How Avatar: The Last Airbender sets the standard so high

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People generally gloss over animated television series, deeming them inferior and immature compared to live-action. However, Avatar: The Last Airbender proves them all wrong. Despite being released 15 years ago, this critically-acclaimed and multi-awarded series remains to be one of the best shows of all time.

Recently, it soared to popularity again when it was made available on Netflix in the United States last May, even though it was already available in other areas before. Those who watched it when it aired were glad to see it again, while the people who haven’t watched the show yet were granted an avenue to do so.

Although it is generally written as a children’s show, adults also treat it with high regard. It is a benchmark of television, and rightfully so. It stood the test of time with its solid storyline and character treatment, solidifying its importance in pop culture. There are many reasons why audiences of all ages love Avatar, but it can be summarized in four great points.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender

It tackles important social and political issues

One of the biggest accomplishments of Avatar is how the creators incorporated relevant social and political issues in a children’s show and made it easily digestible. Such issues are always deemed to be “for adults only,” but kids understand a lot more than we give them credit for. Besides, some children are forced to grow up experiencing those issues themselves.

The main premise of the show is that all four nations were living peacefully until the Fire Nation attacked. With this storyline, they showed genocide, imperialism, and historical revisionism. The city of Ba Sing Se tackled segregation based on wealth, pertaining to existing class struggles and the caste system. They also showed war refugees, government corruption, propaganda, and historical revisionism yet again. Other episodes discussed the issues of environmental degradation, law enforcement brutality, and trophy hunting.

The audience got to witness all these as Team Avatar went about their mission. Avatar was relevant back in 2005, and still relevant until now. The existence of these issues in the show’s world-building made it closer to real life. To some extent, it may be easier to explain issues to children because they can situate it to the plot of a well-loved show.

It challenges gender stereotypes

Avatar does away with gender stereotypes, making it clear from the very first episode. Persisting gender roles and beliefs are challenged throughout the show. Katara faced systemic sexism when she was in the Northern Water Tribe, while Sokka belittled the all-female Kyoshi Warriors. It acknowledges that different traditions and upbringings lead people to develop certain beliefs, but like Eliezer Yudkowsky said, it is a person’s responsibility to be more ethical than the society they grew up in.

Children are always told that crying is a sign of weakness, which makes people more emotionally unavailable in their adulthood. For men, crying is often wrongfully tied to their masculinity. In Avatar, plenty of primary male characters shed tears and it never once diminished their strong image. They cried without judgment from their peers, and the audience does not lose respect for them. It’s amazing for a show to allow men to be vulnerable and acknowledge that their feelings are valid. It conveys the message that crying is a normal and healthy reaction – which it is.

In Avatar, plenty of primary male characters shed tears and it never once diminished their strong image.

The female characters in the show are well-written, too. They are strong in their own unique way, having diverse personalities, skills, and appearances, and they don’t fit into one female stereotype. Katara is motherly, whereas Toph is very rebellious. Ty Lee and Suki are both strong non-benders, but they deal with opponents with highly different strategies. There’s also Mei and Yue who both stand their ground for what their hearts deem is right, but their dissimilar attitudes set them apart.

The treatment of characters is done with such finesse and truthfulness that even now, other shows struggle to match Avatar’s impeccable writing. It’s easy to stay boxed within what’s sure to work for audiences, but Avatar demonstrates that a show can challenge norms and remain a worldwide success.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender

It shows depth and development in primary and secondary characters

The show is known for what people often refer to as “the best redemption arc in television history,” which talks about none other than Prince Zuko. He learned the consequences of his actions, experienced internal struggles with his change of heart, and sought forgiveness from the people he hurt. Villains in stories often do one good thing, and then people feel as if they’ve been good all along. Meanwhile, Zuko understood that the people he hurt had no obligation to trust him and he proved himself worthy of acceptance from other people and himself.

The episodes that do not move the plot forward, or filler episodes, also give depth to the characters that make the audience love them more. The most memorable one is perhaps “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” from Book 2, where each of the main characters had their own story to tell. This episode just showed what they did in the great Earth Kingdom city, and yet the audience got to know them deeper with that peek into their private lives.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender

While that episode was mostly about the Gaang, “The Beach” from Book 3 was interesting too because it revealed personal details about Azula’s group. She opened up about her mommy issues, Mei revealed why she hardly cares about anything, and Ty Lee explained why she joined the circus. It’s also comedic to see Azula try to flirt and fail miserably.

Avatar’s writers really did a great job fleshing out the characters’ individual backstories, storylines, and arcs. No one is left behind, and the audience fully understands the motivations behind the choices that the characters make. It’s the kind of character development that you’d always look for in other shows because Avatar already proved that it can be done.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender

It illustrates fantastic world-building through the integration of multiple cultures

The show heavily drew inspiration from different Asian traditions. The architecture, clothing, art, and fighting styles were all influenced by existing Asian cultures. The nations do not derive from a single culture or place because the writers got ideas from various sources. The Asian cultural influences in the show are evident all throughout: popularity of tea, writing in Chinese characters, the use of chopsticks, and distinct weapons, such as Sokka’s boomerang and Zuko’s dual broadswords. 

Even the elements and the movement of benders came from various styles of martial arts. Waterbending is slow and flowy (T’ai Chi), whereas firebending is more about strong arm and leg movements (Northern Shaolin style). Meanwhile, earthbending requires solid body movements (Hung Gar) and airbending needs lighter stances (Ba Gua). Bloodbenders and lightningbenders have a completely different form altogether.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Having acknowledged all these reasons of what makes Avatar great, it’s easy to understand why it sets the standard so high for television series, both animated and live-action. Even the ending is well-written, leaving audiences satisfied as it firmly ties up loose ends. The boy in the iceberg and his friends have inspired people of all ages, so make sure you don’t miss out on their wonderful adventures!

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About Author

Carla is a Filipino freelance writer and theatre practitioner. When she's not working backstage on theatre productions, she reads magical realism novels, watches cute animated series, and writes about whatever she is interested in.