Is Avatar: The Last Airbender Technically a Superhero Show?

Pulling inspiration from so many sources, it goes without saying that Avatar: The Last Airbender is not easy to classify. Arguments rage about whether it's an anime, whether it's a kid's show and in what genre the series fits most neatly. However, the contentious question that occurs far less often cuts Avatar to its core: is the series a superhero story?

Superhero fiction is a broad enough category that it can be difficult to pin down, but there are doubtless several similarities Avatar shares with some of the most famous installments in the superhero canon. What's perhaps most surprising is that many of Avatar's biggest superhero elements may not surround Aang himself. It's the rest of the Gaang who are the real superheroes.

Aang, Momo, Sokka, Toph, and Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender

In trying to define what makes a "superhero story," it can be difficult to pin down universal qualities that fit everywhere. Spider-Man and Batman may wear masks, but Superman does not. Spider-Man and Superman may have powers, but Batman does not. All three of them may be moral paragons who adhere to strict principles, but other examples like Wolverine, Deadpool or Harley Quinn certainly don't. In looking at the core traits of the genre, there is no single quality that, if missing, dismisses the possibility of a character being a superhero. Instead, the number of superhero qualities makes a subject more or less like a superhero story without there being any definitive tipping point.

To that end, the case seems strong that Avatar is at least a kind of superhero story. Aang utilizes unique powers and abilities in the pursuit of a moral goal that frequently puts him in conflict with the villains who would threaten the world. While he may not wear a mask, her certainly has an iconic costume and look between his robes and tattoos that are as immediately recognizable as Batman's cowl or Superman's cape. To a degree, Aang even has multiple alternate personas such as the "Avatar" or "The Bridge Between Worlds" that come with their own legacy and identity, just as Peter Parker is distinct from Spider-Man.

However, the real alter egos of Avatar that solidify its status as a superhero story do not center around Aang at all. In fact, almost every other member of Team Avatar dons an alternate persona and costume throughout the original series that far more perfectly fits the superhero mold. For Zuko, it was his adventures as the masked swordsman The Blue Spirit. For Katara, it was her stint as a benevolent spirit protecting a Fire Nation village where she called herself The Painted Lady. For Toph, it was her wrestling pseudonym The Blind Bandit and later, her dalliance with danger as the Runaway.

While there may only be an argument for Aang counting as a superhero, the other members of Team Avatar endeavoring on disguised adventures share even more commonalities with the genre. In many ways, it may be easy to treat Aang's relationship with superheroics as little more than a loose analogy, not really sharing more in common with a superhero than other action-adventure protagonists like Neo or Luke Skywalker. But at the point that his friends don elaborate costumes with their own personas and backstories, the parallel to superhero fiction becomes impossible to deny.

zuko as the blue spirit avatar

One of the qualities that make Avatar stand out stylistically is its far-reaching and seemingly boundless sources of inspiration. Just as each of the Four Nations pulls from dozens of cultures across thousands of years of history, the narrative itself pulls inspiration from across all of fiction.

Looking across Avatar, one is as likely to find inspiration from the animated works of Hayao Miyazaki as they are the 1984 movie Footloose. It seems that in crafting the story, particularly for subplots involving Zuko, Katara and Toph, the series turned to superhero fiction for inspiration.

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