Welcome back to another venture into the world of antagonists and this time we are taking a look at one of the most critically praised cartoons of all time, Avatar the Last Airbender. There is a lot one could do with this series, whether it’s debating the structure of the show and the influences of Buddhism upon it or discussing the messed up lineages of each nation over the course of both Aang and Korra’s stories. There is a plethora of material to cover, but the one thing I’ve always wanted to look deeper into is the Fire Nation royals. Zuko, Iroh, Azula, Ozai, all of these characters help to create one of the most divisive family dynasties I have seen in what could be considered a children’s show (even if it really doesn’t feel like one). Technicalities aside, each of these characters has their own imprint at the original story of Aang. Though when it comes down to it, the two siblings of Zuko and Azula are by far the more interesting characters to study because of how different their experiences with family are. I will save Zuko for another day, but Azula on the other hand I feel deserves her dues. Will she stand out more than her brother or will her fire merely be unruly and unrefined? Is she just a bland cold-hearted monster or a complex character worth sympathizing with?
The Hunt for the Great Antagonist is a series that will spoil elements from the series surrounding the antagonist and most likely key points within the series itself. You have been warned.
Growing up under the tutelage of her father Ozai, Azula became a great warrior princess praised for her unique skill in firebending. Her blue flames are her trademark, blue being the most lethal part of the flame. In all aspects she was the perfect princess for her father, Ozai, but that wasn’t exactly the same about her mother, Ursa. Azula had a cold calculating nature to her, the makings of a psychopath who cared for no one and revelled in the suffering of others. She perceived that her mother felt that she was a monster, and rationalized it within her mind in order to cope with losing her. This lead to her inability to love others. Her hatred for all who defy her is evident and noticeable as she hunts both Zuko and the Avatar consistently throughout the show. She doesn’t want others to love and trust her, but to become the monster she perceives herself to be. The monster her father wants her to be, the perfect pawn for his grand schemes of taking over the world.
Azula has relationships, but those relationships are built through fear. The Dai Li follow her out of respect for her cunning and fear her ferocity. Her friends Mai and Ty Lee both follow her not out of a sense of friendship, but because she is the princess of the Fire Nation who could destroy them. She constantly insults her family whom she deems weak, like her uncle Iroh for abandoning his siege of Ba Sing Se after his son perished during an invasion attempt. She even messes with her brother Zuko because of a sense of jealousy. For he had what she always wanted, the love of her mother. Azula became exactly what she wanted, a monster to all those around her. Yet that monstrosity is fragile, and eventually fell apart due to the Avatar and his crew slowly defeating the Fire Lord with hope. Prompting the betrayal of her friends and the slow unraveling of Azula’s calm demeanor and psyche.
Azula in the last part of the series is a mental trainwreck. The betrayal scared her to her very core as she didn’t know what to do but banish anyone else who could betray her. As what kept people around her was no longer there. She was tossed aside by her father, never to truly be by his side but rule under him. Her mental state plummeted to the point where her subconscious brought about visions of her mother. This showed that deep down Azula knew that her mother loved her, but would rather reject it all for the desire to be feared once more because that is easier than opening up her heart and admitting she was wrong. This leads to the climatic showdown between her and her brother. Her heart now uncertain and her bending more wild, she loses to Zuko and Katara witnessing yet again a relationship her ferocity cannot control. Azula in the end is still a child, desiring the love of her mother yet afraid to understand that she had it all along and was wrong all that time. She is a product of her father, a product of the Fire Nation’s handling of the world and a fragile person who always desired to be loved. That to me is one of the saddest stories Avatar has ever told. An antagonist who was shaped by her father and by her own perception of herself to a place of self-destruction.
All Azula wants in life is to be feared by others and to be useful to her father. She hates that others can be content with life and uses them to however she sees fit. Her motivation is cold and simple, masking her true desire to be loved by others. This dual motivation isn’t really given the most screentime as her character in her more psychotic state is given more development it the books after the series. The first time we see her instability with her fake motivation is when Mai and Ty Lee left her which is nearing the end of the last season. Azula’s motivation is fleshed out a bit through flashbacks and her disdain for her brother. You can see the jealousy looming around her as she watches Zuko and Ursa play with ducks by the pond.
Her motivation is twisted to fit that harsh reality she imposed upon herself. When her close relationships she thought was true turned out to be false, she truly erupted. Her motivations didn’t merely shift on a dime, but rather was hidden under a grand sense of bravado and anger. She to some degree achieves the power she sought only to throw it all away as she began to realize what she really wanted. In the short amount of time we see Azula fall apart, we can clearly see this fleshed out motivation was hidden through the bread crumbs of the series. Her motivation in life was fear, but the motivation in her heart was the desire to be loved. She clashed with herself and the darker half won due to the influence of Ozai.
Team Avatar have always been on edge the moment they saw Azula. She accomplishes many things during her time on the show. The numerous episodes of her hunting down the Avatar are notable that she accomplishes the main factor of consistently being in their way no matter the scenario and hindering their progression. During the Invasion on the capital of the Fire Nation, she effectively wasted the time of the Avatar and his team by toying with them effectively until her bending was returned after the time of black sun.
She even changed the landscape of battle greatly by taking control of the Dai Li and overtaking the city of Ba Sing Se, something Iroh could never accomplish. This emphasized a sense of time to our heroes, forcing them to adapt to not only Aang being gravely injured but the loss of one of their last great strongholds. Azula is considered an expert strategist for a reason, outsmarting and outplaying all of the heroes until she starts to lose her grip on reality. Her greatest accomplishment which is to become Fire Lord, even though that is not her goal, was usurped from her because of that very insanity causing her to fail in the last moment before her reign. Azula is effective at accomplishing great things in the world of Avatar, and one could say the entire second and possibly part of the third season were all her accomplishments.
Azula’s relevance to the hero’s journey is one of obstacle and foil. To Aang she is an unstoppable machine only dwarfed by her father and therefore lacks great importance to him in the long run. She doesn’t affect him, it was more of her father that managed to help him progress down his hero’s path. She did however give Aang a sense of panic and loss when she blocked off his Avatar state. The entire reason why Aang has a sudden rebellious streak was because of his inability to save Ba Sing Se from Azula. Azula sent him down a path to rediscover his importance and the importance of others to his journey. That was only short lived however as Aang bounces back quite quickly in the third season and then learns the stress of defeating the Fire Lord, usurping Azula’s relevance handily.
Instead her relevance to Zuko’s path is more effective. Zuko’s family all play a role in who he is and what he becomes. Azula plays a big part in that. Azula is the foil to Zuko in every way. He is anger and disappointment, she is cold-hearted and prideful. It is through Azula that we see Zuko dance through circles in the show. She is the snake in his ear telling him what is best for himself. She convinces him to betray his uncle and join her in taking Ba Sing Se when he finally found happiness. Azula is always there to bring Zuko back to who he once was, the angry boy upset at the world for allowing what happened to him. She constantly keeps him on guard when he does join her side, always being that reminder of when he is slipping up. When Azula and Zuko started to change, both reflected one another. Azula was angry at the world and a loose cannon during their final Agni Kai and Zuko was calm and collected after finding another outlet for his firebending. The both bring out the worst and best in one another. Zuko overcomes himself in spite of her and Azula turns to despair and insanity because of Zuko joining Team Avatar. Both are quite relevant to the other’s journey. Yet while Zuko may not be the main character, he is one of if not the most predominant character next to Aang as we watch both of them grow over time. This is why she may not be quite as relevant to one hero’s journey, but she is relevant to another’s.
While Azula’s reveal was not as grand as Ozai’s, her screen presence is one of the best factors about her as a character. She is slimy and deceitful, always one step ahead of others and you know that she thinks she is superior. The reason why a cold-hearted psychopath like her has solid screen presence is not only because of her intellect but also her ingenuity in battle. No matter the battle she is one of the most intimidating forces on the battlefield. Her quick reaction times, her sly decision making to not follow rules or morals, it is what makes Azula such a wonder to watch. Each of her fights are expertly fought, easily putting the heroes on their toes and easily being the best antagonist with fight sequences. Moments like the showdown under Ba Sing Se, the final Agni Kai, the Mexican standoff against Aang and Zuko, and the escape from the Boiling Rock. There is this sense of intimidation that not also spawns from Azula’s ruthless persona on screen, but also her strength as a warrior to back up what she says.
When she takes over the Dai Li and Long Feng, she says one of the better villain lines I have ever heard.
Long Feng: “You’ve beaten me at my own game.”
Azula: “Don’t flatter yourself. you were never even a player.”
Lines like these make not only her actions memorable, but creates a charismatically evil antagonist that you know has a sense of strong smug superiority. Even with her intimidation on the battlefield, Azula is just as impressive off. When she plots to overthrow Ba Sing Se, Azula effectively remains in control of the situation no matter the position she is in. Even being captured, she still holds all the cards luring Long Feng into a trap effectively and we as an audience know every step of the way because of her sharp smiles and confident ton of voice. Grey Delisle is excellent at giving the right amount of righteous indignation to the world without making it feel overblown. Azula is a character that would have been hard to take seriously if her voice actress wasn’t able to handle the cold and calculating tone that pervades Azula throughout the series. Her explosive behaviour in the end was nailed perfectly as she clearly had that same confidence in her voice but with a certain unhinged quality that makes that much more terrifying and unpredictable. No matter the scene, Azula was handled with an expert hand that could cause people to tremble with just a simple glare.
At the end of all that Azula is left with a final score of:
So yet another solid example of an antagonist done correctly! My luck only seems to be on the rise and looking at what could be considered a 50/50 antagonist is getting harder and harder the more deserving candidates keep missing the 40 mark. I was sure that Azula on rewatch would make it over that hurdle, but that lack of screen time developing her motivation and her relevance to the overall hero’s journey is what managed to keep it away from her. Not being the central overarching antagonist can be a detriment sometimes. Still for now she is the best antagonist I have looked at so far and soon I will have a ranking page for them.
So what did you think about Azula? What do you think about her fractured psyche and her need to have people fear her? I have an email for the blog now at
so feel free to send me recommendations on a new antagonist I should focus on. Please leave the name of the show rather than the antagonist since I want to try to avoid spoilers but I want to try shows that could give me a truly unique one. You can also leave a comment down below as well and like always don’t forget to have yourself an awesome day!