Analysis

Six Reasons the Fire Nation Is Such a Good Villain

Toph, Suki, and Sokka in a Fire Nation airship.
While individual villains will always be important, villainous organizations really propel a story to the next level. They allow for conflict on a vast scale, not to mention giving the antagonist a pocketful of minions to throw at the hero. Storytellers can also use villainous organizations to make important statements about society in a way that’s difficult to do with an isolated bad guy.

Considering their importance, it’s no wonder that so many storytellers have tried their hand at villainous organizations over the years. We’ve had galactic empires, evil hordes, and genocidal AI swarms, just to name a few. Many of these antagonistic associations are a credit to their story, but none do the job quite so well as the Fire Nation from Avatar: The Last Airbender. This flame-wielding island nation not only brought us some of the show’s best characters but is easily the best villainous organization I have ever encountered. Let me tell you why!

1. Aesthetics

an army of soldiers in spooky red armor attacks

What a villain looks like is incredibly important, as it’s usually the first thing audiences have to judge them by. In text, this happens through narrative description. In visual mediums, audiences can just see with their eyeballs. In most cases, the villain wants to look intimidating without seeming over the top or performative. If the villain doesn’t appear intimidating, they’ll have a hard time causing tension. On the other hand, if they seem to be trying too hard, they’ll circle back around into being comical.

The Fire Nation performs this balancing act with flying colors. First, it gets a major boost of intimidation because its element is fire, which most people understand to be dangerous at a visceral level.* Beyond magic, the Fire Nation has technological might as well, steaming across the world in massive steel-hulled ships. Even Fire Nation costuming is on-message, making heavy use of red and black.

And that’s just what the Fire Nation sends out into the world. When we visit the home islands, we see huge cities and opulent palaces alongside the heavy industry. Everything about the Fire Nation’s aesthetic speaks of an organization with the strength to crush its enemies and build whatever it wants at home.

The Fire Nation accomplishes all this without going overboard. There’s never a feeling that the writers are laying it on too thick or that the Fire Nation is making life difficult for itself in the name of looking more evil. The imposing technology is necessary for the war effort, and while the uniforms are clearly intimidating on purpose, it seems like a calculated move made for the Fire Nation’s enemies rather than the audience’s benefit.

2. Concrete Goals

Zuko standing in front of his crew.

Evil plans present a nasty stumbling block for many villainous organizations. An organization’s goals are often kept mysterious and vague to preserve the mystery, which can make it difficult for the audience to care what they’re up to. Just as often, it’s not clear why the organization even wants to do what it’s doing. This is the classic “why would you want to blow up the world you live on” problem. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the villains are capable of achieving their stated goals, leaving the audience to wait for a big reveal.

None of this is a problem with the Fire Nation. We know what they want to do from the moment we first hear about them: conquer the world. This straightforward goal requires very little explanation. We can assume that they want to conquer the world for the usual reasons: resources and power.

From there, the show breaks the Fire Nation’s goals into smaller chunks. To conquer the world, the Fire Nation must subdue the Earth Kingdom. To do that, the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se must be taken. In order to take Ba Sing Se, the Fire Nation must cut off all support from other Earth Kingdom strongholds, tightening the noose until there is no escape. We see this happening over the course of seasons one and two. It is brutal, methodical, and easy to understand.

It’s also clear from the beginning that the Fire Nation is quite capable of achieving its goals, what with the massive armies and fleets of warships at its command. We don’t need to ask where all that military might came from because we can assume it came from the Fire Nation homeland. This simplicity is important because it establishes what the Fire Nation is up to at the beginning, leaving the writers time to build up some…

3. Deeper Motivations

Aang trying to study at a Fire Nation school.

It’s very important to establish concrete goals for your evil organization, but if that’s all there is, then the organization won’t be as interesting later in the story. Audiences want to know what’s going on at a glance, but they also want there to be more when they peek behind the curtain.

The Fire Nation is ready and waiting. While conquest is always at the height of their agenda, the reasons and justifications for it take longer to tease out. Once we’ve had some time to get to know the Fire Nation, it’s revealed that Fire Lord Sozin originally started his policy of expansion because he wanted to spread his nation’s prosperity to the rest of the world. He believed the Fire Nation had the best way of doing things, and other lands would be either be grateful to accept his rule or weren’t responsible enough to govern themselves anyway.

You might recognize this as imperialism. As is often the case in real life, the Fire Nation’s imperialism didn’t start with violence, but with ostensibly peaceful colonization. From there the bloody war was inevitable, as the Fire Nation’s appetite grew and grew. In service of the war, the Fire Nation developed a cult of superiority around its patron element. Fire was better than the other elements – it had to be, or else the war was wrong, and that couldn’t be true. Anyone who opposed the Fire Nation became an obstacle to greater prosperity for the world.

It’s important to note that none of this ever excuses or justifies the Fire Nation’s imperialism. Avatar shows us more about the villains so we can understand them, not so we can wonder if they were right all along. In other stories, it might be appropriate to give the villain some justification for their actions, but here it’s to underline the importance of their defeat. Plus it encourages audiences to think more critically of imperialist violence in the real world, which is always a plus.

4. Internal Division

Sozin and Roku as adults.

No group of people is a monolith, no matter how united they appear on the outside. There are always factions and disagreements beneath the surface, and portraying that makes a fictional organization seem more realistic. Most storytellers understand this, but working those divisions into the plot can be a real challenge. After all, you don’t want to abandon your protagonist in order to exposit how the villains feel about their new vacation plan.

In Avatar, the writers start small, showing minor disagreements between branches of the Fire Nation military. From there, they escalate to higher-level politics, with characters like Prince Zuko and Admiral Zhao willing to fight and even kill each other over who gets credit for a major victory. This conflict is relevant to the main plot because the heroes can exploit it as a weak spot in the seemingly invincible Fire Nation.

Once Zuko transitions from villain to full-on protagonist,* the writers show us how deep the Fire Nation’s political intrigue goes. We learn of complex and deadly plots to seize the throne, and how those plots changed both Fire Nation policy and the course of the war. This is all kept relevant because of the way it affects Zuko, everyone’s favorite tortured hero.

Avatar also shows us the occasional Fire Nation citizen who opposes their country’s policy. This is important because it reminds us that no group is without dissent, but it also puts into stark contrast how rare that dissent is. The Fire Nation isn’t prosecuting a war over its people’s wishes; for the most part, they fully support it. This complex portrayal of the Fire Nation’s internal politics helps it feel like a living entity rather than a conveniently evil plot device.

5. Sympathetic Members

Uncle Iroh playing a card game.

Everyone loves a sympathetic villain. They’re cool and conflicted, plus they give us a break from all the evil laughter. The problem is, if a villain is truly sympathetic, it can be difficult to explain why they’re on team evil in the first place. You’d think a semi-decent person would notice a problem when their home base is called the Terror Lair and puppies are served at the breakfast buffet. But we also want our evil organizations to be, well, evil.

This is another expert balancing act by the Fire Nation. We see early on that the Fire Nation is evil and has to be stopped, what with all the conquest and burning anything that gets in its way. But we also see the tools the Fire Nation uses to keep its people in line: nationalism and family loyalty.

For nationalism, the Fire Nation has built a complex fiction of its own superiority. The war is necessary to spread Fire Nation greatness to the rest of the world. This is something children are taught from birth, and it’s very difficult to question. The Fire Nation doesn’t call itself an evil invader. Instead, it is preemptively defending itself while also spreading the superiority of Fire Nation culture to any land that might threaten it. Sounds like a win/win!

Family loyalty is the other half of the equation. Even if individual Fire Nation citizens question what their country is doing, it’s difficult for them to act on it without betraying their friends and loved ones. This is especially potent for Zuko and his uncle Iroh, both members of the Fire Nation royal family. Even when they believe the Fire Nation is wrong, doing anything to stop it means hurting the people they care about.

In this double bind, it’s easy to see how otherwise kind and honorable characters could serve the Fire Nation. It’s their home, and they will do terrible things in its name. As with their deeper motivations, none of this excuses what the Fire Nation characters do. The show is very clear that they must actively make amends, but the sympathetic context lets us want them to make amends in the first place.

6. Threat

The villain’s primary purpose in the story is to oppose the protagonist, and to do that they have to be threatening. If the villain isn’t threatening, there’s no tension when they come into conflict with the hero, which is just boring. This is probably the most common stumbling block for villains, especially in episodic TV shows, where repeated confrontations can make the bad guys seem like pushovers.

The Fire Nation, on the other hand, stays threatening for Avatar’s entire run, and the writers manage this with a number of important tools. First, the Fire Nation starts the story with a strong reserve of threat because they’re already winning the war. They’ve devastated the Southern Water Tribe and conquered large swaths of the Earth Kingdom. They can afford to lose a few confrontations without looking like chumps.

Next, when representatives of the Fire Nation do lose to the heroes, there’s almost always some kind of mitigating circumstances. The most common option is that for our heroes, victory means escape rather than taking the Fire Nation down in a head-to-head confrontation. Other times, the heroes need to ally with mutual enemies or call on the aid of powerful spirits that won’t be around later. The writers are also careful to drop individual villains after they’ve been defeated too many times, replacing them with fresh sources of danger.

These methods all help, but the most important factor in keeping the Fire Nation threatening is that it actually wins sometimes. For that matter, it wins a lot. Some of these victories are minor, but two enormous triumphs later in the show really cement the Fire Nation as a force to be reckoned with. The writers were able to do this because the Fire Nation’s goal is to conquer the world, not kill the main characters. That way they could actually get what they wanted without ending the show.

A threatening villain is infinitely more satisfying to defeat than someone the hero has already beaten a dozen times. While most viewers know that the Fire Nation has to lose eventually, emotionally it feels like they could keep winning forever. That’s a big part of why the Avatar finale is so epic: we finally get to see the downfall of a villain that seemed unstoppable before.


Villains are a difficult aspect of storytelling, and villainous organizations even more so. You have to make sure the villain is threatening, credible, and evil enough that they must be stopped but not so evil that audiences won’t be able to enjoy the story. With such a high burden, storytellers could do a lot worse than copying the Fire Nation. Most of the specifics would need to be changed for a story that doesn’t take place in the Avatar setting, but the broad strokes can all stay the same. That’s not the only way to make a great villainous organization, but it’s a reliable one.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    Okay, this is awesome. (And so is the Fire Nation, btw)

  2. Sam Victors

    Yeah, the Fire Nation is like Nazi Germany, only smarter and thorough.

    • Sam Victors

      I’ve been working long and hard on my own antagonistic nation, set in one of my fantasy worlds. Its modeled after Trumpian America, with a few historical evils; slavery, classism, child labor, middle-upper class women can vote (except for poor and working class women), plantations, nationalism, segregation, etc. With two ruling Political Parties that are reserved only for old-money families (new money families/people are still seen as inferior). And all the Progress that is being made is made up of white, male, middle-upper class aristocrats (who are just plain White Progressives, White Feminists, White Saviors, etc.). They’re conservative by the standards of the other countries.

      • Anonymous

        I would be careful not to make this an obvious strawman. Using a fictional culture as a strawman to preach you political beliefs is never a good idea.

        • Tifa

          I’ve seen this pop up a lot in stories, where authors pour all the things they dislike into one villain or one organization, and assume that the readers will agree, often leading to designated “heroes” and fractured plots.

          • Sam Victors

            My fictional country’s evil is more than just their reactionary and regressive politics, its also their dark practices of human sacrifice (mostly of children), and the vile consuming of talking animals (which is a delicacy for them).

      • Bunny

        Did we have a comment conversation about this concept before? I could’ve sworn we did, but for the life of me I can’t find it anywhere on the site. Am I just making things up?

      • Deus Ex Anthropos

        Sam, if you do want to make it closely based on America, the relationship between money and class is a little different than in Europe or antebellum south. That relationship is almost 1:1. Epsecially since the proliferation of tech wealth, trust fund babies are far more likely to try to pass as entrepreneurs than the other way around.

        Slavery and low wage labor don’t frequently exist in the exact same places and produce different economic and social conditions. Slavery maintains the power of aristocracy (and stifles innovation and development), while low wage labor is more suitable for risky capital investment and thus will more likely be found alongside a powerful nouveau riche.

        • Alverant

          I don’t quite agree with that. In the not-too-distant past there were things called “company towns” where a single business would build a town (homes, churches, schools, etc) and pay their workers in company currency that was only good at their stores. It may be low-wage labor in a technical sense but in some ways it was slavery since people didn’t really have the option to leave. All their capital was tied up in the company and the company took steps to prevent their employees from becoming too independent.

          And how does slavery stifle innovation and development? Companies still want to do more with less and that has always driven innovation and development. Sudden inspiration or chance meetings are rare but they’re noticed. Take the cotton gin for example, it was an innovation by any definition but led to increased slavery in the US.

          • Deus Ex Anthropos

            Firstly, the cotton gin led to a revival of slavery, not the reverse. Secondly, you mentioned that companies would still want to innovate, but there weren’t barely any large companies in the antebellum South at all. Wealth came from land and land was owned by families. The families had no incentive to innovate, the best thing for them to do was to squeeze every penny out of the land they already owned. Poor whites had little opportunity to innovate because capital was had to acquire, since the wealthy didn’t need it. And obviously slaves had no opportunity to innovate at all.

            Thirdly, Karl Max famously predicted the end of slavery because slaves can’t buy anything, reducing the mobility of capital, incentive to produce consumer goods, etc. On a related note, wage labor is more suitable for capitalism because slaves are a capital investment. It’s typical for less than one in five businesses a fund or bank invests in to make a return. When the investor needs to cut losses, it is much easier to lay off workers than to resell slaves.

            Fourthly, paid laborers are easier to train and retrain, or to poach from another company or recruit from across the country. The more complicated an economy gets, the more specialists it requires and slavery reduces the pool of workers who could become educated. Mobility of labor and the ability to compete for talent are absolutely essential to capitalism, and slavery is completely antithetical to that.
            The result of all this was that the entire American south–and other places with slave or serf labor like Brazil and southern Italy and Russia–were left behind while places with relative freedom of labor industrialized.

            You are right about company towns. They weren’t capitalistic at all because, by definition, capitalism requires free movement of capital. Once workers were being paid in credits they could only spend at company stores the system did resembled an entrenched economic system, like slavery or feudalism, more than it did capitalism.
            Interestingly, company towns were predominately mining towns. Like the agricultural gentry and feudal lords who also tightly controlled their source of labor, company towns only functioned well in the primary sector where innovation tends to be slow and control of land is paramount.

            I initially commented because Sam said that he wanted to model his nation on Trumpian America. In contemporary America the primary sector is barely relevant, and thus neither are ownership of land and the whole idea of old money. The sector that produces the most growth, gets the most press, and confers celebrity status is the broadly defined technology sector. In the tech sector (and to a lesser degree retail and entertainment) being old and established is more likely to be seen as a burden than a boon; a clear reason/consequence of this is that the average age of a Fortune 500 company has declined from over 60 years in 1950 to less than 20 years in contemporary America. Startups and entrepreneurship carry a certain mystique. This, and the general American faith in meritocracy, is why old money hardly confers social status and why wealthy scions in America are probably more likely to pass themselves off as nouveau riche than the other way around.

  3. JackbeThimble

    I wouldn’t say so. I think they’re more like Imperial Japan with a bit of the British Empire tossed in. Nazi Germany wasn’t a monarchy, they didn’t rely on their navy, they weren’t an honor culture, Germany didn’t have the elaborate rules of courtesy that are emphasized in the Fire nation and the aesthetics of the Fire Nation are clearly more Japanese as well.

    • Sam Victors

      That actually makes much more sense.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree, Nazi Germany didn’t have the traits listed in the article. It’s not even about the aesthetics, which are also a good point.

      The Nazis didn’t think they had the ‘better’ culture and were colonizing, they were on their way to get more space for their own people, not only subduing, but often killing the people they conquered. Germany has colonized, but far before the Nazis, when they still were an empire (the German empire ended with the abdictation of Wilhelm II after WWI, 1918, and was followed by the Weimaran Republic, which ended with the rise of the Nazis to power). By the 1930s, when the Nazis came into power, there was no talk about bringing the superior German culture to other people. The Nazis promised more space for their own people, new living spaces in eastern Europe, cleaned of the ‘untermenschen’ living there (meaning Slavic people, mostly). They were pushing the borders for spoils and land, not to bring their culture to anyone else.

    • Adam Reynolds

      I thought the Imperial Japan parallel was obvious if you consider the fact that the series is based on historical Asian cultures in the first place. The Earth Kingdom is also based on China in a similar fashion, with Japan’s attacks on China also loosely similar to the Fire Nation’s war of conquest. The way the Fire Nation acts in The Legend of Korra is also loosely similar to postwar Japan in that they are powerful without relying on a strong military.

      The Group in Avatar that actually has parallels to Nazi Germany and fascism more broadly is Kuvira’s Earth Empire in The Legend of Korra. Which exists largely in response to Fire Nation imperialism as well as Aang’s conciliatory response to it, allowing the creation of the United Republic instead of returning the land to the Earth Kingdom.

      Actually all of the various groups in The Legend of Korra represent different ideological political movements. Amon’s equallists are loosely based on communism, Unaloq is a fundamentalist theocrat, and Zaheer is a fairly open anarchist. What was interesting is that unlike in ATLA, in The Legend of Korra all of those groups have a point, and Korra’s ultimate goal is to achieve balance between the initial problem and the villain’s overcorrection.

      Though the flaw in The Legend of Korra is also worth contrasting here, which is that LoK lacks the narrative clarity that made ATLA so good because the villains were somewhat fragmented.

      • JackBeThimble

        Actually I think the Republic-Fire Nation relationship is more based on the way the US britain relationship developed over the 19th and early 20th century. It would only really work as a parallel to post WW2 Japan if, after being defeated by the Avatar The Fire Nation abrogated it’s right to usd force and relied entirely on the defensive guarantee of the Avatar, who was now more interested in fighting a cold war with the earth kingdom.

  4. Mr. Bottle

    This is a very good, insightful post. Perhaps you could make a similar post but for a good example of a heroic organization?

  5. Lizard with Hat

    Very intressting point about the Fire Nation. Avatar manges multidimensions well, but i still find Azula a tiny bit overrated…

    On a tangentially related topic:
    Since many fire nation soldiers have them, is it okay for a villain to wear a mask just for aesthetics?
    Or should I leave the mask aside if there is no big reveal?

    • Cay Reet

      For regular soldiers, a face mask simply serves to make them less ‘human.’ It’s the same reason why the stormtrooper helmets in Star Wars looked like that. That makes it less worse for the audience, if a lot of them get killed (not that Avatar ever went there). It’s clear that in case of the soldiers with the helmets, there’s no secret behind them.

      If you have a main character with a mask, there should be a good reason for the mask.

      Azula is a bit overrated, but she serves well as a foil for Zuko in the last season.

      • Lizard with Hat

        Thx for the answer, now i have to pick a good reason from my list.

  6. steven

    4 strengths of the fire nation mentioned in this article is ABSENT from the post-ROTJ first order but is in spades in the OT era empire. And is the foundational reason why everyone hates the sequel trilogy is inferior to the original trilogy.

    1. Concrete goals, Nothing on the first order agenda outside of taking over the galaxy…nothing about it makes sense otherwise. the empire already ruled the galaxy but wanted to instead create a weapon that can secure their victory without lavish military spending, which is implied would have been redirected to the people(by lose sources).

    2. deeper motivations, The empire was partially a human-centric organization that became popular because of core world anxiety over the insecurity of its dominance over the rim factions(who would later become the bulk of the separatist forces. For the rim supporters of the empire(like tarkin, who comes from the outer rim)

    “By partitioning the galaxy into regions, we actually achieve a unity previously absent; where once our loyalties and allegiances were divided, they now serve one being, with one goal: a cohesive galaxy in which everyone prospers. For the first time in one thousand generations our sector governors will not be working solely to enrich Coruscant and the Core Worlds, but to advance the quality of life in the star systems that make up each sector — keeping the spaceways safe, maintaining open and accessible communications, assuring that tax revenues are properly levied and allocated to improving the infrastructure. The Senate will likewise be made up of beings devoted not to their own enrichment, but to the enrichment of the worlds they represent”

    Machiavellian philosophy…stability at any price

    3. Internal division, the first order does not have compelling internal divisions, only between 2 spoiled children(Kylo and hux) who ultimately are the same goals except one has a personality and is awesome(Kylo) and one had my theater clap everytime someone made him squeal like a girl(Hux)

    4. threat level, the empire already rules the galaxy, they are so overwhelmingly powerful that they can afford to lose battles as well as blow up planets. The first order on the other hand is a military runt state that is a remnant of an empire that already failed, starting them off in the worse possible light. Legacy of the force Retells the story of “big empire vs little guy” better because the “big empire” is the Galactic alliance established by the original trilogy cast after endor….this was a monster that was of the doing of the original trilogy cast. That is why Kylo feels far more compelling than the first order, because Kylo was created by luke han and leia, just as the galactic alliance was in legends

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