Nickelodeon's Experiment

The first time I saw the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was sitting in a friend’s closet. The floor was a mess, with clothes and toys strewn all about. It had rained almost constantly since morning, so the lot of us had stayed inside for most of the day. I was ten, and the show captivated me. That feeling stuck with me until roughly six years later when I sat down to watch the series from beginning to end. Even at sixteen, I still loved the show. Love the show, I should say — present tense, not past.

Looking back, I couldn’t possibly pick one trait and hold it on high as the single reason I watched every single episode. The action, the story, the characters themselves, or the animation alone didn’t do it; the unique combination of these and many other traits did, however, and left me thirsty for more when the series ended after just sixty-one episodes. Thankfully, the two-hour finale did not mark the demise of the Avatar franchise, nor did the disaster of a movie released in 2010. The live action adaptation of the popular cartoon titled The Last Airbender, making use of the show’s name recognition and fanbase, attained box office success. However, for its blatant disregard of even the most basic original story elements, few regard it as anything but a failure and a huge disappointment. In 2012, four years after The Last Airbender ended and two years following the live-action misnomer, Avatar: The Legend of Korra premiered. Initially set for a a limited run of twelve episodes, Nickelodeon quickly expanded the series to fifty-two episodes divided in to four books, much like the prequel. The Legend of Korra attracted the largest audience for an animated series in the U.S. last year, continuing The Last Airbender's impressive trend of widespread acclaim.

In stark contrast to nearly every other American animated series of the last twenty years, Nickelodeon of all companies brought amazing fit and finish back to the once-proud American animation first with The Last Airbender and then later with its sequel, The Legend of Korra. Both installments featured drawings and character designs heavily influenced by Japanese animators, giving each season a unique look on the American television scene. The show also received great praise for dealing with difficult sociopolitical issues such as war, industrial expansion, nationalism, terrorism, inequality, complex governments, and civil unrest in the context of such a young target audience, along with more germane issues like broken families, depression, and love. Especially surprising given its production of many second-rate cartoons in the recent past, Nickelodeon’s experiment proved a massive success due to the previously- and since-unseen combination of these and many other fantastic elements.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the opening sequence introduces bending and reveals the world’s geography before chronicling the Fire Nation’s brutal rise to power. A highly industrialized and very prosperous country, many similarities exist between the Fire Nation and Germany circa 1940. Eager to expand his power Hitler, not unlike Fire Lord Sozin, set in to motion the events leading up to World War II with the invasion of Poland, whereas Sozin sparked the One Hundred Years War with the genocide of the Air Nomads. A highly spiritual people devoted to living simply and in harmony with nature, the systematic extermination of the Air Nomads prompted the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom to declare war upon the Fire Nation, just as Hitler’s continued aggression and daily horrors finally prompted Britain, Russia, and eventually America to join forces Germany.

While the Earth Kingdom, as the second world power, did possess sufficient forces to openly challenge the Fire Nation, a lack of political unity and a misguided sense of security afforded them by the large, seemingly-impregnable stone walls surrounding the capital city — very similar to the reasons American refused to enter World War II until quite late in the conflict — made them weak and their influence on the war’s outcome negligible. The Water Tribes, on the other hand, entered the war woefully unprepared, and suffered greatly for it. Like the Native American Indians facing American expansion in the West, no amount of bravery and courage could stand in the face of such a technologically-advanced and merciless foe; the Southern Water Tribe was the first nation to fall.

Led by a power-crazed ruler the Fire Nation, like the highly-militarized Germany of World War II under the the autocratic rule of Hitler, expanded its influence in an ill-waged war. Without the Avatar to restore balance, the fighting plunged the world in to chaos for more than one hundred years. Herein lie some of the most interesting historical threads present in Avatar: The Last Airbender; however, they are by no means the only ones. In the Earth Kingdom’s Dai Li, for example, we find a cautionary tale of secret police, political intrigue, treachery, and greed as if taken from the pages of history itself.

Using the background of The Last Airbender as a jumping-off point, The Legend of Korra took place seventy years after the previous series ended in the newly-formed Republic City, capital of the United Republic of Nations. Established after the end of the Hundred Year War by Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang, the United Republic of Nations existed as a sovereign entity where benders and non-benders of all nationalities could live together in peace. Because of its setting in Republic City rather than the world of four distinctly separate nations, The Legend of Korra featured a very different set of political and emotional undertones than The Last Airbender.

Described as “if Manhattan had happened in Asia” and “the Roaring ‘20s with an Asian twist”, Republic City faced many of the same challenges large metropolises like Manhattan faced in the early twentieth century. Namely, corruption, inequality, and civil unrest. Playing to these emotions, the series’ main villain Amon attempted to seize control of the city in a violent power play that nearly destroyed it, not unlike the tactics the likes of Julius Caesar employed to steal control of Rome from the Senate. Through this adventure The Legend of Korra's writers addressed the politically-charged topic of terrorism along with class inequality and civil unrest, and received much praise for doing so.

In addition to the complex subjects of war, classism, and civil unrest, the writers of the Avatar series also dealt with a number of other controversial topics in a novel way, including death: rather than something to avoid at all costs, it became a key plot element. Death’s general absence from the series made the few episodes in which it did appear remarkably impactful, especially in The Legend of Korra. After Tarlock used false charges to imprison Avatar Korra’s friends, she demanded their release; he refused, and a particularly fierce battle broke out in which Korra quickly gained the upper hand. In order to save himself, Tarlock revealed his ability to bloodbend in a desperate last-ditch maneuver to stay Korra’s deadly onslaught. Implicitly emphasized in this scene, Tarlock’s brief brush with death proved his last. Later in the series, after Korra revealed Amon’s true identity as a waterbender, he lost all support from the Equalist party. With no other options left, Amon freed his brother Tarlock and the pair made their escape on a speed boat. Feeling great remorse over both his and his brother’s actions though, Tarlock used one of Amon’s own weapons to ignite the boat’s gas tanks in a stunning murder-suicide off the coast of Republic City. The one and only barefaced encounter with death in the entire season, this was one of the strongest scenes in The Legend of Korra and possibly the entire Avatar series.

Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra received well-deserved and widespread praise for the superficial elements of the shows. Behind the superb animation, excellent sound design, and a wonderfully engaging plot, even more praiseworthy elements existed though, elements not apparent at first glance but nevertheless incredibly important. These key elements took the show from mediocre to extraordinary, earning these two series a place among the greatest animations to come from America in more than a decade.