One of the best cartoons of all time has come to save the summer of 2020. Avatar: The Last Airbender's arrival on Netflix could not have come at a better time, and a slew of old fans (now in their thirties) and new ones (all other ages) are reveling in the epic journey of Aang (Zach Tyler), Katara (Mae Whitman), Sokka (Jack De Sena), and Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy, who was credited as Jessie Flower) to best the Fire Lord.
Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for Nickelodeon, the animated series—which chronicles the adventures of the reincarnated master with the ability to psychically move air, water, fire, and Earth in order to bring balance to the world—originally ran from 2005 to 2008. Stuffed with a variety of Asian fighting, design, and philosophical influences, the mature-for-kids action show challenged preconceived notions (and fate itself) with intelligence, empathy, and beauty. And its resurgent popularity is proving its young status as a classic.
1. Bending is based on real martial arts styles.
Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the show's creators, consulted Northern Shaolin master Sifu Kisu to craft distinct styles to correspond to the four main elements that are bent within the series: Tai Chi for water, Hung Gar for Earth, Northern Shaolin for fire, and Bagua for air. The styles are tonal matches for the elements; Tai Chi is smooth and controlled, for example, while Northern Shaolin is aggressive and dynamic.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender exists because of a documentary about Ernest Shackleton.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was an early 20th century explorer who led many expeditions, the most famous of which was a journey to the South Pole aboard a ship called the Endurance. The trip went dangerously awry, but Shackleton was able to get everyone back alive. DeMartino was watching a documentary about Shackleton around the same time Konietzko had doodled a funny drawing about a bald kid with an arrow on his forehead. Those two elements merged together and became the beginning of Aang's journey.
3. There's a simple reason Avatar: The Last Airbender included heavy themes like genocide and imperialism.
When you think of kids shows, you don't usually think about genocide, which is why most people express astonishment that Avatar: The Last Airbender was able to explore such dark material alongside all the Sokkasm and Appa burping. Konietzko, however, has an easy explanation. "Kids are deeper than a lot of people, and especially corporations, give them credit for," he told The Mary Sue.
4. Bryan Konietzko got beat up a lot for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The team made reference videos to make the animation rooted in real-world fighting, typically doing about three video sessions per episode. Sifu Kisu usually portrayed one fighter in the scene, and Konietzko (who was also one of Sifu Kisu's students) would portray the other. That meant a lot of time being pulled around by the thumbs or dumped on a practice mat by a world-class master. Great art requires sacrifice.
5. The voice of Azula on Avatar: The Last Airbender got the job because she didn't yell at the audition.
The team was looking for a famous actress to voice the villainous Fire Nation royal, but didn't find the right fit, so Grey DeLisle-Griffin got an opportunity to audition. When she did, she stood out by avoiding yelling lines that clearly beg to be yelled from a character with an explosive temper. "I was very contained and quiet because I felt like Azula was just so powerful she didn't need to yell at anybody," DeLisle-Griffin told Syfy.
6. Avatar: The Last Airbender's Commander Zhao was inspired by the actor who would eventually voice him.
Zhao is the vicious big bad for season 1—a zealot who is willing to destroy the moon in order to weaken the water tribes. When writing his character, the team drew inspiration from Jason Isaacs's portrayal of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot. DiMartino asked casting director Maryanne Dacey to find someone like Isaacs. "A few days later, she got the real deal," DiMartino said.
7. Avatar: The Last Airbender's Fire Lord Ozai is Luke Skywalker
Mark Hamill is famous both for playing that scruffy nerf-herder who loses his hand in a laser sword fight with his (spoiler alert!) dad, and for crafting an indelible voice acting career marked by disappearing into roles. The ultimate villain of Avatar: The Last Airbender is on that list, which is why you might detect just a hint of The Joker's voice from Batman: The Animated Series when Ozai scolds Zuko. When Hamill originally got the script, he thought the show wouldn't last because it was too intelligent.
8. Avatar: The Last Airbender's scariest bending technique had a silly nickname.
Bloodbending! It's terrible! As a more nefarious version of waterbending, bloodbending has some spooky implications. We get to see just how creepy it gets when Katara accidentally learns it from Hama. It's sometimes called the "Puppetmaster Technique" in the show's universe, but the production team called it the "Stop Hitting Yourself Technique" as a joke.
9. Toph and her parents are the only characters with last names.
Aang, Sokka, Katara, Toph Beifong. The quartet travels the world trying to train the savior of the world in anticipation of a devastating, comet-fueled invasion, but only one of them gets a family name. Even the royal Zuko and the rest of the Fire Lord crew are last-nameless. The creators haven't weighed in on this specifically, but Toph is also introduced in the context of her wealthy family's celebrity within the Earth Kingdom, and she also uses her last name to score instant tickets for the ferry to Ba Sing Se, so the name is vital to the plot.
10. Toph was originally going to be a 16-year-old boy.
The team wanted to add a muscular foil to Sokka in the second season, but as they explored the possibility, they found it far better to create a blind 12-year-old girl who absolutely wrecks larger, physically stronger Earthbenders. Her original animation design became the basis for Sud, Avatar Roku's Earth-bending instructor.
11. In the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe, toys are used to identify the Avatar.
At least they are among the air nomads. The method is to show thousands of toys to children, and if they pick only the four Avatar relics to play with, it's highly likely that they've found the reincarnated Avatar (who is picking the toys already familiar to them). The relics are a clay turtle flute, a pull-string propeller, a wooden monkey, and a wooden hand drum, all owned by previous Avatars.
12. Avatar: The Last Airbender was largely inspired by Studio Ghibli films and FLCL.
Crafting Katara's character also created a tragic backstory for the Southern water tribe. When developing Katara (originally named Kya until Nickelodeon's legal department axed it), the show's creators wanted her to have the waterbending power instead of her brother, and they didn't want her to be a master of her element like Aang is with air. Because of that, they decided Katara was still a novice because there were no waterbenders left to learn from—which required inventing a painful past, one of the terrible consequences of the war, and a key motivating factor for both her and Sokka.