The Legend of Korra. Contrary to popular belief, The Last Airbender is not my favourite animated TV show. Well, neither is The Legend of Korra, but it comes pretty damn close considering it ran for four seasons and had high production values as well as very lofty aspirations. And I’m saying this very cautiously due to the fact that The Legend of Korra finished airing while I was still in high school. Most of the people I know who watched The Last Airbender disliked The Legend of Korra for their own personal reasons, though I suspect it’s because of the personal relationship and relatability that Aang had. But in my teenage years, more than ever, I found I could relate with Korra more than I could do with Aang which was one of the main selling points for me at the time. And growing up to take English Literature, Language, History and Latin, it only became natural for me to begin critically analysing everything I came across. Now I’m going to step in hot water right now and make my own personal claim, being that The Legend of Korra as a whole was probably the best cartoon to air in the past 10 years before its release, outshining even The Last Airbender. However, I will go out on a limb and justify my reasons so that all shit talking will be secondary.
The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender occurring 70 years after the end of the first year. And one of the formula elements that gave The Legend of Korra a noticeable edge was the direction the creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, also known as “Bryke” by avid fans, took. Now riding on the very helpful wings of success, the recurring showrunners of the Legend of Korra had a big budget and Nickelodeon’s support regarding the creative choices the showrunners took, including who to hire and who to retain. For that purpose, Jeremy Zuckerman retained his position as lead composer, already having shown how capable he was in constructing the definitive music for the The Last Airbender, whilst Korean Studio Mir animated the first season, leaving the remaining three seasons to the reputable Japanese Studio Pierrot of Bleach, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Tokyo Ghoul fame, just to name a few. With the main creative team on board and the storyboard for later seasons already in production Bryke had the wheels in motion to create one of the most influential, controversial, and one could argue even inspirational children’s animations that the Western World had thus seen. It was all these things that ended up giving The Legend of Korra its notoriety. At some point, very early on in the show, the creators decided to stop mollycoddling its audience and began throwing in incredibly mature scenes and concepts. Even more visible than in The Last Airbender, leading to some gripping and emotional storytelling. But there are many worthwhile points to discuss in the The Legend of Korra, and so without further ado, let us discuss the appeal of the Legend of Korra.
The premise of The Legend of Korra is extremely simple. Seventy years after Sozin’s comet passes, the new Avatar, Korra arrives in Republic City, both to fulfil her role as the Avatar, peacekeeper and bringer of balance, but also to complete her training and master the element of air from Aang’s son. The show’s premise is straight forward, but the interest is drawn both from the new setting as well as the different socio-political environment the show presents us with. We’re no longer faced with the stereotypical “one nation, one people” atmosphere virtually every nation had. Republic City is a free state, and as far as we know, the first, where benders of any background live together. It is a democrat republic, meaning there are no monarchs, but an elected president, which is a new concept for kids to actually grasp, having mostly only ventured onto fantasy and none of the intricacies of politics. That being said, however, the real surprise, is the futuristic setting of Republic City. With a surprisingly large populace, Republic City is taken right out of the history books, with the same cultural and historical references that made Avatar: The Last Airbender so familiar. Republic City is a pleasant mixture of colonial era China in the early 90s, Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the American musical renaissance filled with jazz and swing music along with the rising film industry. The traditional times of leisure were being replaced by spectator sports, moving pictures and operas, and it’s this sense of familiarity that not only show us that time has moved in a relevant fashion, but has come much closer to our own time. From factory workers, to organised street gangs, things are much more familiar. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we did have advanced military technology such as tanks and Airships, but The Legend of Korra contains other commercial pleasures such as automobiles and radios that the average American citizen was enjoying in the years before the Great Depression.
And as much as I enjoy drawing parallels between the Avatar universe and our real world, I think it’s high time we explore the other major concepts that made The Legend of Korra great. One of them being, the bending. Bending has always been an integral part of the Avatar universe, as it is not only used for war, but for leisure, healing, construction. Your worth as a human being rises exponentially if you are born a bender, and one of the major plot points in the first season is the rising levels of animosity between benders and non-benders, spearheaded by revolutionary leader, Amon. While I’ll go into this it should be important to note how much bending has actually changed since we were with Aang and co. No longer do we have earth shattering bending which relies on large companies of soldiers to achieve more powerful attacks. Much like boxing, bending quickly evolved to become more streamlined and efficient. The Legend of Korra’s bending is fast and furious, using cover as a major element, even outside of the new and competitive pro-bending arenas. Earthbenders no longer just hurl huge rocks at each other, but instead compact disks to heighten the speed and power of earthbending attacks, even outside of the Arena. Firebending instead of overwhelming power now consists of quick strikes to lay down cover, while water can be used to pressure people behind barricades. However, the limited amount of “ammo” means that every shot must count or else you’ll be at a severe disadvantage. And that evolution of bending is what gives the fights such an edge. Now, abilities like lightning bending and bloodbending are much more widespread but not practiced by everyone. And in later seasons, we see a host of all new bending abilities and improvements, such as lavabending and the ability to fly. One of my favourite fights has to be in the third episode of season one, where Korra and Mako, a firebender, face off against two chi blockers. It was the first exciting bender vs non bender fight where two powerful benders, the Avatar herself no less, were utterly dominated. The camera angles moved with the fight, showing real speed and the level of martial prowess both fighters possessed. The fight was physical, with blows traded like in a real fight, and that’s one of the strong points that The Legend of Korra has, the fights are high impact and the blows look painful, and that leaves the viewer filled with excitement and worry. Your heart rises when you see the protagonist block a powerful attack and you feel anxious watching someone take a hit that left them bruised. And while it’s good to analyse the fights and abilities, it would be much better for you to watch it yourself.
Now, for a controversial topic, that being the character of Korra. Initially, Nickelodeon didn’t like the idea of Korra as the main character due to the stereotype of “girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls”. However, it turned out boys didn’t care if she was a girl, she was just awesome, plain and simple. And it’s clear to see exactly why they thought that. Korra is very different from Aang, being loud, impulsive and reckless. Aang had trouble learning both earth and firebending due to his status as an airbender, his beliefs and spirituality, whereas Korra was immensely talented, already displaying the ability to earthbend, firebend and waterbend from 4 years old. Fire was the final element Aang learnt while Korra gravitates towards it despite being born to waterbenders. But aside from their differences, their philosophies were extremely different as well. Korra was a wildcard who preferred actions to words. Aang only viewed violence as a last resort, not as a means to an end. Furthermore, Korra shied away from the spiritual aspects of her position. Due to their heightened spirituality, all Air nomads are born airbenders, however, Korra had trouble mastering airbending, even having trouble entering the Avatar State.
But another part of Korra’s appeal comes from the fact that she is, in fact, a teenager. Aang was a child with the weight of the world on his back, having to fulfil an impossible task after his whole world was shattered. Korra on the other hand is the motherfucking Avatar! She lives in an era of peace, she’s already mastered 4 elements and there’s no threat of imminent war looming above her head, or an evil overlord who wants to torch the world. She’s a teenager with teen responsibilities struggles. Feelings of helplessness, rebellion against authority, and responsibility are bottled up within Korra making her extremely relatable. And it’s the setting of an everyday life that makes those feelings all the more poignant. And throughout the series, Korra’s growth from young lady to woman make The Legend of Korra a wonderful coming of age story as well. Throughout her journey she not only deals with threats from villains, but she has love interests, a rival, she experiences heartbreak and at times even inadequacy despite being the Avatar. Her most interesting character arc must come in the third and fourth seasons as she realises not everyone is evil and that some people simply have differing ideals. For example, Amon the equalist simply wanted equality between non-benders and benders, but used violence and terrorism to achieve it. Zahir, while misguided believed in the idea that the Avatar was holding the world back, and that humanity needed to stop being coddled and go back to the days where survival of the fittest was the only law. Unalaq felt that the humans had forgotten and disrespected the spirits and wished to restore that connection, albeit forcefully. A fact that Korra later acknowledged. Finally, Kuvira set out to help unite the Earth Kingdom territories but later became self-righteous and despotic, but she also did do actual good. All of this made Korra question whether she was really right despite being the almighty Avatar, and this added weight to each one of her conflicts.
But I digress, because during the third season’s finale, Avatar Korra is poisoned, and after the fight she is left crippled and confined to a wheelchair due to mercury poisoning. Her long and arduous two-year recovery was wrought with pain, suffering and the possibility that she may never fully recover, and that the age of the Avatar truly was over. And even after she had improved tremendously, she ended up afflicted with visions, a form of PTSD. She suffered from forms of depression and suicidal thoughts, all while having to deal with an immensely powerful ideological threat from Kuvira, who was now more powerful than her. All of this contributed to her growth as an individual and her realisation that the world was changing and that she would need to change as well. It is this long and emotional journey with Korra that makes the ending so meaningful. Not because the baddie has been defeated, but because we feel like we have grown just as much as Korra, but without all the murder and rage.
And that leaves us with the final point, which is the way that The Legend of Korra deals with complex and mature issues without a hint of shame. In the first season, the first onscreen deaths caused The Legend of Korra‘s airing time to be moved to the evening, for more mature audiences. And after season 2, it switched from cable to online streaming. And perhaps for good reasons, because young viewers would explore mature concepts and themes that no other show was exploring at the time. To name a few, in season 4, we are faced with a self-righteous fascist building a military dictatorship in control of a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction). In the first, an equalist, and in the third, a flat out anarchist. Each villain has a very strong ideology that isn’t totally wrong, but that is taken too far by their adherents. There is no irredeemable villain as they each have their own merits. The world changes ever so slightly after each season according to each villain’s belief. Benders and non-benders unite, the spirit world and human world are once again connected, the Avatar loses relevance, and a monarchy phases out of existence. And Korra is forced to accept that change, and accept that a small part of the ideologies she fought against should be accepted, and that’s what allowed to grown not only as an Avatar, but as a person. Furthermore, each character goes through emotions that kids have yet to understand. Bolin feels betrayed by his bother for dating Korra when he had strong feelings for her, while Korra goes through intense depression and PTSD from her ordeals, and Asami has to forgive her father for all the crimes he committed, and then deal with his selfless death shortly after reconciling.
You see, LoK takes us on a wild and eventful journey, not just through the main character’s lives but through the changing world. The clashing of ideals, and the toppling of kingdoms. The destruction of class systems and the return of spiritual harmony. So while The Legend of Korra does not have the fights of Avatar the Last Airbender that reached epic proportions, or the amount of personal growth each and every character had, or the humour and lightheartedness, it did have something different. Something different, but not worse, and just as valuable, taught to us over 4 seasons. That if we always hid from different opinions and thoughts, how many amazing ideas would we be missing out on? As Zaheer once said, quoting the wise Guru Laghima, “new growth cannot exist without first the destruction of the old”.