Ten Reasons Why Steampunks (And Everyone Else) Should Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender

By Guest Contributor Ay-leen the Peacemaker, cross-posted from Beyond Victoriana

Avatar: The Last Airbender (A:TLA) is easily one of the best US-created animated shows in the last ten years, and not just because I consider it a great example of Asian-inspired steampunk (though it helps). In terms of steam-worthiness, A:TLA not only creates what Asian steampunk could look like, but it places its steampunk technology within a cultural and political setting that speaks about technological development’s relationship with empire-building and the ramifications of global warfare.

Pretty complex for a children’s show that aired on Nickelodeon. But its depth of storytelling, detailed world-building, and strong characterization attests to its wild popularity across all age groups.

There are other assessments of the world of Avatar: the Last Airbender (A:TLA)–particularly Jha Goh’s article on “Kyriarchy in Avatar: The Last Airbender – Perpetuating & Challenging Oppression & Imperialism” and the Tor.com roundtable re-watch–so I highly suggest you go to them for a more highly detailed reading of the series as a whole. So instead, I’ll answer the question: Why do I think steampunks should watch Avatar: The Last Airbender? Warning: spoilers for the series after the jump.

10) It has Asian steampunk.

Well, this is a bit of a “duh” reason, since I stated it was steampunk in my first paragraph, but let’s take a moment to see how steampunk is used.

The world of Avatar is one based on Asian and Indigenous cultures.  It’s split into four different nations based on the elements of earth, fire, water & air. In each nation, certain people have the ability to manipulate the said element of their nation and are called “benders” (metal also plays a role as a “bendable element” later on, for those wonder about use of five elements in Chinese folklore).  All four nations are kept in balance by the Avatar, a reincarnated person born every generation who has the ability to control all four elements. The last known Avatar was Aang, from the nomadic Airbender nation, who mysteriously disappeared.

The Fire Nation has sophisticated industrial technology & metallurgy skills, technology developed in part with their Fire-bending training, and so they have all sorts of crazy steampunky tech. And what does it decide to do with all this tech? Well, why not try to take over the world, especially with the Avatar gone.

Below are some shots of the steampunk tech the Fire nation and other peoples use.

Fire Nation Airship
Fire Nation Tank
The Machinist's workshop from "The Northern Air Temple" episode (117)
The Drill used by the Fire Nation during the Battle at Ba Sing Se
Teo, a wheelchair user--and high flyer. From "Northern Air Temple" (117)
Fire Nation coal truck
Water Tribe submarines
A "sand-bender" desert ship

And so a hundred years later, the war still goes on (which goes to show that just because a country has sophisticated tech, doesn’t mean it’ll instantly trump the opposition), and a sister and brother of the Southern Water tribe, Katara and Sokka, find a boy trapped in an iceberg. And that boy turns out to be Aang.  As Katara faithfully says in the opening credits, “I believe Aang can save the world.” If only he can figure out how…

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give some rundown shots of the main characters (and you can always read more about them here).

Aang, our hero
Katara, the Southern Water Tribe's only Water-bender
Sokka, the sarcastic and resourceful one
Toph, the tough (heh, punny) blind girl who becomes Aang's Earthbending Master
Appa, Aang's sky bison and the GAang's ride. You can also spot wee Momo the big-eared monkey/flying squirrel on his head with Aang and Katara
Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh. Zuko, exiled from his homeland by his father, is on a mission to hunt down the Avatar to regain his honor and return to the Fire Nation.
Azula (center) Zuko's more cunning and talented sister with her friends Mai and Ty Lee.

9) It’s steampunk set in a fantasy world–but it’s not an exoticized fantasy.

In this world, though the bricks and mortar of it are different from ours (and yes, A:TLA can be classified as part of the fantasy genre), the world of A:TLA does not rely of the cheap thrill of exoticism to attract its viewership. From an Orientalist perspective, the Other is treated as a spectacle and “not exactly like us” because of the differences in their culture/race/religion/etc; thus, when the Other is framed in this light, the Other’s life and culture is treated without equal respect and nuance when compared to the viewer’s own. This Orientalist perspective creates stereotypes against marginalized peoples and encourages the idea of non-Western cultural appropriation while maintaining a sense of Western cultural superiority. Instead, in addition to the fantastical setting, A:TLA’s world draws people in because the problems the characters struggle with are very real in ways that the audience can understand and relate to (and more explanations about that lie ahead). Treating the characters with this level of dignity and complexity determines the dividing line between a well-developed diverse world and an exploitative one.

One of the most awe-inspiring set pieces from the show: the Western Air Temple, built upside-down beneath cliffs.
Sokka and his father in Southern Water Tribe battle dress
The original Fire Masters

8 ) It has a multicultural, international cast & production crew.

Part of the reason why A:TLA neatly sidesteps the Orientalist label lies in the fact that the creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko reached out to enlist a lot of talent from the Asian community. Sifu Kisu was the martial arts consultant for the show, and attributed different martial arts schools to each type of bender (and for some characters, like Toph, who is a blind Earth-bender, had her moves unique in the A:TLA universe). All the written script on the show was Chinese, and Dr. Sui-Leung Lee acted as adviser for all the calligraphy used. In Hollywood, where well-rounded characters are hard to come across for Asian actors, Filipino-American Dante Basco played Prince Zuko and the late great Mako played Uncle Iron until his passing near the end of the second season of the series. Asian-American actress Jennie Kwan also played Suki, the leader of the Kyoshi warriors.

Unlike most US animated shows today, who simply farm out most of the grunt work to animation hubs in South Korea, DiMartino and Konietzko let their Korean animation studios contribute to the character design and creative direction of A:TLA. In the Avatar: The Last Airbender The Art of the Animated Series, Konietzko explains:

I was really impressed by the Korean artists’ talent and work ethic, but I was frustrated by the general system set up by various American animation studios. It was such a limiting and rigid system that didn’t allow for the Korean animators to show their creativity and do their best work. They weren’t given the time, budget, or incentive to try to augment the work delivered to them by the Americans–in fact they were generally penalized for it.

When we joined forces, Mike and I not only had a story to tell but also a passion to restructure the system so the Korean animators could be treated more as artists and encouraged to add more to the show’s creative process, rather than merely executing the Americans’ ideas.

A:TLA is not an example of the dominant culture indulging in an exotic flavor for their TV shows, but a work of storytelling supported by people from the Asian diaspora and the international community.

7) Though it was created as a kid’s show, they don’t dumb down serious issues…

A:TLA also stands out by telling stories that didn’t dumb down serious issues to the intended audience: children. They did carry certain children’s shows standards: no one gets executed for wrongdoing in A:TLA, only exiled or imprisoned, and violence is never explicit, though there’s lots of action.

In "The Puppetmaster" (308) one of the darker episodes, a character flashbacks to time spent as a POW.

Some of the issues they talk about go into deep territory. After all, the series takes place in a world in the clutches of an imperialistic nation and the lead character is the only survivor of a genocide that has killed off his entire people. Aang, underneath his sunny disposition, carried the emotional guilt of abandoning his people and the moral struggle in how to fight without killing. Several episodes deal with the different social and ethical problems faced by refugees, war prisoners, and totalitarian societies. It also deals with different types of loss. One of the most heart-wrenching moments in the series was the story of Uncle Iroh celebrating the birthday of his son who had died as a soldier.

From "Tales of Ba Sing Se" -- a lost son.

A:TLA’s approach to storytelling has garnered it a wide audience, both adults and children.

6) …but it can be still funny.

The charm of all these characters also lies in their humor. From Sokka’s sarcastic wit to Uncle Iroh’s flippancy and love of tea to the many failures of the Cabbage Man, there are too many bits that made me laugh out loud for me to list here. Some episodes premises are blatantly ridiculous, (but still story-relevant), like the introduction of Toph, who is the elusive fighter in an underground wrestling tournament that resembled the WWE (and featured a cameo by Mick Foley). The best comic episode (written very tongue-in-cheek and oddly foretelling the atrocity that is the N. Night Shyamalan film) is “The Ember Island Players” in the third season, where the characters go see a play a theater troupe wrote about the now-famous exploits of the Avatar… and gets them all wrong.

This is not Avatar: The Last Airbender

5) Even the supposed “bad guys” are complex and sympathetic.

Though the principal enemy country is the Fire Nation, many Fire Nation characters are portrayed as sympathetic. Prince Zuko, who starts off as the lead baddie, undergoes a dynamic change throughout the series as he discovers the roots of his rage behind “the pursuit of the Avatar” and struggles with his abusive father. Uncle Iroh, seen as a failed leader by his nation and often resented by the oft-angsty Zuko, nonetheless is a clever and wise mentor figure. Jeong Jeong was a high-ranking Fire Nation leaders who deserted the army, but that does not mean he automatically resolves to fight alongside Aang, instead choosing to live his life in hiding as a cynical man. Ty Lee has such a sunny and good-natured personality that you can’t really believe that she’s willing to fight alongside her friend Azula, Zuko’s cruel and ambitious sister. And many of the citizens of the Fire Nation are actually living in poverty as the nation’s resources have evolved only to support the military-industrial complex during the hundred years of war.

Likewise, other characters who are supposedly on the “good” side do terrible things. Fong, a desperate Earth general trying to stop the war, turns to hurting the Avatar’s friends to coerce Aang to cooperate. Jet is the charismatic leader of a band of Freedom Fighters who also uses bullying, harming civilians and even murder to reach his goals to fight the Fire nation. And the most frightening character to me is Hama, and I won’t even explain what she learned to do with her Water-bending powers.

4) It’s feminist.

In the first episode during the opening scene with Sokka and Katara, Sokka, annoyed at being stuck on an ice floe with his sister in the middle of nowhere, snaps, “Leave it to a girl to screw things up.”

Immediately, Katara rages against her brother (and her water-bending skills start to crack open that suspicious iceberg behind her that contains an Avatar-cicle): “You are the most sexist, immature, nut brained…ugh, I’m embarrassed to be related to you! Ever since Mom died I’ve been doing all the work around camp while you’ve been off playing soldier!”

BAM! Putting in the knocks against patriarchy within the first five minutes of the series.

The feminist attitude isn’t always in your face like the above example, but the world of A:TLA shows again and again how women are equally capable as men. Armies from all four nations are co-ed. The Avatar can be either male or female, and Aang talks with several of his past reincarnations for guidance, including the Earthbender Kyoshi–there is even an all-female fighting force called the Kyoshi warriors inspired by her. Azula is favored by their father because she is seen to be like him–and more capable than her brother; and naturally, her father awards her the title of Fire Lord (not Fire Lady or Fire Queen, showing that the title of Lord is gender-neutral in the Fire Nation).

The Kyoshi warriors, lead by Suki (center)

A feminist perspective is also seen in the range of female characters that exist. Whether a female character is kind, spiteful, “macho”, apathetic, or self-sacrificing, each one has her own independent agency and makes her own decisions about her life. Katara challenges the Master Water-bender from the Northern Water Tribe when he refuses to teach her because it’s a against his tribe’s customs to teach women how to fight. Toph, who was smothered by her overprotective parents because she was seen as fragile, sneaks out of the house, becomes a self-taught Earth-bending Master, and moonlights as the “The Blind Bandit” in an underground pro-wrestling league. Even Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe, who can easily fall into the “noble sacrifice” stereotype, struggles against her arranged engagement and chooses to die for her own cause: to protect her people during a climatic battle with the Fire Nation.

In the episode "Imprisoned" (106), Katara helps inspire a rebellion on a prison ship.

3) It’s all about Love.

I’m not talking about a Team Edward, Team Jacob love triangle crap. I’m talking about friendship, the bonds of family–or learning how to find a new one. The friendships formed by the gang throughout the series, the twisted love Zuko strives to get from his father and the real fatherly love Uncle Iroh offers, the sacrifices that various characters make in order to give their loved ones a better life: whether its immigrating to another nation, betraying their ethics in order to protect them, or being separated from them in order to ensure their safety. There’s a lot of darkness in this series as I’ve pointed out before, but it’s the strong motivations of the characters and their relationships that help bring in the light as well.

And when romance does happen (and there is a little of that), it feels earned and the effects of that linger throughout the series instead of just being a flash in the pan or drawn out melodramatically. For an example of what I mean, Sokka is changed by the mutual crush he had with Princess Yue, and his love for her leads him to a more deeper connection that develops between him and Suki.

2) So, A:TLA’s not just the Hero’s Journey — it’s everyone’s.

As a writer and performer, nothing keeps my attention more than a well-constructed story arc. And A:TLA does it in on all levels: the entire series had been plotted out by the creators from the beginning, so they knew it wouldn’t be a show that would drag on season after season, like most American TV shows. Because of its limited run, they were able to build solid seasons’ worth of material that balances out character and plot. You can follow Aang’s progression into maturity as he learned how to master his skills to confront the Fire Lord, but along the way, the rest of the GAang grow up too. Katara becomes the Master she always wanted to be. Sokka becomes a warrior and is able to lead an army of his fellow tribesmen. Toph gains her independence while still being able to keep her connection to her parents.  Most remarkable is Zuko’s anti-hero coming-of-age story, one that is much more complicated than Aang’s and extremely satisfying to see come to term. A story that knows where its going and doesn’t hesitate to make the choices it needs to keep its direction strong–even if it means not lasting forever–is a direction that I wish more US television series would take.

My number #1 reason, however, of why you should watch Avatar: The Last Airbender is–

1) The story doesn’t end when this series does.

And I’m not talking about that train-wreck of a film either with the overdone 3-D effects, wooden acting, and blatant whitewashed casting. DiMartino and Konietzko are working on a sequel to A:TLA called Avatar: The Legend of Korra to premiere the summer of 2011. Set 75 years after the end of the series, The Legend of Korra follows a young Water-bender on her journey to become the next Avatar. According to the initial announcement, “Korra’s quest eventually leads her to Republic City–the epicenter of the world of  ‘Avatar.’ A metropolis powered by steampunk-type technology, the city is inhabited by people from all nations.”

The Legend of Korra promo pic from WSJ

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, both creators describe this new world: “We were drawing inspiration from Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s and Hong Kong and even Western cities like Manhattan and even location-wise cities like Vancouver.”

So the world of Avatar is growing up. What next can we expect? Until the sequel hits, I highly suggest you go and check out Avatar: the Last Airbender–and join me in anticipation for even more Asian steampunk goodness to come.

Additional Information

Avatar: The Last Airbender on IMDB.com
Avatar Wiki – Ultimate resource Guide to A:TLA
Racebending – An online group that was formed during the filming of The Last Airbender film to protest its whitewashed lead casting. Now it is a general social justice advocacy group that covers minority representation in visual media.

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