If you’re looking for a new obsession to binge during quarantine, look no further: The animated masterpiece Avatar: The Last Airbender is finally returning to streaming this week on Netflix after a long hiatus.
So if all you know about the franchise is the disastrous 2010 movie (not to be confused with the 2009 James Cameron movie, which has nothing to do with the Airbender universe), here’s why now is the perfect time to get hooked on one of the greatest animated shows of all time.
The animated show debuted on Nickelodeon in 2005 and follows a high-spirited, somewhat goofy 12-year-old name Aang who literally has the fate of the world on his shoulders.
In the world of Avatar, there are four nations, each devoted to a different element: Earth, air, water and fire. Each generation, there’s one Avatar, who can control all the elements — in this case Aang.
The four nations are meant to exist in balance and harmony, but as we learn in the first episode, Aang has been missing for 100 years, and a lot has happened.
The Fire Nation has murdered every Air Nomad, hence Aang being the last Airbender. It’s a heavy concept for a children’s show, but the interweaving of light and dark moments is one of the show’s fortes. One-liners abound, but there are also moments of tension, fear, and anguish.
Left not only an orphan but the sole representative of a vanished culture, Aang embarks on a quest to defeat the Fire Nation and restore balance.
Over the years, Avatar has won awards and praise for its animation, music, story arcs, and characters. That’s all deserved, but the real best reason to check out the show is for Appa, the fluffy, friendly flying sky bison.
In all seriousness, Avatar’s characters are rarely one-note, including the villains. It’s apparent fairly on but is epitomized in Season 2, Episode 7, Zuko Alone. The plight of refugees and censorship are explored in the Earth Kingdom’s largest city, Ba Sing Se, in episodes like The City of Walls and Secrets. One of the main themes of the show is destiny versus choice, which is painfully highlighted in Crossroads of Destiny. It’s a rare feat for an animated series to handle inequality, imperialism, and the struggles of growing up with such deftness, while still managing the make the show fun and engaging enough for both kids and adults.
The cast of lovable and deep characters cover an amazing amount of ground over the course of the show, from libraries in the desert to frozen cities near the North Pole. Everywhere in between is diverse and complex, and — fair warning — may inspire some wanderlust.
Though Avatar’s world is fictional, its creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, drew upon a variety of influences, including Chinese, Japanese, and Inuit cultures, to create the different nations. The methods of airbending are based on different Chinese martial arts — though Avatar: The Last Airbender is not an anime.
It’s beautiful to watch, and each type gets its due. Edwin Zane, who was the vice president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, was a consultant, helping ensure the show avoided insensitive portrayals.
“You want to be inspired without appropriating,” head writer Aaron Ehasz told Vice in 2018.
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