If you can believe it, it’s been 10 years to the day since Avatar: The Last Airbender sprang onto TV screens and made an impact. This show is one of my absolute favorite animated shows ever and this milestone is worth celebrating. Thus, I’ve created a list of the top ten reasons why Avatar: The Last Airbender is both revolutionary and also quite amazing. Enjoy!
1. The cast is incredibly diverse.
Despite what the white-washed movie adaptation may have you believe, ATLA does a remarkable job of being diverse. Each nation draws from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, resulting in wonderfully diverse characters of all molds. The Air Nomads are based on Tibetan monks. The Fire Nation draws from many Eastern cultures, most prominently imperialist Japan. The Water Tribe draws from Inuit and aboriginal cultures, among others. The Earth Kingdom is mainly based on China, but also contains other influences, since it’s the ‘melting pot’ of the four nations.
This diversity extends to the cast. For example, Katara and Sokka, our two secondary leads, are people of color. Toph is blind. Teo is in a wheelchair. But just as Sokka and Katara’s skin color does not define them, Toph and Teo’s disabilities do not define them. Toph learned to use her other senses to enhance her bending experience and fight in a way that no one had ever considered, while Teo uses his inventiveness to fight and navigate without ever having to use his legs.
And while the scales were a bit unbalanced gender-wise in season 1, season 2 turns the tide and introduces us to a stream of amazing female characters. And by the end of season 3, the final Gaang is split 3:3 gender-wise.
ATLA’s diversity is absolutely one of its biggest strengths, but it’s not its only strength.
2. The show routinely tackled hard topics with grace.
For being a children’s show, ATLA tackles a lot of heavy topics. Some examples:
Katara tackles a cesspool of sexism in the Northern Water Tribe in order to gain a waterbending teacher, while Sokka overcomes his own internalized sexism and learns to see women as equals.
Aang must deal with the genocide of the Air Nomads, and his own feelings when a group of non-benders attempts to rehabilitate one of the Air Temples, essentially erasing parts of his culture from existence in the process.
Sexism, abuse, the harsh realities of war and warfare, genocide, culture erasure…the show tackles so many amazing things, and it tackles them with such class and an unflinching strength.
It doesn’t forget that the main characters are survivors of a Hundred Year War: rather, it hones in on what they’ve lost, and how the war has shaped them as individuals.
Everyone’s lost something. Katara and Sokka have lost their mother to a Fire Nation raid and their father left to fight in the war, leaving them adrift to raise themselves. Zuko was banished from his home and lost a mother and a cousin. Aang has lost his entire culture.
Something else important the show also doesn’t forget: the characters aren’t just fighting a losing war. They’re children fighting in a losing war.
There’s this amazing line in the second episode of the show, when Zuko and Aang encounter each other, and Zuko is shocked that Aang of all people is the Avatar. Since the Avatar has been missing for 100 years, he was expecting a frail old man. Instead, he finds a determined preteen.
“You’re just a boy,” Zuko says, a look of disbelief on his face.
Aang, unnerved, retorts, “And you’re just a teenager.”
The main cast is made up of kids, and like most kids, they don’t always know what they’re doing. They’re lost. They don’t know how to cope with the harsh reality of their situation. They make huge mistakes, and they fight, and they can be immature and insensitive. But ultimately, their youth is also a benefit, because they have a hope that the older generation, hardened by years of conflict, doesn’t share. Their hope and determination is what turns the tide and wins them the war, and it’s what saves their world from utter annihilation as well. Pretty good for some kids trying to fight a war, huh?
3. There was no black and white, only shades of gray.
In tackling war in media, it’s easy to be very one-sided, and focus on good vs. evil, rather than fleshing out both sides.
ATLA focuses on both sides of the war.
While Firelord Ozai is undisputedly the absolute worst, the show time and time again proves to us that the Fire Nation itself is not purely evil. Characters like Zuko and Iroh show us grayer members of the Fire Nation, and season 3 takes time to give us a glimpse of Fire Nation citizens and show us the propaganda that fuels the war, and that not everyone is all for it.
The show also takes time to show us that the other nations aren’t always purely good either. Antagonists like Long Feng and General Fong are opportunists, who use the war and the main characters for their own purposes to further their agenda. Other characters, like Jet and Hama, seek revenge against others for wrongdoings, but in ways that aren’t always morally right.
Even the main characters are forced to deal with morality. For Aang, deciding whether he can kill the Fire Lord or not to end the war is one of his biggest moral dilemmas. For Katara, it’s deciding what to do when she finds out that her mother’s murderer is still alive. Even Zuko is forced to decide more than once between his family and his beliefs. Their decisions help shape who they are as characters, and showcase their own mortality.
4. The show is inspired by Eastern culture and mythology, rather than Western culture and Western myths, giving it a distinct and unique palette.
One of the fascinating things about ATLA is that unlike many shows, it’s inspired mainly by Eastern culture and mythology. Bryke (aka Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the show’s creators) purposely wanted to tackle a different side of the world on their show, and focused on Eastern philosophies and mythology in order to craft the world of ATLA.
The three main Eastern philosophies ATLA draws from are Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. The main idea of the show is actually derived straight from Hindu mythology. The term “Avatar” comes from a Sanskirt word (Avatāra) which means descent. Why is that important? Well…
“In Hindu mythology, deities manifest themselves into Avatars to restore balance on earth, usually during a period of great evil” (Influences on the Avatar series).
Hmm, now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s the entire concept of the show. 😉
The four elements the show focuses on are also exactly the same as those used in Hinduism, although the fifth element, space – or the Aether – is different than energy. However, the concept itself is quite similar to an element introduced late in the show: energy-bending. And let’s take a look at something Aang sees while exploring his chakras:
The imagery is very cosmic, which might be a reference to space. Creative little shout-out to where the writers got their inspiration from.
Speaking of chakras, the concept of chakras comes from both Hinduism and Buddhism. Chakras are centers of life force and energy, and guess what? That’s one of the issues Aang deals with as an Avatar: unblocking some chakras in order to unlock the Avatar State freely.
Guess what else is inspired by Buddhism? The process of finding the new Avatar, surprisingly enough, which reflects that of finding the new Dalai Lama. Items are presented to, and choosing the right ones unearths who the future Dalai Lama is. There’s a similar situation shown on the show, when Aang is told of his Avatar status: the monks tell him about how they presented toys to young Airbenders, and Aang picked the four that belonged to past Avatars, thus showing his connection to them and his familiarity with them.
Taoism influences a lot of the characters’ ideals, including the ‘go with the flow’ mentality waterbenders hold dear, the concept of chi as energy, the Taoist concept of wuwei (“doing nothing” or rather, acting without direct action), which both Bumi and Toph utilize, the existence of a spirit world, and the concept of yin and yang (Influences on the Avatar series).
Pretty interesting, how ideals can shape a show into something so diverse.
5. The bending!
Like I mentioned above, there are four main elements that the characters can manipulate: water, earth, fire, and air. Each facet of bending comes with its own unique traits and strengths – and, going off of that Eastern influence, each style is based on a different style of Chinese martial arts. Bryke even consulted a martial arts expert, Sifu Kisu, to make sure that each one was portrayed accurately and to find styles that would ideally fit the style of the bending and element itself.
For Airbending, the creators chose Ba Gua, also known as “circle walking.” Essentially, this means airbenders use circular movements when bending. This causes the style to be more about defense rather than offense.
Since they’re always moving, no one can get in a hit. Air could easily be a deadly element, so thankfully it’s wielded by pacifists like Aang. 😉
Waterbending draws from Tai Chi. It’s “less about strength, more about body alignment, structure, breath, and visualization” according to Sifu Kisu. Water is used like a whip. Waterbending is such an interesting element, because it can heal, but it can also hurt.
Katara herself is both a warrior and a healer, and manages to represent both sides of water: its beauty and its strength.
Earthbending is mainly influenced by the HunGar style of Kung-Fu. It’s a style “known for its strong stances and its rooting to the ground.”
Interestingly, we also get a second style – Chu Gar – used for Toph. Because of Toph’s blindness, she uses her other senses to compensate and thus bends in a way that other earthbenders don’t. She listens and then acts, using her other senses as a sort of Spider sense or echolocation in order to root out attacks before they happen. It’s quite fascinating to watch.
Finally, firebending draws inspiration from Northern Shaolin Kung-Fu. It’s a “strong, dominant style that uses powerful hand and leg movements” and “[emphasizes] long-range techniques; wide stances, quick advances and retreats, kick and leaping techniques…” along with “quickness, agility, and aggressive attacks.”
Fire is often painted as an element of aggression, but bending lightning, a much harder sub-skill, is defined by peace of mind.
Much like waterbending, firebending has dual sides to it. Both aggression and peace are required, and keeping emotions in check can be handy, but knowing how to unleash them is just as necessary. Zuko has plenty of issues with this, especially when it comes to conquering his temper. Lucky for him, he has the master of Zen to instruct him, who is willing to put up with his outbursts (and offer him tea.)
6. The fight scenes!
Okay, this might seem directly connected to the point above, and it kind of is, but every time I rewatch this show, the fight scenes suck me in. They’re choreographed in such a masterful, beautiful way, and whether it’s an Agni Kai, a water-fire duel, or just two swordsmen sparring, it’s beautiful to watch. Instead of going on a long ramble, I’ll just post some glorious gifs, so you can see what I mean:
Beauteous, isn’t it? You know what aids those fight scenes? The show’s score.
7. The score!
The score of this show is so, so pretty. There are intense instrumentals for fight scenes, somber sounds for the show’s darker moments, lighter-hearted melodies for when things are going good…
The score of the show is something that really defines it. It really fits the Eastern high-fantasy epic feeling of the show, and certain bits come to mind whenever I think of the show. In order for you to get the ATLA score experience I’m posting one of my favorite bits of the score below. Enjoy! I hope it leads you to search for more. 😉
8. The writers showed us all kinds of women.
ATLA’s dedication to developing its female side of the cast and giving us lots of amazing, diverse ladies is one of my absolute favorite elements of the show. We get all kinds of women on ATLA.
Grandmothers. Mothers. Daughters. Sisters. Wives.
Girlfriends. Best friends. Girly-girls. Tomboys. Fierce warriors. Ruthless antagonists. Stoic women, who hide their emotions behind a mask.
Emotional women, who aren’t afraid to let people see them cry. Strong women – and not just Strong Female Characters.
I’m talking about women who are strong in all sorts of ways.
Women who are physically strong: the ones who can lift mountains and channel lightning through their veins, or the ones that fight with fans and knives and bare hands, not letting their lack of bending deter them from success.
Women that are emotionally strong: the ones that are the rock of the group, and hold everyone together when the world is falling apart around them. These are the women whose strength lies in their compassion and empathy for others.
Women who are mentally strong: whose determination and wit and peace of mind allow them to be more than anyone could ever imagine. Smart women, who bury themselves in books and plot and manipulate and influence the world in profound ways. They’re the ones who stop and think before they act, and thus keep others out of harm’s way.
The women of ATLA are all these things and more!
9. The characters!
I have such a strong love for the characters on this show. Everyone is so wonderful and so fleshed out and so just…ugh, I have so many feelings about them. I could probably write a whole meta about the characters, but I’ll try and be brief here.
In ATLA, every character has a purpose. More importantly, every main character has a point. Just like the Golden Trio in Harry Potter, each member of the Aang Gaang holds the group together and brings something to it that would leave a void if they were gone. For the sake of avoiding a ton of spoilers for those who haven’t watched the show, I’ll stick with the main trio that we start out with in season 1.
Sokka is the group’s strategist. He calls himself “the plan man” and really, that’s what he is, because without him, they would be ambling around without much direction. He has a very analytical mind, which leads him to spot things that others can’t. He can also think on his feet, which is a very handy trait to have during conflict. It helps that he’s handy with a boomerang. He’s also the humorous one, although his wit tends to be more sarcastic than anything, and people don’t always quite get it.
Katara is the one who holds everything together. She’s the hopeful one. She’s a healer. She’s compassionate. She’s the one who always tries to find the best in people, no matter what, and refuses to give up on the people she loves. Without her, there’s a lot that wouldn’t have happened. She’s also an amazing waterbender, who basically teaches herself and ends up becoming a waterbending master and teaching the Avatar himself the intricacies of waterbending. She’s stubborn, motherly, and wonderful. Like Hermione, she can be a bit of a know-it-all, but even she’ll fold when she’s wrong and admit it.
Aang is our hero, but he’s so much more than that. He’s the innocent pacifist caught up in a Hundred Year War, with great power waiting to be unlocked. As the Avatar, he can bend all four elements, which is pretty handy, except at the start of the show, he hasn’t learned them all yet, which is part of why he ends up with Katara and Sokka in the first place. Aang is impulsive and naïve, silly and kind-hearted, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Without Katara and Sokka, Aang wouldn’t have a support system, and he’d also be missing out on some pretty amazing friends as well. 😉
The Aang Gaang holds each other together and aids each other in amazing ways. And the more members they take on, the stronger they grow and the more they learn. But enough about that. Let’s get to the last element…
10. The shipping!
The shipping on this show is actually really cute. The main canon relationships are built up in a wonderfully healthy, unique way, and all three main ships are slow-burn to some degree. During the airing of the show (and even now, I’m pretty sure), people got fired up about their ships. Zutara or Kaatang? Taang or Tokka? I’ll admit that I wasn’t too bad in the shipping wars, and I’ve grown to the point where I accept all ships. Well, except the incest ships, which kind of give me the willies.
So I’ll give a quick glimpse of my favorite ships.
Katara/Aang (which makes Kataang) is one of those ships that gradually grows on you over time until the cuteness gets to you and you finally give up and start waving the shipping flag for it. It’s slow-burn (aka, it takes them forever to get together), but the slow-burn effect works well, considering all that’s going on in-show. They’re a very cute couple, and they’re unique in a way because it’s one of those few ships where we get an older female character with a younger male character. Also, just look at these two!
I shipped Zuko/Katara as well, mainly because like Mic, I sometimes like shipping those characters who start out disliking one another and grow to understand each other. The fact that they’re opposites in a lot of ways, but also very similar in others, makes them an interesting match to me. And they have some great moments together.
Suki/Sokka is one of those underrated ships that everyone seems to like no matter what, and I’ve really grown to appreciate them when re-watching the show. Suki is a character who’s very confident in her sense of self. She’s a warrior who is proud of her femininity and finds strength in it. She’s also the one that knocks some sense into Sokka and takes his ego down a notch, which leads to him respecting her and also starting to respect women in general more than he did before.
Like Aang and Katara, their relationship is a slow-burn one, and it takes time for them to find their way back to one another. But once they do, it’s a beautiful thing.
ATLA handles their relationship in a wonderful way, especially in consideration of Sokka’s previous relationship, and makes it less of a competition and more Sokka learning how to get past what happened with Yue and finding love again with Suki. It’s very sweet and realistic, and in the end, very adorable.
It also leads to hilarious moments like this:
What do you think guys? If you haven’t seen the show: has my post inspired you to check out Avatar: The Last Airbender? If you’re already a fan: what is your favorite aspect of ATLA? What are your ships? And who is your favorite character? Let us know in the comments!
Influences on the Avatar series. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015, from Avatar Wikia: http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Influences_on_the_Avatar_series
(Note: the quotes used in #5 were all derived from the ATLA: Creating the Legend videos embedded in the post.)