It will come as no surprise to long-time followers of Paper Droids that I freakin’ love Avatar: The Last Airbender and all its permutations. The storytelling, the music, the worldbuilding, the attention to detail, the incredible grace and precision of fight scenes, the characters… ah yes, the characters. I can’t pick a favourite, but you’ve already guessed who I’m going to devote this article to from the title: Zuko. Son of Ursa and Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation. Voiced by the inimitable Dante Basco.
For those of you who’re fans along with me, you’re probably rolling your eyes because I took the cop-out route: EVERYONE likes Zuko. He’s a popular guy, and the fact that he looks pretty good in red and gold doesn’t take away from that. But here’s the thing; Zuko is popular because he is a genuinely well-written character, and I want to share a few reasons I love the way Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino wrote him.
1) He’s a motivated villain
And he’s motivated by a combination of reasons, not one of those run-of-the-mill singular-goal types. Of course, he comes off like that at first: capturing the Avatar is his shtick, and it’s only later we realize it’s because Zuko wholeheartedly believes that Aang in prison is the key to getting his father to love him. And I’m not going to say “again”: the Fire Nation’s royal family is messed up and abusive, and the more Ozai treats Zuko as a pawn, the more desperate the prince is to win his father’s love.
Add in a 100-year war that the Avatar could potentially turn against the Fire Nation, Zuko’s own personal trajectory as a disgraced crown prince who has no birthright anymore, and you’ve got a toxic groupthink influencing a teenager to cling to the notion that his is a noble quest to restore his own honour (and subsequently that of his country), instead of the reality that it’s a wild goose chase so he could be quietly forgotten by those in power.
2) He has the capacity to care very deeply
It’s no surprise that most of the gAang went on life-changing field trips with Zuko; throughout the show, we’re shown that Zuko gives a damn about other people, no matter how much he protests to the contrary. The way he treats Mai is proof of this: he wants to save her when she’s in danger, he wants her to be happy, and he’s a needlessly chivalrous idiot because of it. Mai is an incredibly complicated character herself and so rarely shows emotion; Zuko goes with it and accepts that’s who she is, which is pretty mature.
Additionally, he’s already sticking up for the underdog at the beginning of the second season, risking his neck for people who should be his enemies and standing up for what is morally right. And we’re not shown this after he decides to play good-guy, either; we’re presented with an image of Zuko as a good person even while his alignment matches up more with Lawful Evil than anything else.
3) He apologizes
Zuko, near the end of his arc, realizes he has a lot to make up for. As prince of the Fire Nation, he also begins to realize that the country he will one day be responsible for has a lot to atone for, as well. In Book One, we’re introduced to a Zuko who is all teenaged arrogance and wounded pride and unyielding self-righteousness: by the end of Book Three, Zuko actually begins to recognize his own faults, and takes time to learn (and fail at learning, a good many times) to try and make amends. Zuko, though impatient and easily angered, recognizes the importance of learning a different way of looking at the world, of looking at himself, and of acting towards others, which is literally a journey running almost parallel to Aang’s.
As I said before, Zuko’s not my favourite character, but only because I literally cannot choose a favourite character from Avatar: the Last Airbender. If I had to rhyme off my favourite fictional anti-heroes, though, he’d be topping the list. If you’re an Avatar fan, let me know who your favourite characters are! I seriously cannot choose.