Ten years since 5. If you haven't seen it, you have some watching to do: It has retained all of its power, and its message matters now more than ever. It hired Edwin Zane, then the vice president of the group Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as a consultant to make sure everything from costuming to character drawing to art style was done in a sensitive manner. Japanese anime and manga were also a huge source of inspiration, as is obvious from the expressive facial illustration of popular Japanese shows like Astro Boy and Dragon Ball Z.
There are also numerous parallels to the art style and philosophical core of the classic films of Hayao Miyazaki, like Princess Mononoke. We completely reworked the art so that it would be more broadly inspired. Each bending style is derived from a specific Chinese martial art, and the culture of each nation takes cues from the the physical embodiment of the element, along with inspiration from existing real-world cultures.
For example, the Water Tribe is based off of Inuit and Sireniki cultures and its bending style was modeled after Tai Chi. These nuances add a layer to the fight scenes: Aang is evasive and light on foot, never attacking and always dodging; Katara keeps a pouch of water like a fanny pack, which she uses as a whip, ice daggers, or even for healing; and Zuko, especially early on, bends fire with evident rage.
After the success of season one, Nickelodeon ordered exactly two more, according to a documentary about the series. This meant that the story could be tightly plotted right up until a planned ending, and the creative team knew how many episodes they had to explore their characters.
Often that was done by focusing on the emotions of the core cast as they process these events. The third episode shows Aang witnessing, firsthand, the death of his entire culture of Air Nomads at the hand of the Fire Nation.
In flashbacks we are whisked to memories of Gyatso treating Aang like a son, and shielding him from his duty as the avatar. We learn that Aang ran away. Through doing this, you build a story with incredible impact to a young person that also sticks with them as they grow older. Because what we wrote is still true.
The Last Airbender is remarkable for its subtle depictions of how power corrupts and how inequality poisons everything. Fire Nation tyranny is depicted from the perspective of victims, but also from the perspective of Fire Nation children being brainwashed in school. Viewers are exposed to the inequalities within the walls of Ba Sing Se, the most powerful Earth Kingdom city, which is home to refugees and one of the last strongholds against the Fire Nation.
The city is formed of ringed walls, with royalty in the middle and the poor in outer slums that the king has never visited. Peace is maintained by a secret military order called the Dai Li, who brainwash citizens and treat the king as a figurehead. As the show goes on, it reveals itself to be a critique of imperialism as the core cast travels to town after town devastated in different ways by the Fire Nation.
And in the season one finale, Fire Nation Admiral Zhao is so zealous he even kills the moon spirit, ridding the world of the moon the source of waterbenders' power in his imperialist quest to capture the Northern Water Tribe. The show uses war to expose the impacts of intergenerational trauma and the toxicities of revenge, especially the ways that the cycle of violence hurts the innocent. A waterbending prisoner of war develops bloodbending as a way to release herself from prison—then uses it to kidnap innocent Fire Nation villagers as a form of retribution.
The vigilante fighter Jet attempts to drown a whole town of innocent Fire Nation villagers to avenge the parents he lost in a Fire Nation raid. Notably, Katara declines to take down the man who killed her mother, sending a very powerful message at the end of the third season about breaking the cycle.
The Last Airbender managed to do what so few shows even today have: Assemble a cast of characters that depicts the world as it is, with a range of identities and experiences, including, for instance, Teo, a paraplegic Earth Kingdom boy.
It was subtle. We wanted to see real characters who were not all cookie-cutter, characters who were different and had real vulnerability and incredible strengths, and who embraced both.
That spirit of inclusion has helped the show stay relevant, with new fans discovering it after it had gone off the air. I got to work with a great group of people, and to be this rugged, fearless, brutally genuine earthbender. Almost every character is given a redemption arc, or a chance to prove their strength in times of adversity.
Katara masters waterbending, Sokka masters sword fighting, and Toph invents metalbending, despite all being underestimated in various ways. When Aang fails to master the Avatar State because he goes to rescue Katara, Iroh reassures him that picking love and friendship was the right decision—that love trumps access to immense power. And, of course, Zuko finds acceptance with his uncle and with Team Avatar despite his horrible past mistakes, helping to heal the history of bad will between the firelord and avatar of the previous generation.
Importantly, in each of these cases, though the marginalized are the ones fighting for their rights, actual reparations are incumbent upon the one who did wrong. Princess Azula is a complete and utter sociopath. Firelord Sozin Ozai's father and Zuko's grandfather is so blinded by ego and greed that he launches a war, betraying his dear friend Avatar Roku.
And Firelord Ozai gives his son a permanent scar before banishing him. This is a great lesson to carry with us, and a lesson that is especially important to teach young people—it's those who are complicit in injustice who must work the hardest to end it, and the oppressed must do their best not to spread their traumas onto the next generation. Those are heavy things to learn, but that type of optimism is critical now more than ever. Those kinds of relationships matter.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily. Follow Nicole Clark on Twitter. Jul 20 , pm. Still via Nickelodeon. Zuko redirecting lightning shot at him by his father. Katara battling a waterbending master at the Northern Water Tribe.