Retro: Avatar: “The Boy in the Iceberg” & “The Avatar Returns”
Two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, discover Aang, the last Airbender and the Avatar, and decide to help him learn the elements and end the 100-year war with the Fire Nation. All the while, they’ll be chased by Prince Zuko, an ill-tempered teenage Firebender, and his loving uncle Iroh.
- Earth. Fire. Air. In the Avatar universe, Bending is the ability to manipulate one of these elements through a combination of magic and martial arts. Not everyone in this universe can Bend, and those who can are only able to Bend one element (i.e. Waterbenders, Earthbenders, Firebenders, and Airbenders). The kind of Bender you are is determined by which of the four nations you’re born in, be it the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, or the Northern/Southern Water Tribe.
- There is one exception to the one element per individual rule: the Avatar is the only person on the planet capable of Bending all four elements. The Avatar is also the one in charge of maintaining order and balance between the four nations.
- There’s a problem: the Avatar has disappeared, and his absence, the Fire Nation sought complete global domination, resulting in a terrible war which has gone on for a hundred years. Where, when, and why did the Avatar vanish in this time of need? And will he ever come back to finally defeat the evil Fire Nation? All of this is relayed to us in the minute-long introduction. From then one, these first two episodes waste no time defining the main conflict of the series and setting the narrative in motion.
- We’re introduced to our three main heroes: Aang, Katara, and Sokka.
- Aang is the fun-loving twelve-year-old Airbender and the long-missing Avatar of the title (a fact he initially hides from the others for reasons that will be revealed later). When we first meet him, he’s frozen alive inside a giant iceberg that was trapped underwater in the Souther Water Tribe. Upon being freed, immediately requests to go “penguin sledding.” As Katara will remind us every episode, this kid is clearly not up to the task of saving the world, but he’s going to try with a little help from his new friends.
- Those friends would be Katara and Sokka, Southern Water Tribe sister and brother (wisely ruling out any possibility of a love triangle, a la Harry Potter). Despite being siblings, the two teenagers couldn’t be more different: she’s a Waterbender and an eternal optimist, while Sokka is a non-Bender and a skeptic (except where his manly ego is concerned). Accordingly, she warms up to Aang almost instantly while Sokka is quick to accuse him of being a Fire Nation spy.
- Aang’s sudden appearance provides a break from the monotony of Southern Water Tribe life during wartime. On the one hand, Katara and the children in her village love him for his strange foreign ways, while Sokka and the elders don’t trust him for the same reason. More importantly, for Katara, Aang is her ticket out of the Water Tribe to find a tutor who can help her reach her potential as a Waterbender (the only Waterbender in the entire Southern Water Tribe, no less). For Sokka, as long as he can do his part in stomping the Fire Nation out of existence, teaming up with Aang to help him master the elements is a sweet deal.
- Aang even has an impressive mode of transportation: Appa, the sky bison (and the most overt Miyazaki homage thus far). Imagine the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro with the utility and mobility of the Millenium Falcon and you’ll immediately understand the appeal and popularity of Appa.
- Appa is definitely as asset in the group’s efforts to reach the Northern Water Tribe, to evade the Fire Nation, and especially to escape the clutches of Prince Zuko.
- Prince Zuko has been searching for the Avatar for years, and in a stroke of luck, Zuko and his crew are exploring the Southern Water Tribe when Aang makes his entrance in the story. Zuko, along with Iroh, Zuko’s uncle and Firebending tutor, finally have a real chance of capturing the Avatar, ending their (initially hopeless) search, and being allowed to return to the Fire Nation.
- There’s a lot at stake, especially for Aang, since committing to his role as Avatar means mastering the four elements, stopping a hundred-year war, and finding the maturity to do so. All the while making time to ride the hog-monkeys.
- Like all pilot episodes, “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” have one important job: establish the characters, the world, and the drama unifying it all just enough to make us eager to see how it all plays out. And in that respect, they’re a great success, which is something of a miracle considering just how much plot and exposition is in these two episodes alone. Avatar could have easily turned into a convoluted, aimless, emotionally void mess (which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened to Korra).
- Lucky for us, these two episodes already showcase the merits of the series as a whole: good writing, a solid voice cast, and a colorful, imaginative visual style.
- There’s a good helping of humor sprinkled throughout these episodes, but it’s not of the snarky, mean-spirited variety you see in most “hipper-than-thy-parents” children’s program, or of the sitcoms-for-toddlers variety you find in those programs which mostly function to sell merchandise. This humor is good-natured and stems organically from the characters and their circumstances, which is quite refreshing.
- There are a few standout sequences. Aang and Katara’s exploration of an abandoned Fire Nation ship creates an eerie atmosphere that perfectly complements the revelation that Aang has been frozen for a hundred years (hence his ignorance of the terrible war that has all but defined Katara and Sokka’s lives).
- In “The Avatar Returns,” we get our first major action sequence, in which Aang, having been taken aboard Zuko’s ship, takes back his Airbending staff and attempts to flee Zuko’s capture. Not that the Prince makes it easy for him. Such is his obsession with capturing the Avatar that he jumps from the ship’s observation deck about twenty feet in the air, which absolutely no regard for his own safety, just to stop Aang from getting away on his glider. Determination is, in Zuko’s case, an understatement.
- This sequence also showcases the potential of Bending as a means of generating visually impressive fight scenes. In later episodes, the writers and animators will continue to top themselves with the creative ways in which the four elements can be used in a fight.
- None of this would matter, though, if we didn’t start to care for Aang and friends as they duke it out with the banished prince and his goofy uncle. Thankfully, by the end of the episodes, each character’s personality and objective is so clearly defined that we’re pretty eager to follow them on their journey to save the world from this ongoing war.
- Honestly, I can’t say there are any genuine “low points” this early in the game. One could make the argument that these episodes are a little too leisurely in their pace, and that some jokes—despite how refreshing different the humor of the show is from that of most others—are a bit too silly, and that some of the animation isn’t as good as it will be later on. Then again, how many pilot episodes—especially of the animated variety—actually compare favorably to later episodes?
- Quick: can you recall ever hearing the word “sexist” used in an American animated children’s television program before Avatar? I can’t. I can certainly recall many programs that dealt with sexism as a concept and a theme (one of the best examples being The Powerpuff Girls with the cleverly-titled episode “Equal Fights,” whose story was written by Lauren “Friendship is Magic” Faust, no less), but never one in which a character outright says the word itself.
- In the case of Avatar, it occurs in the very first episode, in the very first real scene. And it does make sense in context. Sokka, the macho warrior, instantly blames Katara for crashing their canoe, insinuating that girls ruin everything. Katara’s furious scowling of her brother—exacerbated by her Waterbending, which nearly gets them crushed by an avalanche and ends up uncovering the iceberg in which the Avatar is frozen—is certainly justified (and hilariously animated), especially she’s the one stuck doing all the Charlie Work that comes with living and surviving in an Antarctic region while all he’s off, as she puts it, “playing soldier.” She also tosses in some choice adjectives, such as “immature,” “nut-brained,” and yes, “sexist.”
- But let’s think about this moment in the context of the overall narrative. There’s been a war going on with the Firebenders for almost a hundred years, and two years prior to this scene, Sokka and Katara’s father and the other men of the village have left to fight and contribute their efforts to defeating the Fire Nation. Presumably, that left Sokka as the only “man” to look after the village and doing his share of the labor. Katara belittles his role in all this by calling it “playing soldier.” But is that all? Does Sokka not hunt? Does he not help maintain civility and order in the village? Does he not try his best to prepare the next generation of soldiers—all adorable pre-pubescent children—for the war effort against the Fire Nation?
- Or did the absence of the father and other male role models render him incompetent and unprepared for the challenge, and thus reduce him to inflating his impotent ego by making muscles whenever he sees his reflection in the water? In such harsh living conditions where survival is the name of the game, Sokka would have long been exiled to freeze in the cold if he didn’t contribute something to their well-being. (Or does his status as the absent chief’s son prevent that?)
- Do any of these questions really matter? Not really. For one thing, the scene is clearly geared in Katara’s favor, and all Sokka can do is coward in fear as her angry Waterbending nearly gets them both crushed by a nearby glacier. At no point is Sokka allowed defended his place in the village as more than “playing soldier.” He’d probably point out that he does all the hunting (by himself, no less), and Katara would even retort that he may capture the food, but she and the other women are the ones who have to actually clean it, gut it, and cook it.
- None of that matters because the point of the scene is to present Katara is a fiercely independent young woman who has the balls to call Sokka out on his sexist attitudes. That’s fine. My contention is with the use of the word itself, because its such a modern word (it didn’t exist before the 1960s) that it sticks out like a sore thumb in this Asian-influenced fantasy adventure show.
- Ultimately, my problem is that “sexist” is not something a character would say ever say in this universe—in point of fact, the word is never uttered again in either Avatar or Korra—but something that the writers wanted her to say to signal to the audience “look how progressive we are, our female character knows what sexism is and calls it out when she sees it, aren’t we so hip and clever!”
- Not hip and/or clever at all, in my opinion. Maybe in 2005 it was at least surprising, but now, it comes across more like “self-conscious” and “pandering.” Not to mention “unnecessary,” because the series as a whole handles the issue so damn well and without calling attention to itself when doing so. Here, though, not only do the writers betray their motives in such blatant, tasteless fashion, but they damn near destroy the element of timelessness that makes these kinds of stories work. (If anything, this “virtue signaling” would eventually help to destroy Korra, but it’s rather disheartening to see the seeds of destruction already planted in the first goddamn scene of the first goddamn episode of Avatar.)
Looking on the bright side, though, the show creators’ “self-conscious progressivism” didn’t apply solely to the show’s politics. Whether it was in the animation, the storytelling, the voice acting, the themes, etc., Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko fought hard to expand the limitations of what could be done in an American animated children’s television program, and for that, they should be commended, and the show they and their crew created should be praised. For better and for worse, these first two episodes are the perfect harbinger of things to come.
Next week: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”
(P.S. I want to apologize to everyone for not responding to their comments yet. It’s been a hectic week, and I’m still trying to find my groove with this retrospective. Thanks for sticking with me, guys, I promise the quality of these retrospectives will improve with each week.)