On May 15, a fifteen-year-old Nickelodeon cartoon returned to Netflix and quickly became the #1 show on the platform. On the night preceding the return of Avatar: The Last Airbender, every group chat that I was in was bouncing off the walls with excitement. Every tweet on my Twitter timeline connected to Avatar in some way. People were counting down to the show’s return on Instagram Stories and Snapchat. Remember, this wasn’t Rihanna’s long-awaited musical return or a surprise Beyoncé album, this was simply a fifteen-year-old cartoon that most of the world had already seen. Except me.
My family was almost a strictly Disney Channel household, so even though I saw a few Nickelodeon shows growing up, I couldn’t tell you anything about Avatar. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, and even now in college, Avatar references have been a mainstay. After binging the iconic cartoon series from an adult perspective, I’ve come to understand what makes Avatar: The Last Airbender so great and why the show is still so captivating 15 years later.
The first thing that struck me about Avatar was the voice acting. A mixture of child and adult voice actors were utilized for the main and ensemble cast, but two voice actors stood out in particular. Zach Tyler Eisen, the voice of Aang, and Jessie Flower, the voice of Toph, brought a certain gravity and exceptional emotional intelligence to their portrayals of the two characters. Eisen was able to articulate Aang’s struggle with pacifism in the face of genocide with notes of frustration, anger, regret, melancholy, and the twinkling innocence of the pre-pubescent voice box. The infamous scene where Aang interrogates a gang of sandbenders over muzzling Appa is a masterclass; Eisen brings so much grit and anger and underlying shame that it’s hard to believe he’s only a child. Flower, on the other hand, brought the spunk and sass needed to bring Toph to life, but even at 12-years-old, she was able to properly color the complications of a blind girl who lives a secret life as an undefeated earthbending champion under the eyes of overprotective and stifling parents. These were literal children delivering some of the most nuanced and textured voice acting ever. The level of quality is simply remarkable.
It takes skilled voicework to carry a narrative as intricate as the one that anchors Avatar: The Last Airbender. Obviously, for a children’s show, Avatar‘s storytelling is incredibly well-done, but it’s also some of the best storytelling I’ve seen in any television show or film. Not many series, let alone those with just three seasons, but this much effort into world building. Too often, it feels like the producers drop us into the world of the show and expect us to the know the ins and outs of the universe by the second episode. Sure, the first season of Avatar moves markedly slower than the final two installments, but the creators’ commitment to properly fleshing out every detail of the Avatar universe makes it all worthwhile.
We all know about the four nations (water, earth, fire, air) and how the Fire Nation attacked the other three kingdoms to expand their territory thus sparking a 100-year war. The Avatar is the individual who is able to master bending all four elements and whose job it is to maintain peace amongst the four nations. The Avatar is reincarnated after death into the next nation in the cycle; The Last Airbender focuses on Aang, a 12-year-old Avatar who is found by two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka. The main plot of the series, which follows Aang learning to master bending each element to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war, is exciting, but not at as intriguing as the rest of the show’s universe. The four bending styles are based on a specific form of Chinese martial arts and the different nations are built on real-life cultures. For example, the Water Tribe, from which Katara and Sokka hail, is inspired by Inuit and Sireniki cultures with a waterbending style modeled after Tai Chi. Not only do these real-world influences add different textures to the fight scenes, they also make it easier to for children to digest the complicated themes that Avatar presents. We live in an increasingly global and multicultural society, and, from an early age, children understand that not everyone looks like them. Too often, children’s shows rely on artforms and storylines that crunch the diversity of humanity into one awkward group of people that slightly resemble traditional whiteness but aren’t explicitly part of any racial or ethnic group. Avatar tosses all this to the side and creates a cast of characters and larger universes that directly reflects the differences in our everyday world. By committing to spending multiple episodes explaining intertribal relations and global history in the Avatar universe, the show is able to effectively frame narratives of genocide, the justification, or lack thereof, of murder, intergenerational trauma, sexism, and more.
Avatar debuted in 2005, over a decade before children’s shows started truly handling feminist themes and layered female characters. Throughout the show’s first season, Katara constantly calls out Sokka for his sexist remarks like “Simple: Girls are better at fixing pants than guys, and guys are better at hunting and fishing and stuff like that. It’s the natural order of things.” Interestingly, Sokka’s sexism doesn’t solely exist to prop up Katara’s feminism, Avatar also explores the perils of internalized sexism and how Sokka often stifles his own growth and maturation by way of his reliance on traditional gender roles. When you pair scenes of Sokka humbling himself to be taught warrior techniques by a group of women (in a dress, no less!) with scenes of Katara standing up to old sexist men in positions of power, the politics that Avatar portrays are intricate and accessible.
There’s also the central plot of the series: Aang’s internal struggle with his pacifist tendencies and the brutal nature of war is one that dominates the series until the very last episode. Understandably, it’s difficult to justify killing someone on a children’s show. The Fire Lord enacted genocide on the Air Nomads, Aang’s tribe, decimated the Southern Water Tribe, and seized the capital of the Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se. Millions of innocent people died in a 100-year war that was the result of greed and pride. Throughout the series, the show grapples with the worth of a life. Ultimately, Aang can’t bring himself to take the Fire Lord’s life, and he instead elects to take away his bending abilities and imprison him. This tug of war between pacifism and authoritarianism is complicated, but Avatar doesn’t dumb it down. The show addresses the two ideologies with explicit examples that are accessible to younger viewers without traumatizing them with the more gorier aspects.
As if dealing with political ideologies and systems of oppression weren’t enough, Avatar also finds a way to illustrate intergenerational trauma. Zuko, the primary antagonist of the first season and exiled prince of the Fire Nation, undergoes a redemption arc that embarrases some that I’ve seen in adult live-action television series and films. Instead of an elementary “bad guy turns good” trope, Avatar chooses to explore how the Zuko’s battle with good and evil is the result of his tense relationship with his father and the conflicting ideologies that his father and uncle had concerning power and expansion. Even Azula, Zuko’s very unlikable sister, is awarded some depth; her penchant for evil is really her way to seek validation from her father. Power and greed corrupted the reigning family of the Fire Nation and resulted in volatile and damaged children that make excellent foils to Katara and Sokka. Every children’s show has some basic form of good vs. evil, but Avatar effectively layers multiple levels of nuance to provide its young viewers with a more realistic portrayal of humanity and the moral compass.
15 years later, Avatar is still capturing hearts and minds around the world because it treats its viewers with respect. Children’s shows often feel like they can get away with lackluster storytelling and surface level narratives simply because their main audience is young. Avatar did not take their viewers for granted; the show delivered narratives and characters that challenged their viewers to expand their way of thinking and question their own ideals in the real world. Sure, sometimes the show asks us to suspend disbelief for certain plot holes (i.e. how Aang and the gang were able to stay unnoticed in different tribes despite the color-coding of eyes by tribe), but Avatar is well-crafted across every component. The show’s refusal to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence of young children is the reason why it still resonates so strongly fifteen years later. Few shows get every aspect right, but Avatar does it with ease.