Released by Nickelodeon in 2005, with new episodes until 2008, the American animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender won critical and public acclaim, receiving praise for its story, action scenes, cultural references, humor, and other features.
To get a sense of the animated series’s impact, it has won awards such as Annie Awards, Emmy Awards, and a Peabody Award, the latter being given to productions, associations, or individuals who have provided public services worthy of distinction.
The Plot and Animation
Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world created from the cultural references of the Asian people. In this world, civilization is divided between four major nations: Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads.
Some people, the so-called “benders,” have the ability to manipulate one of the four elements of nature – water, fire, earth, and air – and every generation, the Avatar, the one capable of mastering the four elements, is reincarnated with the mission of maintaining peace on the planet.
In the last century, the Fire Nation has achieved a rapid industrialization and expanded its wealth, land, and power through world warfare. At first, Avatar Roku was prevented from the Fire Nation’s domination, born in the Fire Nation itself.
After Roku’s death, the Avatar was reincarnated into the Airbender Aang. During the Fire Lord’s warlike threat, Aang eventually discovered he was the Avatar at a very young age when he was only 12 years old and fled from the weight of his responsibilities in fear of what his destiny would bring.
In his escape, Aang accidentally enters the Avatar State and puts himself in suspended animation, frozen for 100 years. The young brothers Sokka and Katara of the Water Tribe eventually find the boy.
Aware of the destruction caused by the Fire Nation since the Avatar disappeared – including the destruction of the Air Nomads – Aang accepts his mission surrounded by guilt and devotes himself to learning to bend the four elements with the help of his new friends.
Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, Avatar: The Last Airbender ran for three seasons and brought an animation style that mixed Japanese anime traits with American cartoons. The cultural references – including costumes, customs, and martial arts – were based on East Asia peoples’ careful research.
All the character designs were based on China’s history and art, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and yoga. The movements of the benders of each element were choreographed from different Chinese martial arts, such as T’ai chi ch’uan, Hung Gar, Northern Shaolin, and Southern Tang Lang Quan.
All with the work of various professionals specialized in each of these areas. The fictional landscapes’ artistic style was based on real places in Asia, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Inuit and Eskimos lands.
Another popular feature of the series was that it explored many complex concepts rarely addressed in Western children’s television programs, such as war, trauma, oppression, genocide, imperialism, gender discrimination, female empowerment, marginalization, different cultures, and philosophical issues.
Book One: Water
While fishing, the brothers Sokka and Katara of the Water Tribe find a young boy and his flying bison frozen, trapped in an iceberg. After freeing Aang from the ice, they discover that the boy is an air bender, but everyone thought that all the Air Nomads had died out 100 years ago under the Fire Lord’s destruction.
As the brothers tell Aang about the conflict spanning the last 100 years, he admits to being the Avatar.
In the Fire Nation, Prince Zuko believes in the Avatar’s possible return and tries to prevent this from happening since the Avatar is the only one who could prevent his nation’s victory. When Zuko discovers Aang’s reappearance, he begins an independent pursuit of the boy.
For this reason, Katara and Sooka decide to travel with Aang to the North Pole to find a water bender who can teach him the nature of the element and begin his development as an Avatar.
Zuko is a young man embittered since his mother’s death and the rejection of his father, the Fire Lord. He sees capturing the Avatar as a way to gain his father’s respect and restore honor to his nation.
However, his uncle Iroh still sees the good in his nephew and travels alongside him in the pursuit for Aang, intent on teaching him and trying to put him on the path of good.
Under Zuko’s pursuit, Aang, Katara, and Sokka travel on, passing through different villages and towns, making friends and allies along the way, and helping communities fight against Fire Nation rule.
At a certain point, Aang receives a message from Avatar Roku, from the spirit world, warning that within a year, the comet Sozin will pass again, amplifying the fire benders’ power during its passage and giving the Fire Nation the conditions to finish and win the war.
The warning makes Aang realize that he needs to learn to master the four elements’ bending before the comet passes.
The group continues their journey, passing through different challenges in the villages and cities they visit along the way. At one point, they encounter a fire bender who is no longer loyal to the Fire Lord and, after receiving a message from Avatar Roku, agrees to train Aang in bending the element.
However, Aang’s play with fire during his training ends up hurting Katara, and the boy abandons the practice, promising never to mess with the element again.
The youngsters arrive at the Northern Water Tribe, where Katara and Aang can train water bending. However, there are many obstacles to overcome. The only master of this tribe’s sexist mentality causes him to refuse to teach Katara because she is a girl.
The Fire Nation manages to infiltrate the Tribe and begins a major attack. Zuko kidnaps Aang while he is in his Avatar state. Upon returning from the spirit world, Aang must deal with all of this, face the Fire Nation soldiers, and save the town.
Book Two: Earth
After the North Pole events, Aang, Katara, and Sokka rest at an Earth Kingdom outpost, where they would attempt to ask King Bumi to teach the Avatar earthbending. However, General Fong tries to trick Aang into entering his Avatar state and immediately defeating the Fire Nation.
Aang nearly destroys the military base and takes significant risks, being warned by Avatar Roku in the spirit world that his body’s death, while he is in the Avatar State would end the Avatar’s reincarnation cycle. The group recovers and continues on their journey in search of an earthbending master.
Still, in their pursuit of Aang, Zuko is almost captured, along with his uncle Iroh, by his sister Azula. The two, however, manage to escape from the girl and the Fire Nation army. At a Xin Fu earthbending tournament, the Avatar Team meets a powerful bender, a young blind girl named Toph.
Extremely powerful and analytical, the girl perceives the world around her through the ground’s vibrations and any traces of earth.
Her parents’ overprotection and their sexist expectation that Toph will be a daughter obedient to a noble girl’s social roles prevent her from becoming the teacher that Aang needs. Toph, however, runs away and goes on a journey with Aang, Sokka, and Katara.
Zuko has separated from Uncle Iroh, who disapproves of her actions, and ends up going through several trials and rejections due to her past and background. However, when Azula corners Aang’s group, Zuko and Uncle Iroh join them temporarily to confront the young woman. Iroh ends up being wounded.
Aang begins his earthbending training with Toph but has difficulty with the natural element opposite of air. Elsewhere, Zuko experiences similar problems when Uncle Iroh tries to teach him light bending, an advanced firebending technique.
In search of more knowledge to defeat the Fire Nation, Sokka makes an important discovery: a future eclipse, during which the power of the fire benders will be nullified. Appa is kidnapped by earth benders and taken to Ba Sing Se, the Earth Kingdom’s principal city that the group discovers is about to be invaded by the Fire Nation.
Although they manage to prevent the invasion, after a battle with Azula and her companions Tay Lee and Mai, the Avatar team soon realizes that there is something very strange going on around Ba Sing Se’s king.
The group’s next challenge is to defeat a dangerous political conspiracy in which the city’s domination is in the hands of cultural authority Dai Li and Secretary Long Feng. They control even the king and are also behind Appa’s disappearance.
Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph manage to break into the Earth King’s palace and warn him about Long Feng’s rule and the Fire Nation’s attempt to invade Ba Sing Se, which results in Longe Feng’s arrest.
Soon after, the group receives different letters that lead them to go their separate ways temporarily. Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee infiltrate Ba Sing Se posing as Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors.
Aang’s letter eventually leads him to the Eastern Air Temple to meet with Guru Pathik, who offers to help him master the Avatar State and free the seven chakras. Sokka is reunited with his father, Hakoda.
However, Toph is captured by men sent by her parents and ends up developing a way to bend metal to escape. In Ba Sing Se, Azula plans a coup, captures Katara, and lures Zuko and Uncle Iroh to the castle.
Even though they share a moment of near-friendship with Katara, and contrary to Uncle Iroh’s teachings, Zuko takes Azula’s side and helps her attack Aang.
Azula manages to kill Aang, but Katara brings him back to life with the North Pole Spirit Oasis’s water. The Earth Kingdom falls under Fire Nation rule.
Book Three: Fire
Aang regains his consciousness after only a short time. He wakes up and realizes that his hair has grown out, and his friends are all wearing Fire Nation clothing.
The group explains to him that the world thinks the Avatar is dead and that keeping this a secret, for now, may give them an advantage in preparing for the battle to come. In the Fire Nation, Azula and Zuko are congratulated by the Fire Lord on Aang’s death, but Zuko already suspects that he survived.
Although he has his strategic and sharp mind in his favor, Sokka seeks a Fire Nation sword master to teach him how to fight since he has not mastered any element, like Aang, Katara, and Toph. Uncle Iroh prepares to put an escape plan into action to break out of his Fire Nation prison. Zuko sends an assassin to try to kill Aang.
Aang and Zuko discover the ancient friendship between Fire Lord Sozin and Avatar Roku from different sources. Once, great friends, the two drifted apart when Roku disagreed with Sozin’s greed to control the entire world and fought against him.
When the volcano on the island where Roku lived erupts, Sozin has the opportunity to save him but lets him die so that he can go ahead with his plan of domination.
Still, in his cell, Iroh tells the story to a profoundly repentant Zuko and reveals that he, as the great-grandson of both Roku and Sozin, can put an end to this conflict and restore peace to the world.
Against her will, Katara learns to use a dark bloodbending technique, the realization of which is only possible if waterbending is extremely strong and skilled and performs the bending during the Full Moon, a time when her waterbending abilities reach maximum potential.
The day of the eclipse and the attack on the Fire Nation arrives. Team Avatar begins the invasion, led by Hadoka. After meeting Fire Nation’s resistance, Aang arrives at the palace, but the Fire Lord is not there.
In an underground bunker, Azula delays the group, while Fire Lord Ozai delays Zuko, who is determined to join the Avatar to stop seeing the Fire Nation. The eclipse ends, and the Fire Nation attacks again, causing the invaders to flee. Zuko looks for his uncle, but he has escaped from prison. Aang and his friends escape to the Western Air Temple, followed by Zuko.
Zuko struggles to prove to the group that he is now on their side, with Katara maintaining a constant distrust of the boy. He offers to teach firebending to Aang, but he starts to struggle with the bending now that he can’t rely on his anger.
Following Toph’s suggestion, the pair tries to learn firebending from the original source: the dragons. Since the dragons have been extinct, they make their way to the Sun Warrior Civilization ruins, the Fire Nation’s origin. They learn the truth about dragons and firebending: it is not a source of destruction but a life source.
Zuko joins Sokka on the dangerous mission to break into the Fire Nation’s most secure prison to rescue Sokka and Katara’s father, Hakoda, and Suki, who they discover is being held there when they infiltrate the prison. Later, Zuko helps Katara find the man responsible for her mother’s death, finally gaining her trust.
While everyone advises Aang to kill the Fire Lord in the next confrontation, the young Avatar conflicts with the idea since his Air Nomad principles are pacifism. He seeks advice from the past incarnations of the Avatar.
The war begins. The White Lotus Order, a secret society that brings together members from all nations and is led by Iroh, takes responsibility for Ba Sing Se’s release. Zuko and Katara head to the Fire Nation to confront Azula. Sokka, Suki, and Toph face the enemy aircraft approaching the Earth Kingdom.
The comet approaches, and Ozai prepares to destroy Ba Sing Sei, dominate the nations, and kill the Avatar.
Completely unstable after her friends leave her, Azula begins the fight against Zuko and Katara at a disadvantage, with Zuko proving superior in the battle against her sister.
However, she throws a bolt of lightning at Katara, and he goes forward to save his new friend, getting seriously injured. Ozai and Aang begin the battle, but the Avatar remains defensive, not wanting to kill the Fire Lord.
The White Lotus Order manages to free Ba Sing Se, and Sokka, Suki, and Toph manage to stop all Fire Nation aircraft. Katara takes up the fight against Azula and, after a fierce battle, manages to trick the new Fire Lady into freezing her and imprisoning her to help Zuko use her healing abilities.
An accidental blow from Ozai causes Aang to enter the Avatar State, who now easily pursues and overpowers Ozai but still refuses to kill him.
Using a new technique he recently learned in his prior consultation with the spirit world, the Avatar alters the energy within Ozai and permanently removes his firebending ability, defeating him. A few days later, the new Fire Lord, Zuko, declares the end of the war.
Avatar Universe: Other Media
After the original animation, the Avatar universe gained new stories in different media. Following the plot, the series got other comic book trilogies, published by Dark Horse, that follow the story of Aang after the Hundred Years War.
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise trilogy showed what happened to the former Fire Nation colonies. In Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search, we see Zuko and Azula searching for their mother, Ursa. While in Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift comic trilogy, we see Aang again, follow the creation of Republic City, and discover more of Toph’s relationship with his family.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender – Smoke and Shadow, we see how Zuko had to deal with a resistance force that emerged in the Fire Nation after his coronation. Avatar: The Last Airbender – North and South comics show Sokka and Katara’s return to the Southern Water Tribe and all the changes that took place there. The last trilogy, Avatar, the Last Airbender: Imbalance, deals with the conflict that forms between dominators and non-dominators.
This last plot, in turn, was again addressed in the first season of Avatar: The Legend of Korra, a new animated series from the Avatar universe released by Nickelodeon in 2012. The new series is set 70 years after Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s events and follows Korra, a young 17-year-old girl from the Southern Water Tribe who is Avatar’s new incarnation.
In addition to these media, the franchise has also gained a video game trilogy, and we have also seen a film adaptation of the first season of the series.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the film The Last Airbender received highly negative reviews, reaching an approval rating of only 6% at Rotten Tomatoes. The script, the performances, and the subversion of the characters’ cultural references and ethnicities were some of the criticized points.
In 2018, Netflix announced developing a new live-action film of the franchise, which featured DiMartino and Konietzko, creators of the animated series, as executive producers and showrunners. In 2021, however, the duo abandoned the project due to creative differences.
Shortly after that, Nickelodeon announced a division entirely dedicated to expanding the Avatar universe under DiMartino and Konietzko. Among the new division’s projects are an animated film and new series.