Why is Avatar: The Last Airbender still so popular? The creators and fans weigh in

Image: Avatar: The Last Airbender/Nickelodeon
Image: Avatar: The Last Airbender/Nickelodeon /

Avatar: The Last Airbender ended its run over a decade ago, but the animated epic has gained tons of new fans of late. Why has it aged so well?

Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated epic about a world where people can control — or “bend” — the four elements, ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon, and ended in 2008. The show is so good that people never really stopped talking about it, but it’s gone through a proper revival since debuting on Netflix not long ago, breaking records for the streaming service and inspiring new fans to do things like write their own Last Airbender musicals:

Just what is it about the show that’s made it so enduring? The Washington Post went right to the source. “In some ways, I’m surprised by how relevant the show still is to people, but in other ways, not at all,” said co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino. “The major issues in the stories — genocide, totalitarianism, systemic injustice, abuse — sadly, these have been pervasive issues throughout history and continue to be. The show is a reflection of our world. But now, we happen to be living through a time in which all these problems have been exacerbated.”

"I’m in awe and gratitude to all those courageous people out in the streets, making calls, speaking truth to power, and working to make this world a more just place. And if ‘ATLA’ had a tiny amount to do with that, I am humbled to say the least."

He’s not kidding; there have been people who have used The Last Airbender for inspiration when taking to the streets over the past several months to protest systemic racism. Avatar Kyoshi, one of the lead character’s past lives and a noted badass, was even seen on a few signs at protests:

The show works as a gripping fantasy yarn with excellent pacing and likable characters, but a lot of new fans do seem to be connecting with the underlying messages about toppling dictatorships and fighting against prejudice.

New fan Tanvi Yenna, 24, sees other parallels: “There’s very visceral connections to people being in denial of very concrete realities,” she said. “Things like police brutality and racism, but also the global pandemic. Even just the fear of talking about the war in Ba Sing Se reminded me of being gaslighted when you do wear a mask around [by people who don’t believe masks help the spread of the coronavirus, despite evidence to the contrary.]”

I think that’s a sign of a good show: that you can connect it to issue that weren’t part of the conversation when it was made, because the underpinnings are that solid. “The feedback we’ve gotten from parents over these many years is that this is a show they cannot only watch as a family, but also one that presents a solid set of ethics in an engaging way and helps them introduce difficult topics to their children,” said co-creator Bryan Konietzko. “The spirit of the show has always attracted a core group of fans who are compassionate toward their fellow humans and passionate about social issues.”

And all these new fans are coming along at a time when Netflix is mounting a live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, with DiMartino and Konietzko steering the ship. (Please pay no attention to that widely derided 2010 movie.) So if you haven’t taken the plunge, this could be the perfect time.

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