Themes From The Avatar Universe That Prove The Shows Aren't Just For Kids

Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra tackled heavy themes throughout their run time, despite being on Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon is world-renowned for being known as a children's TV station. With famous shows like Spongebob, ICarly, and Fairly Oddparents all being targeted to younger audiences. They did create another channel where they released shows targeting a bit older audiences. 

However, two shows released in Nickelodeon's tenure on the air that is more than meets the eye. These two shows are Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. They were both created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. 

avatar the last airbender is also for adults

Avatar: The Last Airbender was initially released in 2005 on Nickelodeon and followed the adventures of, as the title suggests, the last Airbender named Aang. It takes place in a world where humans can manipulate four main elements, earth, fire, air, and water. Each element comes with a nation representing it—The Air Nomads, Northern and Southern Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and Fire Nation.

The Avatar is born and is the only person able to master all four elements, along with their duty to help keep the world in balance. In fact, once the Avatar dies, they are reincarnated into the next nation; for example, Aang is an Airbender, but in Legend of Korra, the protagonist Korra is a Waterbender. The Avatar after Korra will be an Earthbender and, after that, a Firebender. 

Aang is the Avatar, but he is just a goofy, loveable kid who has just woken up from a 100-year sleep frozen in ice, unaware of how long he's been gone, and completely unaware that his entire race and culture has been killed while he's been trapped in ice. 

Aang being woken up in the iceberg.

Genocide is one of the darkest themes shown in the original Avatar show. While Aang had tried to escape from his responsibilities as Avatar, the Fire Lord, or leader of the Fire Nation, used the power of a comet that enhanced the powers of a Firebender to wipe out the entire Air Nation in order to kill the Avatar. 

Aang then has to cope with this loss, all while thinking he was asleep for a couple of days at best, and well, he does not take the news particularly well. His anger causes him to go into the Avatar State, an ability in which the Avatar can access all the knowledge of their past lives to use it in battle. When accessing the Avatar State, Aang almost launches his friends off a cliff. 

A prominent theme in the first season would be women's empowerment. It is smaller compared to some of the themes that are present in all three seasons of the show, but it still makes an impact. Aang's friends, and the people that discovered him, are two Southern Water Tribe siblings named Katara and Sokka. 

Katara is the last Waterbender in the Southern Tribe, and Sokka is a non-bender but is the only male left in their village because all of the adult males went off to fight in the 100 Year War started by the Fire Nation. In the very first episode, his sexist comments towards his sister actually spark the entire event of the show. He gets her so riled up that she accidentally cracks open the iceberg that was containing Aang open.

Sokka gets called out again when they visit Kyoshi Island, an island created by one of Aang's past lives. They have a fighting group called the Kyoshi Warriors, and Sokka automatically is offended when they get captured by a bunch of girls, as he delicately said in the show. After a few more sexist remarks and an attempt to fight with the leader of this group, Suki, Sokka swallows his pride and admits that they were just as formidable as him in combat. 

In season one, the last major sexist event involves Katara and Aang's attempt to learn Waterbending in the North Pole with the Northern Water Tribe. Their teacher, Pakku, does not allow Katara to learn water bending for combat since women belonged in the healing huts. After an intense battle and a revelation that Pakku was engaged to Sokka and Katara's grandmother before she fled to the Southern Water Tribe to escape these beliefs, he teaches her, becoming a Waterbending master.

katara vs pakku
Katara vs Pakku

In the original show, the theme of imperialism is ever-present with the expansion that the Fire Nation has made across the Earth Kingdom. The Fire Nation used its superior technology in order to spread itself across the Earth Kingdom. Initially, they wanted to share their ideas and technology with the rest of the world, but as time moved along and younger generations came about, they started to feel superior to the rest of the world. Hence, why the Fire Nation attacked the Air Nation in an attempt to kill the Avatar since they were worried the Avatar would try to stop their growth.

The Fire Nation then began to change its history, as seen in a Season 3 episode where Aang attends a Fire Nation school in disguise. They brainwash the children into thinking that the rest of the world loves the Fire Nation and that they are doing this for the betterment of the world. They even say the war started between the Air Nomad army, despite the Air Nomads being monks and not having a military. 

Before I jump into The Legend of Korra's themes, there is one last one from Avatar that deserves mention. It is the philosophical questions towards destiny and how it goes about it. Prince Zuko, the heir to the Fire Nation throne, is a character all about his destiny to find the Avatar. He was banished by his father, the Fire Lord, and sent to search the globe to find the Avatar. 

He feels it is his destiny so he can claim the throne when he returns home and hopes his father would accept him. But after many encounters over the course of the show's three seasons, Zuko learns many different things with the help of his Uncle Iroh. He even gets his chance to return home under the guise that he killed the Avatar, despite Aang just being in a coma. 

He becomes conflicted with himself because he got everything he ever wanted but still is not satisfied. He soon learns that he can write his own story and redeems himself of all his heinous actions towards Aang and his friends by turning on his father and helping Aang stop the 100 Year War. Zuko is one of the best-written animated characters on all television, and his redemption story is proof of that.

The Legend of Korra
The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the end of Avatar. It resembles a 1920s New York during the roaring 20s. Korra is the Avatar. She finds herself in Republic City, the capital of the United Republic of Nations, where all benders of all elements and non-benders of all nations can live amongst each other in a booming city. 

She has to deal with terrorists, spirits, and her own mind throughout the show's four seasons. Firstly, she has to deal with the unjust class system that exists in Republic City and the gap between benders and non-benders. A group is known as the Equalists, led by Amon, who could take people's bending away; an ability is only known to the Avatar until that point, trying to bridge the gap. 

In the second season, Korra has to fight her uncle to unify the human and spirit worlds by absorbing a dark spirit. Initially, her uncle, Unalaq, just wanted to restore the balance of the spirit and human worlds but is pushed to the extreme when absorbing the dark spirit. He uses extremism to become the antithesis of Korra and force the world into an age of darkness. 

She then has to deal with a group that believes that anarchy will set people free. Zaheer, an Airbender, had just been freed from prison after 13 years and is set on removing all major political leaders like the Earth Queen, whom he removes all the air from her lungs, causing her to suffocate and die. In overthrowing the Earth Queen, Zaheer and his group expose the Earth Kingdom and how they have been ignoring their lower class. 

Zaheer manages to capture and poison Korra, almost killing her in the process, before being captured and once again being incarcerated in prison. 

Korra's season 4 poster 

Everything comes full circle for Korra in the last season, as she deals with the effects of her battles over the past three seasons, particularly her battle with Zaheer and her near-death experience. Between seasons three and four, there is a three-year time skip, and as season four progress, we get a few flashback scenes that show Korra's attempts at recovery. 

She struggles physically and mentally because of what happened to her. Her bending is not as strong, and it pushes her to the brink mentally. In an attempt to find herself again, she leaves the South Pole to travel the world under the guise of returning to Republic City. 

However, this doesn't work for her as she joins an underground Earthbending ring and loses pretty badly. She starts to hallucinate while returning after her match. She sees images of herself in the Avatar State and begins to attack them until she is brought back to reality by some innocent bystanders witnessing the noise. 

Throughout the entire season, we see Korra's struggles with her PTSD and her eventual triumphs and return to form as the Avatar. 

Both of these shows pushed the boundaries of the ordinary children's show when they were first released. Avatar might have been a bit more subtle with their themes, while The Legend of Korra was more out in the open about it, but both of these shows are fantastic, and I highly recommend watching both of them. Between the great characters, great writing, and obviously the shows' themes make them both great shows for people of all ages and not just children.

Curry College Student. An aspiring writer, journalist, and knowledgable TV and Movie fan.

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