In 2005, a cartoon aimed at kids debuted on Nickelodeon; it introduced a new generation to everything from high fantasy, to Eastern mythology, to anime, to the greatest redemption story in modern fiction. Avatar: The Last Airbender may have been made for a young audience, but it was never afraid to explore dark and challenging subjects like imperialism and war. Sixteen years later, what makes this show so special is how often it dared to look straight into doom and despair, all with an unrelenting optimism and belief in hope.
From the very beginning, Avatar introduced us to a world engulfed in war. During its opening sequence, Katara narrates how her grandma used to tell her stories of a time long-gone, when the world was at peace. She says that “everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked” and that most people have lost hope for the return of the Avatar.
The sense of doom in the world of Avatar bears a resemblance to that of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. No matter how many times he denies the influence of World War I in his storytelling, there is no doubt that the world of The Lord of the Rings is on the brink of destruction, reflecting the real-life context in which the books were written. The elves abandon the world. The Ents face extinction. Forests burn down. And the once noble race of men has become corrupted and hopeless. Likewise, Avatar premiered just two years after the Iraq War began; audiences had grown used to the constant talk of warfare and death.
And yet, much in the same way Tolkien (and Peter Jackson) understood the importance of hope, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko refuse to just relegate Avatar to all gloom and doom. Rather, both franchises make heroes out of those normally seen as defenseless and naïve; it is their innocence and compassion that ultimately saves the day. Not that it’s easy. For a kids’ show, the characters in Avatar faced immeasurable loss. The show introduces Aang as the titular Last Airbender; as early as episode three, they keep from pulling any punches in showing us exactly what that means. Aang realizes that the Fire Nation committed genocide to bring his entire nation to extinction.
Throughout the show, we see the effect the war has on the oppressed; we see kids orphaned, taken prisoners, or even killed. In episode six, we meet an entire village of guerilla warrior children trying to drive invaders away from their homes. In season three’s “The Day of the Black Sun,” old allies and friends return for one last big plan. This plan all but guaranteed to bring peace for the world, only for everything to go wrong. It’s a moment of utter failure and despair. Yet Avatar always finds a silver lining, and in this moment, our heroes gain their biggest ally: Zuko.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is heavily influenced by shonen anime—stories of kids gaining superpowers through perseverance and friendship. Indeed, every major character ends up mastering a different skill, from the Avatar State to metalbending. But it is empathy and compassion that end up being Team Avatar’s strongest superpowers. Aang defeats the Fire Lord not by killing him, but by showing compassion. The cycle of hatred and violence of the previous 100 years is not ended by a massive battle, but by Zuko deciding to join Team Avatar and atone for his sins. In fact, every villain gets the chance to redeem themself. From Mai and Ty Lee, to Jet sacrificing himself to save Aang. The only villains to remain truly evil are those who reject empathy for their victims. Megalomaniac Fire Lord Ozai, sociopathic Azula, and the greedy Zhao.
Even in its darkest moments, Avatar always showed the potential of light to disrupt darkness. Early in the show’s third season, Aang infiltrates a Fire Nation school and helps the children defy authoritarianism and imperialism through the simple act of dancing. In the series finale, Iroh burns the Fire Nation flag hanging at the gates of the Royal Palace in Ba Sing Se to reveal the Earth Kingdom insignia beneath it. Moments later, we see children gleefully playing around a stack of abandoned Fire Nation tanks. These moments may not be subtle, but they perfectly encapsulate the enduring optimism of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sixteen years later, the show still has something to teach us about facing our darkest moments. And it does so with a smile, and a giant flying bison.