Avatar vs Teen Titans: The Better Anime-Inspired Powerhouse Cartoon of the 2000’s
September 16, 2020
I’ve spent the last summer, through the magic of streaming services, revisiting several shows I hadn’t watched for many years. One of the shows I revisited, as I imagine many other people did this summer, was “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Breaking records to become one of Netflix’s most profitable investments, the show has recaptured the hearts and minds of many, who had, like myself, watched the show previously, as well as bringing in countless new viewers as well. And yet, another show that I revisited, this time on DC Universe, was 2003’s “Teen Titans”, which ran for five seasons on Cartoon Network before an abrupt cancellation regretted by many to this very day.
Despite the two shows being similar in a number of ways (both are anime-inspired shows about a group of teenage heroes battling the forces of evil which had a successful run in the mid-2000’s and are looked back on fondly today) “Teen Titans” is significantly less well-remembered than “Avatar”. But still, nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to compare these two shows and ask the question: which show was ultimately superior?
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” was created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konkietzo for Nickelodeon Studios. The show tells an original story of a world where people have the ability to control, or “bend” the four classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Just as there are four elements, there are four nations based around them. As a pair of teenagers (Katara and Sokka) from the backwater Southern Water Tribe find out, he was trapped in an iceberg for all that time. His name is Aang, an energetic, joyful, young airbender- who as we find out later in the show, is the last of his kind.
“Teen Titans” comes from a very different background. Since the release of “Batman: The Animated Series”, all of the animated cartoons that DC put out were part of a broader DC animated universe. “Teen Titans”, created by Glen Murakami, a former DCAU heavyweight, was the first show by them in a while to not be featured in that universe, and, as a result, differed wildly from its predecessors. Whereas they developed a distinct, angular art style, “Teen Titans” took heavy influence from anime, and incorporated several visual elements from the genre. The show, adapted from the “Teen Titans” comics that had been going since the 60’s, tells the story of five young superheroes: Robin (Batman’s former apprentice), Cyborg (a cyborg), Beast Boy (a green skinned creature which can turn into any animal), Starfire (an alien princess from a far away planet), and Raven (a half demon sorceress.) Together, the five of them fight crime in a city on the West Coast while trying to get along and deal with each other.
On the surface, both shows have premises that almost sound boring, the kind of show that would appeal to 10 year olds on Saturday mornings and not too many others. But what pulled both through was phenomenal writing that made both kids and adults tune in. “Avatar”, despite being rated TV-Y7 with grade schoolers being its primary audience, was able to address themes such as genocide, the human cost of war, and abusive parental relationships The show also used its martial arts influences as more than just a gimmick, but as a major source of influence.
Each form of bending is based off of a real life school of martial arts technique, and each nation borrows heavily a different Asiatic (or Inuit, in the case of Water Tribes) nation. On top of that, the show has an absolutely phenomenal cast of characters, still remembered and beloved to this very day. My personal favorite would probably be Toph Beifong, Aang’s earthbending teacher introduced in the second season, a twelve year old blind girl who is nevertheless one of the greatest Earthbenders to ever live, managing to beat fully grown men in Earthbending tournaments and bend metal, something previously thought to be impossible. But shout outs are also due for Zuko, the Firelord’s banished son who struggle to find his honor and place in the world serve as the emotional backbone of the series, and Iroh, his kooky, wise, and tea-loving uncle who believes in Zuko’s capacity for good through all of it.
“Teen Titans” was no slouch in this regard either. Like “Avatar”, it had a phenomenal main cast of characters whose struggles were often just as emotionally potent. My personal favorite of the Titans was Raven, the daughter of an omnipotent demon named Trigon who strives to do good in the world despite the fact that she’s supposedly destined to destroy the world for him. In addition, the show had a phenomenal knack for being able to seamlessly mix together drama and comedy. And that’s not even mentioning my favorite character in the series, Slade, known in the comics as Deathstroke, the show’s main antagonist, a master manipulator who plays the Titans against each other on multiple occasions, such as when he blackmails Robin into becoming his apprentice after filling his teammates with deadly probes they are unaware of, or when he manages to convince Terra, a new member of the Titans introduced in the second season, to betray the other members and become his apprentice.
Of course, neither show was perfect. Despite having a phenomenal cast of heroes, both shows were much more hit or miss when it came to their antagonists, with both shows had their highlights (The already mentioned Slade and Azula, the Firelord’s psychotic, perfectionist daughter being examples of such) and their lowlights in that regard. As well, both shows have their fair share of mediocre episodes scattered throughout, mostly in their first seasons. In addition, both shows had a bad habit of overusing deus ex machina. Additionally, I never particularly liked the way “Tean Titans” handled the arc surrounding Terra’s betrayal, as the way the character’s betrayal and redemption was presented made her come off as too flexible and sporadic in her decision making.
As far as which show is better, it depends on what you’re looking for. In terms of a full, front-to-back binge watching experience, I would say “Avatar” was the better of the two. For one, it told a continuing story from beginning to end, as opposed to “Teen Titans”, which had a half arc season structure (half the episodes are part of a story arc, the other half are stand alone episodes) However, “Avatar” is kind of show that rewards a beginning to end viewing experience, in the same way that watching a trilogy of films does. Nevertheless, both shows are ones I would give my highest recommendations.