In this next segment of Avatar Month, I look back at what I think are the franchise’s best offerings in the realm of action. With the world featuring the very fantastical notion of people throwing elements at each other, the creators could have kept things very simple for the animators and just had everyone using standard barroom brawl techniques, with the focus on the elements themselves. But no! They went the extra mile to make sure the world felt as intricately real as possible, seeking out real-world martial forms to use as the core of each bending style (if you have not yet, do yourself a favor and look up the DVD special on the guy they found to pick out and develop each bending style for the show- it’s unbelievable). Even Toph’s entirely unique blind-style Earthbending had its own Chinese Praying Mantis form it was based off of. Add to that the various cultures and philosophical traditions they took to back up each elemental bending style with its own history, spirituality, and culture, and you have a phenomenally well-thought out canvas onto which you can paint some of the coolest action TV has ever offered.
With all that attention lovingly packed into every aspect of the world, all of the bending in each episode was something special to watch, but even still, there were a few particular fights that rise above the others. These are the ones I was most impressed by. What were yours? Feel free to comment below! Quick regarding the links- it was a lot easier to locate decent-quality clips of the fights from Korra than from Avatar, so I simply linked the good ones I could find. For the full effect of each, it's better to watch the full episode.
Honorable Mentions: Korra vs. Kuvira (the first one at Zaofu), Wan vs. Vaatu, Aang vs. Bumi, Aang vs. Azula (from “The Drill”), the Red Lotus battle at the Northern Air Temple
10. The Beifongs vs. Kuvira & Co. (The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episode 10)
After successfully breaking out Suyin and her family from their underground prison, Bolin and the entire Beifong clan make a last-minute decision to try and take out the giant spirit gun Kuvira is testing out (on Zhu Li, no less). It’s the biggest (and by far the most impressive) bout of Metalbending we get in either franchise. While the twin brothers lob giant, mortar-esque boulders over the heads of the foot soldiers, Both Lin and Su jump in to go at it hand-to-hand with Kuvira herself. Like with most of the action in Book 4, it is exquisitely tight in its choreography, never letting you catch your breath until it’s all over.
Another reason it’s on this list? Toph. Just Toph.
9. Katara vs. Paku (The Last Airbender, Book 1, Episode 18)
In the last of Book One’s “Girls gotta prove themselves to the boys” episodes, Katara finally snaps after spending an entire episode trying to convince the Waterbending master of the Northern Water Tribe to teach her alongside Aang, attacking him right in front of the tribe’s Chief. Given that he had been training his entire life, it’s no surprise that Paku does eventually win, but that actually makes Katara’s ability to hold her own for at least a few minutes all the more impressive. It’s the first great Waterbending battle of the show, but thankfully, it wasn’t the last.
8. Toph vs. The Xin Fu Gang (The Last Airbender, Book 2, Episode 6)
In Toph’s grand introduction as an Earthbending master, she takes on a whole gang of hard-bitten and merciless Earthbenders to prove to her parents that she is not as weak and helpless as they thought, and wipes the floor with each of them. It’s the most comprehensive look we got in the original show at how Toph’s abilities to sense movement allowed her to respond instantly to all manner of attacks, and why she has set the standard for Earthbending ever since.
7. Aang/Katara/Sokka/Toph/Zuko/Iroh vs. Azula (The Last Airbender, Book 2, Episode 8)
A harrowing episode of Team Avatar being pursued by Azula to the point of utter exhaustion culminates in one of the greatest team battles of the show, when a frantic firefight (literally) between Aang, Zuko, and Azula breaks out in an abandoned village. It starts out as an homage to classic Mexican stand-offs (plus bending, of course), and only builds from there, as first Katara, then Sokka, then Iroh (whom Zuko had left several episodes prior), and finally Toph (who had left the gang earlier that very episode) jump into the fray to corner Azula. Who then, in order to escape, commits the greatest possible sin in the Avatar universe by striking down Iroh. Oh, you bitch. I can’t wait to see you get frozen in what, I strongly suspect, is sewage water.
6. Tenzin vs. Zaheer (The Legend of Korra, Book 3, Episode 11)
Our one-and-only glimpse at Airbender vs. Airbender fighting, this fight and the episode around it is Tenzin’s glorious high water mark as a character. Refusing to allow the new Air Nation to come to harm, he directly takes on the entire Red Lotus at once to allow them a chance to escape. Bumi and Kya join in as well, but there’s no getting around it, what makes this fight so incredible to watch is seeing Tenzin not only match Zaheer in combat, but actually come close to beating him. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense- Zaheer was clearly an unorthodox fighter from the very beginning, and once he gained Airbending, which almost no one in the world had ever had to fight against, it stands to reason that no one could match him other than Tenzin, the only other person with greater Airbending expertise. Watching this fight closely, it is obvious that Tenzin only loses because the rest of the Red Lotus join in at the very end, allowing them to gang up on him long enough to wear him down. It’s a heartbreaking end, but it ultimately made the season finale all the more satisfying. Speaking of which….
5. The Battle of the Red Lotus Cave (The Legend of Korra, Book 3, Episode 13)
Featuring a breathtaking final face-off between Korra and Zaheer that takes mostly in midair, this grand climax was the culmination of about 3 straight episodes of the stakes (and the bending) being raised successively higher with each episode of the third season of Korra, arguably the show’s best. As poison courses through her body, Korra falls deeper and deeper into psychological madness, hallucinating that all her past foes have come back to haunt her, until she lashes out and, even in her weakened state, breaks the chains securing her and pursues Zaheer into the heavens, as Bolin and Mako stay behind to take out Ghazan and Ming-Hua, respectively. The end of the fight is also a great continuation of the theme in Korra of Korra herself not having the power to balance the world on her own- it is the new Airbenders in the end who combine to stop Zaheer and save the Avatar.
4. Katara/Aang vs. Azula/Zuko (The Last Airbender, Book 2, Episode 20)
Preceding one of the most nail-biting cliffhangers in the entire show, this battle within the old catacombs of Ba Sing Se was yet another turning point in Zuko’s journey of redemption. It was the first time he faced a stark, unambiguous choice as to what was more important- defeating the Avatar, regaining his father’s trust, and restoring his old life, or striking out on his own to forge a new path for himself. And at first, we in the audience aren’t actually sure what his choice will be. His choice only becomes clear after a great moment where he stares down both Katara and Azula simultaneously, seemingly taking one last look at everything before him, before casting his lot with Azula. And it is this choice of his that ends up being the direct cause of Aang’s defeat shortly afterwards. Zuko makes his choice, and gets what he thought he wanted. But as they say, you should always be very careful what you wish for.
3. The Battle of Republic City (The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episodes 12-13)
This grand ending to The Legend of Korra, and indeed to the franchise as a whole, is the greatest of all the team battles in both series. With Kuvira set to wreak havoc on Republic City inside a giant platinum mecha-suit, every character joins together to use bending and technological tricks both large and small to take down the beast, bit by bit. What makes the fight that follows so exciting is how, in part, just about everything they think up is countered by a contingency plan Kuvira had thought of in advance, up to and including freaking windshield wipers to get rid of the paint Milo has the Airbenders splatter across the suit’s visage. And the action continues after a final plan my Asami’s father allows them to break inside. Lin, Su, Mako, and Bolin each get their moments of heroism in taking down both the firing mechanism in the arm and the suit itself, while Korra and Kuvira duke it out in the machine’s head, leading to a final confrontation in the Spirit Forest in the middle of the city and the conclusion of Korra’s tale.
2. Katara/Zuko vs. Azula (The Last Airbender, Book 3, Episodes 20-21)
One of four primary battles in the massive, epic conclusion to The Last Airbender, this last fight between Zuko, Katara, and Azula was, for me, the most emotional- we have seen Zuko struggle for so long with his very mixed feelings of anger, inadequacy, and frustration with his sister, the one who had always been able to best him at everything in life. At peace with himself at last, he carries himself with a confidence that we had not seen before, a sense of assuredness that this is what he is meant to do to help end the war. And what a fight it is, animated with lush, gorgeous colors- everything is set with a deep, deep red, punctuated only by the brilliant blue of Azula’s fire.
Add to that that we got a last great moment from Katara- cleverly outwitting Azula to trap her once and for all- and you have what is easily one of the best fights of the entire show.
1. Aang vs. Fire Lord Ozai (The Last Airbender, Book 3, Episodes 20-21)
Doing an action series well, and making it part of a larger, greater story, requires that the action itself not simply be pretty, well-made, and fun to follow- there are countless movies and shows that do that. You also have to connect it to the whole- the fights can’t simply be video game cut scenes separate from greater tones and themes of the narrative- otherwise they are merely distractions. They must blend together seamlessly, so that the one is not resolved with the other, and vice versa.
And for my money, none of the battles in either The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra succeed in this to such a degree as the long-awaited confrontation between Aang and Ozai atop pillars of rock, with the red glare of the comet shining in the background. It is an incredibly animated and beautiful fight sequence, yes, but it also fulfills a greater role by completing and fulfilling the show’s messages of seeking true balance above revenge, of never ceasing to strive for justice, and of the importance of seeking the harder, more nuanced way. Aang rejects the simple solution to a grave and deep-seated problem, and in doing so becomes a far better example for children (and adults!) than most action heroes. And like any great fantasy, it also brings into play elements of the larger forces that shape the Avatar world (here in the form of the Lion Turtle), which in and of itself completes our understanding of this world of wonderful and magical invention as one where individuals, no matter how powerful, and still just small parts of an unthinkably vast whole. Which, of course, makes it exactly like our own world, leading us to rethink how we may have previously tried to define against ourselves against everything in the world around us. It made me wonder, and applaud, and think, and cry, and for that, it will always be my favorite fight of the entire Avatar franchise.
Part 3 of Avatar Month is now complete. Next up, Favorite Characters!