When Avatar: The Last Airbender enjoyed a bit of a resurgence on Netflix a few years ago, many friends approached me asking the age-old question: Should I watch The Legend of Korra, too? My simple answer was always a resounding “yes,” but I soon found I had to do more legwork to convince people to take the leap.
Korra gets a bad rap, if you ask me. It’s a thoughtful and creative follow-up to Avatar, and many of its perceived faults can be attributed to external forces sticking their grubby fingers into the show’s business. The show suffered from wavering network support, which led to a mid-season move to online delivery and a last-minute budget slash. Korra’s messages, deep and philosophical, often seemed wasted in the hands of a network intent on funding a kid-friendly show.
As a series, Korra had to vault over numerous obstacles over the course of its run, but it did cross the finish line. The final product, though it might not have the reputation as the crowning storytelling achievement its predecessor possesses, is still absolutely worthy of your time.
Other writers have focused on Korra’s many merits over the years, including this fantastic piece about the socioeconomic implications of season one. I agree with the many attempts to analyze various facets of Korra, all of which help to shore up the show’s legacy as a strong outing for creators Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and the larger team involved. Today, I want to focus on my own interpretation of Korra as a successor to Avatar, and specifically explore one simple point, an idea that always sticks with me through every ATLA or Korra rewatch…
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we follow Aang, a good person, as he learns to become a better bender and fill the role of Avatar. The Legend of Korra flips the script, however—it shows us a good bender learning to become a good person.
Of course, there are moments in both shows that complicate this reading: We see Aang learning to temper his frustration and guilt at times, while Korra exhibits fierce loyalty and passion throughout her arc. But I do see this general trend in The Legend of Korra, with these two specific characters—let’s take a look at the framework of each narrative, and how Aang and Korra’s journeys lead to them to fulfill their personal and spiritual destinies as the Avatar through different struggles and reckonings.
[Note: light spoilers for The Legend of Korra and heavy spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender follow. If you haven’t yet watched Korra, I hope I can convince you to give it a go.]
Aang comes to us frozen in time (and in an iceberg), packaged together with an adorable sky bison and a ready-made worldview: Treat others with respect, do not harm other living things, and try to do good. His beliefs are easy to defend, especially considering the genocidal alternative: Fire Lord Ozai. Aang is the polar opposite of his mortal enemy, the bastion of good that must stand against a world-ending evil. We like him because he’s kind, and he backs his kindness up with his choices and actions.
Aang may have fled the Southern Air Temple out of fear and confusion, but the show doles out snippets to tell us that he was raised with the best of intentions by Monk Gyatso. Further, Aang was allowed to be a kid. Gyatso defended his innocence and allowed him to flourish as a person first, Airbender second, and Avatar third. We meet a well-balanced Aang, a kid with a warm heart and a psychology informed by a peaceful and kind upbringing. He needs to master bending and understand his role as the Avatar, sure. But learning those tough, worldly lessons can come much easier when you have a defined, defendable, and overall altruistic worldview that emphasizes the importance of helping others.
In some ways, Korra’s journey mirrors Aang’s. Born to the Southern Water Tribe, she showcases her Avatar abilities as a toddler in a brash display that Aang would probably find impressive, but others might see as bragging or just showing off. Soon after, circumstances necessitate an upheaval in Korra’s life. Following an attempted kidnapping—I won’t elaborate on the details for season 3 spoiler reasons—Korra’s parents agree to put her in the care of the Order of the White Lotus. The Order whisks her away, training her to master waterbending, earthbending, and firebending. Airbending eludes her, eventually leading to a pivotal moment of growth later on.
Korra is isolated, kept “safe” from the world, but her situation changes her in ways Aang’s similar scenario did not. Korra knows love and affection and continues to receive it under the tutelage of the White Lotus, but she learns the wrong lessons. Training day in and day out becomes her routine, and she values her bending skill disproportionately over other qualities and elements of her personality. (This begs the question of whether the White Lotus has faltered, or whether Iroh would/did approve of such an isolated environment, but that’s a discussion for another day). In fact, the world is growing and evolving around her while Korra hyperfixates on bending talent. As any ATLA fan knows, bending comprises the smallest smidgen of an Avatar’s worth to the world. Yet Korra remains blissfully unaware of the issues and complications of the larger world beyond.
That’s one way to craft a master bender—one with a fiery personality and little knowledge of who she is as a person, with her entire sense of self-worth rooted in her bending abilities. Korra longs to be let loose, questioning the reasoning behind her relative confinement. When she arrives in Republic City, though, she soon learns that bending isn’t everything. The Legend of Korra guides us through Korra’s growth as a bender, sure… but the tale also carries with it lessons of hope, loyalty, kindness, and self-care in ways Avatar didn’t.
Aang’s challenges, more often than not, were bending-related. Each of the three seasons bore the name of an element he had yet to master, and the story focused heavily on his bending education. He had plenty of internal conflicts, too, but he was up against an apocalyptic deadline: Master the elements before the Fire Lord can end the world as Aang knows it, or risk losing quite literally everything and everyone he cares about. Avatar set out with a single goal in mind, ushering its protagonist briskly along a compelling pathway of ongoing growth (and also whatever “The Great Divide” was). Aang’s emotional breakthroughs all existed within a tightly woven story in which he endeavors to complete his training and grow more confident in his abilities. In many cases, the moral and ethical lessons he learned were intrinsically tied to bending techniques.
As for Korra? Her problems are of a very different nature, on the whole, with the exception of her airbending block (which provides kind of a neat parallel with Aang, who was great at airbending and had to train his way through the other elements; there’s overlap, there, but it also serves to illustrate their differences). It’s also worth mentioning that Korra is a bit older than Aang; her story picks up when she’s 17, while he is only 12 at the start of ATLA. While both series are coming of age stories, Korra’s perspective is that of someone who feels ready for adulthood and responsibility without fully understanding the complexities she’ll have to face.
Look to her first few days in Republic City. Encountering people protesting against the inequality of the current bender-centric social hierarchy, Korra reacts poorly, insisting on the virtues of bending and storming off, revealing an uncomfortable lack of political understanding or sensitivity. She roasts fish in a local park, unwittingly breaking the law. Before she’s chased off, she talks with a man living in a bush, surprised because she’s never considered the possibility of homelessness in a city she viewed from the outside as lush and luxurious. Within minutes of her arrival, Korra displays a pointed misunderstanding of her world, made all the more disappointing by the underlying fact that she’s the Avatar, and she’s supposed to be a voice for people she clearly knows little to nothing about.
Add to that the wanton destruction she causes moments later as she stops a gang from exploiting a local shop owner, then assaults the Republic city police force in order to escape. Korra’s actions stem from a well-intentioned desire to help, to fix things. But she doesn’t listen to the needs of the people or quite understand how her actions will send destructive ripples through the city’s infrastructure and social hierarchy.
In other words, Korra’s overall commendable goodness comes from a myopic worldview that, frankly, isn’t her fault. She pined for freedom from her life in the White Lotus compound, and she got it. She felt ready to be the Avatar, but never expected the complex realities, political tensions, and ethical quandaries of the world to interfere with her designs on being a grand hero, fixing any and all problems with her amazing bending powers.
Korra’s journey starts out as a tightrope strung between good intentions and faulty execution, and the young Avatar walks it in windy conditions, teetering and often falling thanks to her reckless decisions. Where Aang would approach problems with a measured mindset, seeking a compromise at every turn, Korra initially bashes at problems with her bending, regardless of the potential fallout.
The Legend of Korra puts this predicament front and center in season one, pitting Korra against the Equalists. The anti-bending group seeks equality for non-benders, and its idea of justice involves removing bending from the world entirely. Faced with this blatant extremism, Korra must reconsider her own worldview, having witnessed the strife running rampant through Republic City. Gradually, she learns how narrow her worldview truly is. She dismantles it piece by piece, spurred on by friends, enemies, and world-shattering events to see beyond herself and understand the plights and perspectives of others.
Aang’s belief system may have been endlessly defendable and aspirational, but Korra’s is relatable. Korra shows us that goodness isn’t simply intrinsic, but can come from growth and change. You don’t emerge into the world a well-rounded and heroic protagonist. You learn lessons over time, and most importantly you change based on challenges and experience and feedback, becoming a new person as life flings new challenges your way.
Korra, as a show, embraces this idea as a core principle. It eschews a straightforward good vs. evil plot and instead asks: How can a person truly change for the better? What does it take?
The answer? Struggle, heartbreak, failure, friendship, love, success. Everything comprising a person’s life is required to learn goodness, and that journey never ends.
While Aang came to us ready for a rigorous training regime and many a life lesson learned along the way, Korra offered us something different. The follow-up series showcased the spectrum of humanity’s goodness, how a worldview can shape one’s perception of it for better or worse, and the importance of being open to change.
If you’re new to Korra, or otherwise hesitant to start watching the series, keep this in mind. You won’t get a ready-made avatar for good (excuse the pun). Instead, you’ll follow one human with the best of intentions navigating the pressure of the role thrust upon her, and the pressure of finding out who she really is. You’ll watch Korra grow as she broadens her worldview and begins to accept the truths of others while rectifying her own misconceptions.
Korra’s type of growth is hard work—dare I say, bitter work—and the show leans into it. Korra’s villains, which change from one season to the next, bring these questions of self into troubling focus, for her and others. The relatively clean-cut narrative of Avatar (which is fantastic, by the way, and one of the best good vs. evil stories told in any medium to date, for my money) doesn’t carry over into Korra—it’s a different kind of story, and that’s for the best, since both stand alone so well in their own ways.
DiMartino and Konietzko, along with a rock-star team of writers, animators, actors, and other crew, deliver a poignant and touching tale about learning to love oneself and understanding the ever-evolving nature of being a good, kindhearted person. Bending isn’t everything, and Korra has to learn that the hard way. But it’s a lesson worth learning, and a journey worth following, every step of the way.
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House In The Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.