After thinking about it for a long time, I’ve realized that Avatar: The Last Airbender is not as great as I thought it was. Here’s why:
1) Avatar: The Last Airbender is not violent enough. Let me explain. I believe that in order to do a story involving a hundred-year war and a genocide — of the airbenders — justice, there has got to be more violence. For example, the audience has to be shown, not told, that the Fire Nation is evil and must be stopped. Violence should never be gratuitous, but if used properly it can serve a purpose.
In this series about a hundred-year war and genocide, a dead body or liquid blood is never shown. (Aang is killed by Azula, and there is dried blood where she pierced him, but he is soon brought back to life by Katara. When I say “dead body,” I mean someone who was recently killed — I don’t mean someone who is brought back to life or is knocked unconscious or frozen, or a skeleton of someone dead for a hundred years.) To judge from what is actually shown, this war doesn’t seem too terrible. Sure villages and cities are destroyed and people are displaced, but there is a safe place they can go to — the capital of the Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se — and towns and cities can always be rebuilt. (And couldn’t the waterbenders in the North Pole use the water from the spirit oasis to bring all the dead back to life?) This is war as presented for kids. But war is never kid-friendly.
There are hints of the horrors of war — Katara and Sokka’s mother was killed by raiders, Iroh mourns the loss of his son, Jet and his band of freedom fighters are orphans because of the Fire Nation, and the son of an Earth Kingdom family is taken prisoner by the Fire Nation and forced to wear a Fire Nation uniform on the battlefield so that he will be mistaken for one of them. But it’s not enough. We do see wounded Earth Kingdom soldiers — “The lucky ones,” an Earth Kingdom general calls them. The general tells Aang that people in the Earth Kingdom are dying, but we’re being told that and not shown it. When it comes to portraying war, don’t water it down. Give war the portrayal that it needs, or else the people who are watching this series might walk away from it thinking, “You know, war is not that bad. It’s actually kind of fun.”
2) The romance between Aang and Katara was awkward. This becomes apparent in episode 17 of Book Three: Fire, “The Ember Island Players.” Now, on the one hand, Aang is worried that the Fire Lord will kill him — that his days are numbered — but on the other hand, Aang, you have your whole life ahead of you. Katara does not have to decide right now whether or not she wants to be with you for the rest of her life. Aang talking to Katara about their relationship makes him come across as an immature kid who is whining about not getting what he wants. At the end of the series Aang is thirteen and he’s already making out with her. (He was twelve at the beginning.)
3) I want more backstory on Aang. What was his life at the Southern Air Temple like? What was his relationship with his parents like? What was his relationship with the other airbenders like? We get two episodes (episode two of Book One: Water, “The Southern Air Temple” and episode twelve of Book One: Water, “The Storm”) to explore some of this, but it’s not enough.
4) What happens to Toph at the end of the series? At the end of the series everyone is with the love of their life or has achieved their goal(s), except her. It doesn’t seem like Toph got or achieved anything. (Toph rebelled against her parents by leaving home with Aang and his friends in order to teach Aang earthbending and see the world; eventually Toph is sad that she hurt her parents by doing that and she writes a letter to them presumably saying she is sorry, but we never hear a response or see them reconciling. She also invented metalbending, but she did that purely out of necessity — she did it to break out of a prison.) I thought she was undervalued in Aang’s group, too. At one point (in episode 11 of Book Three: Fire, “Day of Black Sun Part 2 – The Eclipse”), Sokka makes a joke at an inappropriate time about him being so glad they added Toph to the group; it seems like he, and everyone else in the series except Katara and Iroh, only values her for what she can do and not for who she is. The introduction of her character was like a breath of fresh air for the series; I hadn’t realized that I’d been getting tired of Katara and Sokka until Toph came along.
5) A person’s value in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender seems entirely dependent on what they can do and not, as a human being, that they are endowed with value. The series does acknowledge this possibility, though. In one episode (episode four of Book Three: Fire, “Sokka’s Master”) Sokka laments that since he can’t bend any of the elements he is of no use to the group. (Until he gains a skill — using a sword.) And in the first season of The Legend of Korra, a spin-off series of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a movement of people who can’t bend (called the Equalists) tries to bring equality to the world by getting rid of peoples’ bending ability, thus making everyone the same.
6) Aang doesn’t seem to grow much as a person. He is pretty much the same person at the end of the series as he was at the beginning. The only things that changed about him were that he learned to bend the other three elements and, over the course of one episode (episode 12 of Book One: Water, “The Storm”), he decided to take responsibility for the mistakes he made in the past and start acting like the avatar. Zuko had more character development than him.
7) Everyone believes in the spirit world. I guess it’s understandable, when spirits are staring you in the face. But I still find it hard to believe that everyone in this world believes in the exact same things. Where, for example, are the people who believe there are no spirits, or who believe in god(s) instead of in spirits? Those people don’t exist.