Alright, with that out of the way - I'm going to need an icon for this. Probably a tag, too.
In the interest of remaining positive, here is the entire list of problems that I have with Avatar: the Last Airbender. It consists of one item. Then we can get on with the good stuff.
1.) Katara ended up with Aang instead of Zuko.
I don't know if anyone reading this is a shipper where this fandom is involved, but I gather that Katara/Zuko vs. Katara/Aang is a contentious matter, so I promise not to make a fuss after venting this one time. Maybe I've been spoiled by fiction written for adults, but this show was so damn good that I really started to trust that it would overturn all the tropes and dodge the obvious lead-male-lead-female pairing. The way Aang spent three seasons with a hopeless crush on her pretty much cemented my lack of interest in her potential reciprocation, and then when she started to have these really fascinating interactions with Zuko I got psyched for that, only to have it cruelly snatched away at the last minute.
It's not that I have any doubts about the sincerity of Aang's feelings for Katara or his worth as a man, but this is a classic case of perseverance paying off in the end, which is a completely horrible message to apply to a romance. There was an excellent opportunity for Aang to learn that love can be platonic, that women can't choose who they're attracted to, and that it's okay to be alone for a while as he grows up and figures himself out, and instead they went straight for the old standby of the hero who saves the world and gets the girl. I have no other complaints about how the show handled its female characters, none, but I loathe the "get the girl" mentality and I can't see the slightest hint of it without putting up resistance.
Also, Zuko and Katara were freaking hot together. And how about those complementary elements? A political marriage between them would have been invaluable, did anyone think of that? Huh? They could have learned so much from each other! Oh my God I just involuntarily started wondering if there could be any use for bloodbending in the bedroom STOP ME THIS WAS AN ACCIDENT.
Okay! Moving on! Please! Here are things I liked!
Iroh - far and away my favorite character. Shame about the voice actor; Mako was incredible, but Iroh was more than his awesome voice. He started out funny, kept funny when he turned out to be badass, kept both when he turned out to be wise, and was never a bad guy even before he turned out to be a good guy. The acquisition of the tea house and ultimate return there just had me smiling from ear to ear. Best lesson ever: live simply, and with joy, doing what you love.
What really did it for me, though, was his relationship with Zuko. I mean, it took me a couple seasons to even care that much about Zuko. It was clear he had issues, but those don't necessarily make an interesting character. He was perpetually cranky and humorless, and treated his uncle with disrespect and no clear regard or affection. But Iroh never gave up on him. Iroh loved him at his worst and helped him become his best. For me, the familial bond between those two trumped every romance or friendship in the show. That part when they hug? AAAGHH. (Actually, this is a great show for hugs in general. No wonder taaroko likes it so much.)
Zuko - What I already said about Katara and Iroh pretty much covers it, but I thought it worth mentioning that by the end he was one of my favorites. I was almost literally cheering for him all through the third season.
Katara - Can Katara go penguin sledding with me? I was a little torn about whether Toph or Katara was going to be my favorite female character, but I think Katara wins just by virtue of being there since the beginning. Also, if I were a bender, it's water for me. She has cool hair and she's best at being a grown-up. Definitely a staple of the show.
Toph - ZOMG TOPH. I think it's safe to say there has never been a character like her before. Move over, Daredevil, we just found a cooler blind superhero than you. I love the way all kinds of aspects of her personality come back to her bending and her blindness, from that "so I'm dirty, what of it" attitude to her self-sufficiency. She just seems more grounded than everyone else, focused on the real matters of the here and now, even when she's being irresponsible or selfish.
Actually, all of the benders really have their element woven right into their essence - Katara and her adaptability, Zuko and his anger, Aang and his playfulness. Toph just strikes me as an especially cool interpretation of an "earth" persona, in large part because she's a cute little girl and earth is generally seen as a masculine element. At her core, though, she's stubborn, unrefined, trustworthy, and incredibly strong. Also, that voice? And the bare feet. I just can't take it, she's too awesome. (I had hopes at first that she would be Aang's ultimate love interest, but it's nice that she went through the whole story as a single girl. She's too young to have a boyfriend and most guys I'll wager aren't good enough for her.)
Aang - This guy! Of every stroke of genius that went into the conception of this show, the most geniusest one has to be the way Aang was written. Angst? Screw that. He's happy to be alive and he's happy to have good friends and a SKY BISON. He was raised in an honorable tradition among wise people who taught him compassion and inner peace, and he lives by their philosophy with pride because he knows it works. He understands when matters get serious, but he wants to have fun. He loves his Appa. That's really the only thing I care about, tbh.
But I just can't get over how refreshing he is. (Sort of like a breath of fresh AIR get it get it okay shutting up now.) All these epic fantasy stories, for so many years, all about the lonely hero (last of his kind) who has to do the impossible, and he's always just so damn grumpy about it. There's something incredibly innocent and wonderful about a kid whose favorite things are animals and going for rides and going for rides on animals. I really hope it catches on.
I like him when he loses his cool too, though. 'S alright, Aang! Nobody's perfect! Now, we just need to talk about that crush on Katara...
Sokka - Another one I liked much more by the end than I did at the beginning. His jokes really did get better. I'm not usually into the Arthur Dent character, but I thought the journey was told successfully in his case. Also, Sokka/Suki? So for it. They even got some time together as just plain girlfriend/boyfriend, no pressure no fights no schmoop. (Not gonna give Suki her own analysis, suffice to say I thought she was great.)
Everyone else - If I was going to state one more thing that I didn't like about the show, it would be that there were too many minor characters who didn't get enough airtime, but it really doesn't make sense to list "not enough" as a complaint, so I'll just say it here. Gimme more dangerous ladies! Look, I'm not even mad at Mai for ending up with Zuko instead of leaving him for Katara. She totally deserves a good man. Ty Lee? It would be virtually impossible for me to get tired of Ty Lee. Azula's all-out villain and I love it.
This is crazy, but the way the three of them and their story progressed kind of reminded me of The Wire. Both sides of the battle get a fair look, and the individuals involved have their own stories, which happen to interweave, giving us a complete picture. Of everyone fighting for the Fire Nation, only two remain enemies of the resistance when all is said and done. The others just needed to be shown a way out.
Wildlife - Until I was about 11, the only thing that would ever interest me was animals. After that, I narrowed it down, and the only thing that ever interested me was animals that didn't exist in the real world. I think I've changed since then, but, you know, not 100%. Basically what I'm saying here is that constellations were twinkling in my eyes every single time a critter showed up my screen. I've put a lot of hours into designing plausible-yet-wacky combo-creatures, and I know a good one when I see it. I full expect that there was one person on the Avatar staff whose entire job was "pick an animal that can be altered or combined with another animal, and then show us why it would be a good idea". If that person's a guy, someone find him and tell him I'm single.
(I'd have a hard time picking favorites. Definitely Appa and Momo, and I actually restrained myself from listing them as favorite characters, because they do serve multiple purposes but I felt they weren't exactly comparable to Aang et al. I know I liked the rhinos that the fire soldiers rode a few times, and the koala sheep, but I'm perfectly happy calling it an all-way tie.)
Setting - Glorious. I was awed. I know a lot of geeks are tired of the use of the four elements in our media, but I can't help it, I still like them. And the research that must have gone into crafting the various cultures...somehow, all I can think about is how profoundly respectful the writers must have felt about world history. There was no detail too small. Everything matters when you're making a universe.
Animation - Gorgeous and flawless. Did anyone else grow up with some excellent anime series which had a beautiful style but was clearly drawn on a budget? Well, finally we know what happens when the beautiful images are moving at a pace that mimics reality. The martial arts alone deserve to be a masterpiece theater. The machines, animals, backgrounds, and expressions are why the martial arts don't stand out.
Everything else - Screw it, I can't break it down any more than this. A:tLA is, aside from one sad slip-up in the romance department, a perfect show.
Yes, I'll be starting Korra soon.