An ambitious show that doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
*SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SEASON
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a masterpiece that needs no introduction. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest children shows ever written, consisting of a fantastical world, lovable characters, mature themes, and truly powerful moments. This generation will never forget episodes like the brilliantly constructed Zuko Alone and the heartbreaking storytelling present within The Tale of Iroh. It is not controversial to say that this show is truly exceptional in almost every way. Which is why, once the show ended in 2008, people would have given absolutely anything to experience the magic of the Avatar: The Last Airbender world once again. And four years later, the Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, aired its first season.
The Legend of Korra is the show that divided an entire fanbase. Some people really like the show and even prefer it to the original, while some consider it a flaming garbage fire. Honestly, it’s closer to the fire than it is to perfection. Legend of Korra is… an interesting mess. It’s certainly ambitious with its ideas and characters, but never seems to develop them the correct way, or even try. Honestly, my opinion about the show is that it’s an entertaining journey that either ruins all it’s intriguing ideas or fails to develop them to create any real tension, while also having some powerful moments that really resonated with me. To be honest, it’s difficult for me to rate the whole show altogether, but each individual season? That will do nicely. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at Book 1 of The Legend of Korra.
We meet headstrong protagonist Avatar Korra training in a White Lotus compound to master the element of fire. We find out that she’s been confined to this location in the South Pole her entire life and has never gone out to see the real world like a normal Avatar is supposed to. The only element left for her to master is airbending, but when Tenzin, the last airbending master in the world, is unable to teach Korra due to his duties as a council member in Republic City, she runs away to live on Air Temple Island with him and learn more about the world as well.
While in Republic City, Korra meets two brothers: Mako, who is a wannabe Zuko but way less developed and not nearly as likeable; and Bolin, who is Sokka but not as funny or well-rounded. She joins their Pro-Bending team (we’ll talk about that later) and balances that with her duties as the Avatar. She begins developing feelings for Mako, but those feelings are unrequited once he meets Asami Sato, the daughter of a wealthy non-bender businessman who made a fortune inventing the Sato Mobile (cars, basically). A love triangle begins to form between these characters.
While this is all going on, revolutionaries that go by The Equalists grow within the city as the result of inequality between benders and non-benders. We find out the leader of the Revolution, Amon, has the ability to take others bending away, and begins terrorizing benders around the city. So now Korra has to stop Amon and his mission to cleanse the world of the “impurity” of bending. She also deals with a corrupt council member, her struggle with mastering airbending, and crippling anxiety about Amon catching her and taking away the part of her she loves the most. Seems like a lot to unpack for 12 episodes. Let’s get started.
Republic City is shockingly boring. I expected a much more alluring setting, especially compared to the cities and locations we’ve seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which were so full with creativity and wonder that it was magical to visit and explore these sights with the main heroes. Republic City’s design is just a mix between New York City, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, and while sometimes it is drawn beautifully, it’s such a dull uninteresting setting without the creativity present within Avatar: The Last Airbender. The only remotely impressive thing about Republic City Is that it’s the center for technology within the world of Avatar, and I absolutely hated it. All the cars, airplanes, mechanical yachts, I felt like I was watching these characters live in a totally different world. In the original they had to ride bisons, fight giant lizards, and used bending to help with every aspect of their life. It was so ingrained in their society that the nations weren’t able to function without benders present. Now, it’s just the 1920s standard city, totally functional without benders except for one example where Mako works at a sweatshop, but even then one example isn’t enough (this is a larger problem present within the show which we will get to later). While it sounds like my dumb brain is simply saying “I don’t like new things!” In reality it’s simply the fact that it’s all too familiar with our own world, and we watch these type of shows to escape the world, not watch a slightly more magical version. And yes some shows can pull that off well, but Avatar: The Last Airbender was originally based on different Asian cultures completely separate from Western ideals, so replacing those beautiful cultures with a modern Americanized setting feels almost offensive. To pull so drastically away from the original cultures the show was based off doesn’t make for good storytelling. It makes for lazy storytelling.
The fact that Republic City is so dull is the strangest aspect of it. This is the center of diversity, where people from all 4 nations can live together in harmony, yet the city itself doesn’t feel nearly as distinct. We don’t see little small water tribe trinket stores, or fire nation neighborhoods, or Earth Kingdom Town, or anything remotely representing the other nations. You’d think in a city where all the elements live together would have traces of all four nations, but again, it’s just a simple steampunk town with no charm whatsoever. The only diverse thing about it is that the firebenders wear red scarfs, the earthbenders have green clothing and the waterbenders are everyone else. Again, they removed all of the culture from the world, and all this does is ruin the stunning diversity the show displays.
The Pro-Bending aspect of it was the worst to me. If you don’t know what that is, it’s when people stand on a platform and just bend at each other. It’s actually more boring than it sounds. Pro-Bending at first seemed fun but it isn’t that original or even that entertaining to watch after the first couple episodes. While normally this unimaginative sport wouldn’t bother me so much, they seem to spend SO MUCH TIME focused on it, at least half the season or more, to the point where I wanted to skip those scenes so badly. It’s just WWE with the added bonus of throwing stuff. Speaking of Republic City’s government, it is incredibly fucked up (more talk about this later).
Compared to the settings in Avatar this one was a huge miss. Ba Sing Se, the Northern Water Tribe, Ember Island, all of these places were not only unique, but dripping with personality and depth that each one is incredibly distinct from the last. Comparing these places to Republic City is like comparing sea water to tap water. One of these things is obviously much tastier and better for you. I would have been more interested in Republic City If we didn’t spend an entire season within the confines of such a bland city. It just lacks any kind of memorability.
A good story needs some good characters, and this show’s ability to make amazing characters is undoubtedly hit or miss. Korra herself is a good character within the first season, and I quite enjoyed her, unlike most of the fandom who dislike her for no reason. The concept of her character, while not executed in an amazing way, is still a grounded, compelling one to begin with. Unlike Aang, who was a normal kid trying to become the Avatar, Korra loves her role as the Avatar, and primarily identifies herself as that first and foremost.
While she lacks experience in the spiritual side of bending, she grows to develop a deeper appreciation for the elements, even if it’s mainly for competitive uses. She confidently states that she’s the Avatar and clearly loves her role in protecting Republic City while being annoyed when people don’t listen or respect her. There are also hints that show she associates her whole identity with being the Avatar, and in her dreams, Amon specifically says “Without your bending, you’ll be nothing.” She literally cannot imagine herself in any other role besides the Avatar, and it makes sense because she hasn’t been allowed to be anyone besides that.
Her entire life she’s been confined to this small compound run by the White Lotus, with teachers being brought from around the globe to teach her the elements. In the first episode one of the members comments that “she lacks restraint,” but it’s easy to tell why. The Avatar is supposed to travel around the world, seek out masters, and learn about cultures, people, and along the way discover spirituality. Keeping one cooped up there and spoon feeding them their masters without allowing the Avatar to seek out their own will not result in them respecting the elements or developing a spiritual connection with herself. Unlike the previous Avatar’s, Korra hasn’t seen any of the world, and due to the suffocating way she was raised, she was set up to fail from the start. Her naivete of the world and of people has made her an avatar that doesn’t understand anything about how society works, which is bad when she is supposed to protect that society. Seeing an Avatar who was set up to fail from the moment she was born forced to deal with an immensely complex issue is such a compelling idea. At the end of the season, she won me over, despite the terrible ending (we will get to that).
The characters that were the highlight of the show for me were Tenzin, Aang’s son, and Lin Beifong, Toph’s daughter. Every scene is instantly better with them in it because both characters are just so fantastic and work with each other so well. Their friendship is better developed in a few scenes than Korra and her friends were in the entire show. They conveyed the sense that so much has changed in the world and in Republic City, and every scene with them shows the weight on their shoulders, from Lin’s determination and duty to protect the city, to Tenzin’s struggle as one of the representatives of a corrupt government. They are easily my favorite characters and I would have loved if the show was mainly about them. But, the show also has some other characters, and are they as good? The answer is simple and straightforward: no.
I never liked Mako. I don’t know why the hell Korra would rather date emo ass fireboy then superior Bolin who she actually has more chemistry than, but it’s young love so whatever. Mako is just annoying. He isn’t unique or special and I genuinely think Korra and Mako were put together and broke up in season 2 just to tell all the Zutara shippers from The Last Airbender that it would not work out. And while Bolin is definitely better, he is still meh. I don’t like comic relief characters who are nothing else other than comic relief. Asami was the same way, and while she had interesting plot developments, she wasn’t given enough time to properly develop her character to make her engaging. And that is due to the love triangle.
Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami have no actual chemistry as friends, and this is due to the love triangle. Korra, Mako, and Bolin at first seem like they’re becoming friends as we see them interact more, but the second romance gets involved, it feels like the only reason they get along is because they want to bang each other. And when Mako starts dating Asami and that whole mess happens, it becomes ridiculous. When they kept calling themselves “Team Avatar” I wanted to throw myself off a roof because at most they feel like facebook friends by the end. Korra has hooked up with every single member of her team (technically she considered the date with Bolin to be platonic but on his side it was romantic so I still count it in the grand scheme of things). Just because she’s a girl doesn’t mean she needs to fuck or want to be fucked by every single friend she has! The romance in Avatar: The Last Airbender was mainly downplayed due to the young age of the cast, but now that everyone’s a teenager, and teenagers LOVE romance, let’s ignore this plot with loads of potential in favor of stupid relationship drama that no one cares about. The worst part is that this romance diminishes every friendship Korra has to the point where I am unable to see them as friends anymore by the end, and while Asami could have been compelling they wasted all the opportunity they had to make her an engaging character and instead makes her seem almost insensitive when she’s upset about Korra and Mako. Maybe instead they should have made those moments about Asami and Korra being friends since, you know, the ending… (SPOILERS). Even Korra is ruined for her liking Mako, as she says things that make her seem like an asshole. In conclusion, fuck romance.
Then there’s the villain, Amon. Amon is ok. His backstory is incredibly lame and the way he takes away people’s bending is equally worse. He has great stage presence as a villain and some of his lines are cool, but other than that due to the failure of setting up his issue he falls flat. The fact that he uses waterbending to take away the ability to bend makes no sense and has no explanation. The only explanation I found was fans say that he “severed the connection” but now I have to know what the connection is. It is a nerve? I thought it was a spiritual thing? How can you severe spirituality? It raises a lot of questions with no pay off. By the end he is reduced to a simple horror villain, and it’s not fun at all. If anything they should have made it so the spirit gave him the power, or that he merged with a spirit and got the ability. That would also lead into season 2 well, because in season 2 we see that spirits ARE frustrated with humans and want to stop them. Having spirits help Amon not only makes his powers more logical, but strengthens the threat in the second season since the spirits are supposed to be angry.
The difference between Amon and Ozai is that Ozai didn’t need to be a complex villain. He was the culmination of Aang and the Gaangs entire character arcs and that’s the only purpose he served. In Legend of Korra, Amon serves as the leader of a justified revolution, and in the fourth season the audience is even told that his opinions are right. Amon needs to be an interesting person in order for his revolution to be even remotely memorable, while Ozai is remembered because of the episodes of build up where we see the world torn apart by this war. But unfortunately, Amon just drops the ball due to the poorly set up conflict of the show.
The main problem within the first season is a fantastic premise never properly followed through at all. Of course non-benders would resent benders after a 100 year war that devastated the world in ways one couldn’t possibly imagined, all because the firebenders wanted to prove they had the biggest dick of them all. Of course normies (non-benders) would hate benders for how much suffering they caused everyone. So the idea that they would want stronger equality between the two is genius, and raises a lot of fascinating questions.
But the problem is that there is no evidence of normies experiencing any discrimination against benders. The only time we ever see any crime done against normies is when gangs go to ask for money, and if that’s the only problem normies have, then why can’t Lin just stop the gangs? She has the power too, and it is presented where it seems like if that problem is solved, everything will be perfectly fine, as if the issue isn’t that complex at all. The only other time they were oppressed was BECAUSE of Amon’s revolution, so that’s not even a valid reason either. In fact, we actually see benders screwed around more. Mako and Bolin are dirt poor, and are only surviving through pro-bending. They barely make any money and were forced to join gangs when they were children, while the only normies we see are rich (The Satos) and living their best life and are helping terrorist groups. Do you see the problem? And there is such a simple solution to show that normies have it different. The technological advancements within society.
Think about it. A common complaint is that the technology has advanced far too quickly within the time they were able to live in Republic City. What if the technology only worked due to bending. For example, what if there were specific cars tailored to each element, where they could only work for that specific element, and normies are unable to have any of that. Maybe waterbenders control agriculture, earth benders infrastructure, and fire benders electricity. Maybe Hiroshi Sato only got this far by abusing the normies he worked with and instead dumping them all for an entire bender based facility. Maybe in the time Aang was gone, due to the fact that benders are much more efficient, they started laying off normies by the thousands, leading to a large homeless population. These are just possibilities to enhance Amon’s argument, and this isn’t even discussing how corrupt the government in the city is.
The government is literally constructed of 5 people from each nation (North and South separate) who make every single decision in RC. One of those judges is corrupt and only wants power while the others (excluding Tenzin) just go along with what he says with no thought put into it. There is no one to represent the normies on this council, and if the show really wanted to highlight the tensions between benders and normies, why not highlight more of why this council is screwed over. Maybe a scene where Korra talks about how OF COURSE NORMIES AREN’T GETTING REPRESENTATION. And at the end of the season it’s fixed and there’s a normie president, but in the next couple seasons we are supposed to believe he’s a dick, so what problem was solved? None.
That wasn’t the only part of the ending that was… problematic. Korra gets her bending taken away, which is treated as a super dramatic moment even though you know it won’t last. And even though all her bending is taken away, she is able to summon one last punch and suddenly she can airbend. The entire series has her struggling with Airbending, but Airbending is learned through spiritual means. There is no indication that Korra has gotten a spiritual boost up in the final scene. Also, she isn’t performing the basic moves airbenders perform. Instead she just punches the air, and suddenly it’s airbending. This is another problem with Korra that is covered up with the fact that bending “evolves”. Bolin and Mako look the exact same while bending even though they are bending wildly different elements, so the bending isn’t as special as it was in the original. It’s now kickboxing but fire spews out of your hands or earth comes up.
So she airbends Amon out a window and everyone finds out he is evil. Boom, that’s all it took to stop all of the equality riots and demands for justice. You’d think that this would still be an issue they would address but the show acts like no one is upset anymore and everything is equal. It feels like a joke like the whole issue in the show is. So Korra tries to get healed by Katara but finds out her condition is “permanent”. After training her whole life to be the Avatar, she has lost that part of her. She goes off alone, the reality of what happened setting in. She cries, as the sorrow overwhelms her, and-
OH WAIT NEVERMIND AANG COMES ALONG AND GIVES HER BACK EVERYTHING. SHE JUST GETS EVERYTHING BACK. NO LESSONS. NO STRUGGLES. SHE JUST GETS EVERYTHING HANDED TO HER AND EVERYTHING IS FINE.
I cannot stress how much I hated this ending. After seeing a Korra who constantly struggles, constantly tries to prove to herself she is worthy, and experiences a devastating loss, the show decides to just let her win. To give her back everything without even giving her a chance to try. The writers could have at least had her meditate in order to reach her past lives, but instead she is just given the solutions to all her problems. It’s incredibly frustrating and I truly believe it’s one of the main reasons Korra herself is so disliked. Screw having to adapt, fuck learning lessons, just call Aang over and he can fix everything. Korra feels like she learns nothing, and that is one of the biggest reasons the show is ultimately brought down.
The Legend of Korra is a show that confuses me. On one hand, there are some incredibly powerful, dramatic moments, and on the other hand this show really didn’t work for me. The scenes with Lin sacrificing herself, the fight between Tarrlok and Korra, Asami betraying her father, and the death of Amon are all immensely profound and incredible, and shows what this show could have been. On the other hand, these powerful scenes are paired up with not fully developed characters, a I give it a 6 out of 10, and with any other show I would hope season 2 is better, but this time I already know what to expect.