Avatar: The Last Airbender has a scene that invokes the ethereal enchantment of a Studio Ghibli movie each time you see it. , the ex-crown prince of the imperial Fire country (voiced by the late Japanese American actor Mako), sits at the graveside of his son. His gruff voice slides in sorrow as he sings, “Leaves from the vine, falling so slowly, like fragile, small shells floating in the foam.”
As I was looking at it, I noticed my younger brother, a 27-year-old man who stood almost 6ft tall, sitting next to me. As Iroh’s death was felt, we both saw the glistening tears in our eyes and shared them.
Since its release 15 years ago on Nickelodeon, this scene has been viewed by millions worldwide. It has also seen a revival on Netflix since May. The Cancelled TV Series is not to be confused with James Cameron’s film Avatar. It debuted at No. 1 on Netflix’s streaming service in May, and it remained there for a record-breaking period of 61 days.
Avatar is located in a world with four nations: Water, Earth-Fire, and Air. Each nation is home to people who can “bend” or control an element using martial arts. Only one person can master the four elements. The Avatar is the only person who can do so.
Bryan Konietzko, Michael Dante DiMartino, and Bryan Konietzko created the show. It follows the adventures and triumphs of Aang, the 12-year-old Avatar who is also the last air-bender. After being frozen in ice for 100 years, he is resurrected to find that his people were the victims of genocide by Fire nation.
The Black Lives Matter movement shines a light on the legacy of slavery and colonialism. Avatar’s political tone speaks strongly to the need for institutional racism to be addressed in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Ali A Olomi is an assistant professor at Penn State University in Pennsylvania of Middle East, Islamic, and Global South History. He uses the series to show students the effects of colonialism and imperialism on intergenerational trauma, radicalization, and parental abuse.
Olomi says, “One of the things that we see with Fire nation is the ideological justification” We are a magnificent civilization. We are rich, have plenty, and have technological advancements. It is our responsibility to share this with the rest. This is almost the exact definition of European colonization.
Olomi says that although the fantasy genre has been criticized for being homogeneous in terms of race, “Avatar” is not a western, non-white fantasy. “The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones influence is very Eurocentric. We now have a series which shows how you can move the globe, go somewhere else, and tell rich, beautiful, and diverse stories without falling into Eurocentric tropes.” The Water, Earth, and Fire nations mirror the traits of Inuit cultures, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan cultures, respectively.
M Night Shyamalan directed the terrible live-action adaptation in 2010. Most of the characters, including Aang, were cast in white. Fans are worried about another attempt to make a live-action version. Netflix announced last month that the creators were not involved in the project.
The series’ racial politics have been praised, but it is also known for its well-rounded female characters. Toph Beifong is the earth-bending prodigy and obstinate wittily who was originally intended to be a muscular man. She teaches Aang how earth-bending works. Toph, who is blind and feels suffocated by her family’s protection, lives a quiet life. She moonlights as a bending wrestler known as The Blind Bandit, but this does not stop her from pursuing her passion for fighting in the ring. Toph’s gender was changed by the show’s creators, and Michaela Jill Murphy was cast in the role. She was just 11.
“People see me and think I’m weak. They want to take good care of me. Murphy recites Toph’s famous line, “But I can take care myself.” Toph needs to feel like “I’m great!” I’m fine! Please don’t approach me! She can do anything!” When in fact she can do both. She can be both independent and vulnerable.”
The writers of Avatar were praised for portraying disabilities as not something to be feared but as a source of strength, despite Toph’s blindness. Murphy says that fans have reached out to Murphy, saying, “I’ve never seen a blind character I could relate to, who makes jokes all the time, and who is happy with who they’re.” “Too often you see people with disabilities being coddled. Toph is the exact opposite. Toph teaches us that we are only as weak as what we let it be, except when it is defined by others.
These aspects have allowed Avatar to spawn an entire online community of Redditor and Twitter users. They discuss what musical instruments were used for particular episodes, possible romantic pairings, cosplayers dressed up as characters from the series, and fan art that depicts Aang as a skateboarder.
Aang is the main character, but the story of Zuko, the angry antagonist (voiced by Dante Basco who rose to fame in Steven Spielberg’s Hook) is also the core of the series. He is exiled by his father and must restore his honor by killing the Avatar. However, Zuko goes through a remarkable transformation. He rewrites his intergenerational traumas and imperial legacy with the help of his uncle Iroh, another character beloved by fans.
Greg Baldwin, an actor, stepped in when Mako passed away from oesophageal carcinoma in 2006. He had high expectations. Baldwin speaks from New Mexico, saying that he knew right from the start that Mako was not his character. “Mako was nominated to an Oscar and a Tony. He opened the first American Asian theatre in America.
How did an “old white guy from Texas” become the Iroh? Baldwin was infatuated by a chance birthday gift from 1977: the soundtrack to the musical Pacific Overture. It featured Mako as the Reciter, and Baldwin had memorized the lyrics and vocals. He laughs, “I was one the few people who had done an impression of Mako over 30 years.”
Baldwin only realized the emotional impact Iroh’s comic-con convention had on his fans when he attended it. Baldwin says that Iroh was a father figure to an entire generation. I used to sometimes do Iroh’s voice, and I saw grown men crying. I received a text saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Baldwin, my mother died last evening and I was wondering what Uncle Iroh might say to me.” It’s something I didn’t expect to be a part of.
Even Iroh isn’t a good guy. Fans were furious at the character’s complicity with the Fire nation’s colonial endeavors.
This may be why Avatar remains relevant and important. It offers valuable lessons in how to move forward in the real world by examining what meaning accountability and redemption look like on an individual and societal level.
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