I loved the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoons when they came out [Note: I haven’t seen the film and I have only seen bits of the Legend of Korra] and I was really impressed. Kids TV or TV orientated to kids has repeatedly thrown up amazing gems — clever, inventive and engaging stories that have an element of creative freedom that adult shows are prevented from having. However, I saw it in a fragmented way. I missed episodes or was doing grown-up stuff.
Talking about it with now grown-up people who watched it as kids, I realised how much of it I’d never seen. I felt I knew the story but in truth there where massive chunks missing and parts (including the end!) that I’d just extrapolated or picked up from conversations. So I decided to watch the whole thing from beginning to end in a binge.
Some practicalities got in the way. In Australia, Season 1 is available on the Amazon Prime streaming service and Season 3 is available on the Stan streaming service and Season 2…isn’t. You can but all three seasons from iTunes and there are sites that carry not-always-great uploads of the show. Through a mix of options, I did get to watch all three seasons.
- Yes, it was as good as I remember.
- Some of the novelty (e.g. using a mix of western style animation & anime conventions) feels less radical now.
- The use of China & Japan as a template for worldbuilding a fantasy land STILL looks novel for a Western produced fantasy story (although there are many more examples now).
- Some of that borrowing from East Asian cultures now looks clumsy, in some cases appropriative and in others falls into bad stereotypes.
- Actually, no, it wasn’t as good as I remember — it was better.
Its core strengths as a fantasy series were multifold. Most importantly it managed to have a set of core characters with clear and distinct personalities that stayed consistent BUT which allowed for personal growth. Ang is both the same and different by the final episode, so is Katara and Sokka and of course Prince Zuko. All four of them appear in Episode 1 Season 1 and all four appear in the final episode, substantially transformed but still clearly the same people. This same process was done less successfully with supporting characters (Uncle Iroh’s motives & motivation get elevated, Azula gets a last-minute mental breakdown) but overall the story follows character-growth. In season 1 this was often done using children’s TV conventions — episodes would alternate between ones that pushed the over-arching plot forwards and ones that involved some lesson for the core characters in terms of who they are and their relationships.
Much is made of magic systems in modern fantasy and here the show was a really nice example of how to do it. The ‘bending’ is easy to grasp as a concept, it’s well integrated into the story (including into the surrounding technology) but the story never gets to belaboured into the mechanics of it. Pretty much you are told all you need to know in the first few seconds of the opening credits. After that, the show brings in examples bit by bit. Yes, there are points where a viewer might wonder ‘but why don’t they just…’* and the story skips over that but on the whole the story follows the implications through. For example the great Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se has trains – powered by Earth benders pushing them along.
That sense of technological progress (both good and bad) also prevents the setting feeling like the kind of permanent Middle-Ages of standard Western fantasy. The peoples in the world are inventive and adaptable, they live different lives than they did in the past but are also connected to that past. Without delving too much into a complex history, the setting feels like a dynamic place with a past and a future.
The Last Airbender wasn’t shy about its influences (anime, martial arts movies, epic fantasy, quest stories etc) and its fun to watch for those elements. What caught me a few times was seeing things that looked like influences…but weren’t. The great walls around Ba Sing Se look like a nod to Attack on Titan, except The Last Airbender finished in 2008 and the Attack on Titan manga didn’t start until 2009. Star Wars connections also feel two-way, Zuko is destined to bring balance to the elements but Zuko feels a lot Kylo-Ren (not least of which is a fractured relationship with Mark Hamill!) or a scene in Season 2 Episode 13 (The Drill) in which Earth Kingdon troops in tenches in front of a wall face an approaching mechanised Fire Nation force, that looks not unlike a scene from The Last Jedi.
N.K. Jemisin (whose Broken Earth trilogy has its own connections with The Last Airbender) said about the series that it:
“…was, in my opinion, the best original fantasy produced by an American company since Jim Henson’s death. It was a children’s cartoon that was Shakespearean in its themes and weight, yet it managed to remain fundamentally young at heart.” http://nkjemisin.com/2010/06/its-not-the-same-story/
I think that is a good assessment. Yes, it was often ‘just’ a kids cartoon show and it has myriad flaws and silly episodes but it also had that element that the really great fantasy stories have: it makes people want to write their own. I think it already has influenced the fantasy genre but I think about kids who watched it for whom it was their Lord of the Rings or Wizard of Earthsea or Weirdstone of Brisingamen (feel free to add your own!) that set a spark in their imagination and presented a flexible template for a great story.
*[Katara learns ‘blood bending’ from an old Water Bender. The technique allow her to control a person’s body and she rejects using it because of its terrible nature. She does use it on two occasions. Later Katara sympathises with Ang not wishing to kill the tyrannical Fire Lord but also sees that Ang has to act – that she has the power to completely immobilise the Fire Lord doesn’t come up.]