Water. Earth. Fire. Air.

How a 15-year-old kids cartoon became the most popular thing on Netflix

Avatar: The Last Airbender is still one of the most celebrated animated shows ever. Here's why.

Avatar: The Last Airbender debuted on Nickelodeon in 2005. So why does it seem to be more popular than ever a decade-and-a-half later?

On May 15, Avatar returned to Netflix, where it was met with excitement from old fans and huge streaming numbers. While Netflix doesn't release viewership stats (except on rare occasions) a recently added feature revealed that The Last Airbender was the number one show or movie on the streaming service in the U.S. soon after its arrival, though it's since slipped into the top five.

Even when it debuted, the high fantasy martial arts series was a departure from the network's typical kid-focused fare, with a serialized story, endearing characters, and an imaginative universe that rewards attention to continuity. With three 20-episode seasons (plus an extra-long finale) and episodes clocking in at less than a half-hour each, The Last Airbender is perfectly suited for binge-watching, despite its emergence at a time Netflix was still a DVD-by-mail service. Even accidentally, Avatar always knew how to be evergreen.

Ang in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender.'Nickelodeon

What's Avatar: The Last Airbender about?

Set in a fictional medieval world divided into four nations — each characterized by their mastery, or "bending," of one of the elements: earth, air, fire, and water — Avatar is the story of Aang, a 12-year-old monk who awakes from a hundred-year slumber to discover he is the last living "airbender." Aang is also the Avatar, a once in a generation individual chosen to possess mastery of all four elements and bring balance to the world. To learn the elements and stop the tyrannical Fire Nation — who've taken advantage of the Avatar's disappearance to expand their powers — Aang teams up with siblings Katara and Sokka of the water tribes on a quest to master water, earth, and fire bending.

Produced by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Avatar: The Last Airbender draws inspiration from the cultures and philosophies of Asia, including the Inuit, China, Japan, and Tibet. The "bending" is visualized by real kung fu disciplines — Hung Gar, Ba Gua, T'ai Chi, and Northern Shaolin are all beautifully animated in the show.

Equivalent to Star Wars in its disparate influences, Avatar: The Last Airbender tells an original story full of adventure, danger, and spiritual growth. While it starts as a kids show, by the end of Season 3 it's become an epic tale on par with Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings,

Why Avatar matters

Avatar did more than sell ad space for commercials. It was boldly political and allegorical in ways few TV shows, let alone children's TV shows, ever are. While even obviously political shows like The West Wing masked its points with soap opera theatrics and emotional speeches, Avatar was upfront about the horrific legacies of warfare, imperialism, colonialism, genocide, migrating refugees, and oppression.

The Fire Nation, modeled after imperial Japan, stands in for virtually any totalitarian regime. In one episode late in Season 3, Aang sneaks into a Fire Nation classroom undercover. There, he learns the Fire Nation and its "national history book" are full of white-washed or flagrantly incorrect history. Few shows ever tackle the propaganda of totalitarian states, and Avatar did it in a way that even children could understand and enjoy.

Again tapping into its Asian influences, the show often explored aspects of Buddhist and Taoist ideas regarding free will, fate, and destiny. With a boy like Aang thrust into a position of greatness like the Avatar, the show challenged narratives found in stories like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Zuko, the stubborn prince of the Fire Nation's Fire Lord Ozai, evolves from narrow-minded villain to conflicted anti-hero. His guardian Uncle Iroh frequently finds himself reeling in the prince, and at one point in Season 2, it boils into a fever pitch.

"Is it your own destiny, or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?" Iroh asks his hot-headed nephew in a tense moment. “It’s time for you to look inward, and begin asking yourself the big questions: Who are you, and what do you want?”

Big questions for a show that became a Happy Meal. Just as it can be thrilling with breath-taking action and gorgeous animation, Avatar was also unique in its firm grasp of story, characters, and its liberal spiritualism. Avatar never talked down to its young audience, instead encouraging them to think deeply, and for themselves.

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' rocketed to the top of Netflix's streaming charts.Netflix

Why Avatar is still popular 15 years later

Avatar's popularity caught people off guard. Anecdotally, I remember a 2010 high-school graduation party where everyone wound up raving about Avatar, red cups in hand. Former cheerleaders and football players proudly yelled out whether they were "Fire Nation" or "Earth Kingdom," all without the need for a BuzzFeed quiz.

I missed out on Avatar during its broadcast run, so to hear this kind of enthusiasm was stunning. But the numbers support that sentiment.

It was the highest-rated animated show in its key demographics (ages 6-11) and 5.6 million people tuned in to the series finale in 2008. In 2020, the show became the "number one" thing Netflix viewers watched. Specific numbers are unknown as the service is notoriously opaque with the performance of its content, but considering Netflix's 70 million subscribers in the U.S. alone that's no small feat. (Inverse reached out to Netflix for further details on Avatar: The Last Airbender's streaming numbers but did not receive a response.)

You don't have to look too deep to figure out why Avatar is beloved. It's a sweeping high fantasy adventure that manages to be thoughtful, imaginative, and funny. Fans have always stuck by Avatar, particularly on social media and Reddit, where they kept the party going with memes and memories of their favorite moments.

It just so happens that now, more than ever, we can use some tea with Iroh.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is streaming now on Netflix.

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