Saturday, 30 November 2019

Avatar: The Last Airbender Franchise Familiariser

Netflix are producing a live-action television series based on an earlier animated show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Alongside The Witcher and The Chronicles of Narnia, Netflix are betting on Avatar being the next big fantasy epic on TV. But what if you are unfamiliar with the series and its premise? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course!

The main cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender: from left to right, Sokka, Toph, Aang, Katara and Zuko, with Appa in the background.

The Basics

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated fantasy television series set in a fictional world where both magic and politics are divided by the four elements: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. Four distinct ethnic-political groupings have emerged: the two Water Tribes (one at each pole), the Air Nomads (who dwell in and around four great mountainous Air Temples), the enormous Earth Kingdom and the technologically-advanced Fire Nation.

Magic-users in this world are called “benders” because they can bend the elements to their will. Almost all benders only use one element each and this will be determined by their bloodline and where they are born (firebenders don’t appear in the Water Tribes and Earthbenders are never born in the Fire Nation, for example). The sole exception is the Avatar, one person in the whole world who can use all four elements simultaneously. The Avatar is both a very powerful individual but also serves as a bridge between the Spirit World and the material world. The Avatar is also reincarnated at the moment of death, transferring from one kingdom to the next.

Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a medieval-ish world which is starting to develop into a more steampunk kind of setting. It depicts the reappearance of the long-missing Avatar and how he and his friends and allies overcome the threat of the power-hungry Fire Lord.

The Legend of Korra is a sequel series to Avatar, set seventy years later. It depicts the adventures of the next Avatar when she arrives in Republic City, a teeming metropolis which has grown up in a world without war, and what happens once chaos and imbalance threaten the world once again.

Avatar was made for children, but the generally high quality of the writing, the depth in which the themes are explored and the impressive animation have seen it gain a huge adult, global fanbase as well. The Legend of Korra deals with more adult themes than its forebear.

The six (so far) canonical graphic novels which take place after Avatar: The Last Airbender and set up the events of The Legend of Korra.

The Canon

The Avatar: The Last Airbender canon consists of two television series and a long-running series of comics and graphic novels.

Any rumours of a live-action Avatar movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan in 2009 are illusory, and should not be pursued.

The canon consists of:


Television Series
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08): 61 episodes released over three seasons, subtitled Water, Earth and Fire.

The Legend of Korra (2012-14): 52 episodes released over four seasons, subtitled Air, Spirits, Change and Balance.


Graphic Novels 
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Lost Adventures (2011): a collection of one-off and short-run comics previously published between 2005 and 2011. 

The Promise (2012): This and the following graphic novels form a direct sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, picking up immediately after the events of the TV series.

The Search (2013)

The Rift (2014)

Smoke & Shadow (2015-16)

North and South (2016-17)

Imbalance (2018-19)

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Team Avatar Tales (2020): a second collection of one-off and short-run comics previously published between 2013 and 2015.

The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars (2017-18): a direct sequel to The Legend of Korra.

The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire (2019-20)


Video Games
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2007): an action game from THQ

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Burning Earth (2007)

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Into the Inferno (2008)

The Legend of Korra (2014): a beat ‘em up by PlatinumGames.

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins (2014): a strategy game for the 3DS.


The Backstory
For centuries the Four Nations have lived together in peace, harmony and balance. The balance was upset approximately one century ago by Fire Lord Sozin, who used the appearance of a comet which could bolster the power of firebending to wage war on the other nations. The Fire Nation conquered part of the Earth Kingdom, using it as a base to launch further attacks and raids on the main continent, and also wiped out the Air Nomads as part of an attempt to kill the Avatar when he was just a child, ending the line forever. The Avatar, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, disappeared and it was presumed the Fire Nation had succeeded. However, the Fire Lords knew they had failed and over the coming years sent many agents and assassins to search for the Avatar.

No new Avatar appeared in the interim and the world lost hope. The Fire Nation spent three generations waging war on the rest of the world, seizing and colonising vast stretches of the Earth Kingdom and dragging the Water Tribes into the war as well. The war bogged down under Fire Lord Azulon, who seemed content with a long stalemate, but Azulon’s brutal and more dynamic successor, Ozai, has prosecuted the war with much greater vigour since becoming Fire Lord.

The series begins when two young members of the Southern Water Tribe, the waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka, find Avatar Aang frozen in an iceberg. They thaw him out and he realises he has to save the world. Matters gain urgency when it is revealed that Sozin’s Comet is returning in just under a year and, on the day it passes closest to the world, Fire Lord Ozai will use its power to destroy the last resistance to his rule. The Avatar, who usually spends years mastering each element in turn, has only months to master water, earth and fire before facing his destiny.


Avatar: The Last Airbender
The original animated series tells the story of Aang and his quest to defeat the Fire Lord. The story is broken up into three seasons or “books.”

In Book I: Water, Aang learns waterbending from Katara, but she is also still a novice and they decide to travel across the entire hemisphere to the larger and more powerful Northern Water Tribe to find a teacher. They undertake the journey on Aang’s flying sky-bison, Appa, who was frozen along with him in the ice. They are joined on their journey by Sokka, Katara’s non-bending brother, and a flying monkey-lemur named Momo. They are pursued relentlessly by Prince Zuko, the Fire Lord’s son whom he exiled for cowardice, who seeks to regain his honour by capturing the Avatar. Zuko is advised by his wise, tea-loving uncle, Iroh, but rarely takes the advice he is given.

In Book II: Earth, Aang seeks out an earthbending teach and finds one in Toph, a young blind girl whose visual impairment seems to have enhanced her ability to sense the earth. As Aang gains knowledge of earthbending, he is struck by personal tragedy when his oldest friend, Appa, is kidnapped. The gang travels to the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se with a bold plan to defeat the Fire Lord during a solar eclipse, but find trouble at the pinnacle of Earth Kingdom power. Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh are forced to become desperate refugees after betraying the Fire Lord, and Zuko’s sister Azula, a master of lightning-bending, is sent to arrest him and destroy the Avatar.

In Book III: Fire, Aang and the gang travel to the Fire Nation. As their allies prepare to invade the Fire Nation capital, Aang and the team go undercover and learn how the Fire Lord has been abusing his own people. The friends and allies Aang has recruited over the years amass for the final battle, and Zuko is forced to choose his loyalties for the last time.


The Legend of Korra
The sequel series tells the story of Aang’s successor as the Avatar, Korra of the Southern Water Tribe. Unlike Avatar, which tells one story over three seasons, Korra depicts four separate struggles which take place in sequence.

In Book I: Air, the new Avatar, Korra, masters waterbending, earthbending and firebending but is unable to master airbending, since almost every airbender in the world was wiped out during the Hundred Year War. Frustrated, she runs away to Republic City and recruits the aid of Master Tenzin, Aang’s son, in learning airbending. Republic City is then thrown into chaos by Amon, the leader of the “Equalist” movement which plots the destruction of all benders and has gained the power to remove a bender’s powers.

In Book II: Spirits, Korra has to intervene in a growing dispute between the two Water Tribes, with the Northern Tribe (long the more numerous and powerful) threatening to “unify” the two by force. A series of events see a permanent change in the connection between the Material and Spiritual Worlds.

In Book III: Change, the world is recovering from an event which has seen the Spirit World merge with the Material. This has included the forced return of airbending to the world en masse, with the ability manifesting in tens of thousands. A criminal, Zaheer, becomes an airbender and plots to use his new power to conquer the world.

In Book IV: Balance, Korra’s powers are put to the test when civil war erupts in the Earth Kingdom. A new, brutalist “Earth Empire” arises on a populist wave to replace the Kingdom and plots to conquer Republic City.

The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Click for a larger version and check out more maps over on my Atlas of Ice and Fire blog.

Setting

The setting for both Avatar and Korra is a single planet located in the Material World. The Spirit World, the source of magic, spirits and possibly souls, is also explored in some detail.

The Avatar world is spherical but only one hemisphere has been explored; the other is believed to be almost entirely covered in water. The major nations include:

The Earth Kingdom: the largest and most populous nation, but the one with the lowest percentage of benders in the population. The Earth Kingdom occupies the main continent and several immediately adjacent smaller islands and subcontinents, although several of these in the far north-west have been conquered by the Fire Nation. The Earth Kingdom is ruled from Ba Sing Se, the largest city in the world, by the reclusive Earth King.

The Fire Nation: the most technologically-advanced nation in the world, the Fire Nation occupies a very large island or small continent in the ocean to the west of the Earth Kingdom, and also spreads along an extensive island chain to the east. The Fire Nation occupies several holdings along the coast of the Earth Kingdom, the most significant being colonies in the far north-west, some of which have existed for a century.

The Northern Water Tribe: located at the small northern polar continent, the Northern Water Tribe is relatively large and numerous, and far more technologically advanced than their southern kin. The Northern Tribe has largely sat out the war, defended by its capital’s enormous walls and the climate which the Fire Nation finds difficult to operate in.

The Southern Water Tribe: located at the even smaller southern polar continent, the Southern Water Tribe is more nomadic and primitive than their northern cousins. Despite this, their bravery is unquestioned and over the course of the war they have sent countless warriors to help support the Earth Kingdom against the Fire Nation.

The Air Nomads: the Air Nomads occupied four large Air Temples located in the four corners of the world. However, they were the victims of a multi-pronged sneak-attack ordered by Fire Lord Sozin, who was determined to destroy the Avatar in one fell swoop. All four temples were sacked and every last airbender apparently killed. Although the Air Nomads are considered extinct, some members of the other nations still honour them and their spiritual ways.

The United Republic of Nations: a new nation established some years after the events of Avatar. It was formed out of the former Fire Nation colonies in the north-western Earth Kingdom and became a nation where members from all of the other kingdoms could come and live in peace. Its capital, Republic City, rapidly became one of the largest and most advanced cities in the world. The United Republic and Republic City are the primary settings for The Legend of Korra

Korra bending fire and water.

Magic

Magic – known as “bending” in the Avatar world – is the manipulation of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Benders can only manipulate one element apiece and the ability appears to be somewhat genetic: the child of two benders is far more likely to be able to bend him or herself. The ability to bend is somewhat random, however and can skip several generations; Katara’s brother, mother, father and grandmother are all non-benders.

If benders of different disciplines marry, their children may be of either discipline as well. For example, the brothers Mako and Bolin are the sons of a firebender and earthbender, and Mako is a firebender whilst Bolin is an earthbender.

Waterbenders can manipulate water. They can freeze it, turn it into cloud or turn it into a razor-sharp weapon. They can push water back to create bubbles of air underwater. As the series continues, waterbenders discover two other forms of bending: healing is using the spiritual form of waterbending to repair tissue damage and injury, and bloodbending is the manipulation of water content in the human body and blood. This can turn people into puppets, or cause blood to congeal or flow in unnatural and dangerous ways. Bloodbending is considered extremely dangerous and is outlawed. Fortunately, very few waterbenders have the skill to become bloodbenders.

Earthbenders can manipulate the power of the earth itself. They can turn earth to mud, encase themselves in rock armour, cause rocks to erupt out of the ground and can kick or throw rocks with tremendous force. Toph, arguably the greatest earthbender to have ever lived, also developed a new form of the art called metalbending, using the earth content in metal to manipulate it. Metalbending is difficult as it requires a supreme effort of will to master. Lavabending is another sub-skill.

Firebenders can manipulate the raw element of fire. They can shoot fire out of their fingers, feet and mouths and can manipulate natural sources of fire. Particularly skilled firebenders can also become lightningbenders, although this is extremely difficult (and dangerous) to pull off correctly.

Airbenders can manipulate air and the wind. They can fly, create devastating hurricanes and create shields of air. Sky bisons are natural airbenders.

The Avatar is the one being in the world who can manipulate all four elements. The Avatar gains their power from the Spirit World and they can enter “the Avatar State”, which their power grows exponentially (although this also makes them vulnerable to being killed permanently). The Avatar line has continued unbroken for over ten thousand years; when one Avatar dies, his or her soul is transferred to the new one immediately, with the soul moving between earthbenders (like Kyoshi), firebenders (Roku), airbenders (Aang) and waterbenders (Korra) in that order repeatedly.

The main cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Top row from left: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Appa. Bottom row from left: Momo, Suki, Ozai, Iroh, Azula.

Notable Characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Aang is the Avatar, an airbender raised at the Southern Air Temple. At the age of 12 he ran away from home with his flying sky-bison Appa, was caught in a storm near the southern continent and forced to freeze himself in an iceberg to survive. One hundred years later, he is thawed out by Katara and Sokka. Learning of the Hundred Year War, he vows to help end the war for good. Aang is kind-hearted, generous and moral, but also occasionally impatient and impetuous.

Katara is a 14-year-old waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. Katara is compassionate, patient and kind, but has limits which trigger her frustration and anger (limits that her brother Sokka inevitably tests on a daily basis). With her father gone to war, her mother passed away and her grandmother elderly, Katara had to act as a surrogate mother to the youngsters in her tribe.

Sokka is a 15-year-old warrior of the Southern Water Tribe. His father went to war three years ago and left Sokka behind to protect the village. Despite his youth and his awful sense of humour, Sokka is a surprisingly capable warrior with both the sword and boomerang, although he often finds himself out of his depth with “bending stuff.” As time passes, Sokka shows a surprising affinity for science, technology and military strategy.

Toph is a 12-year-old earthbender from the Earth Kingdom. Born blind, she learned how to earthbend from badgermoles, particularly their ability to sense more deeply to make up for their visual blindness. Toph is an earthbending prodigy and possibly the greatest earthbender in history, which makes her a worthy teacher to Aang. Toph is also matter-of-fact, self-reliant sometimes to the point of isolation and believes in extremely harsh training techniques. She is also the inventor of metalbending.

Appa is a huge flying sky bison and Aang’s oldest friend. He is a friendly (if sometimes grouchy) creature and serves as Team Avatar’s main mode of transportation. He is an airbender in his own right with various powers at his command. Despite being mostly friendly, Appa is not above using his intimidating size to scare off would-be enemies.

Momo is a flying monkey-lemur who joins Team Avatar at the Southern Air Temple. Momo is a cunning and wily creature, which sometimes leads people to think he’s rather smarter than he actually is.

Zuko is a 16-year-old firebender from the Fire Nation. He is also the son of Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko is intelligent and shows a keen interest in military strategy, including the conservation of lives and resources; a challenge to a senior general who planned a war of attrition saw Zuko attract the wrath of his father, who challenged him to single combat. When Zuko refused, Ozai burned Zuko’s face and exiled him from the Fire Nation. Despite this abuse, Zuko continues to respect his father and sees capturing the Avatar as a way of returning home.

Iroh is Zuko’s uncle and Fire Lord Ozai’s older brother. Iroh was once a great general, the Dragon of the West, and the original heir to Fire Lord Azulon, but the death of his son Lu Ten in battle saw Iroh become a broken man. The mantle of Fire Lord instead passed to Ozai. Iroh has since rallied and now pursues a more relaxed, spiritual path as Zuko’s mentor and advisor. He worries for Zuko, whom he treats as a surrogate son, but Zuko rarely heeds his measured advice. Iroh’s friendly, peaceful nature sometimes causes people to severely underestimate him, particularly his formidable (but rarely-deployed) firebending powers.

Azula is a 14-year-old firebender. She is the younger sister of Zuko and, since Zuko’s disgrace, has been regarded by her father as his heir. Azula is cruel, lacks empathy and is capable of tremendous manipulation of both friends and enemies. She has mastered lightningbending, an extremely advanced and dangerous form of firebending. Azula is often accompanied by two friends and allies, Mai, a master of knife combat, and Ty Lee, an acrobat and martial artist specialising in paralysing attacks. Azula’s overwhelming confidence is her weakness: she does not cope well when her carefully-laid-out stratagems collapse.

Ozai is the Fire Lord, supreme ruler of the Fire Nation, younger brother to Iroh and father to Zuko and Azula. He is ruthless, amoral, cunning, utterly without remorse and dedicated to his own power. He is the main antagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Suki is one of the Kyoshi Warriors, a martial arts sect dedicated to the teachings of Avatar Kyoshi. She meets Aang early in his adventures and becomes a firm friend and ally, as well as sharing a romantic interest in Sokka. Suki and her warriors rejoin Team Avatar several times during their adventures and prove honourable friends.

Jet is the leader of a band of Earth Kingdom freedom fighters dedicated to destroying the Fire Nation. Initially friendly and apparently honourable, it is revealed that Jet has become increasingly cynical about the war and is now prepared to sacrifice innocents if it serves “the greater good.” He acts as both an ally and an antagonist to Team Avatar.

The main cast of The Legend of Korra. Top row from left: Korra, Mako, Bolin. Bottom row from left: Asami, Tenzin, Lin.

Notable Characters of The Legend of Korra
Korra is a 17-year-old from the Southern Water Tribe. She is the Avatar after Aang and, unlike Aang, was identified as the Avatar at a very young age when she spontaneously manifested the ability to bend water, earth and fire simultaneously. She learned from master teachers (including an elderly Katara) but failed to master airbending until she moved to Republic City to learn from Tenzin, Aang’s son. Korra is a prodigy of bending and fighting, but struggles with the spiritual side of being the Avatar, and is extremely impatient. She also tends to dwell on defeats and setbacks more than is healthy.

Mako is an 18-year-old firebender from mixed heritage. He is also a lightningbender. He is a member of the probending sports team, the Fire Ferrets, alongside his brother. Mako has a strong sense of justice and is a bit of a romantic, although occasionally tends to brood.

Bolin is Mako’s 16-year-old brother, an earthbender and, it is later revealed, a lavabender. He is also a member of the Fire Ferrets. Bolin is much more outgoing, lively and fun than his brother, but has a tendency to get himself in trouble.

Tenzin is the 51-year-old son of Avatar Aang and Katara. He is a formidable airbender, but he is also serious and sometimes stuffy. He is married to the nonbender Pema and has three children: Jinora, Ikki and Meelo, all benders. Pema is pregnant with their fourth child, whom she desperately hopes is not a bender.

Asami Sato is the 18-year-old daughter of Hirosh Sato, the inventor of the Satomobile (automobile) and the head of Future Industries. Sato cannot bend, but she is a trained and accomplished engineer, pilot and driver. Her father’s company sponsors Bolin and Mako’s probending team.

Lin Beifong is the 50-year-old chief of Republic City’s police. She is also an expert earthbender and metalbender. She is the daughter of the earthbending prodigy Toph Beifong. She is somewhat humourless, but she always tries to do what is right.

Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

Conception & Development
Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were American animators with a shared pedigree working on shows like Family Guy, Mission Hill and King of the Hill. In 2001 they decided to collaborate on a new project together and started brainstorming ideas. Konietzko had drawn a sketch of a balding older man and then regressed him to a child; DiMartino had been watching a documentary about exploring Antarctica. They hit on the idea of using elemental magic, with the bald kid being an “air guy” helped by some “water people” at the South Pole, with “fire people” as the bad guys.

Despite the vagueness of the concept, they pitched the idea to Nickelodeon just two weeks later and got a series order. They spent most of 2002 on development before starting active production of the series in 2003. It got its debut via a trailer and teaser reel at the 2004 Comic-Con before premiering on 21 February 2005.

As the series developed, Konietzko and DiMartino hit on the idea of taking the traditional Western epic fantasy template, specifically how it is applied in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and recasting it through the lens of Japanese anime, Hong Kong action and kung fu cinema, yoga and Eastern philosophy in general. This led to the show’s art style – which is influenced by anime despite being American in origin – and the decision to base the four ethnic groups in the show on Asia (plus the Inuit nations), with no Western analogues at all.

The Fire Nation was primarily influenced by Japan, although the creators were aware that they did not want to present the idea of Japan as the “bad guys.” They instead incorporated other Asian influences (such as Chinese clothing and architecture) for the Fire Nation and made it clear that although Ozai, Azula and other senior Fire Nation figures are evil or corrupt, the people of the Fire Nation themselves are the same mixture as any other group in the world. The Earth Kingdom was also based on Chinese influences, particularly the Great Wall for the massive defences around Ba Sing Se and the Forbidden City in Beijing for the Earth King’s palace. The Air Nomads incorporated Buddhist and Tibetan influences, whilst the Water Tribes were based on both the Inuit of Canada and Greenland and the Sirenik of far eastern Siberia.

The show’s emphasis on Buddhist philosophy and Eastern martial arts allowed the creators to incorporate action but also avoid killing; in Avatar’s 61-episode run, only eight people are ever shown to definitively die (although some off-screen fatalities are likely to have happened).

Other influences included the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly the influence of spirits (inspired by Spirited Away) and the idea of a living creature as a main "vehicle", with Appa inspired by the Catbus of My Neighbour Totoro.

Although DiMartino and Konietzko created the show and served as executive producers, they left much of the day-to-day direction of the show to Aaron Ehasz, who developed some of the fine detail of the world and how it worked. Dave Filoni also proved instrumental in the development of the show’s look and style in the first season, before he left to work on Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars CG show.

The original plan was for the show to last for three seasons and DiMartino and Konietzko developed a fairly detailed bible and story arc, with characters such as Toph and Azula always on the drawing board. However, the original plan for Toph was a tough adult male character who’d have trouble fitting into the group. It was Ehasz who changed the idea to a young blind girl, a notion which was enthusiastically adopted.

In 2007 the show was optioned as a live-action film project and DiMartino and Konietzko took time out to work on that project with director M. Night Shyamalan. During this period Nickelodeon requested a pitch for a fourth season, so Ehasz developed a storyline focusing on Aang dealing with the aftermath of the discovery of “energybending” in the series finale, the search for Zuko’s mother and a redemption arc for Azula. However, after further consideration it was decided this might be anticlimactic after the final showdown with the Fire Lord and the original plan to end the show after Season 3 was left in place.

The show was a huge international hit, garnering an enthusiastic fanbase of both children and adults, including Serena Williams, who got so heavily into the show that she ended up tweeting about a possible contradiction in the lore.

With the live-action film an unmitigated failure, DiMartino and Konietzko worked with Nickelodeon on a sequel concept, which became The Legend of Korra. The show was originally conceived as a one-off mini-series for the 2012 season, but when Nickelodeon renewed the show for several seasons, it left the team scrambling to come up with new material (explaining the rushed and disappointing second season, before the far superior final two seasons). Ehasz was not available to work on the series, having moved to Riot Studios to work on video games. Ehasz later founded his own animation company, Wonderstorm, and joined forces with Netflix to produce a new fantasy animated series, The Dragon Prince.

In late 2018 it was announced that Netflix would be producing a live-action reboot of the entire Avatar: The Last Airbender series, with DiMartino and Konietzko attached to write and produce the series. The show is expected to start shooting in February 2020 to debut in early 2021. The future for the Avatarverse looks bright, at least for now.

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