Azula: villainous femme fatale

"Happy Mothers Day from Azula" | Art by DarrenGeers. Used with permission.
Few things highlight great heroes like great villains. Villains bring conflict. They force the heroes to fight, challenge their beliefs, and often leave them physically and emotionally scarred. Some villains were once heroes, and tragically fell when they could no longer bear the burdens of this life. Others, so it seems, were born evil the same as I was born with brown eyes. These villains in particular take on universal characteristics, giving them a larger than life stature in the stories they haunt with their dog-kicking and fridge-stuffing. One villainous femme fatale worthy of special mention is Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Princess Azula.

Every time the teenaged Azula makes her debut in Book 2: Earth, I can’t help muttering: “Ugh. She’s the worst.” Princess Azula, voiced by the talented Gray Delisle, is the daughter of Firelord Ozai and Princess Ursa and the younger sister of Prince Zuko, Avatar’s antihero. After Zuko fails to capture Aang in the first season of the show, the Firelord dispatches Azula to hunt down him and his friends once and for all.

Azula threatens the heroes of Avatar on several fronts. As a prodigious firebender possessing the full financial and military backing of the Fire Nation, she is a constant physical threat. At the battle outside the walls of Ba Sing Se,

Azula betrays friends and enemies alike.
Azula manages to get her claws on Avatar Aang. While many stories use such instances to give the villain a monologue or have them throw the hero into some pit they’ll inevitably bust out of, Azula, with a smirk, goes straight for the kill. Aang is luckily saved by some falling rocks, not by Azula’s ineptitude.

Azula is a genius sociopath who firmly believes in Avatar’s versions of Divine Right and Manifest Destiny. While Zuko spends an entire season trying and failing to track down Aang, Azula finds him in only a few episodes. Using her cunning intellect, she outwits the puppet master of the Earth Kingdom, kidnaps Katarra, and convinces Zuko to abandon what should have been his heel-face turn; they betray Aang and Katarra in a climactic duel beneath the streets of Ba Sing Se that leaves Aang at death’s door.

Despite her prominence in Book 2, Azula’s most significant antagonism is not with Aang or his friends, but with her brother Zuko. Azula’s calculative genius reaches its zenith in the first half of Book 3: Fire, where she takes what should have been Zuko’s greatest victory (the alleged defeat of the Avatar) and turns it into a weapon against him. Over and above besting the Avatar in combat twice, Princess Azula’s most significant confrontation is against Zuko himself, and though their final battle is a spectacular feat of animation, it is also a heart-wrenching, emotional picture of a family torn apart by the Fire Lord’s lust for world domination.

Unlike Zuko’s story, there is no final redemption for Azula, only an unraveling. Her last moments on camera are a tear-ridden, psychotic breakdown that are uncomfortable to watch for Katarra, Zuko, and the audience. The tragedy of Princess Azula is that, psychological imbalances aside, her father ruined her. Power and honour brought neither Zuko nor Azula the love and approval of their father. It only left Azula weeping in chains.

I can’t help muttering: “Ugh. She’s the worst.”

The writers did a stellar job giving all the characters (and by extension, the audience) reasons to despise Azula. Aside from being perfectly voiced by Grey Delisle, Azula nearly kills the beloved Uncle Iroh, an ally both to Zuko and Toph Beifong. She all but kills Aang, making her the mortal enemy of Katarra. She captures Suki and nearly kills Sokka with a knife on the Day of Black Sun. She betrays Zuko and in so doing betrays her friends Mai and Ty Lee. She betrays friends and enemies alike, and most significantly, Azula betrays the legacy of her long-lost mother—perhaps her only true chance at redemption.

While Azula may have been genetically predisposed toward psychological instability, the negative examples set by her tyrannical father paired with the absence of her kindly mother are what drove her down the path to insanity. Her episodes of psychosis in the series’ final chapters confirm that her inability to grasp reality are rooted in trauma. When Azula starts to unwind, we feel sorry for her. She may have struggled even in a better world, but it was the Fire Lord who made her a monster. She feels remorse at the loss of her mother. Buried beneath mountains of anger and darkness, Azula does care. That’s why it’s so sad to see where the show leaves her: in a prison of her own mind, locked there by her father after a lifetime of hearing that she wasn’t worthy of his love.

As a character, Azula succeeds at the august task of being a legitimate, yet ultimately sympathetic, villain; equal parts archetype and character study. She is and should be ranked not merely as one of the greatest female villains in recent memory, but one of the best villains portrayed in any medium in the third millennium.

Daniel Martin

Daniel Martin

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Daniel is an author, photographer, and gamer. He is a writer for Geeks Under Grace, has self-published a book called "The Quantum Fall of Thaddeus Archibald DuBois, and is currently presenting his major novel, "An Autumn Veil," to literary agents.
Daniel Martin

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