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How Avatar: The Last Airbender's Zuko is more powerful than fans realize

Avatar: The Last Airbender's magic system is extremely easy to understand: Some people are born with the ability to manipulate (bend, in series parlance) either water, earth, fire, or air. The one exception is the Avatar, a person reincarnated every generation who can bend all four elements and amp up their power in what's known as the Avatar State. Even if this explanation is slightly oversimplified, that's really all there is to it at a fundamental level.

Fundamentals only get a bender so far, however. Simple in theory though bending may be, it can be quite complex and fascinating in practice. As benders improve at their native element, they learn to do more than just throw rocks or shoot fire, and bending masters can do things beginners only dream of. Toph (voiced by Jessie Flower), for instance, develops her earthbending to the point that she can use it to "see" by sensing the vibrations people and things make when they move.

Subsets of each type of bending exist as well, utilizing the elements in entirely unique ways. For firebenders, that means generating deadly bolts of lightning. As Iroh (Mako Iwamatsu) explains, bending lightning entails "release and guidance" for the "positive and negative energy" within oneself. Fail to do it properly, and the effects can be dire. When Zuko fails at creating his own lightning, Iroh teaches him to redirect a lightning attack, a technique the young firebender uses against both Fire Lord Ozai (Mark Hamill) and Azula (Grey DeLisle). As Reddit user cradiak notes, Zuko's battle with Azula in particular may prove that he's more powerful than anyone thought.

Zuko redirects Azula's fury

"Sozin's Comet," Avatar's four-part series finale, is packed with many of the show's most memorable scenes, from Azula's pre-coronation mental breakdown to Aang's (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) unexpected way of defeating Ozai. The aforementioned showdown between Zuko and Azula is no exception, having attained something of a legendary status among animated fight scenes in general. The stunningly orchestrated score, the gorgeous animation, the emotional charge coursing through the entire encounter ... it's unforgettable.

It's also hard to forget that Zuko loses the fight — not because Azula outfights him or because he messes up, but because he protects Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman). She comes along intending to support him, but Zuko insists from the get-go that he face Azula alone. "There's something off about her," he says to Katara. "I can't explain it but she's slipping. And this way, no one else has to get hurt." And so it is that the royal Fire Nation siblings duke it out, Katara watching expectantly from the sidelines. After Zuko trips Azula up, she charges lightning in retaliation, but instead of shooting it at him aims straight for Katara.

This is where cradiak's observation comes in: Zuko is fast enough to both intercept and redirect the lightning. Even though he's grievously wounded for the effort, think for a moment just how fast Zuko would have to be to perform such a feat. There's not much distance between him and Azula when she blasts the lightning, either. The exact speed of lightning depends on air conditions (as well as who you ask), but regardless, it moves at thousands upon thousands of miles per hour. Zuko's already an incredible firebender, but to move that fast? Insanity.

Now, to be fair, Avatar never outright discusses whether or not bender-generated lightning travels as quickly as natural lightning. It also never clarifies whether there's some way for firebenders to act as a lightning rod of sorts and attract nearby sources of electricity; that Iroh redirects an actual bolt of lightning in season one could be proof of that. There's little doubt, however, that Azula's lightning is no joke, and Zuko being able to counter it in a moment's notice over such a tiny distance is nothing short of amazing.

This is where the "Who's the most powerful bender in the series?" argument starts, and where this article ends. Let the Agni Kai of speculation begin!