It’s been 13 years since the beginning of the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender television series. Since then, the popular show has spurred the creation of numerous graphic novels, a sequel animated series, The Legend of Korra, and a 2010 live-action film. Young adults who grew up watching the show, as well as new fans, continue to show an intense devotion to the ever-unfolding world of Avatar. Recently, Netflix announced they will be releasing a new live-action Avatar series next year. At the moment, it doesn’t look like Aang and his friends will be going anywhere soon. With so much love and popularity surrounding Avatar and its many spin-offs, it’s pretty reasonable to ask why? What made (and makes) the world of Avatar so special? Why do people, years after its last episode, still watch it?
There are tons of reasons why Avatar: The Last Airbender succeeded, both critically and economically. For this list, we’re focusing on the long list of villains that push Avatar from typical animated kids’ show to something a little darker. These villains play huge roles in the series, with many of them “converting” and becoming protagonists instead of antagonists. Unlike a lot of animated shows, the villains in the world of Avatar don’t lack complexity or pure power. These villains are a lot scarier than anything from Bikini Bottom. CBR is counting down the top 20 most powerful villains from the Avatar universe. In this list, we’re including characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and the accompanying graphic novels.
Jet is the kind of character who always has good intentions but never knows how to act on them. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, he’s a member of a refugee Earth Kingdom group called the Freedom Fighters. The ragtag bunch of kids use their smarts and found weapons to fight the Fire Nation in any way they can.
Team Avatar thinks Jet and the Freedom Fighters are doing good... at first. As time goes by, Sokka discovers that Jet’s anger at the Fire Nation has caused him to hurt innocents. That’s when Jet’s character crosses over from hero to villain (or, at least anti-hero). Jet isn’t a bender, but he’s an expert swordsman and a charismatic leader.
19 TY LEE
It’s a little hard to call Ty Lee a villain since, in the last season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, she becomes a Kyoshi Warrior and stops fighting for the Fire Nation. Still, in the second season (and part of the third) she’s a frequent foe for Team Avatar. Her character went to grade school with Azula and later went on to become an acrobat in the Fire Nation circus. There, she learned how to be an agile and quick fighter.
Somewhere along the way, Ty Lee also discovered how to chi block, allowing her to temporarily block a bender’s powers via paralyzation. Ty Lee is a formidable fighter, but her personality keeps her from being much worse.
18 HIROSHI SATO
In Legend of Korra, the fight between benders and nonbenders stretched to every facet of life in Republic City, including the popular Satomobile. The genius industrialist, Hiroshi Sato, invented the world’s first car and quickly became a household name in the Avatar universe. But, his public image was very different from his private one. Hiroshi proved to be an undercover Equalist, with an ingrained hatred for benders.
For years, Hiroshi had been creating and giving weapons to the Equalist effort. Were it not for him, the mecha tanks and electrified gloves that made the Equalists so powerful would not have existed.
We don’t see a lot of Ming-Hua in season three of Legend of Korra, but what we do see is extremely impressive. Ming-Hua is an armless waterbender who uses water tentacles to supplement her disability. While she may seem less able because of her disability, Ming-Hua is easily one of the most powerful waterbenders in the Avatar universe. Her water tentacles are super strong and can be used as makeshift cables to facilitate fast movement.
Before her demise via Mako’s lightning bending, Ming-Hua was a member of the Red Lotus and was bent on capturing the Avatar. While ultimately unsuccessful, Ming-Hua proved herself a worthy opponent when she beat the Avatar’s waterbending daughter Kya.
A very select group of waterbenders are capable of a creepy (but useful) version of waterbending called bloodbending. Some waterbenders can use their bending to move the water particles located in blood. This allows them to manipulate the bodies of humans and animals. Hama, who’s only seen in one episode of Avatar, was the first waterbender to use this unique skill.
She developed the technique while imprisoned in the Fire Nation and subsequently used it to escape. After that, she pledged to use her bloodbending to battle the Fire Nation. However, Hama has a big weakness: timing. She can only bloodbend during a full moon, which is when her waterbending is at its strongest.
In the world of Avatar, power usually comes from one of two places: bending or politics. So much of Avatar: The Last Airbender is about how political power can rival the more traditional power of bending. General Zhao was a strong firebender, but most of his power came from playing the political world as well.
As leader of the Fire Nation Navy, Zhao had hundreds of ships and thousands of soldiers at his command. He was politically very savvy and almost pulled off a monumental siege on the Northern Water Tribe. Wanting to rid the world of waterbending, Zhao killed the moon spirit and was subsequently banished to the Fog of Lost Souls in the Spirit World.
Tokuga never made an on-screen appearance in the world of Avatar, but he did appear in the recent Legend of Korra graphic novel series, Turf Wars. He's a talented mobster who finds himself severely deformed after an altercation with a dragon eel spirit. The fight left him with a hybrid of human and spirit physical features. While unsightly, the spirit features, which include a tentacle arm, make him stronger, faster, and an all around better fighter.
As the leader of the Triple Threat Triad, Tokuga has a lot of political power in Republic City. He is also trained in the art of chi-blocking, which temporarily removes a bender’s powers. Throughout Turf Wars, his cleverness and skills keep him a step ahead of the Avatar.
Hamma was a good bloodbender, but her abilities fall short when compared to the waterbending (and bloodbending) master from Legend of Korra, Tarrlok. When we first meet Tarrlok, he seems like the typical snarky politician. His position as representative for the Northern Water Tribe on the United Republic Council gave him a huge ego that, over numerous episodes, proved to be more dangerous than anyone could have assumed.
He uses waterbending and manipulation to get just about everything he wants. From capturing Korra to controlling the entire United Republic Council, nothing is out of reach for the crooked politician -- not even bloodbending.
12 COMBUSTION MAN
There are numerous characters in the Avatar universe who are considerably more powerful than the firebending assassin known (thanks to Sokka) as Combustion Man. Still, there aren’t many who are scarier than this guy, who uses a third eye tattoo to make things explode. Somehow, he channels his firebending abilities through this tattoo, which allows him to cause massive, and very targeted, explosions.
He almost kills Aang three times, until finally, the group discovers his only weakness: his third eye. By throwing his boomerang at Combustion Man’s tattoo, Sokka blocks the assassin's chi and causes a point-blank explosion that instantly kills the powerful firebender.
11 LONG FENG
Like General Zhao, most of Long Feng’s power comes from his political status -- not his bending. For years, Long Feng was the Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and the leader of the secretive Dai Li. While the rest of the world fought the Hundred Years War, Long Feng kept the king and the people of Ba Sing Se blissfully ignorant of the violence so that he could instil his own rule on the massive city.
Long Feng was a master earthbender and was just as talented as the trained Dai Li assassins. Still, his real power came from the hold he had on the Earth Kingdom City. Nothing happened in Ba Sing Se without Long Feng knowing about it.
Is Zuko really a bad guy? During the last season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the clear answer is no, but during the first season, it’s a lot more complicated. When we first see Prince Zuko, he’s trying to hunt down the Avatar so he can return to the Fire Nation. He seems pretty villainous, but we later learn that his motives of family acceptance and love were pretty pure.
Zuko isn’t as powerful a firebender as his father or his sister, but that doesn’t mean he’s helpless. His powers grow considerably throughout Avatar, and by the end, he’s able to redirect lightning and create huge walls of flames. He’s also an expert swordsman, specializing in duel swordplay.
9 WAN SHI TONG
In the world of Avatar, there aren’t any typical “gods”. Instead, there are spirits, with varying appearances and skills. If there were gods, Wan Shi Tong would undoubtedly be one of them. The giant owl spirit collects information for his elusive “Spirit Library” thus making him the most knowledgeable being in existence. His age is unknown, but it’s assumed that he’s been around for thousands of years. Like a lot of spirits, Wan Shi Tong can take on a multitude of different physical characteristics, though he seems to prefer those of a barn owl.
Characters in both Avatar and Legend of Korra find themselves going head-to-head with this ancient spirit. In the end, it’s typically his massive ego that allows Team Avatar to escape relatively unharmed.
In the world of Avatar, you never want to mess with spirits. Sure, they can be cute and adorable when they want to be, but they can also be pretty scary. Although he only appears in a few episodes, Koh is probably the most memorable spirit in Avatar: The Last Airbender. His centipede-like body and propensity for stealing faces is kind of hard to forget (even if you want to).
Koh is an ancient spirit, with thousands of years of knowledge at his disposal. For Team Avatar, he proves to be a vital resource. But, his knowledge comes at a price. If he catches you making any expression when you’re in his presence, he can steal your face.
Every rebellion needs a leader, and for the bender-hating Equalists, it was Noatak, aka Amon. Appearing in the first season of Legend of Korra, Amon was a mysterious dissenter with the capability of removing a bender’s abilities for good. Most anyone can learn chi-blocking, but the effects are always temporary. Once Amon began showcasing this unique talent, benders began to get scared.
At the end of the season, viewers discover that Amon, ever the master of manipulation, was a waterbender all along. He had been using an extreme version of bloodbending to strip benders of their powers. Since Amon was an incredibly nimble fighter and one of the best bloodbenders in the world, he didn’t need to use typical waterbending to win fights.
On the surface, Unalaq seemed like a pretty nice guy. His relation to Korra and his position as chief of the Northern Water Tribe made him seem harmless. He won the Avatar’s favor in season two of Legend of Korra by promising his niece in-depth knowledge of the Spirit World.
And then we found out about his real plans. Unalaq’s obsession with the Spirit World and with gaining the evil Vaatu’s powers makes him into a monster. Even before merging with Vaatu and becoming the powerful Dark Avatar, Unalaq was a superior water bender and spirit bender. After he became the Dark Avatar, he was almost unstoppable.
Kuvira is the main villain of the fourth and final season of Legend of Korra. Originally, the character was a prominent member of Suyin’s Metal Clan, but after Earth Queen Hou-Ting's assassination, Kuvira decided to take advantage of the dissolved kingdom and create her own. Her natural leadership skills helped her unite the various Earth Kingdom villages under a new title: the Earth Empire.
While her political skills are astounding, her earthbending prowess might be even more so. She was able to hold her own against Korra in a one-on-one fight and has shown numerous times to be one of the best metalbenders on Earth.
From a young age, Azula was hailed by her father, Firelord Ozai, as a true firebending prodigy. Her skills and creativity in firebending only grew as she got older, and by the time we see her in Avatar: The Last Airbender, she’s one of the best in the world. Her ability to create blue flames and easily wield lightning at only 14 is not to be underestimated.
As the ruthless princess of the Fire Nation, Azula also has many political skills that make her very dangerous. She easily manipulates the leader of the Dai Li, Long Feng, and becomes the Earth Queen. However, in the end, it’s her lust for power that ultimately leads to her downfall.
In the world of Avatar, there are two “main” spirits: Raava and Vaatu. Raava is the spirit of light and it’s her power that fuels the Avatar. Alternatively, Vaatu is the spirit of chaos and darkness. He has the capability of fueling a Dark Avatar.
If Wan Shi Tong is a “god” than Vaatu is a titan. Vaatu and Raava represent the constant battle taking place between good and evil. In season two of Legend of Korra, he almost wins after becoming the Dark Avatar spirit. Vaatu’s powers come from chaos and anarchy, which he feeds off of. The more chaos in the world, the stronger he is.
Zaheer appears in the third season of Legend of Korra and quickly becomes one of the Avatar’s fiercest opponents. The Red Lotus member and airbending master was unlike any villain she had faced before. His obsession with anarchy motivated his search for Korra, who he planned on killing while in the Avatar state, thus ending the Avatar cycle for good.
Zaheer is extremely intelligent and has years of combat experience thanks to his time as leader of the Red Lotus. Though a fairly new airbender, Zaheer easily unlocked the ability to fly -- something only one other airbender has ever done. Zaheer is also well-versed in the knowledge of the Spirit World and can cross in and out of the mystical realm.
1 FIRELORD OZAI
The only reason there’s any plot in Avatar: The Last Airbender is because of a little-known firebender king named Ozai. In terms of power, we’re pretty sure Vaatu or Zaheer could take down Ozai, but in terms of political power and manipulation skills, Firelord Ozai has everyone beat. He didn’t start the Hundred Years War, but the powerful firebender pushed the imperial Fire Nation’s borders further than they had ever gone.
Still, that’s not to say his firebending skills were sub-par. When he was Firelord, Ozai was probably the most powerful firebender in existence. In the end, Aang removed his bending, but not before a long and difficult fight. Ozai very nearly defeated Aang after showing numerous unparalleled styles of firebending.