In the months since the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender was added to Netflix’s streaming library, the merits of the show’s 2012 sequel series, The Legend of Korra, have been so fiercely debated among fans online that even Netflix’s own Twitter account entered the mix. That’s ironic, given the series’ respective takes on the tumultuous nature of legacies and generational change, and how Korra permanently transformed the Avatar universe.
Co-created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Avatar: The Last Airbender follows Aang, the lone survivor of an order of monks who use martial arts to “bend” air into a weapon or tool. After a century-long slumber, Aang awakens to rescue the world from the ambitions of a tyrannical superpower. The three-season series is widely considered one of the best animated television series of its time, and maybe of all time, due to its dynamic characters, beautiful animation, and sophisticated themes. Its accessible exploration of colonialism, authoritarianism, and generational change resonates with viewers to this day.
The Legend of Korra iterated on these traits from the perspective of a new protagonist: a female waterbender named Korra. Korra is the reincarnation of Aang, who was the reincarnation of his predecessor, Avatar Roku, and so forth. The series, set approximately 70 years after the events of Airbender follows Korra as she embarks on her own journey to become the new Avatar, a spiritual mediator and protector, and the generation’s only martial artist who can command mastery over all four elements: Fire, Earth, Water, and Air.
While all Avatars share the same spirit and can access past Avatar memories, each one is different from the last, and many of the criticisms of The Legend of Korra boil down to criticisms of Korra, and how she’s different from Aang. Fans fought about the show’s portrayal of an evolving hero when it debuted in 2012, they fought about the show in the years after its finale, and with the series arriving on Netflix on Aug. 14, they’ll likely fight about it again. But the series qualities that naysayers often deride are also the reasons Korra lives up to its predecessor’s legacy: While The Legend of Korra isn’t perfect, it presents Korra as a more consequential Avatar than Aang.
[Ed. note: This essay includes spoilers for the broad themes and conflicts of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.]
From the first episode, The Legend of Korra firmly establishes Korra as both Aang’s immediate successor and his polar opposite. Where Aang was a peaceful, playful, irreverently silly child with an indomitable sense of moral clarity, Korra is combative, fierce, and confident to the point of impetuousness toward her elders and mentors. Where Aang initially resents the responsibility of bringing balance to the world, Korra revels so readily in her powers that her first on-screen line is literally, “I’m the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!”
As the Avatar, one of Korra’s most persistent weaknesses is her over-reliance on the idea of strength and her latent belief that her status as the Avatar puts her above the advice of her loved ones and peers. These traits eventually create consequences which endanger both her and the people whose advice she’s ignoring, whether through her inability to access the Avatar’s full powers while grappling with the mental and physical damage inflicted on her during her showdown with season 3 antagonist Zaheer, or her indiscretion in trusting both the Northern Water Tribe council member Tarrlok and the Northern Water Tribe chief Unalaq at face value, because they both represent power and authority.
Acknowledging Korra’s foibles isn’t throwing her under the bus. In Avatar, as in any hero’s journey, where you begin doesn’t matter as much as where you choose to go. In season 4, Korra chastises herself for her past mistakes, but Tenzin, Aang’s youngest son and Korra’s spiritual mentor, comforts her by acknowledging her growth throughout their time together. “When you first came here, you were hot-headed and a bit selfish,” he says. “But you’ve matured into a thoughtful young woman who puts the needs of others before herself.” Ultimately, Korra’s faults become the catalyst for her maturation into the kind of Avatar that the world in her lifetime needs her to be.
Another obvious reason for Korra and Aang’s opposing dispositions, aside from them being totally different manifestations of the same immortal spiritual constant, could be chalked up to the fact that they came of age in wildly different times. Aang was raised in a remote temple by an ascetic order of Air Nomads. After being frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years, he awakens to a largely pre-industrial, village-centric world still gripped in the throes of a century-long conflict. Korra, by contrast, is raised in a world characterized by having a lifetime champion in the form of an engaged Avatar.
With the Hundred Year War over, and Fire Lord Ozai’s reign situated at the foggy fringes of living memory, the establishment of the United Republic of Nations has yielded a nascent industrial boom in automation, transportation, and industry. It’s a world that’s familiar to the audience, but utterly unlike anything experienced by Avatars, apart from Aang himself. As Korra tries to complete her Avatar training, she has to navigate the nation’s capital, Republic City. The challenges she faces there test not only her resolve to become the Avatar, but her preconceptions about what role, if any, the Avatar should serve in the modern world.
Throughout Legend of Korra’s four seasons, she’s confronted with the pointed question of whether the world has simply moved on from the need for an Avatar to intervene on the behalf of its people, let alone to act as a bridge between the human and spiritual world. The answer is a resounding no, but the road to reach that answer, and go beyond it, is fraught with obstacles that push Korra to her physical, emotional, and spiritual brink.
Those obstacles center on the series’ antagonists, whose portrayals and ideologies stand as one of the greatest accomplishments of the series’ writing. Despite their differences, each of The Legend of Korra’s antagonists share a contempt for the Avatar’s role as a purveyor of a status quo that’s either fundamentally unjust, or counterintuitive to the responsibilities of the Avatar as an arbiter of balance.
Amon, the enigmatic leader of the “Equalist” anti-bending movement in Republic City, sees the disenfranchisement of non-benders in bending society and capitalizes on it for his own ends. Season 2 antagonist Unalaq sees the tumult borne from the first Avatar’s decision to close the portals between the human and spiritual world, and manipulates these circumstances to anoint himself as a god. In season 3, the spiritual leader Zaheer sees the corruption of monarchistic bureaucracies and puppet governments, and aspires to topple these systems to bring about freedom of individuals from the rule of nation-states. In the final season, Earth Kingdom military leader Kuvira sees the vacuum of confusion and disorder left in the wake of Zaheer’s thwarted efforts, and seeks to establish peace through a militaristic campaign that threatens to engulf the world, just as Fire Lord Sozin’s regime once did.
Through these confrontations, both Korra and the audience are forced to contemplate whether the Avatar, by seeking to maintain and negotiate balance between the four nations, is necessarily an accessory to the subjugation of minority groups, the appeasement of tyrants, and the purveyance of systemic injustice. Make no mistake: Aang in his lifetime was kind, empathetic, and virtuous to a fault. But even with all the past Avatars’ collective wisdom behind him, he somehow couldn’t perceive the dramatic adverse effects that an unelected governing body would have on Republic City’s most vulnerable population — or he did, and he resigned himself to it as a necessary evil. If there is a lesson to be learned from Aang’s legacy, it’s that people can only accomplish so much in a lifetime. More than just a matter of mortality, it’s a matter of one’s capacity and willingness to imagine what is possible.
This implied failure on Aang’s part is, without a doubt, the most controversial creative decision behind The Legend of Korra’s production, and the root cause for much of the enduring disdain some fans have for the series. It both complicates Korra’s moral dynamic, and tarnishes the legacies of the original series’ beloved characters. And yet it’s also a key reason why The Legend of Korra remains as relevant and vital as its predecessor.
As Vulture’s Adam Fleming Petty wrote back in June, “When Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered in 2005 on Nickelodeon, the U.S., reeling and vengeful after 9/11, had careened into the buy-one-get-one-free wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the fantastic world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a war has been raging for 100 years as the Fire Nation attempts to conquer the world. As victory in the Middle East grew ever more distant, a century-long war seemed less like a joke and more like a prophecy.”
In depicting Last Airbender’s high-fantasy world now poised at the fault lines of modernity and tradition, industrialization and spiritualism, The Legend of Korra takes up themes that are arguably more resonant now, with the cultural moment of 2020, than during the show’s initial run. The series captures a familiar moment, as the assorted sins, virtues, and well-intentioned missteps of the past are being litigated and reconciled with the ambitions and urgencies of the present.
Everyone knows things are scary right now. The planet is dying — the Arctic is on fire, sea levels and global temperatures are rising at a precipitous rate, and a pandemic has claimed thousands of lives while exhausting fundamental stress fractures in the global supply chain. Global unrest in industrialized countries has escalated in the wake of police militarization and naked attempts at political disenfranchisement, and monuments to controversial historical figures hitherto thought inextricable from the societies that erected them are being toppled left and right. The problems we’re facing, and the kind that Korra faces in the series, are more complicated than binary notions of good and evil. In the words of Avatar’s Uncle Iroh, they force us to look inward to ask who we are and what kind of world we want to live in.
All these factors and more illustrate not just why The Legend of Korra stands as a meaningful continuation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but why Korra is so consequential in her role as the Avatar. Korra answers the question of the Avatar’s role in the modern age through actions, not words. She opens a path for non-bender representation through the first free elections in the United Republic’s history. She opens the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds and keeps it open, ushering in a new era of co-existence. While Aang fought a prolific and necessary battle of good vs. evil against an unrelenting tyrant on behalf of the world, Korra’s battle is more nuanced, more about fighting embedded systems of oppression, disenfranchisement, and well-intentioned totalitarianism played out via the proxy of the series’ antagonists.
As Tenzin tells her in the final episode, Korra achieves more in her four years as the Avatar than most Avatars accomplish in their entire lives. If this alone were her legacy, it still would put her on par with the magnitude of Aang’s own achievements. But one more circumstance positions Korra as a profoundly consequential Avatar, even beyond her lifetime.
Though Korra was originally conceived as a 12-episode miniseries, Nickelodeon’s order for an additional 40 episodes gave DiMartino and Konietzko room to expand on the first season’s complexity. During season 2’s climactic confrontation, Korra loses her link to her past lives, and her ability to pass it on to whoever incarnates after her. That creative decision caused a fan backlash, not just because the connection to the past is considered a crucial part of being the Avatar, but because viewers didn’t want to say goodbye to Aang. “The cycle is over,” Korra tells Tenzin in momentary despair. “I am the last Avatar.” But she isn’t — she’s the first Avatar of the modern cycle. That’s why the show is called The Legend of Korra. It was hiding in plain sight this entire time.
If there’s a quintessential truth at the heart of the Avatar series, it’s that the only constant in life is change. When Aang reawakens to the world, he has to steel himself to the genocide of his people and reject the limitations of his past incarnations to find a means to defeat Fire Lord Ozai that’s true to his principles. In the same way, Korra has to relinquish the grief of her losses and her innate fear of failure in order to become the Avatar the world needs. She learns that for the cycle to continue, the Avatar needs to change. “I realize that even though we should learn from those who came before us, we must also forge our own path,” Korra tells a crowd of onlookers during the season 2 finale. “Things will never be the same again. We are entering a new age.”
As it stands now, the future of the Avatar series is uncertain. But The Legend of Korra suggests the cycle will continue. One day, many generations removed from Korra’s present, the Avatar will be faced with new, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And when that Avatar retreats into the depths of their past lives to search for wisdom, guidance and support, who else will they meet at the end of that long journey inward, if not that kind and unconquerable waterbender with the fiery spirit?