What We’re Watching: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Made Me Laugh, Cheer, and Cry

Aang, Kitara, Sokka, Momo, and Appa, from 'Avatar: The Last Airbender"
Nickelodeon

Water, Earth, Fire, Air. Long ago, Nickelodeon set out to create the perfect show, but then the streaming wars began. Only Avatar: The Last Airbender could unite us with cross-platform availability, but when the world needed it most … it disappeared. Now the show is back on Netflix, and though it may start slow, I believe you should watch The Last Airbender.

Stolen narration aside, I’m entirely serious that you should give Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) a try. It’s easy to write off the show because it’s a cartoon, or because it came from Nickelodeon, but that’s a mistake. 

Avatar is a beast unlike no other for the network, sure you’ll find humor in the show, but you’ll also see heroes become villains, villains become heroes, and learn that some villains were heroes all along. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, and if you’re like me, you’ll even cry.

Four Nations with Little Unity

Avatar: The Last Airbender starts with a simple premise: it takes place in a world of four nations. Each nation is home to a different type of bender, a person who can manipulate the elements around them: water, earth, fire, and air. Only the avatar can bend all four elements, and the avatar must keep the peace and balance between the nations.

Unfortunately, something happened 100 years ago, and the avatar disappeared. After that, the fire nation attacked and started a never-ending war, bent on conquering the world.

Finally, a new avatar shows up—Aang, a young Airbender. The Last Airbender. And together with some friends, he needs to stop the war and bring peace to the nations.

More Complicated Than a Synopsis

So, that’s the synopsis, and at first blush, it doesn’t sound like much. If you watch the first few episodes, it doesn’t look like much either. Stick with it; the show finds its feet right around episode eight. You’ll be glad you did because this isn’t your daddy’s Saturday morning cartoon.

Aang with an airbender staff in courched position.
Nickelodeon

Throughout three seasons and sixty-one episodes, you’ll witness intricate storytelling that often leaves you questioning what you think you know about people. In the beginning, it seems clear who the bad buys are. The fire nation must be wicked; they started the war. Zuko, the Fire Nation prince, and his Uncle Iroh must be evil because they’re chasing the Avatar.

But by the end of the second season, you’ll find yourself questioning all of those assumptions. 

I don’t want to spoil too much, but you’ll slowly find out that Zuko is mostly a broken young man in need of guidance and growth. And when you find out who Iroh really is, or more specifically, WHY he is and what he truly considers his failure at Bah Singh Seh, you will cry. I dare anyone to follow Iroh’s story and not break when he sings Leaves from the Vine.

And, that’s par for the course for Avatar. It has a vibrant cast of real people, making tough decisions, and failing as often as they succeed. New characters will come along, and each fits perfectly when they arrive. Toph, the young Earthbender who joins the heroes in season two, is a perfect example. She’s completely absent in season one, yet you never feel that absence. But when she joins in season two, you suddenly can’t imagine the show without her. It’s a seamless transition, and every character addition goes like that.

Success through Attention to Detail

Avatar Roku with blue glowing eyes.
If an Avatar has glowy eyes, your day is about to be ruined. Nickelodeon

Part of what sets Avatar: The Last Airbender apart from other shows is an extreme dedication to detail. It’s an action show that draws inspiration from anime, South Asian, East Asian, and Western cultures. With that kind of pedigree, it’s not surprising that it features intricate martial art scenes.

But what is surprising is how well thought out they are. When you watch someone Firebend or Earthbend, you might notice that it looks very similar to martial art styles. But what might not be obvious is that each bending style mimics a specific martial art style for a particular reason.

Airbending takes its inspiration from Baguazhang, a style known for constant movements, circling opponents. Like Baguazhang, Airbenders are prone to dodge rather than face an attack head-on. Earthbending is the opposite and takes its inspiration from Hung Gar, a style known for strong stances and rooting to the ground.

On the other hand, Toph (who is blind) wouldn’t benefit from such a technique, so her Earthbending is different. Instead, Toph fights in a form similar to Southern Preying Mantis, which favors aggressive close-quartered combat, ideal for a blind bender.

It’s not just the martial arts that Avatar gets right, those touches range to the music which informs the story, and details pulled from different cultures. The Avatar is both one person and many. When an Avatar dies, they are reborn in the next nation in a cycle of water, earth, fire, air. They each have a distinct personality and memories but can call upon the wisdom and power of previous Avatars. It’s the Dalai Lama on steroids.

The Airbending monks determined Aang was the new avatar by having him choose four toys from among thousands. The four toys he chose were the only four toys owned by previous avatars. That’s nearly the same test given to the current Dalai Lama; he selected objects owned by the last Dalai Lama. It’s little things like this that are easy to miss, but add to the show and inform its world and lore.

It’s Finally on Netflix Again

Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t a new show. It premiered February 21, 2005 and ended July 19, 2008. It had a sequel, Legend of Korra with four seasons, and that’s been off the air for several years as well. So, why am I excited?

Because for years, you couldn’t stream the show. You needed to own it on DVD or Blu-Ray. But now, the show is back on Netflix, with all three seasons in glorious HD. It’s a show you can watch your kids (my seven-year-old just started the journey), and a show you can watch alone. And, it’s a show that you can watch multiple times through and appreciate some new detail you didn’t see the last time around.

It’s a nearly perfect show with action, drama, laughter, and tears. And the best part is, it ends properly. You aren’t left hating final choices or wishing the last season went differently. The last episode left me on the edge of my feet and cheering every step of the way. It didn’t pull a Game of Thrones. Instead, it stuck the landing. It’s The Good Place of cartoons. If you haven’t seen it, you should start the show today. Because there’s one last bit of interesting news:

Netflix is working on a live-action series. We don’t know if it’s a remake of the cartoon, a continuation, or something else. But original creators are involved, so I’m hopeful it’ll turn out great. Until then, watch the show. And never ever watch the live-action movie adaption.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »

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