“The Legend of Korra” has finally come to Netflix, and man, I really forgot how much I love this show. While by no means better than its predecessor “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, “Korra” still has a special place in my heart, and it is arguably more ambitious than “Airbender”, both in its scope, its world, and the type of stories it told.
“Airbender” and “Korra” are two completely different shows, and for some, “Korra” was a letdown because it took the franchise in a drastically new direction, and changed the rules surroundings key things like the Avatar State and the spirit world, of which there are plenty of lengthy video essays on YouTube explaining. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a bad thing, and I think fans of the series put “The Last Airbender” and its worldbuilding on an impossibly high pedestal.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender”, from a narrative standpoint, is a nearly-perfect series to me, mostly because it is a tightly-constructed tale with a mostly static cast of characters that we get to see grow and change over the course of three seasons. There is very little fat on this show. It tells a simple tale about learning about the surviving three nations of people and their elemental powers, and acquiring spiritual and physical growth, all in service of saving the world from a brutal totalitarian monarchical leadership that wishes to repeat the genocide Fire Lord Sozin committed over a hundred years ago in order to gain dominenance over the world. It tells a deep and insightful tale about colonialism and the dark side of empirical rule, without losing its sense of humor or empathy towards the people of all nations. There are even good people depicted in the Fire Nation, who are brainwashed by a false sense of nationalism they want to share with the rest of the world. The story “The Last Airbender” tells is simple yet deep, and its three seasons are a clear beginning, middle and end to its tale.
“Korra” was not so lucky. Originally meant to be a single season, the show was renewed for three more seasons before it was canceled. As such, whereas “The Last Airbender” fully tells one complete tale in three parts, “Korra” tells four tales, one in each season, each with a different villain who has a different unique philosophy. In Season 1, she fights the villainous Amon, who can take away people’s bending, and leads a revolution for equality in Republic City, Avatar’s version of New York City. In Season 2, she fights Unalaq, whose pursuit of theocracy leads him to becoming a Dark Avatar, and reveals the origins of the Avatar and its connection to the spirit world. Season 3’s villain, Zaheer, pursued anarchy to his own detriment. The show’s last villain, Season 4’s Kuvira, saw to unite the Earth Kingdom into an empire, seeking totalitarianism as a means to bring stability to Korra’s world, and is largely a response to the instability that took place in the show’s previous three seasons.
“Korra” is not better than “The Last Airbender,” but it accomplished more, and it had a more complex world to navigate, affected by globalization and industrialization. It’s a world where nonbenders (people who can’t bend the elements) can be as powerful as benders with the aid of technology, a world in which the role of the Avatar, the one person who can bend all four elements, is less clear than in previous times. “Korra” tells the story of Avatar’s world up to their nuclear age, and truthfully, any Avatar story told in this time period would have been messy due to the fact that the world is more complex.
Unlike “The Last Airbender,” “Korra” does not take place in a feudal version of Avatar’s world, where national borders are clear-cut and economic classes are more or less determined by one’s birth. Korra deals with 20th century problems through the lens of the show, and the 20th century was messy, full of competing ideologies and cultural fusion, and an abundance of threats associated with the rise of urbanism, population growth, and scientific and technological innovations. “The Last Airbender” grappled with a simplistic villain in Fire Lord Ozai, who sought complete domination over all, but his capacity for destruction was limited by his own bending abilities and the strength of his armies, and because of that, Sozin’s Comet, a phenomenon that happened only once every 100 years that gives firebenders unlimited strength in their bending, gave the show stakes because it combined his psychopathic ideology with the equivalent of an atomic bomb. In Korra’s world, anyone who wants to can feasibly create an atomic bomb in Season 4 via tapping into a spirit vine, but it is arguably that before that, anyone with enough wealth and technology already had access to unlimited power through machinery and hired help.
“Korra” is a natural progression of “The Last Airbender,” and I think in many ways it is smarter. For all its spiritual philosophy, “The Last Airbender”‘s conflict boils down to a physical conflict between Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Ozai; a contest of physical and magical abilities. You can argue that Aang is more enlightened than Ozai, and indeed he is, but what puts an end to his villainy is not better rhetoric, political advocacy, or a path to enlightenment; it’s through an action sequence. While the Avatar is a spiritual figure in Aang’s world, he is a primary physical one, who puts an end to empirical rule through superpowers.
Korra is often no better, but she quickly learns that in her 1920s-inspired world, that there are people who both outmatch her as a bender or who can buy equipment and machinery that can best her. While she also often ends her conflicts by relying on her superpowers — because “Avatar” is an action series and must deliver on that front — she often realizes that the Avatar’s connection to the spirit realm, its access to the wisdom of its past lives, and the position it has a world leader is often more important than its fantastical powers.
Discrepancies in “Avatar” and “Korra”
One common criticism I see of “Korra” is that it changed too much of how Avatar’s world works, especially in relation to the spirit world, in which spirits lose much of their fantasy and intrigue, comparing how strange and alien spirit creatures in “AIrbender” like Koh the Face-Stealer and Hei Bai the spirit of a forest act when compared to the spirits in Korra, as they are not evil entities, but simply beings that act beyond our comprehension. Korra’s spirits are more predictable, made up of dark and light elements that must be in balance. Another common criticism is of the origin of the Avatar as found in “Korra” Season 2, as it boils the Avatar down to being a good spirit (Raava), who locked its evil counterpart (Vaatu) away long ago.
Some of the more stringent criticisms of the spirit world have claimed that “Korra” creates inconsistencies with “Airbender” lore because the very few spirits Aang meets in his show are more mysterious than those Korra faces, which I reject. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that every spirit needs to act in the same mysterious and malevolent way the few spirits shown in “Airbender” do, and I would argue that the spirits like Koh and Hei Bai are outliers for spirits, as it is unusual for them to be able to interact with the physical world prior to “Korra,” in which world events brought the two realms closer together. In fact, the only places we see them easily interact with people prior to the later events in Korra are near spirit portals.
I do agree with the criticisms of Vaatu and Raava (spirits representing the darkness and light) being too simplistic, but it’s not a bad origin story for the Avatar, and it doesn’t in any way alter, change or ruin the greatness of the Avatars before Korra.
Those that claim there are plot holes in “Korra” relating to “Airbender” cannon I think are holding up “Airbender” as a universal credible source on the Avatar world when it shouldn’t be. Aang’s world was still left largely unexplored in terms of technological and spiritual innovation, and it had a lot left to discover. Nobody in that show is an all-knowing authority, and for the record, neither is anyone in “Korra”.
Team Avatar not faultless
One thing I think “Korra” did beautifully that many fans hate is how they aged the cast of “Airbender”, in which Aang turns out not to be a great father, who favors his only son who can airbend over his other two children; Toph is an imperfect mother, who lives as a hermit; Katara becomes much like her grandmother; Zuko is retired; and Sokka is dead.
The biggest offender seems to be how the series handled Aang, as some fans claim that they “ruined him”, but these claims don’t hold much water. Aang was a kid in over his head in his show, and while he exhibited some good leadership traits, being a celebrity and a leadership figure for as long as Aang was changes you, and it’s naive to think that he would always be the same 12-year-old kid he was in “The Last Airbender.”
It’s easy to forget that, after saving the world from Fire Lord Ozai, a generically-evil monarch of whom Aang had a very simple solution for (removal from power), he would face issues not so cut and dry, such as the bloodbender gangster Yakone, the construction of Republic City, the decolonization of Fire Nation territories, and the reconstruction of Air Bender culture through his Air Acolytes.
Given the tremendous pressure he was under and his continued importance, I don’t see how Aang couldn’t have made mistakes and have been an imperfect father. And to be honest, I prefer this, as opposed to allowing him to generically walk into the sunset, living a flawless life. “Korra” explores how it’s possible to be very likeable and good as a person, but terrible as a parent.
I think the majority of the hate surrounding “Korra” is the fact that it’s a different show with different goals than “Airbender”. But there is still great consistency and integrity of vision as to how the two different shows work, especially in their respective eras of the Avatar world — consistency only made possible by the fact that both shows share the same showrunners, something I do not think will be possible in Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of the original series.
And most of the criticisms I see on Korra are more that some fans disagreed with the direction “Korra” went in rather than it being a badly made show from a storytelling and craft perspective. Those fans, unfortunately, I don’t think would have ever been pleased with a follow-up “Avatar” series, and indeed, had the showrunners paid them heed, I fear “Korra” would have turned out similarly to the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, which largely re-tread the original three “Star Wars” films that both offend fans for being too similar to the original films, while also being not close enough to the narrow version of “Star Wars” they love from the 70s and 80s. Like “Star Wars” fans, many “Avatar” fans have tunnel vision as to what stories can and should be told in the show’s universe.
Overall, I like “Korra” because it managed to be its own thing, while introducing cool new elements and concepts into the core Avatar world. “The Last Airbender” told a relatively simple tale well, and added spiritual and emotional depth to a consistent cast of characters. Comparing the two shows is like comparing apples to oranges; they’re two completely different things.
I think it’s about time we stop bashing “Korra” because it is not “The Last Airbender.” It’s the best possible sequel show we could have hoped for, especially considering that its length and scope was largely up in the air for much of its production.
I definitely feel like the major limiter on “Korra” was its network, Nickelodeon, who both forced its showrunners to adopt the villain-a-season format (they didn’t know there was going to be a Season 2, so Season 1’s arc needed to be self-contained, which set a precedent for the show) and then made them wrap it up quickly in Season 4 when the network erroneously felt like they had to cancel it after the show exhibited some adult themes, which for the record were done tastefully in a way suited for daytime TV.
By all means, Nickelodeon, who took Korra off the air and opted to stream the last two seasons online due to misguided content concerns, did not deserve the show. And if creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko decide to make another cartoon in the Avatar universe, I sincerely hope it is not with them.
As it stands, “Korra” is an excellent show that deserves more love than it currently gets. I highly recommend it.