Monday, September 14, 2020

Talking Avatar: The Last Airbender with Victor Catano

A post by Mary Fan
Hey everyone! Mary here, and I'm joined today by fellow author Victor Catano. You may remember him from the #AStarWarADay posts that fellow ATB blogger Karissa Laurel and I did a few months back -- in case you missed 'em, here are Part 1 (hosted by Karissa) and Part 2 (hosted by me). Today, Victor and I are talking about Avatar: The Last Airbender, a 15-year-old animated kids' show that's seen a recent resurgence in popularity since it hit Netflix earlier this summer. That the show was made for 12-year-olds didn't stop Victor and me; as sci-fi/fantasy authors and geeks, of course we had to dive in and see what all the fuss was about.

For me, I had to know what all my fellow geeks -- and more than a few fellow authors -- were raving about (and had been raving about for years). What was this show that was so amazing, it has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes? What cartoon could be so perfect, not a single critic spoke ill of it? 

Well, it turns out, one with lots of heart, tons of adventure, solid world-building, and intricate storytelling. Was it perfect? Of course not -- nothing is. But it was well worth the watch.

Below is my discussion with Victor about the show. SPOILERS ABOUND. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender (A:TLA) has seen a new surge of popularity thanks to Netflix. Its cultural staying power shows that it's more than just a kids' cartoon. Having watched the whole thing, what were your overall thoughts on the show in general?

Avatar was one of those shows that I’d always heard about but had never gotten around to watching. I think it just came out at the wrong time for me. Had it aired 10 years earlier when I was in college, I’m sure I would’ve devoured it the way I did Batman: The Animated Series. I kept hearing how good A:TLA was, but never really had time to wade through Nickelodeon to find it. But since it came to Netflix (and since I have soooo much time now!) it seemed like a great time to dive in.

And my first impression was: This is ok.

Perhaps having been sold on some hype about the GREATEST ANIMATED SERIES EVER I was a little slow to warm to the pilot. Aang is very much a kid early on. Sokka hasn’t yet become the “meat & sarcasm” guy we love, he’s a real jerk early on

But after a couple episodes and once the characters got established, I was on board. Aang's childlike nature becomes a strength, tethering him to humanity as he gets god like powers. Sokka - as I heard described in one YouTube video - literally has the misogyny beaten out of him.

And that’s great, because the series evolves into an incredibly detailed and complex world, that describes the rise of fascism, government denials and secret police, morality of revolutions, and some of the best animated combat you’ll ever see. So, glad I stuck with it through a couple rocky episodes

Interesting! I, too, had heard of all the hype beforehand and was skeptical going in, but I was drawn into the show from the very first episode. I think it's because I generally like kids' entertainment (well into adulthood, I'm still the first to rush to theaters to see the latest Pixar offering) and have a high tolerance for the kind of "kid stuff" that many find grating (I thought Aang was adorable, and while Sokka was annoying, I just rolled my eyes and accepted his annoying-ness as the consequence of watching a kids' show. Besides, he doesn't get away with any of it).

A:TLA is a unique show in some ways because it's clear that the creators knew from the beginning that they had exactly 3 season to work with, and so were able plan everything ahead of time like it was one long saga, with set-ups and pay-offs, rather than making stuff up as they went along (ahem, new Star Wars). I found it really interesting how the show evolved from Season 1's more typical fantasy-quest-type of adventure to Season 2's deeper explorations of specific places to Season 3's almost static setting that focused more on character growth. Personally, I loved that even small moments from Season 1 paid off in Season 3. What did you think of the overall arc of the show?

Loved the arc! It does have a real Star Wars feel to it, with Book 2 being the strongest overall and 3 being the weakest, although Book 3 is a stronger finish than Jedi.

It’s very cool how threads planted early on are allowed to develop, especially with Aang’s approach to violence and confrontation. Aang is raised by Monks who teach non violence, which he adheres to, except when he gets into life threatening trouble. Then he can take on the Avatar State, a super powered form. However, early in the series he can’t control it and he’s horrified at the damage it causes. This plays out in the finale (spoilers, but why are you reading Avatar analysis if you haven’t seen it yet?)

For three seasons, Aang has been gearing up to fight the Fire Lord Ozai. Every character expects him to kill Ozai. They’re depending on it, so the war can end. But Aang doesn’t WANT to kill anyone. The monks taught him all life is sacred. (And this is where a 12 year old protagonist pays off. He’s young enough to believe in this sincerely) But even his past life Avatar spirits are telling him to end the fire lord! The fire lord is a killer who maimed his own son! But the show respects Aang’s beliefs and It sets up a terrific internal struggle for him

And it’s pretty heady stuff for a tween-geared show to do a 1984 style critique of North Korea and communist China.

There is no war in Ba Sing Se.

Like a lot of fantasy, it’s loosely modeled on that LOTR archetype. Group of adventurers go on a quest and do the thing and defeat the guy. But there is a ton of backstory and world building here that just makes it amazing.

Agree that it follows a Star Wars-y arc where Part 1 is the initial fun adventure, Part 2 becomes deeper and darker, and Part 3 tries to tie it all together but feels like the weakest installment. I've noticed this arc with a lot of trilogies (including the ones I've written) and I'm starting to wonder if it's inevitable... but that's a discussion for a different time. 

I will say that while I appreciate what A:TLA was trying to do with its ending, I wasn't entirely sold. I felt that Zuko backing down from confronting the Fire Lord because "That's Aang's destiny, not mine" felt a bit too dependent on predestination, and Aang's ultimate ability to solve all his problems with a superpower he'd never displayed before (taking the Fire Lord's powers away, thereby keeping him alive while neutralizing the threat) felt a bit deus ex machina. But then again, this is a fantasy epic, so a little deus ex machina might have been inevitable (Lord of the Rings sure embraced those).

Let's talk about characters! Which character did you most identify with, and why? And was this also your favorite character to watch?

Hmmm...I'm a middle aged guy with a beard who likes to read and drink tea. Who could I possible identify with in this show?

Yes, I stan Uncle Iroh. The wise, kind uncle with an endless supply of dad jokes is exactly who I'd like to be in my old age

Zuko is fascinating to watch, though,. He stars off as a pretty one-note villain. (Must catch Avatar to reclaim my HONOR!) I joked during our Hamilton watch party: who says it more? Hamilton and My Shot or Zuko and HONOR?

But he has such a great arc as a character. Starting off as the antagonist trying to catch the avatar, he breaks away from the Fire Nation to pursue his own path with Iroh. (And I love Iroh's take on destiny. You don't HAVE to do this, even though your family has drilled it into you.) Then, when he has a chance to save Aang from his evil sister, he instead joins her so he can reclaim his spot in his family, but betraying his uncle. Finally, he does the right thing and commits to team Avatar in the end.

Unlike other redemption arcs, this one depends on Zuko acknowledging that the Fire Nation did a lot of bad things. And the others are rightfully suspicious of him! Especially Katara! So it's not the typical we forgive the bad guy because he's cute kind of deal. (Right, ReyLos?)

And the scene were Zuko apologizes to Iroh and Iroh hugs him makes me tear up each time I watch it.

But there are so many great characters here! Funny Sokka! Maternal Katara! Kick ass Toph! Hapless Cabbage Guy!

I'm going to go against the grain and say that I don't care for Azula that much. I find her very one note, especially compared to her two friends - acrobatic Ty Lee and Hot Topic Employee/Knife Enthusiast Mai

Iroh's a great character for sure! Love watching him. And totally agree about Zuko. I was taken aback at the end of Season 2 when he betrays Iroh to reclaim his spot as a favored son of the Fire Nation - I thought his redemption arc was going to be much more straightforward. But I actually love that they had him backslide first before realizing the error of the Fire Nation's ways and joining Team Avatar. Added a whole 'nother level of complexity and made the turn more compelling - he got everything he wanted and chose to turn away from it to do the right thing, rather than letting go of what he could never have, which was where Season 2 seemed to be going at first. He was certainly my favorite character to watch because of how well he was written. Even in Season 1, when he was more of one-note villain, he had little moments where you'd see that peeking through (I think it was the 2nd episode where he has a chance to take down his rival Zhao while the latter is down and chooses to walk away). 

Azula, I felt, was a missed opportunity. There's been a lot of fan analysis after the fact that digs into her a bit more - the favored child who went mad because she couldn't handle the amount of responsibility she was given, the prodigy who pushed everyone away and ended up terrified and alone. One especially poignant one pointed out that Ozai never loved either of his children - he favored Azula because she was a prodigy, and she spent her life thinking her only value came from her abilities and from not being her loser brother (and so she couldn't handle it when he found friends who appreciated him flaws and all, because she thought perfection was the only way to achieve value). This is all super interesting! But it didn't come through onscreen... it took a lot of overthinking after the fact, and I think storytellers should have to do a bit more work than that.

The character I identify with (and who's generally my favorite) is Katara - surprise, surprise. You know I love spunky heroines! And I definitely identified with her mom-like tendencies (her efforts to keep everything running amid chaos) as well as her struggle to master her powers - loved that you got to see the effort she put into learning her power, rather than the power just magically coming to her (ahem, Rey).
We've spent a lot of time gushing over how awesome A:TLA is, and its praise is well deserved. However, nothing is perfect. What were some parts you found lacking?

There are a couple of things with the bending I wish they would have explored more. THere are the four basic elements of course - Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. But some people can refine these abilities and create new subsets! Like Toph just kinda invents Metalbending, because she realizes that metal comes from ore that comes from the earth. And the creepiest thing I've ever seen in a kid's show - bloodbending. Because blood is mostly water, it can be used to control people.

So it might have been cool to look at more of this. Maybe get more into "darker" kinds of bending. I think they get into this a little more in Korra, but I'm only through Season 1 of that.

And while I appreciate the nature of the three season story, it does feel a bit rushed towards the end. They finale is amazing, but there's a real "when do we get to the fireworks factory" feeling in Book Three. Like, there's a whole episode where Aang has anxiety dreams that's largely unnecessary.

But that's pretty minor on my part.

I did have a question for you, though. In this age where so many white VO actors are no longer doing characters of color (Abu on Simpsons, Cleveland on Family Guy), did any of the casting choices bother you? This is an Asian inspired fantasy world bit the voice cast is mainly white.

I'm glad you brought that up! I will say, while I enjoy the fact that this is a non-Western fantasy and the art style is very much Asian (I believe it was animated by a Korean studio), I didn't love how the good guys were more white-passing and the bad guys were more visibly East Asian. For instance, Aang and Katara, while certainly drawn in a way that suggests that they are non-white (Aang being coded Tibetan and Katara being coded Inuit), they're given more Western-looking features than, say the evil Zhao and Azula or even Zuko, who after all, is introduced as your run-of-the-mill scarred baddie. Of course, Aang and Katara are also drawn in a very anime style, so... it's complicated? I also didn't love that the Fire Nation is clearly coded Japanese and the Earth Nation is clearly coded Chinese, evoking World War 2 (that part most Westerners aren't taught about) and depicting the former as evil imperialists and the latter as corrupt bureaucrats without really examining the broader world forces (in history) that helped lead to that. But that's asking a lot for a kids' show. Not dinging it, just pointing out that there's a lot to unpack.

As for voice actors. I am glad that there's a movement away from casting white voice actors as people of color. In a perfect world, anyone should be able to voice anyone, but of course, that's not really the case. White actors are routinely cast as characters of color, but you don't really see actors of color cast as white people. In the case of A:TLA, again, all the good guys - Katara, Aang, Sokka, Toph - are voiced by white actors. I believe only Zuko and Iroh are voiced by Asian actors, and both, while great characters, definitely play into Asian stereotypes (the guy obsessed with honor, the bearded proverb-y wise man). 

Like I said, lots to unpack. The show turned out great, but the fact is, it's an Asian fantasy written by white people for white people. Meanwhile, there's never, as far as I can tell, been a fantasy created by Asian Americans in Western TV (let's leave Asia out of this discussion, as this is an American show).

Hey Nickelodeon, if you're listening, the animation rights for my Asian fantasy are up for grabs ;-).

We've talked a lot about this show as fans (and nerds!), but of course, we're also both SFF writers ourselves. As an SFF writer, what were your thoughts on the storytelling/worldbuilding aspects?

Right, ideally the part should go to the best person for the job, but that ignores decades of whitewashing in Hollywood.and how the "best" person somehow always turns out to be a white guy who knows the director.

At least it wasn't as bad as the casting of the horrendous live action movie, where Sokka and Katara were translucently white, blond and blue-eyed.

As to fantasy world building, I think you need to strike a balance between careful planning and leaving yourself room to explore. Avatar has some basic rules:(only the Avatar can bend more than one element, these are the only types of benders) but then allows themselves room to break {or bend them, heh} when convenient and yet they still make sense in the physics of the show. (See: swampbending or bloodbending, where water benders use the water inside something else)

And the nations are very well established. The large Fire and Earth nations are the main combatants in the war, while the much smaller Water tribes are on the fringes and the Air nomads are wiped out early on. They do a great job showing how smaller communities are impacted by this 100 year war - like the Clint Eastwood episode where Zuko gets all Yojimbo to protect some farmers from corrupt Earth Soldiers. It's a well plotted series that still allows time for the characters to explore some of the smaller parts of it.

(Also, for Asian created fantasy created on Asian TV, I am a huge fan of the Korean zombie show Kingdom. It's Ran, but with zombies!)

I will say, I often envy SFF movies/TV because I feel like they can get away with more than us prose writers can when it comes to convenient worldbuilding. Like, you don't have to describe how Katara goes from barely able to lift a drop to parting the Red Sea... you just throw in a few cool-looking training montages and show it. Or when Sokka masters swordfighting in one day after another training montage. Seeing is believing and all.
Overall the writing is stellar, of course - I just feel like there were some visual shortcuts ;-).

All righty, we could talk about this all day, but it's time to wrap this mother up! Anything you want to talk about that we didn't touch on yet?

Katara should've ended up with Zuko. Ending up with Aang felt too much like she was dating her brother. (For that matter, Aang and Toph would've been a great couple, too.)

And that's from a guy who HATED the ReyLo ending of Rise of Skywalker.

What a fun discussion! Time for my hot leaf juice!

And yeah, totally unfair that tv & movies can just write TRAINING MONTAGE in a script and we have to find a way to make pages of lessons seem interesting and exciting in a book.

Right?? Totally agree about the romantic pairings, by the way. Zuko/Katara had much more interesting chemistry than Aang/Katara - particularly since Aang's crush on Katara brought out a lot of ugliness that you don't see from him otherwise (jealousy, possessiveness, even a controlling streak), while Zuko's interactions with Katara forced both to grow (Katara's is the trust Zuko has to work hardest to gain; Zuko helps Katara confront and overcome her vengeful side). Aang/Toph would have been fun, I agree! I think part of it's also life stage... Katara very much feels like a high schooler while Aang very much feels like an elementary schooler, and so pairing them up just felt weird. Maybe if they'd flashed forward to five years later, when both are young adults, it could've worked.

Yeah, Aang very clearly is crushing on Katara the way Ia kid would crush on his babysitters. It's puppy love and it just feels like something he'd grow past once Katara wasn't the only girl he knew. And even though she's only 2 years older, she just seems so much more mature. Toph's brashness would be good for ol' Twinkle Toes

Lol!! Yup! Thank you for a great discussion, Victor! And when we've both finished watching Legend of Korra, we'll have to do this again :-D


Victor Catano said...

Thanks for inviting me! I had a blast.

Karissa Laurel said...

I'm having major FOMO! My kiddo LOVES Airbender and is disappointed I'm not able to discuss it with him. Guess it's finally time I watch this show, especially if both of y'all like it so much.

Victor Catano said...

Catch up and you can talk about Legend of Korra with us!

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