Revisiting ‘Avatar’: How They Mastered Genre-Bending

by Tito W. James

Avatar: The Last Airbender is heroic High Fantasy with a martial arts twist. High Fantasy is defined as any fantasy story that takes place in its own original world (it has its own map). Heroic Fantasy is a “hero’s journey” within a fantasy setting. Archetypal characters and elements include: a chosen one from a humble background, a white-bearded mentor, princesses, magic, dragons, assembling macguffins, and fighting an evil dark lord.

Heroic Fantasy stories can be found in everything from Harry Potter to The Legend of Zelda. Avatar: The Last Airbender manages to take archetypal elements from Heroic Fantasy and put a new spin on them.

Avatar Aang and the Fire Lord are pretty standard when it comes to the Chosen One vs Dark Lord dynamic. However, an inversion of expectations is how the wise-man archetype starts on the side of the antagonists. Iroh fulfills the archetype of the mentor but mainly acts as a moral counterweight for the brash anti-hero of Prince Zuko.

While Avatar shies away from most European fantasy tropes, it still throws in a dragon and princess where appropriate. Avatar Roku rides a dragon and Princess Yue turns into the moon spirit. The series also states from the get-go that magic doesn’t exist, but rather that bending is an ancient martial art unique to its people.

The use of macguffins is also inventive. Typically a macguffin is an object that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant in itself. It’s finding the Holy Grail or assembling the Infinity Stones. In Avatar however, the MacGuffins are people. If Aang can assemble a team of teachers from the four nations, he can learn all four elements and then defeat the Fire Lord. This adds much more emotional investment to the quest as opposed to Aang hunting for plot-tokens.

While Avatar has the bones of Heroic fantasy, it’s episodic nature allows the series to explore sub-genres within the overall epic.

The episode ‘Zuko Alone’ is basically a Western with a lone drifter on a horse entering a town and defending the down-trodden. The episode “The Chase” has Aang fight Azula for the first time with a showdown in a ghost town. “The Crossroads of Destiny” culminates with a Mexican stand-off. It’s a great final action scene paired with a formative character moment for Zuko when he throws the first fireball.

Episodes like ‘The Swamp’ and ‘The Puppet Master’ are self -contained ghost stories. ‘The Library’ explores high adventure like an Indiana Jones movie complete with a treasure trove sinking into the earth. ‘The City of Walls’ and ‘Secrets’ had echos of a 1984 dystopia and cutting satire of American politics.

These genre-bending elements were lost on me during my first viewing of the series. Now that Avatar is ten years old, it’s a perfect time to revisit the series with a critical eye and see what worked and what can be applied to future stories. I believe that the content and characters are unique to the series and difficult to recreate. But, the way Avatar plays with genre and world building is something that any aspiring creator can incorporate into their own stories.

Avatar The Last Airbender is currently streaming on Netflix.

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