The most powerful benders in Avatar: The Last Airbender mastered their abilities because it worked for their story, not just because they were cool.
What really makes the action in a story like Avatar: The Last Airbender the work isn’t just about the raw cool factor of any given moment. The elemental martial arts known as mastery has created the opportunity for extremely exciting moments throughout the series, as characters like Zuko and Katara have established themselves as the fiercest fighters of their time with some of the abilities the most unique ones available to them. However, what made all these action beats work was the value of the characters at their center.
Avatar has never lost focus on this fact, and it’s evident in the character-driven moments behind developing the sub-skills that constituted each bending art’s greatest abilities. Going back and looking at why and how they mastered such rare abilities reveals that they weren’t just expressions of character mastery, but driven by the development of the characters themselves.
Although the series began with the fundamentals of each of the four elements, the franchise grew rapidly as The Legend of Korra to include many sub-skills that expanded the power of each base item. The original series expanded the art of firebending by introducing skills like generating and redirecting lightning, and waterbending gained one of the rarest and most powerful applications with the introduction of bloodbending. But what makes both sub-skills really work is the strength of the story behind their creation.
For the dynamic between lightning generation and redirection, it’s hard to ignore the character-driven aspects behind the techniques due to how the characters explicitly discover them. As the evil Fire Lord Ozai and his amoral perfectionist daughter Azula hurl lightning bolts left and right, the technique proves nearly impossible for Prince Zuko when his uncle Iroh attempts to instruct him in the art. Generating lightning requires a degree of self-control over emotions and conflict that Zuko lacks, so instead Iroh offers Zuko the defensive art of redirection as a counter. The express mechanics of the abilities mirror the character arc that Zuko undergoes in the series; rather than learning to emulate his cold-hearted family members, he learns to redirect their negative energy into his own strength.
The same insightful parallel between powers and characterization applies to Katara and the art of bloodbending she learns from embittered Hama. Bloodbending allows a waterbender to control the water in a person’s veins and manipulate it like an object. Hama first learned the ability while stranded in a Fire Nation prison, driven to her ruthless ingenuity out of sheer desperation. Katara uses the technique against Hama to defeat her through the same desperation, then later against the Southern Raiders when she gets revenge for her slain mother.
However, the ability provides a chilling moment of self-reflection as Katara realizes that bloodbending makes her as bad as the people she uses the ability against. Much of Katara’s character over the course of the series involves not only learning to discover her own strength and ability to help others, but also the importance of her principles that set her apart from those who took her family away from her. when she was a child. The parallel turns the art of bloodbending into not just an interesting extension of the idea of how waterbending could be used, but an opportunity to further the character arc for Katara.
The opportunity for such ideas appears in nearly every sub-skill in the series. Toph’s blindness and determined individualism allow her to have the unique perspective that allows her to “see” how to bend metal. Combustion Man’s silent rage and violent determination manifests in explosive displays of combustion mastery, foreshadowing how passionately he takes on his mercenary assignments and alluding to his later refusal of Zuko’s attempts to bribe him for his contract.
Even Katara’s best qualities as a nurturer and guardian that are later challenged by her bloodbending lessons are established early on with her lessons in using waterbending to heal. Each instance and character offers new chances to gauge the place of sub-skills in the overall story, and it’s the broader integration of those abilities into the narrative that helps. Avatar stand out for the legendary reputation it still enjoys today.
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