“If you want to be a bender, you have to let go of fear.”Avatar Aang
15 Years Later: Looking Back on “The Boy In The Iceberg”
15 years ago today on February 21st, 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender’s first episode “The Boy In The Iceberg” aired on Nickelodeon. Whether it was from the perspective of a young child looking for action and humor stuffed into a fun adventure show or an adult seeking a story of deep-rooted philosophy, conflict, and redemption, Avatar’s animated heydays never disappointed audiences from the dawn of its inception. Throughout its critically acclaimed history, one of the few episodes that are often underlooked by audiences and critics despite its crucial importance to the series remains to be where the world of the four nations first began: the premiere episode.
Aang and gang’s masterfully crafted journey from writers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko started with one of television’s finest opening attempts at world-building and characterization to date in what is by far- in my opinion, and certainly many others at least- the most compelling piece of animation ever developed for the small screen. “The Boy In The Iceberg” directed by Star Wars: The Clone Wars creator Dave Filloni deserves far more credit than what it typically receives. It’s genius deceptive and ambiguous nature that laid the groundwork for a three-season story is definitively incomparable to most other television pilot episodes that target a children’s demographics. “The Boy In The Iceberg” deserves to be recognized for its success today of all days.
Crafting a Divided World of Elements, Benders, and War
The opening to Avatar: The Last Airbender is arguably one of the most iconic introduction sequences in western animation. Water, Earth, Fire, Air- the mere mention of the elements will probably have most teenagers and young adults today who grew up with Nickelodeon in the early 2000s running the complete script through their heads. What many people forget about Airbender however is that the recitable short introduction did not actually derive from “The Boy In The Iceberg” but rather its follow-up episode, ‘The Avatar Returns.’
Besides the four elements showcase, the first episode’s opening monologue and extended orchestra are a lot different from what became the known standard afterward. One could argue that the first episode’s monologue is brilliantly used in a different way from that of the rest of the series. Although both introductions efficiently introduce Airbender’s world to new audiences, the first episode builds characters in an entirely different fashion- something that could only be achieved during the epilogue of the journey as the viewer is yet to be introduced to any of the show’s characters or locations. Assuming you watched the series from beginning to end, this one-time extension is the insightful groundwork that is positively manipulative for the viewer’s expectations and overall viewing experience.
“My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace. When The Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar master of all four elements, only he could stop the ruthless Firebenders, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed, and the Fire Nation’s nearing victory in the war. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believed that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads and that the cycle has broken, but I haven’t lost hope. I still believed that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.”Katara’s Opening Monologue, Episode 1: “The Boy In The Iceberg”
The premiere monologue acts as if it were incorporating its own ‘Previously on Avatar” without there being previously seen adventures by the audience to recap. Katara’s monologue provides context to her and her brother Sokka’s current predicaments in the South Pole, but that in turn leaves tons of questions for the audience upon a first viewing that are only summarized later on yet left open to constant mystery. What happened to their mother? Why are these two kids so worthy to lead their tribe? What were the fates of all the adults in the Water Tribe who left to fight? Are there water benders in the South? Are the tribes located at the poles not well connected? What is the Avatar cycle? On top of all of these questions, the show is still yet to even have touched upon what the war against the Fire Nation exactly is. We think the answers can be concluded based on what certain characters allude to, but the truth is that these solutions are incredibly hard to anticipate.
The core events that are going to take place within the first half of season one-and even the latter two seasons for that matter- are mentioned but never fully confronted. They are briefly addressed by some of the characters but are cleverly never tackled upfront immediately. The Southern Water Tribe is connected like a family, especially Katara and Sokka, leaving room for a lack of characters questioning each other or spouting exposition that is already well-known knowledge to them. Because of this, it is up to the protagonist to really bring the audiences’ questions to fruition as he has been missing for one hundred years. The only problem though is that once we see more of that character the audience comes to a realization that they are far from getting those answers considering he is even unaware of the fact that he was frozen for a century.
Besides fantastic questioning, the opening monologue’s strongest aspects stem from how it deceptively uses visuals that manipulates the audience’s emotions and expectations for what was about to unfold. The most deceptive trick used is the expectational setup regarding the main protagonist: the all-powerful legendary Avatar. The opening animation portrays the Avatar as an unstoppable being who can control the four elements. He causes a massive wave to rise against the rock he stands on, pulls the rocky ground upwards, burst fire in two directions, and finally blows a gust of air to disappear. He is destined to save the world. On top of his sensei robe and cliche wise-looking hair-style and beard, the audience expects the Avatar to be a sight to run in fear from. In reality, however, that is not the case at all. Instead what emerges from the ice is a child who is instantly distracted by the idea of penguin sledding and going for a tour of the icy South Pole on his best buddy flying bison companion.
Children in Trauma, In Need of Redemption and Honor
Stepping aside from the opening monologue, “The Boy in The Iceberg” smartly focuses mostly on the main cast of characters for the majority of the episode. Each character is introduced to meticulously stir the audience’s beliefs, but as the episode wraps up viewers will think of each person in a different light. Are they good? Are they bad? Maybe even dumb or clueless? Wise? Do they unintentionally act that way? As the season progresses, each character’s intentions, vulnerabilities, and growth become more visible as they should. However, without the deceptive first impression that the audience receives, those heart-rendering and heart-warming moments we feel with the rest of the series would probably never hit as hard. Although Katara, Sokka, and Iroh are great examples of this, these initial impressions work the best for Aang and Zuko because of their first appearances. Aang and Zuko’s first time on screen versus as early as the half-way point of Book 1: Water (around episodes 7 to 9) are just as satisfying to witness as their growth throughout the entirety of Avatar.
Returning to the Avatar himself, Aang’s first appearance is by far the most intriguing out of the main cast. The audience is expecting some legendary hero to crash through the iceberg and be ready to save the world, but instead what we receive is a goofy kid who is not even aware of the fact that he has been sealed underwater for over one hundred years and his race of people he was born into were subjected to genocide because of him. Aang’s emergence embraces childhood innocence and cluelessness so the audience is less prepared to face the emotional inevitability of his maturity that we know he will have to face in the coming episodes when he is forced to accept the reality that the possibility of his peoples’ extinction is real. We feel more emotionally attached to the character when he suffers because of that innocent child we grow attached to and can heavily relate to.
The character himself is intentionally not remotely ready in any way to face his purpose nor take on his major future responsibilities. Aang is far more childish during the first few episodes- especially episode one- because he has no idea that his existence will slowly come crashing down as he faces the challenges of being the child out of time: the threat of being the modern Avatar. Through seeing the character deal with his reality, the audience can explore all of the protagonist’s feelings and memories with a deeper attachment. Ultimately, his initial setup built a stronger character arc for book one that was only able to be further expanded upon over the course of the series. Aang’s first appearance purposefully uses its time to attach us to a character that secretly suffers an extremely depressing reality we are aware of. Now after realizing how sad that truly is, here is a gif to cheer you up!
When it comes to the opposing forces of our heroes, we are set up for a story where we initially are told not to root for the bad guy. On the deck of a huge metal ship, one word sets the expectations for our supposed “villain” before we can even manage to get a proper character introduction of him. “Finally.” It becomes evident within Zuko’s first minute of screen time that the character has been seeking out the Avatar for a long time. He is optimistic, determined, and desperate based on his conversation with his Uncle Iroh, but he also has a record of previously failed discoveries and deep anger towards everyone around him. Prince Zuko and his team of Fire Nation troops are the only characters in the episode to wear darker color schemed attire, ride on an advanced ship that pumps out smoke, and speak in a less than respectful mannerism- well at least the banished prince perhaps does, not his tea-loving uncle.
You would expect these characters to be the villains of the series based on Zuko’s mannerisms and appearance alone, but as all fans of this series know the character is morally complicated and resides in the category of being considered either a mistaken hero or a straight-up anti-hero- a person who does both good and evil for a multitude of reasons. Initially, we are reinforced to go against Prince Zuko, but with hints towards his end goal, the audience is able to open up a completely opposite perspective of the character as we come to a realization that he needs the Avatar in order to return home. After all the time spent cheering for his failures, we are eventually hit with feelings of regret once we learn that the character has suffered physically and mentally at the hands of his father- the person he wishes to make proud so he can regain his honor.
Ultimately because of how we first viewed- and even treated these characters- we develop a sense of sympathy for them, even when they are fighting each other for selflessness or selfish causes. Those times in which we laughed with or rooted against the characters feel wrong upon a rewatch, yet it is still satisfying seeing how they eventually solved their problems. By the time the episode ‘The Storm’ hits, the audience will have trouble choosing who they want to succeed as our hero and villain’s interest can never intertwine unless they are both adjusted.
The Perfect Call to Adventure
Every moment leading up to the ending of the first episode is used to consistently build both characters and expectations that set the groundwork for the beautiful adventure viewers are about to travel on. Every character basis for the show that the audience needs to be prepared for is covered in a matter of 21 minutes. “The Boy in The Iceberg” barely even tackles the state of the world of Avatar, yet it excellently builds up the anticipation to see what it could potentially unravel just from the characters alone. While the actual story of the first episode comes off as slightly generic and its intriguing animation style goes in several interesting directions from both a landscape and character standpoint, the core focus on characterization is why it remains so memorable to fans.
When doing a retrospective of “The Boy in The Iceberg” you can only be amazed at how far these characters evolved. You can only be amazed over just realizing how expectation shattering the rest of Avatar’s episodes were. Upon every rewatch, there is something new to realize or discover within these characters and their stories that you likely did not realize previously. Avatar’s first footsteps perfectly encapsulate what a series premiere should focus on. It builds a chasm worth of character depth, it has an odd mixture of fascinating animation symbolism that delves into a multitude of cultures, and it most importantly creates a deeper train of thought that both children and adult audiences will dissect and explore in different ways. A good beginning always knows how to draw the viewer in through a variety of strategies ricocheting off of each other. For Avatar, building that world you are sure you understand only to be floored away by reality is how it manages to succeed best.
For a show that aired on Nickelodeon and was expected to entertain only younger children, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko always notably elevated past the competition with their vision in comparison to not only Nickelodeon’s exponentially growing lineup of shows, but their competitors, rising independent show creators in the new digital age of the internet, and just about all of the entertainment industry. It achieves all the right reasons as to why a child, teenager, adult, or even elder could enjoy this series. By the time the last scene of Prince Zuko’s historical discovery rolls around, you are hooked, ready to binge a season worth of episodes in a single sitting. You are ultimately left wanting to ride along for more. Yip yip.