The arrival of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix has set social media ablaze, as fans gear up for binge-driven rewatches, and fans-to-be look at all the ranting and raving about the show with a curious eye.
Why do people love Avatar: The Last Airbender so much? Why should you watch it now if you didn’t back when it started? Here are the seven core elements (sorry, we couldn’t pick just four) that make the Nickelodeon series such an engrossing watch for audiences of any age.
A standard children’s-show setup amounts to something spectacular
Avatar: The Last Airbender’s core premise simultaneously spans a hundred years of fictional history and is simple enough to be summed up in the first 40 seconds of its opening sequence. The show’s structure follows that fractal quality, beginning with a simply explained but narratively expansive goal: A young boy named Aang who has mastered the elemental control of air through a martial art called “airbending” must complete his training in waterbending, earthbending, and firebending so that he can bring balance to his war-torn world and stop the rampaging Fire Nation from conquering the entire planet.
But that plot launches in the first season in a way that seems childish and familiar. Aang is a chipper Chosen One type with a funny animal sidekick. In the first episode, he encounters the young waterbender Katara, who comes across as a Hermione Granger-style tryhard girl boss sidekick, and her arrogant brother Sokka, an impulsive wannabe warrior and comic-relief butt-monkey. Everything about their first encounter feels like standard-issue kids’-show stuff. But a lot of the joys of Last Airbender is the ways it upends these simple, familiar tropes, and finds the deeper ambitions and character conflicts behind all three basic archetypes. And the show gives them a challenge on a Wagnerian scale — they aren’t just trying to save the world, they’re trying to break a cycle that began generations before most of them were born.
The episodes to watch: “The Storm” (season 1), “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” (season 3)
There’s a particular use of humor
Shows aimed at young people can be pretty goofy or over-the-top, but Last Airbender is slyer about its humor. Some of it is agreeably dorky, like when Aang — who’s been preserved in ice for a hundred years, and keeps expecting the world to be as he remembers it from the past — starts trying to show how hip and with it he is by busting out century-old Fire Nation slang. Some of it is slapstick, like the running gag about the traveling cabbage vendor who always manages to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But a lot of Last Airbender’s humor is based in quick-moving banter and rapidly changing situations, and it not only keeps the pace brisk, it helps establish the characters’ relationships — like when exiled Fire Nation prince Zuko keeps getting his towering rage and angst punctured by gentle jibes from his hilariously dry Uncle Iroh.
The episodes to watch: “The Cave of Two Lovers” (season 2), “The Beach” (season 3)
The characters actually develop over time
That Iroh/Zuko relationship is part of the rich emotional heart of Last Airbender, but it wouldn’t work so well without a long-term storytelling plan. Last Airbender creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko planned the series from the start as a three-season story built around three major arcs, and because so much was planned in advance, they had the ability to lay seeds from the very beginning that let the characters flower organically over time. Zuko starts out as a standard bullying villain, but slow reveals about his history first explain his anger, then give him time to adjust and change. Sokka matures from a familiar comic type into a strategist who contributes as much to the group as his superpowered peers. All the characters visibly learn from their mistakes, mature from the early young versions of themselves, and collect trauma as the story proceeds. Watching them develop from kids into young adults is one of the most gratifying and relatable aspects of the show.
The episodes to watch: “The Southern Raiders” (season 3), “The Ember Island Players” (season 3)
It has a sophisticated take on villainy and bad-guy motives
Kids’ action fare is known for memorable villains — but not typically for nuanced ones. Here, Airbender has plenty of cake, providing evil megalomaniacs who hide in the shadows until their schemes are nearly at fruition, sneering jerks who use their power to step on the people below them, and vengeful killers who target the guilty and innocent alike in their rage.
But the show eats its cake, too. Other villains include revolutionaries whose disregard for collateral damage springs from an immature reliance on black-and-white ideologies. There are emotional manipulators whose sadism is rooted in the inferiority complex their upbringing instilled in them. And then there’s Avatar’s villain redemption arc, which slow-burns through more than half of the series’ total runtime.
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation doesn’t fast-forward through his heel-face turn, he walks an agonizing two steps forward and one step back on a path of self-actualization. Check in on any discussion of whether Rise of Skywalker — a $275 million motion picture from the best and brightest that Disney could gather — earned its ending, and eventually, someone will bring up how much better the same storyline looked in Last Airbender, a Nickelodeon cartoon. Same goes for discussions of the final season of Game of Thrones, with its sudden hero-to-villain switcheroo. Those critics aren’t wrong; Last Airbender took the time to do villains right.
The episodes to watch: “Jet” (season 1), “The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse” (season 3)
The show carefully ramps up the powers
The big problem with most stories about superpowers is that heroes and villains alike tend to use them the same way over and over. Avatar was heavily inspired by anime, but old-school anime in particular tended to fall back on very predictable power use — think about original Voltron ending every single battle with Keith yelling “Form Blazing Sword!” and cutting the monster of the week in half.
But Avatar feels much more like a tabletop RPG in the way the characters’ powers develop over time, with use and with cooperation. Some entire plotlines revolve around them learning new powers or the best ways to apply what they already know. (Or in one chilling case, the worst way to apply a power.) More significantly, though, the writers and directors are impressively creative about how bending powers might be applied. Different characters have different styles and areas of focus, the characters try new things in combat, and they all learn to synergize their powers in exciting, unexpected ways, so every new significant battle is a surprise and a thrilling escalation.
Episodes to watch: “Bitter Work” (season 2), “The Puppetmaster” (season 3)
The world-building is thorough
Here’s the secret Avatar fans won’t tell you until you join the tribe: we’ve all done the lightning-bending gesture while alone at home. The visual styles for the various bending arts are one of the clearest, simplest signs of the series’ worldbuilding depth — each of the four elements used a different real-world martial-arts style for visual reference, so waterbenders use the expansive, fluid motions of tai chi, earthbenders use the stomping, rooted stances and thrusts of hung gar, and so forth.
The same kind of attention went into building the different cultures and civilizations the characters encounter as they travel the world — people in different areas dress differently, speak differently, have different philosophies, and communicate in different ways. It’s a rich world full of human variants, which means every new location is worth discovering and exploring in detail.
Episodes to watch: “The Swamp” (season 1), “Avatar Day” (season 2)
The animation is sophisticated and dynamic
It’s easy to point to Avatar’s brilliant fight scenes as some of the show’s crowning achievements in animation. You’re unlikely to find another Western animated series that’s this dedicated to precise recreations of martial-arts forms, not to mention the creativity of their implementation.
And then there are the elements themselves. Intricate hand motions send multicolored gouts of water and flame sweeping over a battlefield. A fire bender pulls lightning from the air with all the intensity of an Olympic athlete. A single strike from an earth bender’s foot rockets a pillar of stone through the air — and the viewer can still tell that it weighs many tons.
But focusing on the action sequences alone does Avatar a disservice. The show is a triumph of visual design — from Aang’s iconic tattoo, to the robes of a Kyoshi warrior, to the magnificent walls of Ba Sing Se — and of acting in animation. In Avatar, bodies stretch and flop for humor, posture and gesticulate for drama, and the camera holds on faces for emotional beats, a testament to the work of the Korean animation studios involved in its production.
Episodes to watch: “The Crossroads of Destiny” (season 2), “Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno” (season 3)