- The crystal cave battle from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” brilliantly incorporates the philosophy of the three laws of magic, guidelines for writing compelling magic systems from fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson.
- Sanderson’s first law suggests that because the magic system from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is relatively simple to understand, it’s greatly satisfying to the user when characters use magic in new ways.
- His laws also suggest that by building limitations into a magic system (as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has done), it makes for better storytelling because it creates natural obstacles that the characters have to overcome.
- The battle of the crystal cave also does a masterful job of using its fight to reveal character, using the action of the combatants to tell the audience more about each character.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: In this fight scene from “The Crossroads of Destiny,” the final episode of season two of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” we see Aang create crystal armor for the first time. It made fans like me go wild. This scene is filled with multiple examples of characters using their abilities in new ways. That’s just one of the reasons why this fight isn’t your typical anime battle. It’s a brilliant scene that uses screenwriting rules and tricks to create a perfect five-minute sequence of storytelling.
To quickly recap the scene, Azula and Zuko attack Aang and Katara in the crystal caves of the Earth Kingdom. The Dai Li show up to help Azula, so Aang decides he needs to enter the powerful Avatar state in order to win. But Azula strikes him down with a bolt of lightning. Uncle Iroh then jumps in and stalls Azula so that Katara can escape with the unconscious Aang.
One reason why this is such an amazing fight scene is that it’s a perfect example of the three laws of magic. These laws were written by Brandon Sanderson, the author of over 25 fantasy novels, such as the “Mistborn” series and “The Stormlight Archive.” Sanderson has thought a lot about the use of magic in fantasy writing, and he believes that these three rules are important guidelines to writing a compelling magic system.
Sanderson’s first law of magic states that: Essentially, this means that the better an audience understands the rules of a magic system, the more satisfying it is when magic is used. This is one of the greatest strengths of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”: the show’s well-defined but relatively basic magic system, simple enough that it’s easily explained in the show’s title sequence that plays before every episode. There are four different types of elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Some people have the ability to bend one of these elements. There’s only one Avatar at a time, who is able to bend all four elements.
According to this first law of magic, because the audience has an extremely clear understanding of the rules of bending, when characters use bending in creative ways, it is extremely satisfying for the audience. For instance, take the example used at the beginning of this video. In this battle, Azula literally starts rocketing towards Aang. So what should he do? He uses his earthbending powers to create crystal armor for himself. This is a really creative and smart solution to Aang’s problem.
And it’s not just this one occurrence; these new and intelligent bending techniques appear throughout this battle. Azula creates smoke with her firebending to hide her location, Aang creates a crystal dome to protect himself while he’s mediating, and Katara creates a ring of water tentacles in order to fend off multiple enemies. It’s simply enthralling to watch these characters use bending in new and imaginative ways, because we have a clear understanding of their magic.
This leads us to Sanderson’s second law of magic, which states: When there are limitations built into a magic system, it creates natural obstacles that the characters have to overcome.
For example, the Avatar can’t automatically attain the powerful Avatar state. First, they have to let go of their worldly attachments. This limitation forces Aang to have to learn how to let go of his connections. Pathik: The only way is to let her go. Narrator: And results in a rewarding moment of character growth when he finally detaches and successfully achieves the Avatar state.
Another example of a smart restriction is that although airbenders can manipulate air, they can’t fly. This limits Aang’s mobility and makes him have to solve more problems that he would otherwise. Take a look at the escape sequence from the season one episode “The Blue Spirit.” If Aang could fly, this escape would be boring. But because there are limits to his airbending, it forces Aang to come up with creative solutions that make the sequence captivating.
Contrast the limits of “The Last Airbender” with the magic system of the “Harry Potter” universe. In the “Harry Potter” series, the rules of magic are more nebulous, and the number of spells that wizards can use in a battle are practically limitless. And yet, despite these near infinite possibilities, the fights generally boil down to the villains shooting the one killing curse everywhere while everyone else tries to dodge or block the spell. Some of the fights are unique, but typically the battles in “Harry Potter” are not very interesting. This is because it would be overwhelming to the audience if dozens of dissimilar spells were introduced every time there was a conflict. So, instead, most of the fights consist of the same two or three spells.
Peter Pettigrew: Avada Kedavra!
Voldemort: Avada Kedavra!
Narrator: However, this is not to say that the “Harry Potter” universe has a bad magic system. It’s just that its flexible magic system is much better suited for moments of grandeur than it is for fighting, unlike the magic system in “The Last Airbender,” which is inspired by martial arts.
Sanderson’s third and final law of magic states that one should: This idea has already been touched on. But to illustrate just how well “The Last Airbender” deals with this concept, take a look at how the show expanded upon the four main types of elemental bending, such as when they introduced metalbending as an extension of earthbending. You can see how the show gradually added new types of bending before ultimately adding a completely new type of bending, energybending, in the penultimate episode of the show.
The fight from “The Crossroads of Destiny” expands on the magic system in a subtle way by setting up that there will be spirit-world consequences for Aang being struck down in the Avatar state, a storyline that is explored in the final season of the show. While the extremely intelligent use of magic in this scene is fantastic, it’s only half of what makes this battle so special. The other half is that it’s more than just an action scene; it’s a vehicle to reveal character.
An action scene consisting of two characters just punching each other can make for a passable fight scene, but one way to make a more compelling action scene is to have the sequence reveal a character’s personality. A perfect example of this is in the smithy fight between Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Through the various action beats in the fight, we learn that Jack is dangerous, a cheater, and determined, while learning that Will is bold, resourceful, and equally determined.
The battle of “The Crossroads of Destiny” does a similarly masterful job of using its fight to reveal character. When Aang enters the Avatar state, Zuko and the Dai Li back away from him, but Azula actually attacks him with lightning and strikes him down. This short four-second sequence tells the audience everything that they need to know about Azula’s power and ambitious nature. And to bring up that awesome crystal-armor moment one more time, when Aang charges headlong at Azula, it’s not only a cool earthbending technique, it also shows personal character growth from Aang, who has historically avoided conflict if possible.
Additionally, multiple season-long arcs come to a head in this battle, adding to what makes it so emotional. Much of the conflict of the second season involves Prince Zuko struggling with his identity, lightning as a new and powerful form of firebending, and Aang struggling to control the Avatar state. These ideas are explored through the season in different ways, but it’s a sign of great storytelling that all of these season-long arcs are able to come to a satisfying conclusion in a five-minute battle. Aang finally attains the Avatar state by letting go of his attachment to Katara. However, he is immediately struck down by Azula, who strikes Aang with a bolt of lightning, seemingly killing him. Zuko betrays Uncle Iroh and sides with Azula and the Fire Nation, seizing the opportunity to regain his father’s approval. Uncle Iroh firmly aligns himself with the Avatar and sacrifices himself so that Katara and Aang can escape, so ashamed of the actions of his nephew Zuko that he can’t stand to look at him.
The reason that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is so beloved is because of scenes like this battle combining so many different elements into one amazing sequence. There’s thrilling action, dazzling magic, satisfying character development, and moving displays of emotion. It’s incredibly impressive that so many of us who enjoyed this show 15 years ago still find it just as touching and entertaining today. No one cares that the show has a boxy aspect ratio, low resolution, or simple animation. It’s perfect.