Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked — your free time.
Avatar: The Last Airbender has returned to Netflix. The Friday release marks the first time in several years that the beloved animated series has been available on a major streaming platform in the U.S. The release is undoubtedly meant to build anticipation for Netflix’s planned live-action adaptation of the show, but no matter how you feel about that news, Airbender’s return is a win-win for Netflix and viewers alike. That’s true whether you’re an Airbender fan who’s feeling nostalgic, or someone who’s been meaning to check it out but never had the chance to before — or if, like me, you’ve never stopped missing Airbender since it aired.
2020 marks the 15th anniversary of the premiere of Airbender, which ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon from 2005–2008. An action-adventure set in a high fantasy world, Airbender had a huge influence on the many acclaimed, serialized animated series that followed. But while longtime fans recognize the show’s excellence, M. Night Shyamalan’s notorious travesty of a film adaptation in 2010 thwarted Airbender’s big push into the mainstream.
That’s a huge shame, because Airbender deserves to be more widely recognized by the broader public as one of the best shows ever made. In my experience, most viewers don’t merely like Airbender; they love it, the kind of love that usually gets reserved for shows with much broader critical and cultural clout. There’s a multitude of reasons for that level of devotion. The animation is flawless and beautiful. The story — a goofy kid who’s also the most powerful spiritual mage on the planet joins his friends on a quest to save the world — first surprises you, then charms you, and ultimately sweeps you up and deposits you in an entirely different headspace than where you began.
Now that Airbender is on Netflix once more, it’s primed for an overdue, well-earned cultural resurgence. Here are four things to know about the show if you’re watching it for the first time, or just want to understand what makes the series great.
1. Airbender’s storyline was unprecedented for its complexity and scope
Airbender’s premise is frankly kind of oddball: a 12-year-old who’s also a monk who’s also a reincarnated superhero needs to singlehandedly save the world from encroaching conquest by an aggressive military nation. That description might seem like a lot more than a show airing on the popular kids network Nickelodeon, of all places, can handle. But Airbender got what few animated series of its time had ever gotten: a planned three-season story arc, which allowed its complex themes and fantastic character development to evolve over time.
Airbender’s main conceit involves the use of Earth’s four traditional elements: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. Within the show’s universe, different societies cultivate their natural ability to manipulate, or “bend,” one of the elements, an ability known as elemental bending: airbending, waterbending, firebending, earthbending, etc. When you waterbend, for example, you can use any water nearby as a tool or a weapon. The titular Avatar is the only person with the ability to bend al four elements, a power which allows him to unite the world and serve as a leader and protector of the human race.
Every few centuries, the Avatar is reincarnated into one of the bender societies in turn. At the time the events of Airbender begin, the aggressive Fire Nation has begun invading surrounding nations, and the people need the Avatar more than ever — but he hasn’t been seen in nearly 100 years. When a pair of siblings accidentally awaken him, they find that he’s been reincarnated into the body of Aang, a 12-year-old airbender who still needs to learn the other three elements before he can reveal himself to the world as the Avatar. To do this, Aang has to travel around the world in order to meet and learn from other bending masters. Thus, much of Airbender involves Aang and his companions — the powerful waterbender, Katara, and her clever brother, Sokka — traveling to new places and becoming familiar with the intricate world in which the series is set. Thus Airbender looks and feels epic, in the sense that the viewer is constantly reminded of the vastness and richness of its universe, from the walls of the city of Ba Sing Se to the spires of a fabulous library in the desert.
While Aang and his friends are working to acquire the knowledge and education they need to defeat the Fire Nation, the Fire Nation’s disgraced Prince Zuko is pursuing them. A hotheaded emo teen who’s initially determined to win glory and respect by capturing the Avatar for his kingdom, Zuko receives one of the most gradual, satisfying redemption arcs in TV history. This is in large part due to his Uncle Iroh, who tries to patiently deprogram him from his martial firebending ways by modeling peace and harmony with the communities they meet in their pursuit of the Avatar. It’s a deeply moving, steady journey from enemy to ally that anchors the show as it explores themes of community-building, atonement, and hard-won pacifism — all of which are core to the series’ wonderful whole.
2. It’s hilarious, inventive, and a constant delight — and a total tearjerker
Airbender’s universe is stunning and deep with lore. And it’s also so cute. Aang himself is adorable, a hyper-enthusiastic kid who just wants to go penguin sledding and fly around on his gigantic pet flying bison. Who wouldn’t? The world teems with a hodgepodge of invented hybrid creatures like turtleducks, badgermoles, and catgators. Even better is the supporting cast, a rotating plethora of colorful side characters that make every episode memorable and fun. Even the villains are delightful — which, of course, only makes them more effective as villains.
The series always mixes serious themes alongside the humor, constantly tugging at heartstrings and always giving its main cast poignant narrative arcs and plenty of profoundly touching moments. Have we mentioned that Uncle Iroh is a treasure?
3. Airbender was widely praised for its careful integration of cultural, historical, martial arts, and fantasy elements from across the globe
Airbender is perhaps best known for its respectful, intricate handling of its multicultural worldbuilding and themes, most of which draw from Asian cultures. Since it first aired, fans and critics have debated whether the show can constitute a Western “anime,” because its stylized art and fantasy themes drew heavily upon Japanese-style character designs and fantasy tropes common within anime. Its main concept of the reincarnated Avatar and the harmonization of the four elements draw heavily upon Buddhism and Taoism, and its settings were mainly based on real-world Asian cultures. That was a big deal in 2005, when most attempts to represent non-European cultures on TV were still mired in Orientalism. But Airbender very carefully and respectfully built its bender societies around specific cultures.
Aang’s lost society of fellow Airbender monks was based upon Tibetan Buddhist monks. Waterbenders were inspired by Arctic Inuit tribes. The Earth nation was primarily based on China, and the aggressive Fire nation drew mainly from Imperial Japan. The show also gave each bending style its own unique visual twist, basing each practice on a different form of martial art. The fluid style of waterbending grew out of Yang-style tai chi; the stolid earthbending style was derived from Hung Gar kung fu, while the more agile and athletic firebending style came from Northern Shaolin kung fu. Airbending, with its distinctive circular movements, derives from baguazhang.
Additionally, the show teems with countless cultural and aesthetic flourishes from a broad range of sources, from the Taj Mahal to the Mississippi Delta. It also references actual Asian historical figures who have analogues among the show’s cast, as well as a litany of architectural and artistic influences. The whole effect is to make the universe of Airbender feel extremely real, vast, and diverse — which makes its themes of co-existence resonate all the more with its audience.
4. Airbender’s cultural influence was slow to spread, but its impact was huge
At the time it aired, mainstream critics were a little slow to embrace the show: It lost its one Emmy nomination, in 2007, to the tenth season of South Park. Still, its final season won a Peabody for “adding thoughtful substance to a genre best known for its style.”
That observation proved prophetic, because Airbender went on to dramatically alter the landscape of children’s animated television. The series is widely believed to have started a “golden age” of serial animated TV which, while aimed at children, dealt with complex, nuanced themes that also gave the shows wide appeal among adults. It’s hard to imagine lore-heavy cartoons Adventure Time or Steven Universe, which began in 2010 and 2013, respectively, existing without Airbender proving that there was a U.S. audience for sophisticated narrative animated series. Airbender’s follow-up, 2013’s The Legend of Korra, which explores the Airbender universe many years in the future through the eyes of a new avatar, also garnered a cult following, as did later series by members of Airbender’s creative team, like Voltron: Legendary Defender and the current Netflix series The Dragon Prince.
Airbender is seminal, too, not just for its impact on TV animation, but because of its status as a show with an openly progressive worldview. Its themes anticipated an era of progressive change. As much as any show can be said to have a worldview, Airbender had a clear, consistent worldview built on a fundamental critique of colonialism and violent conquest. It largely anticipated the rise of progressive politics throughout the Aughts and into the 2010s, reflecting the subsequent rise of activist protest, emphasis on diversity and respectful multiculturalism. Its sequel Korra pushed many of those themes even further, adding intersectional feminism and critiques of capitalism and structural privilege to the list — all while hinting at a controversial lesbian romance for its main character.
At the time Airbender was airing, the show was most frequently compared to Harry Potter, because of its status as a coming-of-age pre-teen fantasy with a specific trajectory and often whimsical magical world-building. But while many of Harry Potter’s themes have come to feel increasingly outdated or hollow over time, Airbender’s have held up surprisingly well.
One of the most game-changing things in all of entertainment that Airbender anticipated was its fandom’s response to the live-action adaptation’s infamous whitewashing of the show’s diverse cast. Paramount’s casting for the film erased all four of the distinctive cultures in the show in favor of casting white actors in the lead roles and dark-skinned actors for the villains from the warlike Fire Nation. When word of these casting choices reached fans in 2008, they revolted, spending the next two years until the film’s 2010 debut boycotting the production until the controversy overshadowed the film itself.
The controversy also inspired a new term: “Racebending,” or the act of undermining a character’s original ethnicity in order to cast them as someone from a different race. Though the concept often gets spun positively today, used as a form of social protest against an all-white cast of characters, it was initially coined as a response to one of the most tone-deaf casting processes in recent memory — and that, too, presaged a decade of rising protest and activism to change Hollywood’s lack of diversity.
Lest you think Airbender’s only cultural contribution has been in the arena of social justice, however, fear not — it’s also given us a run of great memes, mostly based on many of its funnier moments. Most of them are mainly known only to Airbender fans — so you’d better start watching if you want to understand why “That’s rough, buddy” or “MY CABBAGES!” are the height of modern comedy. Water tribe represent.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Author: Aja Romano