The Avatar Character Comparison – Azula

Continuing our series of posts on the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender, we’re taking a look at Azula this week. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.

Oooh I’ve been waiting for this one. Why? The reason is all to simple, Azula is an all-too perfect character to analyse. She’s not only the main antagonist in Book 2, she’s also a lynchpin in the entire story and breaks any number of moulds throughout the series. Today we’re going to take a look at Azula and what makes her such a great character.

Background

Azula is the crown princess and the younger sibling of Zuko. However thanks to her immensely forceful character you would never know. During the various flashbacks throughout the series, it’s demonstrated that Azula is a bending prodigy and masters difficult maneuvers at a very young age in stark contrast to Zuko.

Far from her bending skills, she’s also a very accomplished strategist a trait that’s only equalled by Sokka, who is also shown to be on the receiving end of her acrobatic skills.

Throughout the series, Azula is shown to be pursuing the Gaang and always being one step behind. In Book 3 this shifts to show her second-guessing their moves thanks to some devious disguises and a slip of the tongue on the part of the Earth King.

Towards the end of Book 3, we start to see Azula’s sanity slowly unwinding followed by a full-on collapse at the very end. Her descent into madness marked by a fear of death and a col-blooded desire to kill Zuko in an agnai kai. Our last shot of Azula is one where she’s on her knees, chained to the ground and wailing frantically as she struggles in vain to free herself.

Why We Like Them

OK, so that heading is a bit misleading. There is no reason to ‘like’ Azula although her character is something to appreciate within the series.

Azula is a power-hungry sadist. She sets her goals and does not allow anyone or anything to get in her way. She willfully (in fact, gleefully) uses manipulation and power to attain those goals and sees others as merely tools to do so. She has no personal loyalty outside of the Fire Lord and even then he is shown to be wary of her.

As mentioned above, Azula is a supreme strategist. She is incredibly conniving as evidenced in her use of the Kyoshi warriors uniforms as a disguise to get into Ba Sing Se. In this sense, Azula exhibits an incredible level of intelligence to which only Sokka even comes close and even then only in Book 3.

In comparison to the other characters in the series, Azula is deep with many levels that are peeled away as the series progresses. It becomes clear that Azula is a product of her upbringing as much as her character. In Book 3 we get the one and only example of compassion on her part as she attempts to placate Ty Lee at a party on Ember Island. This curiously is also the episode where the first cracks are shown in her impregnable facade; firstly by scaring off a potential date but also where she admits her relationship with her mother is less than ideal.

Azula’s power is also another defining characteristic. She fends everyone else off on a one-by-one basis and is even able to take on all six members of the team by herself; quite a feat!

What Makes Her A Great Character

Besides all the traits mentioned above, Azula is also a girl! It’s still quite unusual in kids TV shows to see such a morally corrupt character in female form. Does this stray too far from the accepted norms of female characters? I’m not sure, but it is still nice to see a show that is willing to broach the topic.

Azula’s complexity is one aspect to what makes her a great character. The many levels are explored at select points in the series and each time it is, she becomes more fascinating, not less. Her background is straightforward enough, but each backstory only further increases our desire to get to the root cause of who Azula is and why. Finally, at the bitter end, do we get to the crux of things and can finally see why she acts the way she does and what her failure to deal with it has done to her psychological state.

The other aspect to Azula is that in contrast to the other young characters, she does not appear to undergo any great development throughout the series. While Katara, Sokka, Aang and Zuko all grow and improve their skills and minds (think of Zuko being unable to even fight her at the start but by the end, is able to duel her pretty well), Azula remains relatively static and in fact actually goes in reverse. She is the yardstick against who others are measured and a lot of the time, she comes out on top.

While audiences are always ready to relish the destruction of the bad guy, there is a hint of despair in Azula’s descent into madness. We can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for her. Granted she chose her own path in life, but she knew what she was doing the entire time and it’s heartbreaking to see the results of her bad decision pay off in such a wretched way; losing one’s mind. Which, by the way, is immensely powerful for a kids TV show. While kids may simply see it as the logical end, as an adult, it’s well known that psychological instability is a very difficult thing to pull off so successfully.

That scene alone makes Azula a great character but everything else combines to make her truly memorable.

Conclusion

Azula is one of my favourite characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. She fits into the strong female character archetype albeit on the evil side and is an incredibly complex character for any TV show, let alone one aimed at kids. She makes a formidable foe for our heroes and it is rewarding to see how her skills and cunning abilities affect others and indeed, help them improve.

2 Comments on “The Avatar Character Comparison – Azula

  1. While I enjoyed and agree with most of the points you’ve made, I’d like to insert an addendum regarding Azula’s character and skill “development.” While all the other important characters in the series progress in terms of character and skill as the series nears completion, there is really very little reason for Azula to “develop” any further: in terms of fire-bending skills, for instance, she is very nearly perfect, and is perhaps the greatest fire-bender (after Ozai) in the Avatar-verse at the time (well, excepting Aang at his avatar state, but let’s not count that for the purposes of this discussion : )). Also, like you said, she is an amazing war strategist, and the fact that she ALWAYS manage to get away from the Avatar gang and even best them in combat at every turn (except at the very end, of course) with practically no help from anyone else just proves how nearly perfect she is as a warrior-soldier in terms of battling skills. You know how they say that the Great White Shark, perhaps the greatest killing machine nature has ever devised, changed very little physically (if at all) in the hundreds of millions of years it came into the ocean scene ? Well, that’s kind of how I see Azula: she is quite frankly the greatest killing machine the fire nation had ever devised, and — like Nature with the Great White Shark — you don’t mess with perfection.

    In terms of character development, I am going to argue that Azula’s descent into madness, her phenomenal and very powerful (I was very deeply affected by it, as I am sure I wasn’t the only one) mental breakdown and collapse, is A STEP TOWARD CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. The Fire Nation’s ideology/mantra of world dominance is just very simply WRONG, but the core and foundation of Azula’s identity is predicated upon that premise (you can thank her father for that). So how do you prod her into the right moral direction? Well, imagine if you will a magnificent house, a mansion, built upon a shaky foundation? You need to “right” and reinforce the foundation, but the only way you can do that is to bulldoze it down and then work on the foundation — there is really no other way around it. This is basically what has happened and is happening with Azula: she knows her father is wrong, she knows the fire nation’s ideology is wrong, she knows there is something very fundamentally wrong with herself (“I’m a monster,” is something we often hear from her, and much as she denies it, her “perceived” rejection by her mother is clearly the lynchpin in her identity), and for her to feel “right” about herself ever again, she must destroy all that and rebuild and put down a new foundation.

    So Azula’s mental collapse is really Step 1 in Azula 2.0 reboot. I honestly and vehemently wish that the writers come up with an entire season devoted to Azula’s redemption. I mean, her brother got one — Book 3 of the Avatar series should have been subtitled “Zuko Redeems Himself.” It is only fair that little, unloved sis gets one of her own.

    AN ADDENDUM TO MY ADDENDUM:

    When I say “reboot” I don’t mean a complete reboot. I probably shouldn’t have said “reboot” in the first place, only it’s kinda a trendy word to say and I couldn’t help myself. What I really meant is a continuation. I don’t want Azula to lose or change her bad-assery and her manic sense of self-reliance and independence — those are basically the reasons why I was such a huge fan in the first place. But the direction of her very potent personal powers and energies must be redirected someplace else — that’s precisely what I meant by a reboot and building on a new foundation. A new cause, if you will. And I’d like her to end up being THE QUEEN of something, or some place. Because she really couldn’t be anything else. Say what you will of Azula, but the one thing you couldn’t get any argument from anyone (or if anyone would be willing to argue with me, I’d argue to high heavens) is that she makes a very effective leader. She is really meant to lead, and she would make for a very good, much beloved leader of the people as long as her ideology is in the right place. She would be both loved and feared at the same time, two qualities that make for a very great leader.

    Maybe they could transport her to the Game of Thrones, give Daeny a run for her money?

  2. I have to agree with Anne, she did have some ‘character development’ if that’s how you can call it, because at the beginning we see a ‘strong’ Azula, both mentally and physically, she has bought the lie, all she is, it’s just mere facade but for her it’s all she knows and she believes that’s right, but then in book 3, we can get to see how she starts breaking, a more human side of her is revealed, and when she has that mental breakdown at the end, she stops faking it finally, we can see her how she truly is, a fucked up character and a very vulnerable one, and that step is needed if we wanna see her developing more.

    For me, her and Zuko are the most interesting characters, Zuko being my favorite character. So much, at the end of the series, all I wanted to know was more about their family and their mother, good thing we have the comics, hopefully in the new comic Smoke and Shadow we will see more about Azula and her relationship with Zuko, hope they’re able to fix it, because I believe she deserves a second chance, just like Zuko, I feel pity for her.

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