Avatar: The Last Airbender (2003-2008)

When I was a kid, I liked watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I only saw the first season (and snippets of other episodes), but I still thought it was a fascinating show. Last year, I found a small channel on YouTube that was doing blind commentaries on the episodes. The boy hadn’t seen the show, so I could watch alongside him as he spoke about the episode. Watching the series with him rekindled my love for the show.

I found other videos on AtLA and I grew as an Avatar fan. Rewatching the show, I remembered why I loved it from the start:

  1. The story is an epic. Literally, it plays out like a mythical hero’s journey, complete with episodic adventures and a main arc that leads our protagonist(s) to his (their) destiny. Each episode contributes to the story as a whole, and while some feel like filler, they all have continuing characters, or character development, or a recurring location. Something that adds depth to the tale. Not only does this make it fun for the viewer to point out elements from past episodes and remember the good times from those, it helps to remind the viewer what has happened before, which is effective emotionally. Take the city of Omashu: the first time the main group visits, it is a fun and (relatively) peaceful place. The second time they visit, the viewer remembers how delightful the prior episode was – which makes it more of a shock to see the Fire Nation has taken it over. Had the other episode not existed, the horror of seeing the Fire Nation in the city would not be as strong.
  2. The characters have distinct personalities, but they never lose sight of who they are as they grow and learn. Aang (the Avatar) is very fun-loving and easygoing. While he has gotten angry in the show and lashed out, he still values peace and fun. A good example is when he wakes up in the beginning of Season 3 to find that he is recovering from nearly being killed. He is confused, furious, ashamed. He takes off on his own to confront the Fire Lord alone, believing this would right his wrongs. But the next episode, he understands that he has to be more secretive, donning disguises and changing his name – but he still wants to have fun with other children in the Fire Nation. Another good example is Prince Zuko: his driving force when we meet him is regaining his honor. Throughout the show, he repeats and insists that finding Aang and capturing him is the only way to achieve his goal. This would give him his father’s approval – and therefore, love – his home, his throne, and his respect. But after everyone believes that Aang is dead and Zuko has returned home, he still has that inner conflict, and he has to redefine what honor means to him. In the end, he receives not the kind of honor his father defines, but the honor Zuko himself discovers after reevaluating everything he valued in his life. He leaves his abusive family and sets off on his own, finding his own way in the world without his father, sister, or uncle pushing him down their own paths. By staying true to himself, Zuko finds inner peace and, therefore, his honor.
  3. The fight scenes never fail to amaze me. Each of the four main bending techniques (water, earth, fire, and air) are grounded in different Martial Arts: waterbending with non-violent Tai Chi; earthbending with strong and steady Hung Gar; firebending with aggressive Northern Shaolin; and airbending with smooth Ba Gua Zhang. Each style fits with the characteristics of their element respectfully. Plus, the only way the Avatar can achieve his full potential is to master not only each element’s bending and fight style, but their philosophy: he must combine non-violence with aggression, solid and fluid movements alike to become strong, physically and spiritually. Only when he does this can he achieve balance and fight the Fire Lord.
  4. The art style is so beautiful! Like the bending techniques, the design of each of the Four Nations is heavily influenced by real world cultures, especially Eastern. The Water Tribes relate to the Inuit tribes; the Air Temples reflect the majesty of Nepal and the Tibetan monks; the Earth Kingdoms draw a lot from Chinese influence (although I spotted some Korean elements as well); and the Fire Nation shares much of Japan. So much detail and effort is put into this show, and every little bit makes AtLA fun to watch.

These are the four biggest things that stick out from the show. From the layout to the voice actors to the themes, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a wonderful story.

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