Friday, January 14, 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Episode 2: "The Avatar Returns"

Writers: Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Director: Dave Filoni

The path that a hero must take is not always a clear one—even if he has a large blue arrow on his head, pointing the way. In the second episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, "The Avatar Returns," Aang, the century-frozen Avatar and last surviving member of the Air Nomads, discovers that sometimes, the path may zig when expected to zag.

The trouble begins when Aang inadvertently sets off a trap aboard an abandoned Fire Nation vessel, alerting Prince Zuko to his presence in the village of the Southern Water Tribe. The angry young prince, having spent two years tracking the Avatar to present him as a gift to his father, orders his crew to steer their ship to that village, where he demands that Aang—who'd been banished for endangering the tribe by triggering the alert—be surrendered to him. Aang returns despite how the tribe treated him, agreeing to turn himself over if Zuko will leave the villagers alone. But once aboard Zuko's ship, Aang uses his airbending skills to free himself and face Zuko in battle.

As is often the case in fiction, the friendship between Aang and Sokka—one of two siblings who, in the first episode, freed him from the ice in which he remained frozen for 100 years—does not develop immediately. In fact, their relationship takes a rather sour turn early in this second chapter, when Sokka urges his people to banish the child for triggering the Fire Nation's trap and endangering them all.

His sister, Katara, not yet the confident warrior and fierce ally she will become, accepts Aang's banishment with only a small amount of protest.

The villagers, Sokka in particular, recognize their mistreatment of Aang, however, when the youth puts his own life at stake to protect them, and then surrenders so that their lives may be spared. Stunned to discover that their new friend is the long-lost Avatar, Katara and Sokka vow to rescue him—though a canoe is little match for Zuko's massive sea vessel, and certainly unable to match pace with it.

That's where Appa comes in. It's a staple component of fantasy and science fiction for heroes to be accompanied by beasts and creatures somehow able to communicate with them. Harry Potter has his owl, Hedwig. Jake Sully, in James Cameron's version of Avatar, has the Toruk, a deadly flying predator only he can tame. And so forth. In Aang's case, his loyal companion is a humongous flying bison, which requires a special command to begin flying. Sokka, providing the episode's humor, dismisses the idea of a flying bison, and sits in the beast's saddle, bored to tears as he humors Katara by trying several commands, expecting none of them to have any effect whatsoever. When he hits upon the correct phrase—"yip, yip"—Appa takes to the skies. His grumpy, cynical nature momentarily forgotten, Sokka is openly amazed to find himself flying high above the lands of the Water Tribe. It's a genuinely charming moment.

The nature of airbending is further explored in this episode, as Aang, no longer concerned about endangering the villagers once safely out to sea, uses his skills to confound the Fire Nation guards leading him to his cell. The Bending Arts are, in many respects, what Jedi powers should be—varied, unpredictable and amazing to behold. Whether due to technical limitations, budgetary restraints or a simple lack of imagination, the benders' Star Wars analogs, the Jedi, tend to do the same tricks over and over again: swordplay, jumping, hurling objects and so forth. But when it comes to airbending and firebending (the two Bending Arts showcased so far), the stunts are more visually complex and varied, and are thus more effective. How interesting can yet another lightsaber battle really be compared to watching someone summon a massive, churning column of ocean water, or propel himself across a room with a furious explosion of wind? It's no wonder the film adaptation of The Last Airbender was focused more on spectacle than on characterization—the sight is impressive as hell.

Humor is a large component of this. Amusingly, Aang warns his guards that he can best them with his hands tied behind his back—which they are, and which he does, using a gust of wind to disperse his adversaries.

But the situation becomes dire when Aang is forced to again fight Zuko, causing him to fall into the icy waters below. It's at this point that the series reveals a fascinating aspect of Aang's powers: the Avatar State. In danger of dying, Aang unconsciously undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts. His eyes glow, and he innately begins waterbending—a skill inherited from prior Avatars, and one he normally does not exhibit. This enables him to thrust himself into the air on a column of sea water, and to create a spinning wall of liquid that sends Zuko and his guards flying. Appa and the Water Tribe siblings then arrive, and Aang makes his escape.

We learn something interesting as Katara and Aang discuss what happened aboard the ship. The child has no idea how he managed to waterbend, or why he no longer has the ability to do so after leaving the Avatar State, and says he never wanted to be the Avatar in the first place, but was cast in the role against his will. The reluctant hero is another staple of fiction, and the audience is left wanting to know more about Aang's rejection of his Avatar status. Why did he resist becoming the Avatar? Why was he forced to take on the role? And why do his other bending skills come and go if the Avatar is supposedly able to master all four elements?

My one fear with Avatar: The Last Airbender is that this series could quickly become redundant and formulaic if not handled properly, and it'll be interesting to see if the writers can avoid this trap. Zuko, after being thwarted in his efforts to bring Aang to his father, vows not to underestimate the boy again—a major cliché—and I can't help but hope this will not turn out to be a common trend.

It would be all too easy to have Aang and his friends continuously pursued and attacked by Zuko, only to repeatedly get away at the last minute, with Zuko shaking his fist in fury and yelling, "I'll get you some day, Avatar!" Anyone who has read the vast line of novels and comics based on Star Wars, or other big-name franchises, is well familiar with how that can damage the credibility of a mythos. Consider The Incredible Hulk's Mr. McGee, or The Fugitive's Lieutenant Gerard, or Star Wars' Asajj Ventress, or any of countless other protagonists who constantly fail to capture their prey—eventually, it makes them less of a threat in the eyes of viewers.

Drama and tension quickly fade when the audience has no doubt that the heroes will escape unscathed. The real question is this: Will Avatar walk the fine line between unpredictability and "good shall prevail in the end"?

Before continuing with The Last Airbender, I'll be taking a look back at season 1 of Quantum Leap. Oh, boy!

1 comment:

  1. It is a fine line. I gotta admit, I like the fist-shaking, Claw-style villains of animated series, so long as it's done right.