Avatar: The Last Airbender Creator Is Surprised That It’s Still Relevant

Avatar: The Last Airbender
Image via Nickelodeon Animation Studio

In 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender began on Nickelodeon and its young target demographic was immediately sucked into its fantastical world of rich mythology and elemental might. Fifteen years later, its arrival on Netflix has arguably made it more popular than ever, and according to creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, it’s down to the show’s continued relevance.

Speaking to The Washington Post, DiMartino had this to say:

“In some ways, I’m surprised by how relevant the show still is to people, but in other ways, not at all. The major issues in the stories – genocide, totalitarianism, systemic injustice, abuse – sadly, these have been pervasive issues throughout history and continue to be. The show is a reflection of our world. But now, we happen to be living through a time in which all these problems have been exacerbated.”

Konietzko also had some thoughts, adding:

“The feedback we’ve gotten from parents over these many years is that this is a show they cannot only watch as a family, but also one that presents a solid set of ethics in an engaging way and helps them introduce difficult topics to their children.”

Although the basic concept of Avatar – an intrepid group of young people attempt to save the world from oppressive tyranny – is familiar to anyone with even the most basic grounding in the fantasy genre, the depth of its themes and characters sets it far above similar fare. As DiMartino states, it deals with concepts prevalent for as long as humans have existed, the parallels becoming all too clear in recent times.

For example, when the heroes arrive in the Earth Kingdom capital Ba Sing Se, they discover the official stance on the century-long world war is to deny its existence, not entirely unlike people swallowing propaganda about the coronavirus being a hoax; or the megalomaniacal imperialism of the Fire Nation subjugating anyone they encounter being eminently recognizable in violent and corrupt police arresting, assaulting and murdering people for the crime of suggesting that they shouldn’t be routinely arrested, assaulted and murdered.

The series is also notable for its wide ensemble of characters being deliberately absent of white people to reflect the melting pot of Asian and Pacific cultures that inspired it, which counters the perceived wisdom that white people can only relate to other white people and any attempt at representation is doomed to failure, the diversity instead better reflecting the world in which we live.

Genre fiction is often dismissed as throwaway nonsense by people who don’t understand it, but in reality, its invented worlds similar to and often parallels of our own can be used as mirrors in which issues affecting our everyday lives are reflected in ways broken down to become more palatable but just as significant, and few examples express this more clearly than Avatar: The Last Airbender.