With an upcoming live-action adaptation, we look back on Nickelodeon’s most popular critically acclaimed series as it celebrates its 15th anniversary.
Avatar takes place in a fictional world, very similar to ours and is made up of four nations inspired by various Asian cultures. These nations have people who can “bend” one of the four classic elements. After living in peace for a long time, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. However, hope in the form of the Avatar – a person who can bend all four elements. However, when the world needed him most, he vanished with many fearing that he has not being reincarnated. 100 years pass and the world has changed for the worst, the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the war and families torn apart. Little hope is left.
The story starts with the discovery of the current Avatar, 12-year-old Airbender Aang (voiced by Zack Tyler), discovered frozen in an iceberg, reigniting hope for the world. Even though Aang is an expert Airbender, he hasn’t learnt how to wield the other three elements. According to the scriptures, he must first learn Water, then Earth then finally Fire (the three books referred to in order).
He sets off across the world to learn them and put an end to the war accompanied some teenagers named Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman), her older brother Sokka (voiced by Jack De Sena) and his faithful bison Appa (voiced by Dee Bradley Baxter). Alongside them is enemies from the Fire nation after them. In particular, Crown Prince: Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco), who pursues them across their journey, believing that capturing the Avatar will help him regain his honour.
I can see why this series is popular. The animation, despite coming from a western studio has an anime aesthetic to it alongside other Eastern animation including various cartoonish tropes associated with the medium. As the series progressed, both the stories and animation get better.
My personal favourite was Book 3, when all the story arcs finally come together. Despite being targeted towards kids, it covers some dark/difficult topics. For example, surrounding war and its effects from governments (especially in Book 2) to the inferior people, making me think of contexts relating to the real world which have brought good and bad such as the British Empire.
The characters are very good yet complex as we learn more about them with their key focuses and personalities apparent from the beginning as well as some funny laugh out loud moments. There are many high-profile actors involved in the series (two including Jason Issacs, better known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, and Clancy Brown), showing the importance of the central story.
This world and various nations is well established, feeling distinct from the Cold Water tribes, the solidarity of the Earth Kingdom, the hostility of the Fire Nation and the mysteriousness of the Air Nomads. This is mostly done in the first book. The second and third books delve deeper into the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation. The magic system is unique as each classic element acts as a base with other abilities, branching out. For example, water benders can freeze water into ice in addition to manipulating its movement and at certain times can be very powerful. All four types of bending are based on real life martial arts, for example water bending is based on tai chi chuan which is more calm and about defense, using their opponent’s strength against them whilst fire benders are based on Northern Shaolin which is more about offence and are more aggressive, established them as polar opposites.
This show is full of action, including battles and sparring sessions, excellent to the point that I’m not sure if I can make a separate list, although the final battles are definitely some of the best.
Aang, a 12-year-old vegetarian from the Air Nomads and was raised by monks. He is a very fun-loving character and an excellent Airbender, even creating his own skill, the air scooter. A pacifist who only fights if he has to. He takes his duty as Avatar seriously after running away from home and responsibility as the Avatar before (he never wanted to be the Avatar in the first place), he later discovers that he is the last Airbender, hence the title of the series, after discovering the Fire Nation attacked his home. He was shaken by how much the world he knew changed after the war. However, he finds a new family with his friends. Initially as goofy young kid, he becomes more mature as the series progresses.
Katara, a 14-year-old girl from the Southern Water Tribe and a water bender. She joins Aang on her quest to learn how to improve her skills. Like Aang, she went through trauma after losing her mother- reminded by the necklace she wears) and has being forced to grow up faster making her the motherly figure of the group. It is clear Aang has feelings for Katara which develops over the series. She is very brave and hopeful. Despite this, Katara is shown to not be perfect for example when she snaps at Aang due to him being able to learn water bending quicker than she can making her more relatable. She develops into an excellent water bender with a variety of skills-ranging from combat to healing-by the end, even beating Aang and taking on the responsibility as his water bending teacher despite being refused at first due to being a girl. Book one is her best season (After all its her element) although she has a few chapters focused on her in the later two books, especially book three.
Sokka is Katara’s older brother, and the show’s comic relief. Unlike his sister, Sokka is not a water bender but makes up for this with his weapons namely his boomerang. Like Katara, the war has an effect on him as he forced to play soldier and guardian to the Southern Water Tribe since all men of age left to fight. He joins the group initially to fight back against the Fire Nation- after getting humiliately beaten by them but also finds a position within the group as the problem solver and becomes their leader. Despite being underestimated and egocentric, (Maybe too much for his own good) his heart is in the right place. Personally, I believe most of his best moments come in book three when he finds his own skill to match his teammates, stepping up as leader including planning and leading an attack on the Fire Nation. He’s one of my favourite characters in the series and one I can relate to.
Zuko, a 16-year-old Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and can fire bend, who start’s as one of the main antagonists. He pursues the group across their quest during book one believing capturing the Avatar will regain his honour. Aggressive in combat and personality ultimately effecting his fire bending skills. Despite these, Zuko had a rough childhood and there is some good within him (the permanent scar burn around his left eye was inflicted by his father, the Fire-Lord). He also mentions that he was lucky to be born, unlike his sister Azula. There is a sense of good within Zuko such as the way he cares for his Uncle. In book two after being hunted by Azula, he becomes a refugee in the Earth Kingdom and sees what effect the Fire Nation war has had. In book three after being conflicted with himself, he chooses to give up his life of luxury to help Aang and even teaches him firebending. As a result, I think he has the best character arc over the series and by the end, became my personal favourite character.
Uncle Iroh (voiced by Mako) is a former Fire Nation General (known as the Dragon of the West), tea enthusiast and Zuko’s Uncle. He accompanies Zuko during books one and two. He is a fire bender but doesn’t follow the typical moves. He is capable of redirecting lightning and can breathe fire. Unlike Zuko, Iroh is a lot calmer and patient, often leading to clashes with his nephew but is respected by him – he considers Zuko a surrogate son after his own son was killed in battle. There is also a sense of intrigue surrounding him showing that maybe not all Firebenders are evil, as well as his past which is fleshed out as the series progresses. Book two is full of his best moments as Zuko’s mentor, his past established and has some of his best teachings especially to Zuko. In Chapter 15 he has the best story. Despite his appearances, he also proves to be an accomplished fighter.
There are a number of characters who reappear throughout the series who’re not part of the main cast. In addition to Iroh, one of the others I wanted to talk about was Suki (voiced by Jennie Kwan), leader of warriors modelled after one of the previous Avatars. She mainly works off Sokka, first teaching him her fighting methods (after he learns that females can be just as good fighters as men) and later possibly falling in love with him. Due to encountering Team Avatar, she and the other warriors later leave their home to fight and assist in the war where she crosses paths with Team Avatar and Sokka. By the end, I consider her an honoury member of the team. Unlike a lot more recent strong female characters, despite being a proficient fighter, we do see her vulnerable making her relatable.
Toph Beifong, a 12-year-old born blind (voiced by Jessie Flower) joins team Avatar in book two. Despite this, she is a prodigy Earthbender using her feet to sense other’s movements helping her in combat. She runs away from her overprotective family to join the team for freedom and to teach Aang Earth bending. Compared to Katara, Toph is more strict with Aang’s Earth bending which challenges Aang. The two often clash due to Katara’s mothering ways, particularly in chapter eight. Unlike other female heroes, I can agree with her statements of being the best Earthbender, especially since she founded her own form of Earthbending: metal bending. I believe her best stories come in book two.
Azula (voiced by Grey Delisle) takes the villain title from Zuko in Book two. She is the Princess of the Fire Nation and is 2 years younger than Zuko. She is assigned by her father (the Fire Lord Ozai-who’s voiced by the legendary Mark Hamill) to capture Zuko and Iroh after learning of their treachery and failure at the North Pole. A perfectionist (maybe too much) who follows the Firebender’s power driven ways. She is also a more competent fighter compared to Zuko because her fire is blue rather than orange and can separate energies from her firebending to create lightning. She is also manipulative (With a slippery way with words), sterner and less sympathetic, even in her younger years. She rules through fear even with her two closest friends: Mae and Ty Lee, which ultimately proved her weakness. Personally, she was the best villain in the series especially in book two which did a good job establishing her and Book 3 showed more sides to her.
In conclusion, Avatar is a fantastic series which got better as the story progressed. With lovable, sympathetic characters, dark themes (which make you think), a unique magic and fighting system and fantastic animation, this is definitely one of the best shows I’ve watched.
I became invested in the series and completing it was a bit sad for me. I see why this series is so beloved and why there is a live action adaptation. If you’ve grown up with this show (which I didn’t), I suggest giving it a re-watch, you may find it better than you remember.
By Stuart McComb
Feature image: Film School rejects