The Rebirth of Avatar: the Last Airbender

The Rebirth of Avatar: the Last Airbender


Warning: Spoilers Ahead


Avatar: the Last Airbender (often referred to as ATLA) is a show about a world where there are four elements which are able to be manipulated by benders from the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, or Air Nomads. Benders are only able to control one of these elements, with the exception of the Avatar, who can bend all four and has the role of bringing balance to the world. In ATLA, writers Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Aaron Ehasz tell a captivating tale about Avatar Aang’s journey on restoring peace in the world after the Fire Nation started a war to take over the world.

The show’s audience is mostly for children, having come out on Nickelodeon in February, 2005. However, today in 2020, ATLA has recently become popular again today in 2020 for many reasons:

The Right Time and Place

An important factor for the resurgence of ATLA is that it came to Netflix in the United States on May 15, 2020. Shown by the graph below, the search term “Avatar the Last Airbender” was at its most popular on May 17-23, 2020, just a few days after the show’s release on Netflix. Not only is Netflix the largest streaming service in the U.S., but it’s timing during the COVID-19 outbreak could have also influenced the popularity of ATLA, as people are forced to look for entertainment indoors. On a broader scale, 2020 is 15 years later than the initial release in 2005, so viewers who grew up watching ATLA are now in their late-teens to twenties. Since the original show was for children, returning adults may want to rewatch their shows because of the nostalgia, as ATLA was still well known back then. With more accessibility both new and oldcommers are able to discuss the show and it’s high-quality story telling, characters, themes and more, contributing to its popularity.

Well-Developed Characters and Meaningful Themes

In ATLA, Aang meets many friends and characters throughout his journey that help him master the four elements and defeat the Firelord to end the war. Most of the main characters, other than Aang, include Katara (a water bender), Sokka (Katara’s brother and a nonbender) Toph (an earthbender), and Zuko (a fire bender and son of the Firelord).  Each of these characters have a unique personality and background and the show builds their characters in a realistic way, diving into each character’s strengths and weaknesses. Viewers are also able to see them in both a typical high-stakes setting, during fights and in the middle of battle, but also in their everyday lives. The creators carefully balance serious episodes that advance the plot and more casual episodes that viewers can laugh at and get to know the characters personalities better.

Aang, playful and free-spirited, is only 12 years old at the start of the show. He jokes around with Sokka, who has a good sense of humor and is extremely intelligent, and falls in love with Katara, who is caring, emphatic, and teaches him to waterbend. However, he slowly matures over the course of 3 seasons after seeing the horrors of the war. His entire race was annihilated by the Fire Nation while he was asleep in an iceberg for 100 years and he sees the consequences around the world of not being able to stop the war sooner. As Aang goes through the journey with his friends, the viewers also emphasize with the characters. 

For example, Aang deals with the loss of his race and faces the responsibility of his role to end a war. Katara overcomes the trauma from a Fire Nation raid where her mother died while protecting her by forgiving the general that killed her mother. Sokka comes to terms with his identity as a nonbender among a group of benders through his intelligence and creativity. Toph, stubborn and strong, runs away from her toxic parents who isolated her from the world because they thought she was helpless because she is blind, even when she proved herself to be one of the most skilled earthbenders. 

Even the antagonists go through their own journey. Zuko, in one of the best redemption arcs, spends half of the show trying to capture the Avatar and regain his honor after being exiled from the Fire Nation, but eventually realizes that the Fire Nation’s war has caused nothing but destruction and death. He frets over what is right and wrong and his internal conflict is messy; his development is not linear, as rarely is anything in real life. He is pushed by his wise uncle Iroh towards the right direction, but it is ultimately himself who makes the decision to join the Avatar. He leaves everything behind, becoming a traitor to his nation by helping the Aang master firebending, but honor doesn’t mean anything anymore to him because he has realized that stopping the Fire Nation is the right thing to do.

Ultimately, the characters are human: they have flaws and go through struggle just like us, the viewers. But the creators balance it with humor in a beautiful, fictional world. Ms. Ott, a student teacher at Talawanda and fan of ATLA describes it well: “The characters deal with complex issues like parent/child relationships, war, friendship,and betrayal (just to name a few). So as young people we may see the conflicts in the show mirrored in our own lives or in the world around us, and the whimsical hilarious atmosphere of ATLA allows us to relate, and in some ways cope, with these issues.”


One of the struggles with world-building is how “wide” (i.e. how extensive or vast is the world?) and how “deep” (i.e. exploring certain aspects of a world in more detail) to go. ATLA balances both, going deep into set rules and constraints of bending, the main feature of this world that makes it special. 

Bending is defined as being able to bend the energy of either water, earth (dirt, rocks, etc.), air, or fire. Bending is inherited and only the Avatar can bend all four elements. The Avatar is reborn once the previous Avatar dies, allowing only one Avatar to be alive at one time. There are variations of bending within each element, but they never break these rules. For example, metalbending is a subcategory of earthbending, since dirt and metal have similar chemical compounds, as metals like iron, potassium, and magnesium are present in dirt. Bloodbending is subcategory of waterbending and is also used in the show. Blood is around 50% water, so it makes sense that waterbenders are able to bend blood. Additionally, in ATLA’s sequel Legend of Korra, an airbender is able to kill someone by restricting the amount of oxygen they take in. The show still includes the darker uses of each element, making the world and the applications of bending more realistic. 

Each of the nations also have used bending to develop their nation. This further develops the world of ATLA as each nation is special in their ability to take advantage of the utility of bending and incorporate it into their infrastructure. In the city Omashu of the Earth Kingdom, the delivery system is powered by gravity and earthbending. Gravity makes the carts go down a chute, while earthbenders are able to shift the chutes up or to the side (similar to changing train track directions) . The Water Tribe live in northern and southern poles where they are surrounded by water and ice, and their buildings are made of ice while their “roads” really are rivers (similar to Venice) making construction easier with the resources around them. This adds to the depth of the world, as each nation is unique with its use of bending.

Additionally, each nation has its own values and culture that is rooted in what its element signifies, as well as the real-life country it was based on. The Water Tribes value flexibility, tradition, and community and were heavily inspired by the Inuit. The Air Nomads value freedom, creativity, and peace and is based on Tibet. People from the Earth Kingdom are resilient, strong, and stubborn and based on ancient China. Fire is the element of passion and determination and is based on Imperial Japan. The vast diversity of clothing and architecture as well as the accuracy makes for a visually stunning world. Styles of fighting techniques for each bending are also based on real styles of martial arts in China. 

Factions have always been popular in world-building– the 4 houses in Harry Potter, the 12 factions in The Hunger Games, the 5 factions in Divergent, the 4 clans in Warrior Cats, and so on. Audiences can identify and sort themselves into which group or faction they would hypothetically live as. In ATLA, the 4 elements are so unique that it’s fun to imagine yourself as a character in the world of the show. 

The world of ATLA is so vivid and immersive, all while sticking to just a few core principles that separate the ATLA world from our real world is part of the reason why people love the show so much. ATLA balances strong world-building, realistic characters, humor, and meaningful themes, in a way that is executed so well that “Viewers are able to get lost in the lore, cute animals, and imagine ourselves as benders, but we do not become lost, we can still see ourselves in it,” as Ms. Ott puts it nicely.