AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
For my next set- one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and a shining example that modern animation (and Western Animation in particular) continues to be great and non-sucky, and possibly even better than in any prior era.
I discounted this show at first, assuming it was just a cheesy “Animu/Weeaboo” rip-off of Japanese animation tropes, and I avoided it. It wasn’t until the first season was almost over that my roommate attempted to convince me that it was really good, showcasing the best of the “Traveling the world” types of shows we enjoyed as kids (like later episodes of “Teddy Ruxpin”), something I’d later recognize as part of “The Hero’s Journey” (a set of tropes used by thousands of other stories, from Star Wars to Beowulf to Gilgamesh to The Lord of The Rings). I didn’t actually start watching until Season Two, and I really thought some of those episodes were cool, with great villains and some actual emotional depth beyond doing the anime tropes that I hate (such as “Sweat drops of embarassment” or “huge pratfall of shock”). In fact, the show pretty much never used those.
Watching the second season on DVD, I was officially a giant fan, and LOVED the show, thankfully having avoided it’s entire Shipping-obsessed fandom until this point. I watched the first season right away, and waited patiently for the third... which was pretty much the finest season of just about any show, ever.
This show has it ALL:
* Amazing animation in many episodes.
* Some of the best fight scene choreography ever- for a show with five basic power-sets- Air, Water, Fire, Earth & Non-Powered Martial Arts, it gets an insane amount out of it. It’s best fights beat out even “JLU” stuff.
Great characterization. NONE of the characters are easily-defined by a stereotype (The Funny Guy is also cynical, a sad-sack, a lover-boy romeo type, and desperate to help out; The Manipulative Bitch is also a crazed lunatic with almost no human emotions)
* Humor (both jokes and slapstick).
* Cute animals and AWESOME animals. A friend of mine once pointed out that the true sign that somebody REALLY did their work on a Fantasy World was the creation of non-Earth Animal species to fill it out, so not everyone was on Horses. The Avatar people deftly filled their planet with Wuzzle-type mixed animals like Moose-Lions and Rhino-Lizards.
GREAT VILLAINS. I’ve read people complain about how so many fantasy/sci-fi worlds fall prey to the “Dark Lord” cliche”. Avatar fixes that by not only giving us a great Dark Lord, but filling the REST of the villains’ roster with various character types, giving us the Reluctant Villain, The Retired Villain, The Ambitious Rich Guy Villain, and the Amoral Manipulative Psychopath Villain.
* A great supporting cast beyond the main group. A FINE hallmark of “Traveling the World” shows is that eventually the heroes are joined by nearly all the people they’d once met on their Great Journey, helping out in some great final episodes. Avatar did this at LEAST twice (the Day of Black Sun & the finale with The White Lotus Society).
* Female characters that aren’t just Token Chicks. The writers admitted they actually didn’t intend to have such a huge cast or girls at first. They made Katara a skilled Waterbender in the first season while also making him a Plucky Young Girl and Team Mom, and Toph in the second season was a Blind Bad-Ass Tomboy who also wasn’t stuck in just one role. Realizing that Avatar now had a HUGE female fanbase, the writers went nuts by creating a bunch of other great girl characters by developing Suki and giving us Azula and her Villainous Trio.
* Stuff for EVERYONE. I’ve realized over time that most TRULY great works of fiction don’t just fit a single genre (like Shonen Anime for young boys, or Image-era ‘90s comics for adolescent fanboys, or Shojou for young girls), but REALLY go out there to get additional fanbases- Sailor Moon was for girls, but made them sexy fanservice for the guys, and added in gay stuff for yuri/yaoi fans. Disney Movies have songs & women leads for the girls, but action and sexiness for the guys. Pixar movies are LEGENDARY for appealing to just about everyone short of those with NO TASTE WHATSOEVER. Avatar succeeds in this manner by making it an Action/Adventure show for boys, but making tons of great female characters for the girls, and giving around-the-world fanservice in small amounts to keep fans of BOTH genders happy. It’s goofy and fun enough for kids, but also has some very adult concepts like honor, loyalty, death and redemption in it, so it’s not JUST simple entertainment.
The world is one comprised of human beings, many of which are “Benders”, able to control one of four elements (Air, Water, Earth, Fire). Each Element gets it’s own Kingdom/s, and they once lived together in harmony. The Avatar was a person given the power to control all FOUR elements, and when each one died, they were reincarnated into a new body. One-hundred years before the start of the series, the Fire Nation attacked, meaning to give their prosperity to the rest of the world... by taking them over and exterminating the opposition.
We start out with “Book One: Water”, featuring Katara & Sokka, two members of the Southern Water Tribe, who uncover The Avatar, a young boy named Aang (who is the titular Last Airbender, as his people were genocidally wiped out a century ago), trapped in a sphere of ice beneath the waves. They decide that The Avatar is the only one who can fix the world, and so they go on a mission to teach him all four elements and topple the Fire Nation.
Team Avatar is hunted by Prince Zuko, an obsessive, exiled young teen who was sent on a wild goose chase by his father, Fire Lord Ozai, who always hated Zuko and just wanted him out of the way. Zuko’s Uncle Iroh is his personal and spiritual guide, though Zuko is too busy being a bitchy teenager to understand most of it. Zuko & Aang are both hunted by Admiral Zhao, an ambitious up-and-comer and overall dink, meant to make Zuko more sympathetic by showing you a WORSE Fire Nation guy.
Stuff happens, a girl turns into the Moon (it’s complicated), and Aang & Katara become Waterbending Masters at the North Pole, and fight off a huge Fire Nation invasion. Zhao is slain, Zuko fails in his mission, and Ozai sends Zuko’s SISTER after both of them this time around.
Season One is actually rather mediocre compared to what came later. The writers took their sweet time developing their world, and many episodes took too long to have anything interesting happen. I also found Zhao to be a fairly poor villain during his time on the show- he was a weaker fighter than Zuko, and he was kind of a wuss overall. He was an effective Ass-face, but not really packing any sort of grandeur to him.
“Book Two: Earth” showcases Team Avatar finding an Earthbending instructor, a young blind girl named Toph who’s more manly than Sokka, and able to “see” using Earthbending. THIS is when the show REALLY takes off, as Azula and her two girl partners hunt all the heroes. Zuko flirts with reformation as he is truly exiled by his father & homeland (and we discover the sad past that explains him, but doesn’t excuse him), things get WAY more serious, and the epicness of Azula hangs over everything. By season’s end, we get The Empire Strikes Back “second in a trilogy” ending- things get their darkest, as the Earth Kingdom falls, Zuko rejects redemption and falls back to the Fire Nation, Uncle Iroh is in chains, Aang nearly dies, and all is lost.
“Book Three: Fire” ends the series. Team Avatar desperately rebuilds and tries to invade the Fire Nation at their weakest point. We watch Zuko struggle with his new role as loyal Prince, Iroh rot in jail, Sokka learn how to be a man, Aang fight to maintain his destiny against the Fire Lord, and more. In the end, the Invasion is a failure, and Team Avatar is at their most broken... just as Zuko finally betrays his father (upon realizing just HOW much of a monster he & Azula are) and teaches Aang Firebending.
What ends up happening is one of the most epic Series Finales EVER. Zuko fights his hated sister, as her Manipulative Bitch persona fades as she goes further and further into madness, with all of her old allies rejecting her. Ozai reveals his full power. Aang does too- unleashing all Four Elements (and a Fifth!). Fight scenes are epic, asses are kicked, and almost every single cast member gets a Crowning Moment of Awesome to their name.
I can’t even find any real flaws in this series. Seriously, this show is basically sharing a spot with “JLU” in terms of awesome, but without all of the flaws that “JLU” had (such as dropping the Batman/Wonder Woman subplot, random Writer’s Pet stuff, etc.). None of the great epic feats come across as Power Geeky or unbalancing, because the Villains start out more powerful (as they should), and the heroes develop powers to match them simultaneously, meaning that everyone is equally awesome. Even though Aang has power over all four elements, Katara & Toph both are superior at their individual styles of Bending, and Aang can only go super-powered and whup giga-ass occasionally.
Hell, the only stuff I found iffy AT ALL were the occasional lack of explanation behind The Avatar State (Aang’s “Super Saiyan” form that he could only hit if enraged), such as when the Guru told him he couldn’t use it anymore without giving up on his love for Katara (he had to give up all of his Earhtly attachments, desires, guilt, etc., which he did with hilarious ease- hitting near-Zen-Buddhist/Hindu/Whatever states in seconds after learning what was blocking his path), yet he still did it later while still loving her. Of course, that could easily be explained by the Guru being WRONG (Instead, love for his friends lionized Aang)- just because the dude was old, Indian and had a beard doesn't make him omniscient.
Some fans felt the end with “Energybending” was a bit of an Ass Pull, and it WAS... except it really didn’t matter. Aang WON. Without using it. The only thing the last-minute Super-Power Upgrade allowed him to do was end things in his own way, without killing his foe. That’s it. Totally acceptable use of an Ass-Pull (especially since the whole “no killing” thing was an established plot point before that).
In short, this show has everything. I didn’t even care that it had only a few sexy women (most of the characters were teens and LOOKED IT, so I could only feel creepy thinking Azula or Ty-Lee were hot, despite their boobage), a certain Fire Princess MILF notwithstanding (seriously, Ursa was CRAZY attractive- and now I'm not gonna sit here and tell you that all men or all nerds find older women attractive, but all smart, correct men do
). Hell, even the slapstick humor never comes across as asinine- much of the Comic Relief was ACTUALLY FUNNY, not just simple-minded buffoonery for the young fans.