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?