July 19 marks the 11th anniversary of the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The beloved animated series aired for just three seasons, yet even in the era of Game of Thrones era, Avatar remains a gold standard for fantasy storytelling. In fact, it's not merely one of the best pieces of animation, but one of the best fantasy epics, ever.
The premise, in the broadest of strokes, is fairly standard: An evil empire takes over, and the Chosen One and his band of friends must stop them. But Avatar is proof that a familiar concept can't be told in new ways. That's because, at every turn, Avatar does a terrific job at two things: subverting expectations and delivering satisfying pay-offs.
You may have rolled your eyes reading, "Avatar subverts expectations," and, if you watched the final episodes of Game of Thrones, that's certainly understandable. However, Avatar accomplishes that in an entirely different way.
One might think the plot would focus on Aang, who as the latest incarnation of the Avatar,is tasked with maintaining harmony, launching a war against the Fire Nation to save the world. But, no, Aang is inexperienced, doesn't want to fight, and, as we later learn, only survived because he tried to run away from his duties. The entire Season 2 arc in Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom, is a master class in how consistently subverting expectations can also be conducive to great storytelling.
These plot points work because they're more than narrative tricks; they function as well-seeded pay-off. If a character makes a choice -- any choice -- that choice should have consequences, big or small. In that regard, nothing in Avatar feels unimportant: Minor players are established only to later take on larger roles, and a character's personality traits help to propel the story.
Every character also has a defined arc. The series starts them off by establishing what they want, what they need, and what keeps them from immediately achieving those. For example, Aang needs to save the world, but he wants to live like a normal kid; what keeps him from both is the Fire Nation and its acts of aggression.
On the other hand, Zuko, estranged heir to the Fire Nation throne, needs to find value in his life, but what he wants is to regain his honor by capturing Aang, the Avatar. What keeps him from accomplishing both is a little more multi-faceted, as the heroes' efforts keep him from his goal, but his own pursuit of the characters keeps him from what he needs.
Even the more two-dimensional villain, Zuko' s younger sister Azula, still follows this simple but effective method of character development. That isn't to say things don't get messy, however. Zuko's arc isn't a straight line between angst-filled antagonist to redeemed hero. He makes mistakes with serious consequences, best evidenced by the Season 2 finale.
Another brilliant thing about Avatar is its settings. Most popular fantasy sagas, from The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, draw from European history and culture. Even Fullmetal Alchemist, arguably the only animated fantasy series that rivals Avatar in terms of a critical consensus on its quality, is based on Germany.
But Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were heavily influenced by Asian cultures. Obviously, the animation style is inspired by anime, but the culture and ethnicity of its cast are non-European cultures. The Water Tribes is based on Inuit society; the Earth Kingdom on China; the Fire Nation on Feudal Japan; and the Air Nomads on Shaolin monks. No other mainstream fantasy series has such a diverse main cast filled with non-Western characters.
What's terrific about that, however, is these societies aren't restricted to being mere copies of their real-world counterparts. Each society is uniquely developed, and has an established history. The series explores what life is like in each of the nations, and why Aang is the last of his kind.
Arguably the best example of world-building comes in Season 3, when we finally enter the Fire Nation. Audiences realize it's not populated by villains; it's made up of normal people who have been presented a false narrative about their world. In that regard, it's a painfully real representation of how real dictatorships function -- and in a children's program, no less. If you're told from birth, "These guys are evil," without any opposing viewpoints, you eventually will believe it.
In Avatar's successor, 2012's The Legend of Korra, audiences are also shown how this same world, in the span of a century, becomes so vastly different. We see the world evolve from generation to generation, as new technology and societal shifts alter the culture.
In regard to representation, however, it continues to excel by presenting canonically bisexual characters, which is still relatively uncommon in animation or fantasy, and particularly in a property aimed at younger viewers.
Because Aang's mission is to develop his powers, Avatar revolves heavily around its own distinctive magic system: bending. Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn series, wrote a famous essay about hard versus soft magic. Soft magic is, more or less, without rules, ethereal and enigmatic; by contrast, hard magic has structure. Sanderson argued that hard magic, by setting limits, established real tension because audiences understood conflicts couldn't just be solved by magical convenience.
Avatar takes that concept to the next level. Bending is dependent on physical capabilities, with trained members of a culture only able to manipulate, or bend, their corresponding element in certain ways. But, like all martial arts, it requires discipline and training. Aang, as the Avatar, tries to master all four elements, and serves as the perfect introduction for the audience to learn the magic system of each culture. As such, when the bending limitations are broken, it feels more rewarding, because viewers understand how it occurred, and the steps that brought the characters to that point.
A great example is when Toph, an earth bender, invents metal bending. By building up the rules of earth bending, the audience understands how monumental it is when Toph accomplishes what was previously thought impossible
Much like its titular Avatar, what makes the series so incredible is that it balances all of these essential elements perfectly. It's easy to see why, 11 years later, the series remains virtually unmatched.