How "Avatar: The Last Airbender" Changed Animation for the Better

Tamara Fuentes
Photo credit: Nickelodeon - Netflix
Photo credit: Nickelodeon - Netflix

From Seventeen

For many Netflix users, May 15th was a pretty big day thanks to all the brand new content that was being added. Avatar: The Last Airbender made its way to the streaming giant, over 15 years after it originally premiered on Nickelodeon. The animated series, which has long been considered possibly the greatest of all time, had fans running to their nearest screen to rewatch the show with a brand new lens. But, for some other fans, the show's highly-anticipated May 15th return was more of a passing of the baton moment.

It's almost impossible to think about how far children's animation has come over the past few years without talking about the impact that Avatar: The Last Airbender made. Despite the fact that the show was created for children on a network marketed to kids, the series feels a lot more adult than it was originally pitched as. With topics like politics, ethics, and identity spread out throughout the show's three seasons, it proved that not only is it important for children to talk about these kinds of issues, but that they can completely understand it and it should not be avoided because of their age.

Photo credit: Nickelodeon - Netflix
Photo credit: Nickelodeon - Netflix

Series creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, took it one step further with the creation of The Legend of Korra, the spin-off of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show was much darker than its predecessor, but continued to push the envelope thanks to topics like gender, race, spirituality, mental health and sexuality.

The series finale for The Legend of Korra, which aired December 19, 2014, revealed that the two leading women of color of the series, Korra and Asami, are bisexual. The two women head off on vacation together, hand-in-hand, in the show's final moments. Their adventures have since continued in a popular comic book series that still runs today. Without ATLA's great success, there is a chance that The Legend of Korra and that iconic moment would not have happened.


For fans of She-Ra: The Princesses of Power, which also premiered its final season on May 15th, the moment feels familiar. The DreamWorks Animation/Netflix series' fifth and final season was released to much fanfare and critical acclaim. Unless you were a fan of the show, you might have missed the historic moment that happened between Adora/She-Ra and Catra, best friends turned foes and now, thanks to the series finale, lovers. The two women revealed their love for one another and shared a kiss in a sweet moment that brought Catradora to life for fans who had been hoping for a confirmation of their relationship for almost two years.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power also follows in both show's footsteps in other ways. The series is filled with strong female characters, both in the good and bad side. They often talk about mental health, particularly with Catra's journey. The politics between the evil Horde versus the Princesses is something that feels similar to ATLA and TLOK and the many foes that they had faced over the years.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

There are plenty of other shows that feel like they follow in those exact footsteps that also pushed the envelope in a variety of ways. Cartoon Network's Steven Universe, which started in 2013 and ended just this year, created greater representation for queer and LGBTQ+ characters in children's animation. DreamWorks and Netflix's Voltron: Legendary Defender, which reunited co-showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery who worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, also talked about race, gender identity/expression, and politics.

Without Avatar: The Last Airbender proving that children's animation can be a starting ground for those various topics, many of the storylines that have been explored over the years would likely still be considered as "too dark or adult". Older viewers who are rewatching the series have also mentioned how much of an impact the series has had thanks to them watching it while they were younger.

A world without Avatar: The Last Airbender feels like it could be entirely different. But now, thanks to various shows and creators that have come out since then, ATLA has given families and generations their own version of these kinds of stories to pass on to the next. Thankfully, Netflix made it easier for us to go back to where it all began with just the push of a button.

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