Avatar: The Last Airbender remains one of my all-time favorite franchises. With its resurgence over the last few years, the ATLA community continues to grow. Fans new and old are getting excited over the new Avatar Studios announcement from Paramount+ and Netflix's live action adaption coming out this year. As we draw closer to the live action release, I am ranking the best Avatars.
Who and what is included in ranking the best Avatars?
The ranking includes Avatars we know most about—the recent six, Yangchen through Korra, and the first Avatar, Wan. I will be using everything I know from the shows, novels, and comics to sway my opinions. Due to that, there will be plot spoilers for all the material listed above. Yip yip!
*Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise*
A theme that will come up often in these rankings is “problems fixed vs problems caused.” It will not be the ultimate decider of where they land, but it will influence some decisions. Avatar Roku is one of the worst offenders of this.
Coming into this Avatar cycle, the world is mostly at peace. Of course, with his demise, comes a completely different story. The Air Nomads are subject to mass genocide as the Fire Nation declares war on the world. However, Roku could have prevented this and very well should have.
Roku has the opportunity to stop his childhood best friend, Fire Lord Sozin. Sozin unveils his plans to Roku when the Avatar is fully trained. Roku simply replies, “I don't want to hear about this.” Yet, 17 years later, the Fire Nation is already setting up colonies in the Earth Kingdom.
After a fight between Sozin and Roku, the Avatar lets his former best friend go—essentially with a one-time warning. 25 years later, Sozin has the opportunity to save Roku from a natural volcano disaster. Instead, the Fire Lord leaves the Avatar to die, letting his dreams of “sharing the Fire Nation's prosperity with the rest of the world” begin.
Roku has the opportunity to prevent Sozin's genocide, but chooses to give his friend one last chance, ultimately leading to his demise.
For many years, we didn't know much about Avatar Kuruk. From the animated show, all we are told is that he was an “easy going Avatar” who loses his partner to the spirit Koh the Face Stealer. Thanks to both Kyoshi novels, Rise of Kyoshi and Shadow of Kyoshi, we now know much more.
Kuruk dies young (only 33 years old) in an era of peace. The cause of his death isn't revealed until the sequel novel—Kuruk is killing spirits. He does have a reason, however: many of Avatar Yangchen‘s deals with spirits fell through, as the people went back on their word and built on or destroyed sacred land.
This puts the spirits into a rage that is out of control. Unfortunately, Kuruk makes the decision to kill them. He grows weaker with every spirit he kills, until he eventually dies. As the Avatar is the bridge between spirits and humans, the decision to kill one side over the other certainly tips the balance against Kuruk's favor.
From every novel, and every piece of story about Avatar Yangchen, we are told how perfect she is. With F.C. Yee's Dawn of Yangchen title, the air Avatar's life is truly revealed to the fan base. Yangchen is a bit of a trickster, incredibly quick-witted; mischievous, but always does what is necessary to get a deal done.
All the deals that Yangchen make work out for the best—in the moment. Yangchen does her job as the Avatar: finding a way for humans and spirits to live together in harmony. Regrettably, Yangchen's biggest flaws are the deals themselves. She knew that humans couldn't keep them. She experienced it herself, several times, in her early days as an Avatar.
In the end, the deals she makes to keep the peace are eventually broken. In the graphic novel, The Rift, we see the spirit of General Old Iron go on a full rampage. The people who lived on it made a deal during Yangchen's era to honor a spirit—ultimately breaking these terms. These broken deals would end up leading to the death of Kuruk and don't solve anything between spirits and humans in the long term.
The first Avatar of the Spirit of Raava, Avatar Wan has perhaps the biggest highs and lows on this list. Wan starts his life in the lowest of poverty, doing anything he can for some bread and his friends.
Because of this, Wan is a liar and a thief. He gains the ability to firebend by stealing from the Lion Turtle, and is eventually banished to the Spirit Wilds because of it. Wan then learns, after time, to gain the trust and earn the respect of the spirits in the Wilds. He even learns how to firebend properly from one of the dragons.
After protecting the spirits from several human attacks, Wan goes off on his own and makes the biggest mistake of any character in the franchise. Wan frees Vaatu, the spirit of darkness and chaos, from Raava, the spirit of life and peace. With this comes an era of evil chaos in the Wilds. Raava, begrudgingly, teams up with Wan to stop Vaatu and eventually take down the dark spirit—becoming one during Harmonic Convergence and beginning the Avatar cycle.
What makes Wan stand out is that his duty to “be the Avatar” is self-made and self governed. As he is the first Avatar of the Spirit of Raava, he doesn't have any prior lives telling him what to do with this new role and how to act on it. It is up to him to decide what it means to be the bridge between spirits and humans. It is up to him that his mission (the Avatar's mission) is to bring balance to both. That decision, that duty, was made by Wan himself—nobody made that decision for him.
Having Aang this low on the ranking upsets me, to my core. Avatar Aang introduced us all to this world of bending and the Avatar cycle. Aang set to end to the 100-Year War without killing Fire Lord Ozai, created peace within the world and Fire Nation, and setup Republic City.
I still very much adore Aang, as he does all of this as a child. Alas, for Aang, there is one thing that sets him back from the other two Avatars above him—his family role.
In Avatar: Legend of Korra, we are introduced to his son, Tenzen. Tenzen is the first Airbender born since the genocide of the Air Nomads. He holds his father in high regards, but is not Aang's only child.
Kaya and Bumi are Aang's oldest children; Kaya is born a Waterbender and Bumi is not born with bending abilities. According to Kaya and Bumi in an episode where the three siblings enter the Spirit World, Aang prioritizes Tenzen. It does make sense, as Tenzen is seen as the future of the Air Nation. Sadly, for me, this favoritism paints Aang in a negative light.
There are questions of Aang's seemingly perfect, non-violent ways with spirits. In the graphic novel The Rift, mentioned before, General Old Iron comes back to destroy a village that goes back on their deal. Aang tries to handle it peacefully, but in the end he needs to take out the spirit with force. Per General Old Iron, Aang “vanquishes” him and the spirit retreats into the ocean.
Aang still remains a great character, despite the few flaws. What makes the characters in this universe relatable is that nobody is perfect—not even the Avatar who ended the 100-Year War.
Korra is the latest in the line of Avatars, the successor to Aang. Many will quickly point to her faults. She loses her bending at one point, the ability to connect to past lives is severed under her Avatar-hood, and the Avatar cycle as a whole almost ends with her. Though, to Korra's faults, I will point to her strengths and accomplishments.
Many Avatars begin their tenure with issues. For Korra, even though Ozai is long gone, new opposition rises up—many new villains, actually. You see, Korra easily has the best rogues' gallery amongst previous Avatars. She goes up against a revolutionary leader, Amon, who has “the ability to take bending away” and exposes him. She faces Vaatu during Harmonic Convergence and, though her past connections are severed, she ultimately wins. Zaheer is commonly looked at as one of the greatest villains in the entire franchise, as he fills in the role of “What if an Airbender was bad?” Korra, though it comes close, defeats him too.
Korra's feats are much grander than just defeating villains, however. Her two major feats are some of the grandest of any Avatar. Thanks to Korra, Airbenders return to society—outside of Aang's descendants. She also re-opens the spirit portal, allowing anyone to freely travel between the spirit and human worlds. The duty of the Avatar is to keep peace among people, as well as being the bridge between humans and spirits. Korra achieves that and more.
To current canon, there is no character who has a harder path to becoming the Avatar than Kyoshi. She starts her life poor, works in a house where the (believed) Avatar is training. She loses her mentor, loses her close friend, and eventually goes on the run—learning that she is actually the Avatar all along.
There are fans of the animated series who have a perception of Kyoshi—the Avatar who is no-nonsense and “kills” Chin the Conqueror without hesitation. There are memes, TikTok videos, and more to show fans think of her just based on that moment alone.
Alas, Kyoshi is by far the most complicated Avatar in the entire franchise. She keeps her morals tight to her chest, with the truths and secrets she holds about her parents and origin. Facing betrayal from the start by the sages, Kyoshi's trust needs to be rightfully earned over time.
The majority of what we truly know of Kyoshi comes from the F.C. Yee novels. At one point her “Team Avatar” consists of her fire bending teacher, also girlfriend, Rangi and a lovable gang of outlaws known as The Flying Opera Company. Everything about Kyoshi shows that she should be a step behind as Avatar. But she prevails, time and time again.
Ranking the Best Avatars on Twitter
Kyoshi Gets Some Love
The One Who Started It All
Rolling the Dice on Roku
Kuruk's Compelling Story
Ranking the Best Avatars: Final List
- Avatar Roku
- Avatar Kuruk
- Avatar Yangchen
- Avatar Wan
- Avatar Aang
- Avatar Korra
- Avatar Kyoshi
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