The Timelessness of Avatar: The Last Airbender
By Mana Ravenel
Image Retrieved From Screen Binge
What Makes Avatar: The Last Airbender Timeless
In May of last year, Avatar: The Last Airbender was made available for Netflix. Upon seeing it's familiar poster up on my TV screen once more, I decided to binge the entire series, solely for the nostalgia I thought it would bring me. Rewatching the series brought more to me than the familiar laughter, frustration, and tears I had felt when I watched it as a child. I felt the same connection to the characters I had all those years ago, and it felt refreshing. It was familiar yet so new, something I had not at all been expecting. After rewatching ATLA, I had come to realize that it is and was always more than just a children’s animation series- it has and will continue to offer so much more than other children’s series of its time and even those of today.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated television series produced by Nickelodeon Animation Studios. It aired on Nickelodeon from February 2005 to July 2008, running for a total of three seasons. It follows Aang, a 12-year old boy who, after awakening from a 100-year sleep, discovers that he is the last remaining Air Nomad as well as the avatar. As the avatar, Aang is responsible for restoring peace back to the four nations. The only way he is able to do so is by mastering the other elements- water, earth and fire, and defeating the Fire Nation. Aang is not alone in this journey, joined firstly by Katara and Sokka, two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe who come across Aang still deep in his 100-year sleep. The trio meet Toph as they journey to the Earth Nation, one of the strongest Earth benders of their time. In the latter half of the series, in a true turn of events, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation joins the gang to help Aang learn how to firebend as well as take down his father, Fire Lord Ozai.
One of the biggest contributors to ATLA’s timelessness is its portrayal of heavy and mature topics. Despite its target audience being young children, the series did not shy away from portraying matters such as genocide, war, death, prejudice, and discrimination. These are not common storylines in children’s entertainment as a result of their mature themes. Despite this, Avatar: The Last Airbender is able to illustrate these events in a way that allows for deep and genuine understanding from young audiences. This is something that isn’t seen often in children’s entertainment. In the Appa’s Lost Days episode, we see pure and raw intense emotions from Aang as he finds out that his beloved sky bison, Appa, has been kidnapped. When I came across this episode in my rewatching and even just writing about it, I felt chills down my body. The amount of emotion in Aang’s eyes was so extreme and passionate, I couldn’t help but feel sick to my stomach, feeling heavy with dread, upset, and an emptiness that only went away once Appa and Aang were finally reunited.
In addition to the heavy and mature topics Avatar: The Last Airbender discusses, the characters that help progress the storyline play a critical role in the show’s timelessness. Throughout the three seasons of ATLA, we are able to see the characters grow and develop. We see Aang go from a goofy, fun-loving kid to a master of all four elements who has completely embraced his identity and role as the generation’s avatar. Katara shifts from a weak water bender who could barely control a single stream of water to becoming one of the strongest water benders the world has seen. Sokka is able to create a name for himself outside of being the son of a strong tribe leader, growing to a widely respected leader and fierce warrior. Toph goes against all odds, leaving her strict and overprotective parents to help Aang master earth bending, even going so far as to master what was once the impossible- metal bending. Zuko is able to right his wrongs, going from the series' main villain to one of its heroes.
The characters of ATLA are extremely relatable, a key factor in making them so lovable and memorable. Aang, for example, has the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and though the lives of the entire world does not rest literally on our shoulders, it can definitely feel that way at times. Aang is forced to realize that he cannot solve every issue in a pacifist manner- especially not with Fire Lord Ozai- and the internal struggles that comes with the realization that some of your values and beliefs may limit your success and growth is one that many people know all too well.
The characters are also incredibly diverse- everyone is bound to find a character or two who they connect and relate with deeply. I personally found Katara to be the most relatable character, and many of her traits and behaviors were those I recognized in myself. Though it made me more critical of her than any other character, having someone I could, in a way, resonate with so deeply in a show I genuinely loved was incredibly important as a child.
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The show was also heavily dominated by strong female characters- Katara, Toph, Suki, Princess Yue, Ty Lee, Mai, Azula… the list goes on. These characters are all undeniably strong in both their bending and emotional strength, yet they have such distinct qualities and traits that set them apart from each other.
Katara is very kind and motherly, always looking out for the rest of the group before even thinking of herself. She also is an incredible water bender despite never having been trained. If it weren’t for Katara, the group would not have been able to make it as far as they did.
Toph does not allow her disability to limit her from doing what she loves and is passionate about despite the many dangers it can bring. Parting from the very sheltered life her parents forced her to live, she becomes the greatest Earth Bender the world has seen.
Suki, a Kyoshi Warrior, is independent, strong, and despite being a non-bender, she is able to put up a great fight with powerful benders. She is able to single handedly take down guards and the warden of the prison at Boiling Point.
Princess Yue, although never actually having been in a fight, is one of the strongest, most inspirational characters in ATLA. As a baby, she was saved by the moon spirit after a disease had threatened her life. When this same spirit was killed and the world was forced into complete darkness, Yue, with no hesitation, sacrificed her own life to save the world.
Ty Lee, another non-bender, is arguably one of the strongest non-benders in the series. She is a bright, perky character who has mastered chi-blocking, making her a difficult challenge even to the strongest benders. Her background in acrobatics helps her to perform fascinating stunts that give her an advantage over her opponents.
Mai is the spitting image of cool, calm and collected. Her constant nonchalance can, at times, seem to hold hints of arrogance, but she has every right to be. Mai is a talented markswoman, having a deadly accuracy with shuriken knives and hand arrows. Throughout the series she seems emotionless and very uncaring of the world, but this image of her is essentially shattered when she betrays Azula to save Zuko, telling Azula that her love for Zuko is far greater than her fear of Azula.
Azula is, in my opinion, the strongest female bender in the series. Although she is driven by greed and a hunger for power, it is hard to not see her as anything but fierce, brilliant, and even a bit terrifying. She is completely ruthless and will not stop for anything to get what she wants. In most of the best fight scenes in ATLA, Azula was almost always present. Towards the ending of the series, she is able to master lightning bending- a skill that is extremely difficult to master. When Azula- spoiler alert- meets her breaking point after being defeated, she becomes incredibly emotional, something that is definitely out of character for her. Her eyes grow wide and frantic, and despite having lost, she does not stop fighting, struggling against her chains and shooting out as much fire as she can. Though it’s usually satisfying to watch the “bad guy” lose, this scene was heartbreaking to watch.
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Avatar: The Last Airbender offers something for everyone. It is written and executed in a way that can be enjoyed by a diverse audience. The blend of ATLA’s humor and lightheartedness with its dark, heavy and mature topics is so seamless it almost doesn’t feel like a children’s show, especially not one from the early 2000’s. It is difficult to create something so intense for children in a way that allows them to completely understand the severity of the situation and emotions, but Nickelodeon hit the nail on the head with Avatar: The Last Airbender.
I grew out of many things, but ATLA is definitely not one of them. There is always something new to discover when rewatching the show, especially as your idea of the world changes with maturing and growth. The show is able to captivate the attention and hearts of people regardless of age and will continue to do so. It is completely timeless in the sense that it brings the same joy, excitement, and upset it did when it first aired sixteen years ago. Oftentimes, people find that the shows they loved as children weren’t as good as they remembered it to be, the only thing keeping them hooked and interested being the nostalgia it brings. Avatar: The Last Airbender is different in the way that the nostalgia only adds to how enjoyable the show really is. Whether it has been be five, ten, fifteen, twenty years since one has last watched ATLA, sitting down and watching it will always bring back the same familiar feelings of pure joy that seems to leave as we grow older while still offering something to keep the more mature and grown side of ourselves entertained.
Written by writer Mana Ravenel