who is actually 112 years old because he’s been frozen for a century after a disastrous war that killed all of his people. The world of Avatar is broken into four nations based on the elements: Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Within these nations are benders who can control the elements through a form of the Chinese martial art of “bending.” Turns out Aang is more than just an Airbender though; he’s the Avatar and can control all four elements, helping to maintain balance among the four tribes.
The story picks up amid a disastrous war during which the Fire Nation is trying to take supreme control of the world. They were the group that killed off the entire Airbender tribe, and Aang is training in all four elements to defeat them. Accompanied by two teens from the Water Tribes (Sokka and Katara), Aang sets out to command all the elements and stop the Fire Nation’s quest for dominance.
At its core, Avatar is driven by the strong characterization of its main heroes, who were ahead of their time in terms of representation in 2005. Katara, the primary female character, routinely takes swipes at her male counterparts. She’s not the needy one—she’s a capable hero and the more powerful between her and her brother. Sokka is the dumb brother; Aang is the youthful hero, but Katara is the no-nonsense brains of the operation, quick to call her brother out for toxic masculinity.
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The show manages to balance unique characterization with respect for the culture that it represents. The series creator took thoughtful care to bring in an advisor that made sure the cultural significance of its characters and the martial arts and other touchstones referenced in the series stayed true to Chinese culture—a feat the Shyamalan film did not pull off.
Beneath the bright colors and distinct animation, Avatar uses its darker elements to explore some weighty themes in a way that’s typically reserved for adult dramas. Somewhere around episode three, there’s a moment where you literally see the children look over the ruins of Aang’s former nation—the aftermath of an horrific genocide. A few episodes later, the Fire Kingdom has enslaved criminals into forced labor and inhuman incarceration. And throughout the season, with these haunting storylines, Avatar makes nuanced points about the horrors of genocide, the human atrocities resulted by racial superiority, and the devastating effects of imperialism.
Mind you, the series manages to pull this off while remaining foremost a show that children can watch. There’s no violent animation, despite the horrors that take place in this world. Instead, it demonstrates its points through powerful, visceral emotion that is universally affecting.
That kind of nuance takes finesse and talent. The Last Airbender stays in the children’s series lane (even though I still need to talk to someone about that one girl dying and becoming the moon), leaning on the emotional effects of oppression and fear, rather than the visual violence. It’s that type of emotive animated storytelling that defines some of the most revered entries in the genre. The children’s genre, specifically Pixar, has used that perspective to capture the complexity of human emotion (Inside Out), love and loss (Toy Story), and even climate change (Wall-E), all while keeping kids and adults entertained.
The best kind of series should all feel like that—so effortless and delicate that a deep reading comes across like a grownup with too many feelings on their hands. Avatar manages to bring the best parts of adult entertainment—excitement, fear, sadness—and pair it with the triviality of good slapstick cartoon humor. I’m excited to be in the club, if for no other reason than to complain about M. Night Shyamalan.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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