Courtesy of Nickelodeon
“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.”
Friday, Feb. 21, marks 15 years since the first episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” debuted on Nickelodeon, and the world of animated cartoons has not been the same since.
Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, and airing from 2005 to 2008, the show tells the story of Aang, who is the titular “Avatar,” a spirit that reincarnates to bring the world into balance age after age for the re-establishment of righteousness.
The Avatar is also the only one who has the power to control all four elements—water, earth, fire and air—and thus has the responsibility of restoring cosmic law and order. However, due to the genocidal actions of the tyrannical Fire Nation, Aang is the last Air Nomad, and thus the last airbender. With this responsibility, “Avatar” shows Aang’s journey from a mischievous boy into a fully realized avatar as he tries to bring down the Fire Nation and restore peace to a world plagued by war for over 100 years.
Throughout his quest, Aang meets various friends, starting with Water Tribe members, Katara and Sokka, and Earth Kingdom resident Toph. A story of friendship, love, faith, destiny and redemption, “Avatar” showcases a depth of storytelling not often seen in Western animation.
While the world of the show is a fantasy one, it is not the usual kind depicted in typical Western media of knights and orcs and dragons and castles. Rather, the show is centered around Eastern mythology and stylings, everywhere from the title to the world the characters inhabit.
“Avatar” itself is a Sanskrit word, most commonly referring to the reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, who manifested himself into our world time after time to fight evil and restore balance. The idea of a spirit reincarnating itself age after age is a very Buddhist concept, with previous incarnations of the Buddha being prominent in the religion’s mythology, and the Dalai Lama, himself, being the reincarnation of past Dalai Lamas in Tibetan culture.
The entrenched Eastern spirituality in the show is supported by the general stylings of the world, which are also of Asian culture, from the houses to the clothing, to the cities, to the intricacies of everyday life, with each nation representing a different Asian culture.
Anime influences are also found throughout, whether it be in the way the show is drawn and animated, to the style of storytelling. By introducing all these new elements in Western television, the show broadened the horizon of what could be shown to audiences.
The depths of characters were unlike most other animated shows of the time, with each of them evolving as the show progressed, with Aang becoming a true, dutiful hero, Katara learning the value of forgiveness and trust, Sokka finding his own value in his skills, Toph overcoming her disability and making friends and the antagonist Zuko finding redemption. This level of detail makes the show a special one even today.
One of the first animated programs to blend the line between children and adult shows, “Avatar” appealed to all, as it ranged in tone from adventurous, to bleak, to action-packed, to romantic, to comedic, to spiritual.
Set over three seasons, the show became a cultural event for many in our age group, defining what a fantasy epic could be in ways that “The Lord of the Rings” or the original “Star Wars” trilogy had done in previous generations.
“Avatar” reinvigorated the world of 2D animation in a world of increasingly 3D, CGI shows. Without “Avatar,” shows like “Adventure Time,” “Steven Universe” or “Gravity Falls” probably never would have aired.
“Avatar” had its own sequel show, “The Legend of Korra,” which, while not quite reaching the heights of the original, still has its place in the canon of the universe, despite being undermined by budget cuts and being taken off the air in its final season by Nickelodeon.
A live-action movie based on the first season was also released in 2010, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but unfortunately, the overabundance of exposition, poor acting and misunderstanding of the original themes kept the movie from approaching even mediocrity, let alone the brilliance of the original.
Another live-action remake in the form of a Netflix series is on its way, with the original creators, Konietzko and DiMartino onboard, so perhaps the future of the franchise is bright.
All that can be said, 15 years after the airing of the first episode, is thank you, “Avatar.” Thank you for creating a story that touched a generation and introduced a new world unlike any other to American audiences. May your story of saving the world continue to be shown for generations to come.