If you’ve never seen Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, you should do that at your earliest possible convenience. The former is an instant classic, probably the best hero’s journey told in popular fiction since the days of Harry Potter. The latter, while maintaining the emotional heft of its predecessor, addresses complex sociopolitical and gender issues in a pioneering way. Go to Amazon Prime, ignore the “kids” label (like Disney movies, these series are equally appreciable by adults) and watch it all.
If you have seen either or both of these incredible shows, you know the Avatar universe is replete with outstanding characters. To make our task a little more challenging and necessitate care in our choosing, we’ve combined The Last Airbender with The Legend of Korra. As a result, there were some painful omissions—Ty Lee, King Boumi, the cabbage salesman—but we’re as confident in this ranking as we are in the fact that many people will disagree with us. Here are our picks for the 20 best characters from the world of Avatar.
Why he’s here: Out of all of Tenzin’s kids, he’s the funniest, dropping (low-key terrifying) jingoistic lines in between farts, and generally being a little hooligan.
Why he’s not higher: In a universe with so many richly developed characters, it’s hard to place Meelo—a comic relief clearly aimed at younger viewers’ sensibilities—above anyone else on this list. It’s only natural that The Legend of Korra’s youngest participants aren’t as dynamic, since they’re not really at a formative age, but you also get the feeling that they’re only in the show to help Tenzin and Korra develop their emotional capacities. They’re only interesting in proxy.
Why he’s here: In many ways, Unalaq resembles the High Sparrow of Westeros from Game of Thrones: a brilliant schemer who hides a power-hungry soul under a spiritual veneer. Plus, he fuses with evil incarnate to become a huge monster. Out of the Avatar-verse villains, he’s more interesting than Ozai (run-of-the-mill fascist), Kuvira (run-of-the-mill fascist), and Amon (run-of-the-mill Stalinist).
Why he’s not higher: Once he’s revealed as a dark sorcerer, there’s really nothing left for him to do but fight to the death. Also, Korra has to transform into a giant spirit version of herself to defeat him, which is the hardest plot twist to buy in the entire series.
Why she’s here: She’s a badass female warrior who’s able to stick up for herself, but that doesn’t impair her ability to also be a romantic (read: sexual—we know what was gonna happen in Sokka’s tent) being. She’s not encumbered by any of the emotional drama that tortures The Last Airbender’s other female characters, for better or worse.
Why she’s not higher: We never really get to know her background, so beyond becoming Sokka’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, we’re limited in our ability to judge her.
Why he’s here: Jet is a preview of basically every villain Korra faces: someone who began with moral righteousness (either sincerely or as a cover), and then perverted it into unmitigated hatred. His real-world analogue would be someone like Che Guevara. And, like Che, he dies—a real rarity in an all-ages television show, but a development that’s necessary for his full redemption.
Why he’s not higher: His redemption isn’t all that total, given that he dies fighting the people who brainwashed him and still hasn’t made peace with his contempt for all things Fire Nation. And though his viewpoint is important and certainly one that’s common in real life, he exists in The Last Airbender mostly to set up Katara’s later moral development.
Why he’s here: He’s Korra’s spiritual guide, but because he has a good deal of spiritual growth to undergo himself, he does a pretty mediocre job. Painting him in the shadow of his father is a nice way of showing that adults often face the same insecurities as kids, and that age is not equivalent to wisdom. J.K. Simmons captures that important nuance in yet another great addition to his body of acting work.
Why he’s not higher: As important as it is for the spiritual work-in-progress Korra to have an imperfect advisor, it’s hard to get around Tenzin’s wooden performance as sitcom dad, which simply isn’t as well-written or well-acted as the rest of The Legend of Korra. The series as a whole is sophisticated, risk-taking, and emotionally mature; by contrast, Tenzin and his family seem mundane, and their dynamic doesn’t introduce anything new to the world of television. Also, as much as he cares about his kids, Tenzin actively puts them in some really dangerous predicaments—an inconsistency I just can’t buy.
Why he’s here: He’s the funny man on the New Team Avatar, he’s consistently underestimated by everyone around him and in a world that’s far more complex than that of Aang’s time, it can be refreshing to have Bolin’s near-constant positive attitude around to simplify things. Plus, he can lavabend, which is dope.
Why he’s not higher: Everything his character attempts to do was done better by Sokka in The Last Airbender. For one, Bolin’s not nearly as funny; he’s too often reduced to whimpering, which gets annoying. For another, his struggles just don’t seem to have a realistic negative impact upon him. He’s thought of as a bit of a blockhead by many of the other characters, but his real block-headedness is in his lack of emotional range (and how unsatisfying it feels when he tries to approximate being put-out). Optimism is nice, especially juxtaposed with his brother Mako’s seriousness, but in a series as mature as Korra, Bolin feels a little forced-in at times.
Why she’s here: The hardened daughter of Toph follows Tenzin’s mold of immature adult in a series where there’s no true sage. Her story unfolds beautifully over the course of The Legend of Korra, and she balances the female strength that pervades the Avatar universe with the very real loneliness that tends to arise when people prioritize their careers over personal relationships. Her reconciliation with her sister Suyin doesn’t become a stereotypical sob-fest of unconditional love, a nice departure from the “group hugs” that happen at Teletubby levels of frequency in both The Last Airbender and Korra.
Why she’s not higher: She’s a play on the tough cop trope and, aside from flipping its usual gender, doesn’t differ too much from her archetype. Her emotional damage isn’t quite as compelling as the other characters’ in Korra, nor is she as memorable or idiosyncratic as her mother.
Why she’s here: She’s vital to Aang’s development, but more than that, she’s a female icon—Korra’s true spiritual predecessor in terms of ferocity, water-bending power and refusal to accept traditional gender roles. Her moral compass is perpetually true, too, as is her motherly ability for empathy. Replace Katara’s bending skills with superhuman intelligence and you’d have Hermione Granger.
Why she’s not higher: Taken at face value, Katara seems awesome… but compared to the other members of Team Avatar over the course of The Last Airbender, she’s remarkably and disappointingly static. It’s hard to fault her for being so morally steadfast and for having done much of her growth before the series begins—after all, she’s basically played a mother role ever since her own mother died—but the result is that Katara is more a measuring stick for Sokka, Aang and Zuko (the latter of whom is responsible for her only significant on-screen development). Additionally, her self-seriousness tends to weigh down the Team Avatar dynamic, and her eventual romance with Aang feels a little Oedipal… which is to say, the last shot in the series is really creepy.
Why she’s here: She’s the quintessential emotionally guarded teen girl, until she’s not, thanks to Zuko unlocking her ability to feel. Her betrayal of Azula pretty well fits the mold of the turncloak henchman trope, but the fact that it happens after Zuko has broken her heart—and that she’s doing it more for Zuko than against Azula—makes the betrayal transcend our expectations. There’s absolutely nothing rational about her choice, but then again, Mai’s heart works in mysterious ways.
Why she’s not higher: The “emotionally dead teen” role is a nice touch, and a realistic one to add to the Fire Nation #Squad dynamic. But at this point, we’re looking mostly at characters who play major roles, and Mai simply isn’t given as much space as others to develop, due to her sidekick nature.
Why he’s here: Mako represents one of the more adult and important takes on romance ever to appear in all-ages entertainment. His confused feelings for both Korra and Asami mirror the situation in which many a young boy will eventually find himself—wanting two girls, ending up with neither. More significantly, his ability to build strong friendships with both, regardless of their romantic history, suggests a significant maturation on his part, a process of which many guys are incapable. He’s also got a heart of gold, the rare cop who shows tough love and sympathy in every situation.
Why he’s not higher: Mako’s aforementioned maturation process takes place mostly off-camera, as he slides into the background after his breakup with Korra and doesn’t develop much further. And as with Katara, we miss out on Mako’s formative years before the events of Korra; growing up on the streets clearly affected him, though that effect isn’t consistently visible.
Why he’s here: He’s the most morally ambiguous villain in the Avatar universe, guided by noble principles that become disastrously clouded. Like Amon in the first season of Korra (and like many real-life, radical revolutionaries), Zaheer wants to bring greater equality to the world by dismantling its existing power structures, using his admirable ends to justify his violent means. But unlike Amon, Zaheer doesn’t seem to be in the game for power… he practices selfless evil. And because his plan centers on killing Korra—not taking her bending, not dismantling her spirit, but actually killing her—he poses the most frightening and enduring threat.
Why he’s not higher: As with Mai, this is more about longevity than anything else; there isn’t room to tell the story of how he met his fellow revolutionaries, which would undoubtedly have added to his already high levels of humanity. It’s also hard to get past his brief appearance in the fourth season, which sees him reckon with the consequences of his assassination of the Earth Queen far too quickly to be realistic, then also help Korra through her PTSD far too easily.
Why she’s here: She’s crazy—sociopathically, totally-unable-to-relate-to-other-humans crazy. That makes her, and not Ozai, the perfect foil to the original Team Avatar, which is built on empathy. What’s truly amazing about Azula, though, is that she knows this and is okay with it, because she’s powerful enough to scare away anyone who might be able to force her to face her inner psychosis. It’s painful to watch that fragile self-peace fall apart when she’s lost all her friends and is finally defeated by Zuko and Katara, at which point she has become little more than a wild beast.
Why she’s not higher: Although Azula is an excellent unhinged villain—by the end, we’re talking a PG version of Tuco Salamanca or Battle Royale’s Mitsuko—she’s so steady in her villainy that she can do little but provide a counterpoint for Zuko.
Why he’s here: He’s consistently the funniest character on The Legend of Korra, combining the wackiness of The Last Airbender’s Boumi with the mechanical genius and motormouth of Tony Stark. But more importantly, he’s probably the most modern character in the entire Avatar universe: a war profiteer and robber baron who slowly discovers a conscience buried under his previous selfish motives. Varrick’s charisma and ruthlessness allow Korra to address such topics as propaganda, the military-industrial complex and weapons of mass destruction in a light-hearted way. He contributes enormously to the series’ vivacious, faux-1920s aesthetic, and he’s almost impossible to dislike.
Why he’s not higher: His development of a conscience feels forced, particularly in the context of his continued inability to display any sense of gravity. Of course, to keep his personality intact through to the series finale, there was necessarily going to be a cap on Varrick’s emotional capacity.
Why she’s here: She’s the best member of the New Team Avatar, aside from Korra herself. Asami is badass—she’s probably a better pure fighter than Mako and Bolin despite her non-bending, and she drives like Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. She displays immense emotional maturity in the face of both Mako’s waffling and her father’s treachery, and she also proves to be the best listener in the Avatar universe, besides Iroh. The romantic relationship she begins with Korra at the series’ end—which shocked and delighted the world at the time—wouldn’t have been believable had the two not spent the previous three seasons developing a powerful friendship.
Why she’s not higher: Now we get to an issue of series-wide character dynamics, which is this: The Last Airbender simply did a better job developing its full cast of characters than did The Legend of Korra. The latter series was darker, had more to say about society, and produced some of the most complex moral dilemmas in kids’ TV history, but The Last Airbender told a more engaging, more immediately iconic story, starting with the Jungian monomyth and adding enough interesting twists to create an instant classic. The best characters come from the best stories… based purely on circumstance, Asami and most of her fellows Korra inhabitants can’t compete.
Why he’s here: He’s got a chip on his shoulder because he can’t bend, he starts out with a toxic masculinity complex, and he’s the most pessimistic (or realistic, depending on your perspective) member of either Team Avatar. But Sokka is eventually defined by his humor and persistence, two traits that put him in the vital everyman role that rounds out any legendary group of good guys. Essentially, he’s the Ron Weasley of The Last Airbender, and like Ron, he eventually gets over his insecurities, becoming a brilliant tactician, a good fighter, and a caring, respectful boyfriend to Suki. His sarcastic, joking nature remains, though, and throughout the series, it provides a nice contrast to the occasional over-earnestness of his sister and Aang.
Why he’s not higher: Nothing against Sokka, but he’s not an Avatar, and he’s also not the most compelling reason to watch The Last Airbender. He’s the consummate Scottie Pippen, a Hall of Famer who probably couldn’t lead a team to six championships on his own; he needs a Michael Jordan to truly shine.
Why she’s here: She invented goddamn metalbending. She’s essentially unbeatable in combat. She’s the sassiest, most powerful little girl this side of Lady Lyanna Mormont. But unlike Lyanna, Toph has a deadly sense of humor, both self-deprecating and otherwise, and for the most part, her supreme self-confidence reigns; she does not hesitate to make Kanye-esque claims, calling herself the greatest earthbender of all time. Yes, she has issues—her blindness, her overprotective parents—but Toph’s near-total comfort in her own skin makes her stand out from the rest of Team Avatar (and from Korra, and from her own daughters).
Why she’s not higher: There’s a certain lack of complexity to Toph, who’s as whole as you’ll find any character in the Avatar universe once she has friends, and it’s hard to place her above characters who burst with as much energy as she does, while also dealing with great internal change.
Why he’s here: Aang’s the reason The Last Airbender exists and has defined a generation of animation fans. His unfiltered joie de vivre and mostly unfettered optimism in the face of major adversity provide a shining example for kids, and renew the hope of jaded adults, who can’t help but lust for Aang’s simple worldview. Aang’s true power is his maintenance of his inherent purity and goodness through a string of emotional trials: losing his sky bison Appa, struggling to learn earthbending and firebending, and especially reckoning with the probability that he’d have to kill Fire Lord Ozai to fulfill his destiny. But more than anything, he’s just a really likable kid. If you were a camp counselor, you’d want to have Aang in your cabin group.
Why he’s not higher: Sometimes he falls a little too easily into the stereotypes of the reluctant hero, and even though we’re primed to love the monomyth, some aspects of Aang’s character—sparing Ozai, getting with Katara in the end—are a bit hackneyed. And though he certainly struggles with self-actualization, he never quite achieves the depth of his Avatar successor.
Why he’s here: Imagine if Yoda were an Epicurean who had to live with the trauma of losing a beloved son in a war: that’s Iroh in a nutshell. He’s the single wisest character in the Avatar universe, and every character who meets him comes away more enlightened, because he’s endured real suffering and found meaning and strength in it. Iroh shows that love and mercy are not weaknesses; he shows that the Candide-ian mantra of tending one’s garden (in this case, drinking tea and playing pai sho) offers more fulfillment than pursuing some extrinsic destiny; he shows that knowing when and whom to fight is more important than fighting itself. We’d all love for our own parents or grandparents to be as tender, worldly and casually funny as Iroh, and for them to care as much about us as the old general cares about Zuko.
Why he’s not higher: He’s the spiritual godfather of The Last Airbender—and he helps Korra, too—but it will be the mentees who benefit most from his advice, who finish above him in this ranking. After all, wisdom is useless if no one exists upon whom it can be imparted.
Why she’s here: She’s a more interesting, more relevant Avatar than Aang. His buoyancy and indomitable spirit are inspiring, but not as inspiring as watching Korra battle far fiercer foes—both within and outside herself. Eschewing Aang’s reluctant hero trope entirely, Korra spends four seasons trying to achieve the spiritual balance he comes by naturally as an airbender and a relatively innocent child, a far more torturous and human journey than The Last Airbender’s fantasia. Among other things, we get to watch her cope with having her bending taken away, losing her connection to her previous lives, going through a rocky relationship and suffering full-on PTSD (a condition from which more superheroes should realistically suffer). These are the things that try a person’s very identity; Aang’s identity never wavers. And in the end, Korra earns the goddamn girl.
Why she’s not higher: It’s no fault of her own; she carries The Legend of Korra in a way that Aang doesn’t carry The Last Airbender. But once again, the original series is slightly higher in overall quality than the sequel, which we’ll use to break any ties. Also, Korra’s spiritual transition is matched by that of the person just above her here, and she doesn’t have to overcome a villainous past in the process.
Why he’s here:
The Last Airbender is as much Zuko’s story as it is Aang’s, and of the two, Zuko’s transformation is far more complex and complete—from villain, to anti-hero, to hero over the course of three seasons. Zuko’s father, Fire Lord Ozai, claims that he will be the Phoenix King; in reality, Zuko is the phoenix. His slow moral transition during The Last Airbender’s second season, with every step forward accompanied by a painful step back, wrecks the audience and showcases just how challenging it is to overcome one’s past and heritage. But it’s in this span, from his awful betrayal of his Uncle Iroh, to his eventual plea to join Team Avatar that Zuko becomes the show’s most compelling character. His decision to turn down a life of contentment in the Fire Nation (steady girlfriend, accolades for killing Aang, his father’s good graces) in favor of a commitment to doing the right thing takes tremendous gumption, and it’s not made any easier by Team Avatar’s heartrending rejection of a Zuko we know has changed. In that ten-episode span, we bear witness to the most Hamletian character in recent television history. Fortunately, unlike Hamlet (or Darth Vader), Zuko lives to see redemption—and he’s gone further and worked harder to earn it than any other character in the Avatar universe.