Does It Matter: Legend of Korra
What if you had the best idea of your life and the world wanted a sequel to it? Could you deliver?
For Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, “The Legend of Korra” was their answer to that question. A sequel series to “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” “Korra” ran for 4 seasons. It was an entirely different show than its predecessor and, by most measures, not nearly as successful. That doesn’t mean it was a failure. But does it mean that “The Legend of Korra” matters?
“The Legend of Korra” tells the story of Korra, a teenager who discovers as a child that she can manipulate (or bend, in the show’s terms) all four of the major elements: earth, water, fire, and air. This makes her the avatar — the savior of her world — and she is secluded and trained like a star athlete in preparation for that job. That makes Korra a stubborn, socially awkward hothead – and a very difficult protagonist to like for most of the series. Yes, she is badass. She has tremendous power and loves using it to crush enemies. But she has that power in order to keep the world in balance. It’s an enormous challenge for her to use it that way, and a responsibility she struggles with for the entire series. She fails more often than she succeeds. She makes enormous mistakes that have terrible consequences for her friends, family, and the entire world.
But she keeps trying to do the right thing. And when she succeeds? She changes the world.
Korra’s journey is big. It is refreshing to see a strong, proactive woman put through the ringer in this way and come out on top – especially as the lead in an action series, which is still so rare as to be noteworthy. But it is not archetypal; it’s not The Hero’s Journey, undertaken by protagonists from Beowulf to Luke Skywalker. And it’s not the journey undertaken by Aang, the protagonist of “Avatar: the Last Airbender.”
Seen here, looking like he’s about to break that staff in someone’s face.
And here we get to the primary difficulty of discussing “Korra”: it is impossible to discuss the show without bringing up its predecessor. Everything in “Korra” is compared against “Avatar,” by sheer dint of “Korra” taking place in the same world. With the same mythology.
“Avatar: the Last Airbender” is my generation’s “Star Wars.” It’s a ragtag group of misfits struggling against impossible odds to stop an evil empire before it destroys the world. Aang is a 12-year-old kid who’s the lone survivor of a genocide campaign. When he finds out he’s the Avatar, he freaks out and hides — and when he’s found 100 years later, he’s forced to master the elements and save the world in a matter of months. As he struggles to overcome his fears and become the savior his world needs, he makes friends like Katara, Sokka, and Toph who help him in his quest (seen above, from right to left). He even befriends Prince Zuko, the son of the evil dictator who began the series as his biggest enemy. “Avatar” is a sprawling fantasy epic that puts us through the ringer as we see underdog characters we’ve grown to love succeed against all odds. It reaffirms our faith in good winning over evil. It reminds us anything is possible if we’re lucky and try our best.
“Korra” also puts the audience through the ringer. But it is not “Avatar.” It is not an epic. It is expertly crafted fan fiction, created by people who deeply love the “Avatar” world. That makes the show inherently weaker, and causes it to have less of a cultural impact – and matter – than it otherwise should.
One of the biggest differences lies in the way it was created. Nickelodeon greenlit one season of “The Legend of Korra” and Konietzko and DiMartino took two years to write the first few episodes. Once the show was greenlit, they wrote the entire first season themselves. They also executive produced it while scrambling to build a team to pull it off on time. Artists pitched in on writing. Writers wrote as a team. Pages were rewritten and re-storyboarded right up until production deadlines. It was hectic — or, as they describe in the commentary, “We got every job we ever wanted. We just got them all at once.” That busyness, coupled with the fact that Nickelodeon only promised them one season of “Korra” forced them to only plan one season’s worth of stories.
Konietzko and DiMartino planned out the three seasons of “Avatar: the Last Airbender” before beginning production. That gave them the time and resources to create the cohesive epic that they wanted. “Korra’s” compressed timeframe forced them to tell smaller stories. They tried to make the best of it. But when they were trying to figure out what stories to tell with “Korra,” all they knew for certain was that they didn’t want to return to “Avatar.” They felt they’d said everything they wanted to say about the world of that show. More tellingly, they didn’t want to complicate or dilute those characters and stories. But because “Korra” was a sequel series, it had to address the events of “Avatar.” The creators’ solution? Start with a new Avatar in the same world.
While that sounds like a good idea, it meant that they had to kill off Aang. Due to the show’s logic about the avatar being passed from generation to generation, the only way to make a new timeline work was to kill him. That decision warped the world of the show. And the characters fans had come to love; Katara and Toph, two of the strongest female characters in recent memory, were brought back only to be used as plot points. Everything fans were hoping and expecting to see in a new “Avatar” show wasn’t there.
And the fans HATED it.
They hated Korra. They hated the world. They hated the new characters. They watched “Korra” to return to the world they loved so much in “Avatar” and found it unexpectedly different. They watched it enough to get a second season greenlit, though, and Konietzko and DiMartino went on the defensive. They reminded the audience that Korra was a different character than Aang, and they had to write different stories for her. They reminded their fans that the new characters — Mako, Bolin, and Asami — had the same character archetypes they wrote for “Avatar.” That was technically true: Mako was the Zuko, Bolin was the Sokka, and Asami was the Katara. They just didn’t work the same way. Rather than being the clearly defined archetypes of “Avatar,” the cast of “Korra” was a sea of complex shades of gray.
Asami is very pretty. She’s also smart and sometimes a good fighter, but her personality revolves around being Mako’s girlfriend, then Korra’s rival for Mako, and ultimately Korra’s girlfriend. Asami is defined solely by her interactions with others, and she’s given little chance to do anything on her own. That limits her personality immensely, making her so bland and dependent upon others’ decisions she’s almost a Mary Sue. For a show with a strong female lead, from creators with a history of creating strong female characters, that’s a bitter disappointment. Especially since the relationship drama between Asami and Korra caused the show to fail the Bechdel test — a test that “Avatar” never even came close to failing.
Mako and Bolin fare slightly better. Bolin is the Sokka, the sweet, kind-hearted comic relief. He worked really well in that role. Mako was gruff, smug, and immensely emo. He had all of Zuko’s angst but none of his damage or purpose. Thankfully, Mako came into his own over the course of the series, but it took a really long time for him to open up enough for the audience to get to know him, much less root for him.
Even the bits of fanservice the creators added didn’t quite work. Mako was named for a beloved voice actor from “Avatar.” A grandson of that character makes an appearance in “Korra,” looking like a non-scarred Zuko and sharing his voice actor. An elderly Zuko was briefly brought back as a mentor, as were Katara and Toph. Toph even had relationship drama with her daughters. None of these choices added anything to their characters. The new characters were given little opportunity to demonstrate the attributes that fans loved about their namesakes. The returning characters were elderly beyond recognition, and not able to do much of anything that fans had come to expect from them. Lose-lose.
Granted, “Korra” made many brave choices. It took risks that “Avatar” never could have. The fourth season opened with Korra recovering from PTSD as a way for viewers to have a model for dealing with their own trauma. It switched animation styles in the second half of the second season to highlight the story it wanted to tell. Those choices made the show better, richer, and more interesting.
Even so, while Nickelodeon greenlit two more seasons, it wasn’t pleased with the ratings. Opting to cut their losses, they changed “Korra’s” airing schedule in the middle of the third season. The fourth season was only shown online, released all at once without any promotion. “Korra” was difficult to find for anyone who wanted to watch it, and Nickelodeon killed any chance the show could have had to recoup its losses.
Yet, even with network tampering, “Korra” could never have been the success “Avatar” was. The creators’ decision – to tease a loyal audience with returning to the world they love while irreparably altering everything they loved about it – is the single biggest flaw of the show. Konietzko and DiMartino thought the “Avatar” material was too precious to touch, and rather than try to tweak it they created around it. In refusing to engage with their source material, they created an inherently weak show concept that would never measure up to the expectations of its audience. That schizophrenia of purpose hamstrings “Korra” from developing an identity of its own and holding up as a unique, stand-alone series. “Korra” is a riff on an original idea. It is not an original idea. Because “Avatar” was so groundbreakingly epic “Korra” fails to match up, simply by playing in the same sandbox.
Worse still: all of its issues could have easily been fixed by bumping the timeline of the show further into the future. That way, Aang and the other “Avatar” characters would all be naturally dead but fondly remembered, and the world would have more reason to be as different as it was. That small change would have given audiences enough emotional distance from “Avatar” to accept all the changes in “Korra.”
As for the elephant in the room that you’re all wondering about: does it matter that Korra is gay? Within the confines of the show? Not even a little. For the girls who watch the show and identify with her as a hero? YES. A thousand times yes. For them, Korra is a role model. That absolutely matters.
Don’t you think?
All images and video courtesy of Nickelodeon.