Ever since the idea of celebrating animated villains for a whole month was born, I’ve been wanting to write about Azula. Most of the other characters we write about, if not all of them, will come from movies but Azula is such a personal favorite that I just had to include her. In case any of you haven’t had the absolute pleasure of being terrified by her, she’s one of the main antagonists in Avatar: The Last Airbender. So what makes Princess Azula of the Fire Nation a great villain?
She’s Good at What She Does
She makes her official debut in the Book One finale, even if we’ve seen glimpses of her being all happy her brother just got scarred for life before that. Immediately, she becomes the main antagonist of the series as Zuko keeps changing into a better person. They probably waited to introduce her because had she faced the inexperienced Team Avatar of Book 1, the show would’ve ended right then and there. Why? Because Azula is really, really good at what she does. She’s a terrific Firebender, a master tactician and a ruthless warrior.
In fact, the wise and powerful Iroh prefers not to face Azula in battle. Even if she’s the scariest human being alive, you can’t help but admire how good she is at everything. Her determination to catch the Avatar and her traitorous brother and uncle is implacable and she’s so cold and calculating the fire she produces is blue instead of the normal fire everyone else conjures. But she doesn’t simply rely on her incredibly powerful bending as Team Avatar learned during the Day of Black Sun invasion. Without the ability to bend, Azula held off Avatar Aang, Toph and Sokka by using mind tricks and her incredible agility. She’s just scarily good at being evil.
But the best thing about Azula is she’s not a perfect princess. Ruthless as she may be, we see glimpses of her humanity as the series progresses. We learn her mother was actually scared of her. We see how jealous she was of Zuko clearly being their mother’s favorite. And it’s because of these set ups that her final breakdown makes so much sense. We had seen her insecurities through the scary mask she puts on so when they take hold of her and turn her into a paranoid person it makes perfect sense. And that’s why the last we see of the perfect, untouchable Princess Azula is just a broken woman who controlled people with fear and was left alone because of that.
It’s this juxtaposition of perfection and such a broken human being that fascinates me about Azula. Many movies and shows try to give us a perfect villain: a ruthless killing machine that’s efficient, deadly and invincible. But that’s ultimately boring due to a lack of humanity. The Avatar writers know a perfect character can’t be actually perfect. It’s the fact Azula has fears and problems we can all relate to that make her such an interesting three-dimensional villain.
And on top of that, she’s actually a prodigy at bending and strategy. The Fire Nation tried to conquer Ba Sing Se for 100 years and Azula was the one who finally did it by staging a coup. When she faced Team Avatar, nobody was sure how they were going to escape. I never wondered how they were going to defeat her but simply how they were going to escape her. When you create such a complex and powerful villain that the heroes of your story try their hardest to escape instead of to beat them, you know you have a great villain in your hands.