The only primer you need before Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, and Ian Ousley in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, and Ian Ousley in Avatar: The Last Airbender
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“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.” So begins the iconic opening narration of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the 2005 Nickelodeon series that’s been hailed by fans and critics alike as one of the greatest animated shows of the 21st century—if not of all time.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the story follows a young chosen one and his friends as they traverse a fantastical, war-ravaged world on the back of a six-legged flying bison (!) in an attempt to defeat a power-mad dictator. Though Avatar is nominally aimed at kids, its masterful storytelling and sharp wit make it equally appealing for adults—that, and its ability to tackle heavy subjects like family trauma, totalitarianism, and even genocide with thought and care.

The show has been amassing a (pacifist) army of diehards since it debuted almost two decades ago. It gained a whole new following when all three seasons hit Netflix in May 2020, just as the world was caught in the grip of the COVID lockdown. Legions of bored, depressed, terrified TV viewers flocked to the series like moths to a flame because that’s exactly what Avatar is: a light in the dark. It’s a story about embracing hope in a seemingly hopeless world, of underdogs triumphing in the face of impossible odds, of the possibility of redemption for even the most irredeemable. It’s also a sweeping, gorgeous epic packed with compelling characters and badass action sequences.

Like master firebenders, DiMartino and Konietzko captured lightning in a bottle, creating a rich brew of dramatic storytelling, meticulous world-building, and whip-smart comedy. It’s no wonder the show has spawned multiple spinoffs and adaptations over the years. The latest is a live-action series adapted by Albert Kim (Sleepy Hollow, Nikita), which hits Netflix on February 22.

If you’re an Avatar noob who’s wondering why everyone around you is so obsessed with a bald kid with an arrow tattooed on his head—well, in the words of Prince Zuko, that’s rough, buddy. But don’t worry: Whether you’re coming to the series for the first time or you’re just in need of a refresher, we’re flying in on our sky bison to save the day. Here’s our guide to the animated series that started it all, from its heroes and villains—and villains-turned-heroes—to its enduring legacy.

So, wait, what’s an Avatar, exactly?

We have to zoom out to answer that. The world of Avatar is divided into four element-based societies inspired by East Asian and Inuit cultures: the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads. A segment of the population are “benders”—people born with the ability to manipulate their native element and use their powers for everything from healing to building cities to, of course, kicking ass.

The creators based each bending style on a different Chinese martial art discipline. That attention to detail shows in the series’ dynamic action sequences, whether a water bender is using a Tai Chi move to encase a baddie in icicles or a firebender is conjuring gouts of flame with a Northern Shaolin-style leg sweep.

Which brings us back to the question at hand. Like many an adventure saga, the show centers on the titular Avatar, a once-in-a-generation chosen one who can bend all four elements—a gift they must use to maintain peace among the nations and mediate disputes between humans and spirits. Like the Dalai Lama, when an Avatar dies, their soul is reincarnated in a new body, cycling continuously through the four nations. But we’re focusing on one Avatar in particular: Aang, a 12-year-old Air Nomad monk voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen.

What’s Aang’s deal?

Avatar: The Last Airbender begins after a global disaster that kicked off when the previous Avatar disappeared. With no one left to stop him, the evil Fire Lord Sozin seized the opportunity to wage war on the other nations. He began by wiping out the Air Nomads, knowing that one of them would become the next Avatar. A century later, the world is still without a chosen one, and the Fire Nation’s reign of terror continues unchecked; only the Earth Kingdom and the Northern Water Tribe stand in their way.

That is, until Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack De Sena), a pair of tween siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, find Aang frozen in an iceberg, still the same age he was when Sozin’s war began. The three embark on a journey across the world to search for bending teachers who can help Aang master the three remaining elements before the Fire Nation makes its next big move. Along the way, they’re pursued by Zuko (Dante Basco), the exiled Fire Prince who’s on an Ahab-esque quest to capture the Avatar and regain his honor.

Who are the good guys?

Aang: When the series begins, the Avatar is a wide-eyed kid saddled with an impossible task. The thing is, he’s just a playful little guy who’d rather go sledding on the back of an otter penguin (the fauna in Avatar is truly wild) than save the world from certain doom.

Katara: As the last surviving waterbender in her tribe, Katara is a chosen one in her own right. She acts as the series’ conscience, always reminding Aang of his sacred mission; but she’s also a scrappy fighter who isn’t afraid to take names when the situation calls for it.

Sokka: Though he’s the only non-bender on Team Avatar, Sokka makes up for it with his skills as a strategist and warrior. He’s also the show’s comic relief, as likely to be distracted by a passing dumpling cart as he is to save the day. But Sokka has hidden depths—particularly when it comes to his devotion to his sister.

Toph: In the second season, the central trio gets a fourth member in Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy), a blind girl who has mastered earthbending by heightening her other senses. Gruff, wry, and unconcerned with the rules, she’s the perfect foil for Aang’s cheerfulness and Katara’s do-gooder vibes.

How about the bad guys?

Zuko: Thanks to his tragic backstory, epic redemption arc, and even more epic hair journey, Zuko may be Avatar’s most iconic character. Sure, he starts as an emo teen who harrasses Aang and his pals at every turn; but throughout the series, the prince undergoes a hard-won evolution that makes him impossible not to root for.

Iroh: It feels wrong to call gentle, sweet Uncle Iroh (voiced by the legendary Mako) a bad guy. He’s just along for the ride so he can protect Zuko from his own worst instincts—and, of course, dispense wisdom and wax rhapsodic about the perfect cup of tea.

Azula: Zuko tends to pull his punches, but the same can’t be said for his sadistic little sister (Grey Griffin). Azula emerges as the big bad in season two, as she sets out to seize the throne of the Earth King and capture the Avatar—and her fugitive brother—in the process.

Fire Lord Ozai: If you want an animated villain to really pop, you call Mark Hamill. He voices the big, bad Ozai, who’s both an abusive father and a megalomaniac bent on taking over the world—even if he has to burn it down in the process.

Maria Zhang as Suki and Tamlyn Tomita as Mayor Yukari in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Maria Zhang as Suki and Tamlyn Tomita as Mayor Yukari in Avatar: The Last Airbender

I don’t have time to catch up on this whole thing—can you just tell me what happens?

Sure! But beware: spoilers ahead. Avatar is divided into three “books,” each of which sees Aang mastering a new element. In the first (which season one of the live-action series covers), the central trio makes their way to the Northern Water Tribe in search of a waterbending master, evading Zuko and rescuing various bystanders along the way. It culminates in a no-holds-barred showdown at the North Pole as our heroes face off against Admiral Zhao (Jason Isaacs), a powerful firebender who, yes, tries to murder the moon.

Season two largely takes place in the Earth Kingdom. While Toph struggles to teach Aang earthbending, Sokka investigates Ozai’s evil plan. Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh go on the run after Azula brands them as traitors. Everyone eventually winds up in the capital city of Ba Sing Se, where Zuko has a crisis of conscience and the gang uncovers a sinister conspiracy. Things go from bad to worse when Azula stages a coup—aided by her brother!—and seizes the kingdom in the name of the Fire Nation. She also fully kills Aang, but Katara uses her healing abilities to pull him back from the brink.

In the final chapter, the presumed-dead Avatar and his allies go undercover in the Fire Nation. But the clock is ticking down until the day when Ozai will harness the power of a passing comet to conquer the world once and for all. Following a crushing defeat, the gang lies low in the ruins of the Western Air Temple. They’re soon joined by a reformed Zuko, who offers himself up as Aang’s firebending teacher. After our heroes ultimately defeat Ozai and Azula, Zuko becomes the new Fire Lord—and Aang and Katara make out.

What about other Avatar projects? Didn’t M. Night Shyamalan do one?

Unfortunately, he did: The Last Airbender, a 2010 live-action film that was a flop of Appa-sized proportions. (If you’re wondering why the word “Avatar” doesn’t appear anywhere in the title, consider a little movie by James Cameron that came out the year before.) Shyamalan’s adaptation was universally panned for its terrible writing and worse performances—not to mention its decision to cast mostly white actors as the story’s decidedly not white characters. The fact that the movie had none of the original’s winning sense of humor didn’t help.

Thankfully, the franchise didn’t end there. In 2012, DiMartino and Konietzko debuted The Legend of Korra, a sequel series set 70 years after the Avatar finale. The story follows Aang’s successor, Korra (Janet Varney), a rebellious teen from the Southern Water Tribe living in a world transformed by modern technology—and by Aang’s legacy. Though the series didn’t garner the widespread acclaim its predecessor did, it’s a masterpiece in its own right. There are also reportedly a whole bunch of new additions to the animated universe on the docket.

With the Netflix series coming out this month, it remains to be seen whether the second time will be a charm for a live-action Avatar adaptation. The arresting visuals and authentic casting choices bode well: The central foursome includes Gordon Cormier (The Stand) as Aang, Kiawentiio (Anne With An E) as Katara, Ian Ousley (Physical) as Sokka, and Dallas Liu (PEN15) as Zuko. Two big-name stars are attached to play the villains: Ken Leung (as Zhao) and Daniel Dae Kim (as Ozai).

There’s one major red flag, however: DiMartino and Konietzko were set to helm the new series when it was first announced in 2018, but they dropped out two years later due to creative differences. Given that the creators have expressed frustration over being shut out of The Last Airbender back in the day, that doesn’t bode well.

Still, we’d be letting our boy Aang down if we were anything but optimistic about the new series. So we’re raising a glass of Iroh’s ginseng tea to a season of clear skies and calm bison-riding.