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Avatar: The Last Airbender
and The Audience of a Modern Day Epic
It says a lot that a Nickelodeon cartoon managed to attract more than just the target audience of young boys between the ages of six and eleven. It says a lot that the cartoon was rooted in Eastern Mythology and oriental art. It says even more that Avatar: The Last Airbender was so widely recognized for its risky departure from the status quo.
The first chapter of Avatar aired in February of 2005 and the season continued through the year until being capped off in December. In the timespan of that year, Avatar gained a unique following for the Nickelodeon network. The story, characters, and beauty of the Avatar world entranced a plethora of demographics and ultimately cemented Avatar as an icon in pop culture.
The story of Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a fantastical world rooted in the cultures of our own. There's something about the topography of a new landscape that pulls people in. The audience is whisked away to a mythical land that they could only dream of. This kind of setting looks to have become a necessity for the modern epic in tales like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.
Avatar is unique in that this world is inspired primarily from the ideals and art of the east. The design of the protagonist's clothing is Tibetan, the fighting is choreographed using ancient martial arts like Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, the writing is mirrored from Chinese calligraphy, the themes of the show stress a balance with nature and nationalities, and the list goes on.
Even the term Avatar is a Hindu belief of a God descending into the mortal flesh, yet the story never falls into the common trap of becoming a metaphor for the cross. The tale is a familiar one, of a hero who must defeat the imperial force attempting to take over the world, but the unique setting puts that story in a new context unlike any before.
It's very important to note though that the characters in Avatar are quite young. Aang, the divine protagonist, is only twelve and still a child at heart. His friends and allies Katara and Sokka are only two and three years older. Zuko, the antagonist, is sixteen and full of teenage anger. Kids of all ages could relate to these characters, but there's a wide audience of young adults in their twenties as well as parents who found themselves turning in every friday night for new episodes.
Perhaps there's an aura of nostalgia to these young characters that attracted the twenties audience. Aang's innocent crush on Katara in the first season is a cute and honest look at the blushing infatuations we all had. Katara is a perfect example of how to write a strong, engaging female character in literature and she's probably the reason Avatar has so many female fans. Zuko, hell-bent on imprisoning the Avatar to restore his honor, represents a period in our lives when we were trying to find ourselves and our purpose. His Uncle is the force that loved and guided us through those times.
Maturer audiences probably also saw some of the contents of the show as anything but child-oriented. The consequences of war including death, oppression, and suffering are sprinkled throughout the first season. The Fire Nation, with their monstrous ironclads and samurai-like armor are a clear metaphor for Imperial Japan. With their main target in the first season being the oppression of China-based Earth Kingdom, it's easy to draw a comparison with World War 2 and the Rape of Nanking.
Older audiences were quick to spot reality in the storytelling of war. The implication of genocide is right in the title after all. The finale of the first season was a tour de force of vast battles and relationship struggles where two characters actually die. Storytelling like this was unprecedented for a show on Nickelodeon and is likely part of the reason so many found Avatar to be a story worth investing in.
Although there's war and brutality occurring across the mythical world; despite his culture being wiped off the face of the Earth; and now being pit against the unstoppable force of the Fire Nation, Aang manages to retain his childlike innocence. There's a strong power in the human spirit to find love and hope against all odds. Although there are themes written into the show like finding one's own destiny, breaking gender barriers, and repenting the pursuit of glory, the subtext of Avatar's first season is about finding beauty and fun in a war-torn world. It's this kind of honesty in its storytelling, that doesn't talk down to children or exclude the older crowd, that set the stage for Avatar: The Last Airbender to become the next great classic.