Fantasy League Round 10: A Better Avatar
There was a beautiful but terrible film with a bunch of blue aliens. I am not going to talk about that one any more. There was also a live-action film with the same characters, but that’s not it, either.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a surprisingly good animated television series. Some things were awesome. Some things… make me wonder what just happened. As ever, here there be spoilers.
(Also, Michael did some significant writing for this one, since he knows stuff about martial arts.)
Bending in Avatar refers to four (or five) different sets of related styles of Supernatural Martial Arts, themed around the four Hellenic Classical Elements – air, water, earth, and fire. The different societies in the Avatar world are based around primary use of one element: Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads (of whom Aang is the sole survivor for a long time). Despite the Hellenic division of the universe, the societies are predominately East-Asian themed: the Earth Kingdom is styled like classical China, the Fire Nation more like Meiji Japan, and the Air Nomads like Tibetan/Nepali Buddhists. The Water Tribes are a bit stranger: predominately Yupik/Aleut/Inuit, but a group in the equatorial swamp was greatly divergent.
One of the most fun things about bending, and why Rachel asked me to write this section, is how it is animated. The different elements are each associated with different real-life martial arts styles: water bending is based on various forms of tai chi (lots of redirection of motion), air bending on the less-well-known bāguàzhǎng (which focuses on evasion and smooth motions), fire bending on Northern Shaolin (emphasis on straight-line strikes), and earth bending on Hung Ga and related styles (deep solid stances). Like real-life martial arts, there are local variations in each style. This extends down to the level of individual characters, determined by their particular skills and who they were taught by. This is most prominent in the main characters and antagonists, but even bit characters get stylistic touches – some of the Earth benders incorporate American wrestling moves. Also like real-life martial arts, the techniques of bending aren’t restricted to humans. Some animals use them as well. Most prominently, there are flying bison, which stay airborne by air bending. Aang has one, Appa, as his companion. Appa is also the Gaang’s transportation (you see him above in the background).
The next cool thing is how bending is often exploited for mundane utility – water benders can do interesting healing tricks and build cities out of icebergs, the air benders had a global society based around towns that could only be accessed by flying, earth bending powers trains and heavy construction, fire bending becomes the basis of external combustion engines. These interlocking uses of magical and mundane technologies are reflected in relatively high life-expectancy and quality-of-life for human cultures that we would otherwise consider to be just at the edge of the industrial revolution (that and bending is apparently good for physical fitness).
The writers also made an effort to ensure competitive balance. Bending is only so capable (with the exception of the Avatars, who can move large islands around). Non-bending characters can equal or exceed what benders alone can do, either by engineering – such as The Mechanist, who builds gliders and dirigibles – or by subterfuge or by appropriate application of non-magical skill. The last sees the most air time in the show: super-accurate sword experts who can defeat all but the most powerful benders, knife-throwing to pin people in positions they can’t bend from, metal fans to wave fire bender flames out of the way, nerve strikes that temporarily paralyze and block bending. The last is a bit of a stretch for mundane martial arts, and is described as “chi-blocking”, so perhaps it counts as a fifth sort of bending.
There are a couple of problems with how bending is implemented. The most obvious is this: why is the Avatar the only one who can use more than one element? This gets into the Hindu concept of an Avatar as a reincarnating personification of universal power and the idea of bodhisattvas in some Buddhist schools, but just by itself it doesn’t make much sense. Zoku’s uncle Iroh (who is an awesome character) studied with water benders and incorporated some of their skills into his fire bending, although he did not learn how to bend water himself. But he did learn how to deflect lightning. Toph, the short Earth-bender punching things above, figures out how to bend metal. The background material explains that some people born in one nation are able to bend the theme element of another nation and not that of their own (which means that Aang will not be the last airbender forever). They usually immigrate or remain untrained and unable to use their power effectively. But why aren’t there any double-element or triple-element benders around?
The second problem is cultural. Why have the nations segregated themselves? Why don’t we have a more integrated society with air benders carrying the mail and other high-speed packages and working search-and-rescue; water benders handling hospitals and ocean freight; earth benders doing construction and land freight; and fire benders dominating large sections of manufacturing and the restaurant industry? Some of that could be justified historically, but given that the Avatars and the Four Nations have explicitly been around for over a thousand years, more cultural blending would be expected for the economics to be completely consistent. Related to the economics: in the Avatar world, both bending and mundane martial arts skill are egalitarian. The main Gaang has two young women and three young men, but the ratio becomes three to three when the recurring character Suki joins the group during the last few episodes. Several of the most dangerous antagonists are also women. Given this, why are the political and military leaderships of Fire, Earth, and Water still so male-dominated? Air was apparently more egalitarian, but everyone but Aang is dead during the series. We’ve touched on this problem before.
But even given those problems, Avatar still wins at world building in comparison to many other works, especially relative to other shows intended primarily for a young audience.
Character Development is Made of Win
I’m particularly impressed with how well the characters were developed. For instance, Sokka, the kid with brains but no bending, is appropriately snarky, but occasionally frustrated by lacking the raw power of his friends. He gradually transitions from being very goofy to having a more serious mien — though he never loses the sense of humor. Toph’s frustration with her parents and her desire for independence, which causes friction with the group, also work well. Even some of the minor characters have consistent appearance. The most entertaining is the guy trying to sell cabbages… and whose cabbages keep getting destroyed in various unfortunate ways. The appearance of airships is also nicely foreshadowed.
Zuko is particularly impressive. Over the course of the series, he transitions (with the mentorship of his uncle Iroh) from a teenager desperate to earn back his honor and his father’s love by capturing the Avatar to working against his father to save the world. There are a lot of bumps in the road, and I think it does a good job of illustrating the blurry line between good and evil. He shows both kindness and anger towards others in his travels. We learn he was loved by his mother, abused by his father, and constantly in conflict with his sister. He shows considerable internal conflict about changing sides, and has the appropriately rough reception when he presents the other kids with his change of heart. It takes all of the first two seasons and part of the third in order for him to get there. The rapid heel face turns we often see in movies always strike me as a bit… difficult to swallow. This more gradually transition is much easier to accept.
Wait, How Old Are These Kids?
Now, for the head-scratchers. While our heroes were developing mentally, there was a certain lack of physical growth.
Perhaps this makes sense for Aang — after all, he was twelve when he got stuck in the glacier, so maybe his growth has been permanently stunted by the experience. (Apparently this is actually canon, though it isn’t mentioned in the series.) On the other hand, there’s no such excuse for the other characters. Zuko may be done growing, but Sokka, Katara and Toph all start the series at around the age when they should be having a growth spurt. So, why does Sokka stay so much shorter than his dad for the whole series? Why does Toph, the youngest, stay so short relative to the other kids?
<michael>Related problem: the main character’s ages. Aang is physically 12-13 during the series; Toph is younger; Katara, Sokka, and Zuko somewhat older. But a lot happens during what is supposedly 12 months – crisscrossing the admittedly-small map many times, sieges and battles, near-death injuries and recoveries from them, lots of character development and changes in relationships, and Aang re-learning and mastering three styles of martial arts. This is all too fast. He learns fire bending last, but even so three weeks is simply not enough time to master a new set of motions. If the series had progressed in near-real-time, covering three or four years in-universe during its original run, things would have worked better. That would also have made the romantic sub-plots between Aang and Katara and Sokka and Suki more realistic, but would have made the lack of height changes more severe.</michael>
I See Dead People
This is okay, except that in their various adventures and battles against the Fire Nation, it really looks like our heroes have almost certainly killed some — but act as though they haven’t. Were there really no deaths in the Fire Nation ships you guys smacked, or the various fights against their soldiers, or when Aang went into Avatar super-powered mode at the North Pole, or when you assaulted the Fire Nation’s capital – smashing fortifications and tossing bombs into guard towers? Really?
Thus, it comes across as very strange when Aang has severe reticence against killing the Fire Lord after confronting him. He even says explicitly that he has never killed anyone before… when that is unlikely to be true, especially given the North Pole nastiness. Perhaps he means “deliberately” killed someone? It just doesn’t quite fit.
And that makes the ending all the more jarring. Where did that giant lion-turtle come from? Sure, they got a mention a time or two earlier in the story, but the sudden appearance of energy-bending (“bending each other”) really feels like a deus ex machina so that Aang can just de-power Fire Lord Ozai instead of killing him. It really feels like it came out of nowhere, especially since much of the discussion of plans earlier in the story focused on killing or defeating the Fire Lord.
This would have been much better if the ability to bend the energy of people had been mentioned… well, pretty much anywhere earlier in the story. Some sort of interesting ancient legend from before there was an avatar, for instance. That would have made this seem a bit less like a last-minute tweak to avoid having to kill a bad guy on-screen.
<michael>I propose that the mystic-energy-powered water bending healing and the chi-blocking nerve strikes were intended to be weaker derivatives of the energy-bending techniques, but that could have been better developed. Tougher problem: was permanently de-powering Ozai actually necessary to ensure he would not pose a threat in the future? If not, was it justified to do so? When is it ethical to invade someone’s mind/brain and rip out the parts that let them do something extraordinary? And what else can energy-bending do?</michael>