“Avatar: The Last Airbender” Rises to Number 1 on U.S. Netflix 15 Years After Its Initial Release

Aedan Henry, Staff Writer

Two weeks ago, the cult-classic animated fantasy series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was the most popular show on Netflix in America when it was re-added to the platform on May 15. To fans of the show, this news confirms what they already know – that “Avatar” is some of the best television ever made. But to those unfamiliar with the show, this news begs the question: How is a kids show from more than a decade ago still this popular?

Originally airing on Nickelodeon in three seasons from 2005 to 2008, “Avatar” is set in a fantasy world loosely based on traditional East Asian cultures. In this universe, some people are born with the ability to use martial arts to magically control, or “bend,” one of the four classical elements. The world is divided into four nations based on these elements: the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads. Traditionally, the four nations peacefully coexist, led by the “Avatar,” a reincarnated spiritual leader uniquely able to bend all four elements. But suddenly, the Fire Nation attacks the others.

The show follows 12-year-old Aang, the current “Avatar.” He is the last of the Air Nomads after they are wiped out in a massacre by the Fire Nation. Dormant for 100 years, Aang wakes up to discover a world that, without his leadership, has been ravaged by a destructive century-long war. With a group of new friends, Aang travels around the world learning how to bend all of the elements in preparation for a battle with the Fire Nation’s leader, which will hopefully end the war. Along the way, he is pursued by Zuko, the exiled teenage prince of the Fire Nation, who is obsessed with capturing him.

“Avatar” is a high concept fantasy epic with magic, lore, and a huge fleshed-out world. But what sets it apart from others in the fantasy genre is its Asian influences. The animation style has clear similarities to Japanese anime (albeit Americanized), and the music almost exclusively uses traditional East Asian instruments and composition. In-universe, the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation are amalgamations of historically-accurate Chinese and Japanese styles, while the Water Tribes are based on North American Inuit societies and the Air Nomads are based on the Buddhist monks of Tibet. As such, “Avatar” is the rare American story where every single character is a person of color, coded as either Asian or Indigenous American. Even the themes of the show take Asian influence, with characters learning Buddhist principles and eastern philosophies. The show’s creators took a lot of time to research and accurately depict this style, and the result is a huge achievement for representation in childrens’ content.

The legacy of “Avatar” can perhaps be most attributed to how uniquely deep its themes are. Animated fantasy adventures for kids tend to shy away from hard-hitting messages, but “Avatar” goes all in. To list just a few, “Avatar” explores topics like genocide, forgiveness, totalitarianism, propoganda, shared humanity, moral ambiguity, corruption of power, feminism, controlling destiny, and living spiritually. The core theme of “Avatar,” around which all the others are centered, is the devastating consequences of war on everyday people, seen by the protagonists as they traverse the world. Cities swell with refugees, natural environments are destroyed or polluted, and propaganda in imperialistic nations brainwashes children. Innocents are taken as prisoners, cultures are lost, and extremists are created. It is reflected in the characters as they grapple with their own place in the world: Aang struggles to retain his pacifist philosophy in the face of ending the war, while the personalities of his friends have clearly been shaped by having to care for their families after losing their parents to the war.

However, it is the villain, not the heroes, that brings the most to the show, and who is most praised for complexity. Across three seasons, Zuko develops into a gold-standard of character writing. Beginning as a seemingly flat plot-device antagonist, he morphs midway through the first season into a complicated, sympathetic antihero that you cannot help rooting for. Zuko struggles with his self-imposed destiny to restore his “honor,” a desire which is slowly peeled back to show the insecurities and skewed morality underneath, onset by his militaristic upbringing. Guided by his uncle, a parental figure and fan-favorite character, Zuko enters a redemption arc that becomes the crux of the show.

Since “Avatar” concluded in 2008, critics have praised it for this depth, both in theme and character. It holds a 100 percent Critics’ Score on Rotten Tomatoes and frequently appears on lists of best animated series. It even earned a Peabody Award, rare for animated television, for its “multi-dimensional characters, unusually complicated personal relationships for a cartoon serial, and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.” “Avatar” is far from being all dark and serious though. Threaded throughout the dialogue is a ton of wacky humor to offset the complicated plot. What the show does well is perfectly blending the fun family adventure aspects with the depth of the story. It is light-hearted and charming, but it has a lot to say.

Americans tend to hold a bias against animation, seeing it as a kids’ medium. But “Avatar” is the rare show to break free of that, finding an enthusiastic audience of all ages. There is something for everyone in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” It is fun, unique, emotional, well-written, and incredibly likeable. With content for both children and young adults, “Avatar” latched onto the consciousness of anyone under the age of 20 in 2008 who watched cartoons. The internet helped word spread, and the audience only grew. The franchise expanded into a sequel series, a terrible attempt at a live action movie adaptation, and a planned live-action television adaptation. “Avatar” had become a signature show for Gen Z as they aged into Netflix’s primary demographic. That brings us to 2020. By now, “Avatar” has a reputation as an underrated classic among the younger generations. So when Netflix dropped it two weeks ago after it was unavailable to stream for years, a nostalgic shared love of the series inspired widespread re-watching.