WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR “AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, two planes were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. This event has since become one of the most infamous terrorist attacks of the modern age.
Nearly 3,000 individuals died in the crash and ensuing wreckage. The U.S. government then used the attack to justify a global “war on terror,” which has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions in the Middle East.
These events caused a cultural shift across the globe — the effects of which are both too varied and too recent to be meaningfully discussed in any sort of overarching way here.
The impact reached everything from politics to music to literature as creators and consumers across the world struggled to make sense of the attack, and film and television were no exception — especially in America. Hollywood executives found themselves hopelessly confused as to what people needed in the wake of this horrifying event.
At first, it seemed that depictions of large-scale urban destruction would be considered tasteless, with footage of the attack so freshly available in everyone’s mind. As a result, Hollywood took great pains to self-censor, especially in children’s media.
However, as the industry slowly began to return to normal, imagery of this sort actually seemed to experience a surge in popularity. Big-budget action films such as “Transformers” and the Marvel movies largely used cities as sets and utilized destruction to generate pathos.
Simultaneously, a new breed of nationalistic media began to emerge, reinforcing ideals of loyalty to the country and president. This sentiment was strong, and resulted in the unceremonious crushing of careers for media figures such as the Dixie Chicks, who dared to question the burgeoning war on terror.
These two trends combined to form an idea in cinema that would go unquestioned for nearly a decade: show all of the violence, but none of the consequences.
In the midst of these trends, Nickelodeon aired in 2005 the first episode of the animated series “Avatar: the Last Airbender.”
Set in a fantasy world where individuals can manipulate, or “bend,” the four classical elements, it followed the adventures of Aang, the latest incarnation of the Avatar — a messainic figure and the only individual who can bend all four elements — as he tried to bring peace to a world ravaged by a century of warfare.
Though nominally a kid’s show, it quickly attracted the attention of all ages through its exemplary worldbuilding, character writing and powerful messages. It eventually earned a Peabody Award.
On the Peabody Awards’ website, the show is commended for its “multi-dimensional characters, unusually complicated personal relationships for a cartoon serial, and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.”
Growing up watching the show, I — and presumably children all over the world — didn’t exactly pick up on the subtext for which “Avatar” won this prestigious award. But looking back on it, it’s amazing how subversive it was for its time.
“Avatar” rarely, if ever, showed actual violence, having most fights end without major wounds and using cutaways and camera angles to hide anything that would be graphic. But despite this, it had a remarkable sense of the consequences of violence, showing how war rips apart families and communities, how it damages the planet and how it corrupts nearly everyone who touches it.
The show doesn’t paint one side as uniformly good and the other as uniformly bad, showing us a range of moralities and world views on both sides. The goal of the protagonists was not to win the war, but to end the war — not to enforce a particular culture or worldview, but to restore balance between nations and nature.
It’s nearly the opposite of most war flicks of its time. Rather than showing the violence but not the consequences, it shows the consequences without the violence — and that somehow hits harder than being shown both. It allows us to see the horrors of what war does without distracting us with the adrenaline-pumping bloodshed inherent to action scenes.
In an era where the dominant message was to fall in line, a children’s TV series delivered a strikingly nuanced and subtle criticism. This show is nothing short of astounding.