In each anime geek’s life, there comes a time when you have to come to reckoning with the series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Having ended 12 years ago, there’s plenty of fans coming of age now who haven’t seen it. Should a modern anime viewer take the time out for Avatar?
It turns out that many anime fans don’t call this essential viewing! For one thing, it’s not an anime proper, but a Nicktoon, produced by Nickelodeon. Avatar : The Last Airbender is a damn higher cut above the average Nicktoon, no argument there, but still a Nicktoon. If you skip it, you have the excuse that it’s not *TWUE* anime like it was produced by Toei or something. The show was all American-made with heavy Asian influences.
Pedantic screwheads (like me) point out that “anime” is just a word that means “animation” and so Avatar qualifies, since it’s at least consciously made in the same style. We pedantic screwheads get punished for our trouble a lot.
But hey, if you really want to join a cult cartoon fandom, and our little elemental magic world intrigues you, you could certainly pick a worse franchise. Here’s a gentle beginner’s guide for the intrepid Avatar explorer.
The Prospect of Binging Avatar : The Last Airbender in the 2020s
Avatar : The Last Airbender is a very enjoyable and accessible series, which is currently available in its entirety on Netflix. It has a cult following, has been honored with awards and critical acclaim, and generally comes highly recommended. In fact, the fan following is so omnipresent that you’ve likely had most of the series spoiled for you by Internet memes by now. The show does have a fleshed-out fantasy universe that is just deep enough to hold a story together without being so complicated that you need a concordance to follow it.
Note that the above applies to the animated series. Whatever you do, don’t judge it by the ill-fated live-action movie by M. Night Shyamalan. That movie is considered among the worst films ever made, full stop. The problem with the movie is that, predictably, it bit off a ton more than it could chew, resulting in a butchered translation. That’s even before the delusional nightmare of a decision to put Shyamalan in charge of the project, which stands today as a record-breaking bad idea. The film has a 5% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s how much it stank.
Get your curiosity for the movie out of your system here with a splashy Nostalgia Critic review:
Less said the better. Seriously, never mention the movie among Avatar fans, they will bonebend you!
We also can’t pass judgment too soon on the planned Netflix live-action Avatar series, announced to begin this year. That may work out or it may be terrible, but either way it still makes us ask, “Why does EVERY popular anime series need a live action remake?” Who are these people watching the show saying, “Darn it, I can’t get into it because of all this drawing stuff”?
Even without the above digressions, there’s still plenty of ground in the franchise to cover. We have the sequel / spin-off series The Legend of Korra, which is also a highly acclaimed Nicktoon. There’s volumes of comics mostly courtesy of Dark Horse, a shelf full of novels, graphic novels, and art books besides. There’s even a half-dozen video game spin-offs, mostly courtesy of Nintendo.
Still sold? Let me give you a taste using my “first 12 episode” method, where I don’t spoil the show for you, but give you a mini-map of your likely experience watching the first half of the first season. Just be prepared for the hype to escape you for a while yet, because the show has to grow on you.
Beginning Avatar : The Last Airbender
First off, the fantasy universe and rules of this world are pretty well explained, even in the opening, and the parts that aren’t explained needn’t concern you. Fans still argue now about whether the talent of element-bending is genetic or learned, even though the show eventually gives us some hints that point in-between. Suffice to say that “*-bender” is just another word for “elemental mage,” one element per tribe, more or less. THE Avatar is the one who can master all the elements.
The first half of the first season of Avatar : The Last Airbender will remind you mostly of a road trip story. Here’s some characters you’d best get used to:
- Aang – Our future hero who will save the world by stopping the Fire Nation, if he can get trained fast enough. He’s young and enthusiastic but also angsty and torn about his destiny. He gets a little whiny and woobie sometimes, but he’s mostly fun to have around.
- Sokka – One half of the siblings from the Water Tribe who first discover Aang and become escorts on his quest. Sokka is supposed to be the wise-mouth, cocky comic relief, but he comes off often as a grating brat. He does get his ass in gear and comes through with some heroic deeds to redeem himself.
- Katara – The other half of the sibling escort mission. Katara is the brooding, responsible adult of the group who is also eager to finish off her own water-bending training, but is disappointed to find out that she’s merely a side-quest in the universal scheme of things.
- Zuko – Prince of the Fire Nation (the bad nation that wants to rule the world), Zuko is an exile after a quarrel with his father results in him being banished from the Fire Nation until he comes home with Aang’s head. Zuko drives a hell of a lot of this story, so pay attention when he’s on.
- Iroh – Fan favorite! Iroh is Zuko’s uncle, a retired badass who puts up an infuriating senile old-man act while secretly being one of the sharpest characters in the whole cast. Iroh serves as Zuko’s mentor, which technically makes him part of the bad guys, but the fan base favors him second only to Aang.
- Appa – Basically a giant flying water buffalo. How he stays in the air is one of the most perplexing mysteries of the show.
The thing with this show is, the pace just isn’t that fast at the beginning. The main plot has this urgent “we need to get Aang trained so he can defeat the Fire Nation” drive, but not so urgent that every episode can’t stop off at a random adventure town with a single problem to solve. Individual plots tend to revolve more around, “we’re broke and hungry, so let’s get jobs” or “Aang wants to go surfing in this dangerous lake” or “we meet a feuding tribe who needs to learn a Very Special Lesson about coexisting.” The main, root story is epic adventure, but individual episodes are right up there with The All-New Super Friends Hour.
Somebody has to say this frankly, so I will: There’s a even a couple episodes that get a little soapy. These are the episodes where one character gets a case of the poopies and runs away from the group, so the group has to go “d’awww we hurt his / her feelings” and has to go after them. Everything’s all right again because that character got over their poopies and realized how important and valuable they are. Cue the dusk campfire supper ending with “you know what gang, I learned something important today…” Hey, it’s still a Nicktoon.
The redeeming grace of this structure is that (a) they had to make a whole series out of this somehow, (b) it sets up the dynamics of the main characters and how they interact, and (c) a few of the supporting characters that we meet in the adventure town stops will eventually show up again and be more important to the story. But anyway, it’s largely “Aang and friends on their flying Appa have a new adventure every week” for most of the first season. Rest assured, there will be character development aplenty, and some surprising twists that come along in the nick of time to keep you interested.
Don’t get me wrong, the series is good and comfortably bingeable. That’s actually one of the things that makes the show so popular, it works like a satisfying “heroes & friends” adventure series, but has a full magical fantasy plot advancing in the background. When we call Avatar : The Last Airbender an influential show, it’s the structure part that other shows are apt to copy. Remember that we’re just discussing the early episodes to get you through the set-up. By the time the full three seasons have played out, it’s a sweeping epic with many memorable characters and remarkable scenes.
Avatar : The Last Airbender holds up today!
When you see fans now talking about the show with dreamy stars in their eyes, it’s not entirely about the show itself. It’s the weird alchemy of colliding forces that came together to make this show. It is a true fusion of East meets West. It is an anime-style show that, for once, doesn’t force us westerners to put up with dubbing and subtitles. It is a gateway series to deeper animated shows. And it’s tons of fun!
The Avatar universe is one which unfolds gradually, always with a new angle to explore. You’ll be glad to visit it from time to time.