Representing heroism: Avatar: The Last Airbender

I’m a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. No, not the movie with the blue cat people. And definitely not that live-action monstrosity that prompted the creation of Racebending. I’m talking about the Nickelodeon cartoon that took place in a fantasy world that riffed heavily from Asian aesthetics and philosophy.

There’s a lot to love about this show. First of all, it’s just well-done. The design, animation, voice acting, and writing are all top-notch. I don’t recall a single episode that looked cheap or rushed. And, to top it off, this is a show aimed at kids, so they have to do all this without cursing, nudity, or graphic violence. I wish I could say the same for a lot of live-action TV shows aimed at adults.

What I enjoy most about Avatar: The Last Airbender is how it answers the question, “Who can be a hero?” by showing us a wide range of characters who are capable and admirable in different ways. In addition, it redefines heroism not in terms of who has the most power, but in terms of compassion, wisdom, loyalty, fortitude, courage, and other virtues. Each member of the Good Guy Team brings unique abilities and perspectives that prove crucial to the overall goal of promoting freedom and justice in the world.

Take Aang, for instance. Although he is the most powerful member of the group with a special destiny, this does not define him as a person, nor does his status as the Avatar automatically give him authority over his friends. More than “mystical mumbo-jumbo,” what defines Aang are his compassion, humor, cleverness, and playfulness. Ironically, Aang’s biggest impact comes not from what he does with his powers, but from how he interacts with people. Compared to other Chosen One characters, Aang spends a lot less time imposing his will on others (in fact, he is reluctant to do so) than he does listening, learning, and helping them. This is quite groundbreaking for a male character, as he has a sense of self that does not rely upon dominating others.

Contrast him with a more traditional hero like Neo from The Matrix, who is presented as the savior of humanity but lacks wisdom and compassion. This is a guy who is personally responsible for the deaths of dozens of humans still trapped in the Matrix (based on his actions in the first movie alone) not because they posed a direct threat, but because they: 1) were in the way of his immediate goal, or 2) could possibly, maybe, get possessed by an Agent. This is a hero too busy doing things because he can that he doesn’t think about doing what he should. If Neo were Palestinian, he would not be called a hero or a freedom fighter, but a terrorist. In fact, isn’t that how they label Morpheus at the beginning? Gee, I wonder if killing a bunch of regular people had anything to do with it.

But Aang, who is the embodiment of Phenomenal Cosmic Power(TM) in Avatar: The Last Airbender, has no desire to harm or kill Fire Lord Ozai. Could you imagine someone like Neo saying:

But he’s still a human being [...] I agree with you. Fire Lord Ozai is a horrible person, and the world would probably be better off without him, but there’s gotta be a better way. — Aang, Avatar: The Last Airbender

It’s this reverence for life and a search for a better way that not only provide Aang with the most opportunities for growth, but also reveals his true worth as a hero and a human being. Fire Lord Ozai is his enemy not because he works for Team Bad Guys, but because he values nothing but his own power, which he uses to oppress, dominate, corrupt, and destroy. Even so, Aang refuses to believe that the rulers of the Fire Nation are born bad or that evil is their destiny. Even at the moment of his confrontation with the Fire Lord, Aang gives Ozai the opportunity to turn away from tyranny and destruction. Near the end, he still cannot bring himself to kill Ozai and chooses the much riskier path of energybending.

This is very different from the heroic journey popularized by Joseph Campbell. The hero leaves home, goes on a quest, slays the dragon and gets the girl. The End. While Aang’s story doesn’t stray too far from that, the things he learns and teaches along the way are very different from what you’d come to expect from your average “rough, buff, save-the-world type” (thank you, Gwen). Aang doesn’t want power, glory, or wealth. Peace, happiness, love, and friendship mean a lot more to him. What does it say about our culture when a hero with a sense of life’s sacredness is unusual?

In America, we like our heroes to throw a few wisecracks while beating the shit out of a bunch of faceless bad guys. We like our heroes free from doubt, frailty, and suffering – in effect, free from everything that connects our heroes to the rest of humanity. They can ask questions, but never of themselves. They can be injured, but never wounded or handicapped. They can face loss, but never grieve. They can make mistakes, but never regret. If a hero is someone whom others should aspire to be, what does that say about us?

10 thoughts on “Representing heroism: Avatar: The Last Airbender

  1. You know that’s one thing I liked about manga compared to American comic books is that the characters are more human and diverse. I never got into Avatar mainly because I never watched the first episodes, but from what I seen that characters are well written and believable which American stories often lack.

  2. “If a hero is someone whom others should aspire to be, what does that say about us?”

    I don’t have the answer to that one, but it sure does bring up a lot of questions and makes me reexamine the things I like dearly, whether it causes me to like something less or more however, who knows.

    I really need to rewatch this show again. I remember watching it back in the past, but a lot of things about me has changed since then. I think I’ll be a tad bit more appreciative of it, to say the least.

  3. Absolutely spot on. The diversity of heroic characters is absolutely a strength of Avatar. It’s filled with flawed heroes that never stop embracing the heroic ideals that often get turned against them. Toph, the stubborn child stuck between privilege (from her family) and mistreatment (from the perception of her blindness) that nonetheless turns her back on everything she’s known for the sake of helping a near stranger. Sokka who absolutely embodies the ‘power isn’t everything’ ideal of the show by lacking any superhuman abilities but showing that determination, creativity, and intelligence can be just as powerful. Even Ozai (and Sozin, the firelord who started the war) have heroic traits and a motivation grounded at least in part by a wish for what they see as a better world. Of course this is undone by Ozai’s insanity in the end of the series but there are certainly some clear lines to be drawn showing how he got to that point. One of the largest of The Last Airbender’s (many) flaws is that it utterly scrapped the diversity of heroism in personality and behavior as well as race.

  4. “We like our heroes free from doubt, frailty, and suffering – in effect, free from everything that connects our heroes to the rest of humanity. They can ask questions, but never of themselves.”

    It’s because Heroism in America is tied to the ideals of “Masculinity.” To be more precise, the [Hyper]-Masculinity that was being promoted in the 1980s. All you need to do is look at any action film (or action/adventure show) of the time period with actors like Schwarzeneggar, Norris, Stallone, Eastwood, Bronson, (Harrison) Ford, and others. Also, American Heroism is tied up in Whiteness. That is why fandom goes global thermonuclear when someone thinks about making Wonder Woman Black or Spiderman Chinese, but only criticizes a black actor playing a white villain on the grounds of his lack of acting ability.

  5. “Contrast him with a more traditional hero like Neo from The Matrix, who is presented as the savior of humanity but lacks wisdom and compassion. This is a guy who is personally responsible for the deaths of dozens of humans still trapped in the Matrix (based on his actions in the first movie alone) not because they posed a direct threat, but because they: 1) were in the way of his immediate goal, or 2) could possibly, maybe, get possessed by an Agent. This is a hero too busy doing things because he can that he doesn’t think about doing what he should. If Neo were Palestinian, he would not be called a hero or a freedom fighter, but a terrorist. In fact, isn’t that how they label Morpheus at the beginning? Gee, I wonder if killing a bunch of regular people had anything to do with it.”

    That’s one of the first things I noticed too when I saw that film which really disturbed me because the Resistance essentially had the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality. If the audience didn’t know about the Matrix, they would’ve been no different than any other delusional sect of terrorists who plague society. Even with the Matrix, they still failed. It’s one thing for civilians to get caught in a crossfire, it’s another to kill people in cold blood.

    I suspect they caught heat on that because noticed, Neo and company went for wounds instead of kills in the sequels.

    Suffice to say I will be reposting this post to my blog.

    But I also want to say thank you. I’m still working on Empyrea and my lead protagonist Kieran is very similar to Aang and his storyarc is essentially what you discussed here in this piece. Reading this gave me direction and perspective on how to address some stumbling blocks.

    So I sincerely thank you.

    -Your Internet Husband

  6. A really thoughtful post, this was.

    I love love LOVE Avatar: The Last Airbender for all of its characters and wonderful awesomeness. Far from being stereotyped, it made a rich, wonderful world of fantasy that was based on Asian myths and cultures, which made it stand out all the more. It was so good. Toph was easily my favourite of the bunch for just being Toph. She was tough, powerful, and really hated being thought of as weak. It was also cool how her blindness was just a part of her but not what defined her, even as her parents tried to do as much to her.

    And much like many of the superheroes I love, Aang refused to kill, and he found a way to end Ozai’s rule without killing him.

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