It is rare for a show to grip me so fully as Avatar: The Last Airbender, by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. I rewatched it last week. I went through the entire sixty episode show in five days. I practically breathed Avatar, I was so invested.
Avatar tells the story of the titular Avatar, a twelve year old boy named Aang. The Avatar is a being that can control the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar is supposed to serve as a mediator of peace between the four nations of the world, each themed after one of the elements. But Aang runs away from his duties, and with his powers raging out of control, traps himself in an iceberg.
In his absence, the Fire Nation declared war on the world. A hundred years pass, and two water tribe members, Katara and Sokka, find Aang and break him free from the iceberg. They tell him what has happened, and together they set out on a quest to teach Aang how to control the four elements and defeat the fire nation. All the while, they are chased by the troubled and conflicted Fire Nation prince, Prince Zuko.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only story I have ever experienced that I would call objectively perfect. There are many stories that I find subjectively perfect, that is, stories that I find emotionally resonant for specific and personal reasons. Some of these stories I even enjoy more than Avatar. But Avatar is different. Avatar is a perfect story.
First, the characters. Not only is each character an absolute joy to watch on screen, each has a level of complexity and depth that I’ve never seen matched. These characters are so well constructed that you can use them as a template for storytelling. They are textbook examples of what makes a character interesting.
For example, let’s take Prince Zuko. His character arc (I won’t spoil it) is one of the most beautiful, slow-burn, artful evolutions of a character I have ever witnessed. It is meticulously constructed — with side characters like Uncle Iroh and Princess Azula tugging Zuko in different directions, leaving him torn apart. Those two characters represent possibilities for Zuko’s future. Each is compelling. The audience understands why Zuko would choose one or the other (even though we’re screaming at the screen for him to choose Iroh). His personality reflects his anguish, the choices he makes show his confliction.
An average, imperfect story would allow Zuko to be the only interesting character, and leave Iroh and Azula as static, representative side characters. But Avatar is different. Avatar makes sure that Iroh and Azula — though they serve as narrative foils for Zuko — are each complex and dynamic in their own right. Iroh struggles with his legacy as a fascist military leader, he grieves for his son, and for his surrogate son. Azula is crushed by the weight of responsibility and the desire to succeed, and she turns from a calculated and precise person to an uncontrolled maniac.
The true beauty of this show is that Zuko has two narrative foils who pull him in different directions. Yet his two foils are complex characters. They have narrative foils pulling them in different directions. And the people pulling them are complex characters, and so on ad infinitum, until the show’s cast is wrapped up together in an astonishing web of deep, emotional relationships.
Second, the world building. Avatar has exemplary world building. Each aspect of the world ties into the plot and the characters, and visa versa, all of it wrapped up in harmony. The ability to control the elements, “bending”, directly ties to the identities of the four nations, to the landscape itself, to the characters. The creators of the show were deliberate in thinking through the consequences for each choice they made. If a society consists of people who can move mountains, what do their cities look like? If a society consists of people who can fly, what do their cities look like? All of these questions are answered with gorgeous precision.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention just how simply fun the show is to watch. Team Avatar — the ragtag collection of protagonists — are ridiculously charming. I watched the most mundane filler episodes with such a broad smile on my face, happy to just watch these hooligans go about their business.
The animation helps make the show fun to watch. The fight scenes are fluid. The artists took no shortcuts. The action — especially The Last Agni-Kai (if you know you know) — is often stunning. Bending is tied to martial arts. When characters use their magic, you can feel the motion as though you were moving yourself. Earthbending feels strict, solid, abrupt, and unmoving. Waterbending is wavy and dynamic. The animation sells this effect terrifically.
There are many stories I enjoy more than Avatar. But each of those stories is flawed in a way that I would hesitate to give an unqualified recommendation. If I tell a friend about those stories, I would say, “I love this show. But I have to warn you…”
I don’t have to give a warning when recommending Avatar. Watch this show. Watch it again if you already have.