The relevance of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ and the wars we’re fighting now

Spoiler level: mild

A ragtag group of kids, some with special powers, one especially powerful, try to fight the forces of evil. Sounds like I could have described any other plot of any other film, or TV show.

Except Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) draws inspiration from places closer to home, ones not seen on Nickelodeon, especially not when it aired in 2005. The world of ATLA is divided into four nations of the four classical elements — water, earth, fire, and air. The Northern and Southern water tribes are inspired by Inuit culture, the seat of the Earth Kingdom practically a photocopy of China’s Forbidden City, the Fire Nation harks back to the Japanese empire, and the Air Nomads remind one of Buddhist temples in Timbuktu. Each nation is populated by benders, people gifted with the capacity to manipulate the elements of the nations they were born into. Even their bending movements are inspired by real martial arts, solidly grounding itself in cultures that are decidedly not Western. And it does so in a way that is respectful, revelatory, and earnest. Watching it for the first time as I grew up, it was gave me a taste of other cultures.

This is the world that gave birth to the Avatar 13 years ago, or the idea of him, anyway. The Avatar is reincarnated into every nation at the end of his or her lifetime (like the Dalai Lama!) and is the only person capable of mastering all four elements. The Avatar’s power is meant to restore harmony, balance, and peace among all four nations. This clarity of values is pretty refreshing once you start questioning what they’re fighting for in superhero films.

Avatar: The Last Airbender draws inspiration from places closer to home. Photo via Nickelodeon

Rewatching the show makes me think of the wars we’re fighting now. Older generations have often accused us for being spoiled, comfortable, and entitled because we haven’t known war. A good lot of us realize now how we’ve just been temporarily shielded from it growing up, the same way the Avatar woke up to a world full of suffering after his ill-timed 100-year-long Leave of Absence. War has always been happening — in Africa, the Middle East, even parts of South Asia. By 2018, the wars on and off our shores have become impossible to ignore. We even fight our own war here, the war against drugs, the war against the poor and the indigenous peoples, the war against democracy, liberty, and community.

 

As the shock of our helplessness pervades our everyday and our social media feeds, we understand how Aang and his gang must have felt at the beginning as they wake up to their responsibility of saving the world.

 

I can’t help but watch ATLA on Netflix with these lens. As the shock of our helplessness pervades our everyday and our social media feeds, we understand how Aang and his gang must have felt at the beginning as they wake up to their responsibility of saving the world. In three seasons of roughly 20 short episodes, we see this ragtag group fight against all odds. And I just think, rewatching the last hour-long episode for the third and fourth time — how the fuck do we win our war?

In the show the Avatar must quickly gain mastery of all four elements in a span of three months. To help Aang, his friends must quickly become masters, too. The bold truth that ATLA teaches us is that, just like Team Avatar at the beginning, we’re just a bunch of kids who don’t know shit. At which point I — and you too, dear reader— ask myself: how have we been arming ourselves to fight against the wars committed against the last, the lost, and the least?

 

The bold truth that ATLA teaches us is that, just like Team Avatar at the beginning, we’re just a bunch of kids who don’t know shit. At which point I — and you too, dear reader— ask myself: how have we been arming ourselves to fight against the wars committed against the last, the lost, and the least?

 

Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and even Zuko’s journey truly began the moment they took responsibility for their lives, and owned up to what they owed the world. All their efforts are thrown behind gaining mastery: over themselves and over their gifts, so they can defeat evil and restore balance. Aang’s transformation and ownership of his role became so complete that by the end, he reimagines what it means to win a war.

Our whole lives we’ve been both coddled and disempowered, trained to be reliant on a system which cares for no one and caters only to the rich. Our version of the Fire Nation is running amok, making a mockery of our country as it sets aflame the comfort and peace we thought we once knew. Our intent to fight is there. But is the action? Are we gaining mastery over ourselves and our gifts enough to win a war?

 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is currently streaming on Netflix.

Tags:
#culture #politics #tv

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