In 2005, a show called Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon. It’s been 14 years since its release, and fans of the series still haven’t forgotten its iconic characters and moments. But how did the show create such a huge impact and long-lasting legacy?
Avatar: The Last Airbender has a simple yet understandable plot: young airbender Aang must master all four elements to defeat the evil Firelord and save the world. Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dimartino took this seemingly typical plot and focused on making phenomenal characters such as the exiled Prince Zuko. At the start of the show, Zuko was focused on capturing Aang in a misguided attempt to restore his honor after his father banished him. Zuko’s father did so because he spoke out during a war meeting defending young fire nation soldiers who would have been sacrificed. But throughout the series, Zuko fights with the good and evil within him, going so far as hurting others because he believes it will lead to his eventual return to the Fire Nation.
Accompanying him on this journey of redemption is his uncle Iroh, who serves as his moral compass, standing with him through a period where the two are completely penniless. Even after Zuko betrays him, he still believes there is good in him and that he’s changed from who he originally was. In season 2, Iroh has his own mini episode where we see him set flowers at his son’s grave, and that little moment of humanity gives so much insight into how protective he is of his nephew, and is what makes the characters feel real.
When Aang awoke from his iceberg, he had no idea that everyone he had known and loved had died all because of one decision he made. A constant theme of the show are the echoes of war. Most of the main cast have been affected by the hundred year war, specifically Katara and Sokka, siblings from the Southern Water Tribe whose mother was killed when Fire Nation soldiers invaded because they thought she was a water bender. Katara spends an episode looking for the man that executed her mother but when she finally gets to him, with Zuko’s help, she lets him live. She doesn’t let the anger and sorrow consume her like it did with Aang because she realizes if she does kill this man, she is just like the fire nation solders who have taken countless lives.
Before, when Aang visited the Air Temple, he saw the grisly sight of his airbending teacher’s skeleton and the overwhelming emotion drove him into the uncontrollably powerful “avatar state”. The only thing that could calm him down was the love and comfort of Katara – a moment that hints at their future romance.
One of my favorite characters in the series is Sokka. Since all of the men of the water tribe have left to go to war, Sokka has to step up and be the “man” of the tribe, and he’s forced to grow up and raise his little sister. Throughout the series, Sokka feels left out because he’s a non-bender and can’t help as well as the others can. As a result, he feels inferior to them until he learns how to wield the sword and he no longer feels like a lesser part of the team.
The creators crafted a world full of wonder that had this 7-year-old in awe when he first saw it. I even broke a vase or two because I thought I could airbend. Avatar may have been a “kid’s show,” but it conveyed many adult themes such as genocide with the destruction of the Air Nomads, dictatorship with the Fire Nation invading and then colonizing the world, and even child abuse when Firelord Ozai scarred Prince Zuko, his own son, in a duel simply because he talked back to him. Even the sequel series The Legend of Korra featured two LGBT characters. Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dimartino crafted a show that had a long-lasting impact on its viewers of all ages that will forever be a part of animation history.