Hear Us Out

Hear Us Out: The Legend of Korra Made Avatar: The Last Airbender Even Better

Six ways the animated sequel series — now on Netflix — ups the Airbender game.

by | August 14, 2020 | Comments

THE LEGEND OF KORRA, Korra, Season 2

(Photo by ©Nickelodeon / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Four years after animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender finished its groundbreaking run, Nickelodeon premiered the sequel series The Legend of Korra. The anticipation around the show was immense, but no matter how much praise the show got for its mature themes and inventive animation, many saw both Avatar Korra and the show itself as a lesser successor to the tale of Avatar Aang.

To mark the show’s Netflix premiere, we’re taking a look at how The Legend of Korra not only mastered all four elements, but in some ways improved upon its predecessor, enhancing it in the process, and brought balance to the world.


IT TOOK EVEN MORE INSPIRATION FROM HAYAO MIYAZAKI


Where Avatar: The Last Airbender was heavily inspired by Asian cultures, landscapes and places, The Legend of Korra jumps forward 70 years in time and finds inspiration in 1920s New York City, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The main setting in the show, Republic City, is experiencing rapid urbanization and extraordinary technological advances, with the steam-powered technology we saw in the first series giving way to electricity and even magnetism. Automobiles, airplanes, movie cameras, and even mecha suits become normal in the span of the show’s run.

But, this being Avatar, the setting is more than just window-dressing. The show takes a page out of Hayao Miyazaki’s playbook, particularly his film Princess Mononoke, to explore how rapid industrialization comes at the cost of the world losing its connection to nature. Like in the Studio Ghibli movie, Korra introduces a world that is so disconnected from its spirituality that giant spirits attack people in the second season of the show, bending went from a revered art form to a skill used for menial jobs and even pro-bending, a popular boxing-like sport.


IT DID ORIGIN STORIES RIGHT


Even though Avatar had a bigger focus on history and the past compared to Korra, the sequel series focuses more on mythology and the spiritual origin of the Avatar. Season 2 makes the spirit world and the Avatar’s role as a bridge between the two worlds its central theme, and through it, Korra also explores the origin of the Avatar itself.

The two-parter episode “Beginnings,” from the second season of Korra, is easily among the best storytelling in the entire franchise. The episode tells the story of the very first Avatar, named Wan, and how he fused with the spirit of light in order to battle the spirit of darkness that threatened to destroy both the physical and spirit worlds. Instead of simply using the episode to answer questions no one really wanted answered, “Beginnings” gave us a prequel story that added to the established mythology without contradicting what came before. The story of Wan directly reflects that of Korra: how by doing what they think is right, they end up creating more problems. The introduction of the light spirit as the cause of the Avatar’s powers becomes a huge part of later seasons and one of the best additions to the world’s mythology.


IT GREW UP WITH ITS AUDIENCE


Just as The Last Airbender’s audience grew up between the two shows, so did the themes of the show grow up and become more mature by the time Korra premiered.

Korra transforms the subtext of the first show into text, making death an integral part of the story. There are several gruesome deaths shown on screen throughout the show, including a murder-suicide and the execution of a queen by suffocation — and it’s not simply for shock value, but to show the consequences of death on the characters. Depression, PTSD, and grief become huge themes in the series, and Korra portrays this with respect to its younger audience, not shielding them, but making them understand the heavy weight of loss.

Likewise, Korra isn’t afraid to get political, especially through its excellent villains. Far from the sometimes black-and-white villains of Avatar, the show isn’t afraid of making its villains sympathetic, or having Korra learn from them. The first villain, Amon, was the leader of a radical group who sought to bring equality to benders and non-benders, who are marginalized in the show’s world. The second wanted to bring the world back into spirituality. Korra even dives into nationalism and how it evolves into fascism when left unchecked, leaving the audience to decide how much they’d agree with such a leader, and how far they’d go before realizing they are following the wrong person — a bold, yet very timely theme for an animated show.


IT ALLOWED ITS HERO TO FAIL


In interviews, co-creator Bryan Konietzko has talked about wanting Korra to be the polar opposite of Aang, a go-getter and hot-headed girl who’s always dreamed of becoming the Avatar. Indeed, unlike the very Campbellian Aang, Korra is not a nobody who realizes she is a chosen one and grows to become more confident; she’s the daughter of her tribe’s chief who always believed she was special. What makes Korra special is how the show allows its hero to fail, repeatedly, and learn from her mistakes to become a better person.

When her hot-headedness leads to Korra losing a big fight against Amon and nearly losing her powers, she spends the second season second-guessing herself and getting others to make decisions for her. When her faith in the wrong person backfired, season 3 saw Korra learn to trust her feelings and accept the consequences. Throughout the show, Korra fought and failed, but she always learned how to pick herself back up and became better because of it.

More importantly, the show’s more mature subject matter led to the third season ending with Korra in a wheelchair after losing a fight, and the fourth season saw Korra deal with crippling depression and PTSD. These are themes very rarely seen in kid’s animation, let alone such a mainstream series as this, and it not only made Korra an exceptional experiment, but the character’s journey adds gravitas to the world of the first show as well.


IT HAD GLOBAL CONSEQUENCES


Gone are villain-of-the-week stories from Avatar, leaving Korra to deal with world leaders, bureaucrats, and entire Nations’ worth of critics instead.

When she first arrives in Republic City, Korra realizes that being the Avatar doesn’t mean she is instantly well-received by all. Because Aang had disappeared for 100 years and came back to a world engulfed in war, most of the people he encountered were happy to see him, help him in his quest and to accept his wisdom. Korra, on the other hand, realizes that the Avatar doesn’t come before the local leaders, that getting involved in a Nation’s inner conflict becomes an international incident with severe consequences, and that each Nation has its own way of dealing with issues and wars. This leads to the show exploring the fascinating idea that Korra finds herself in a world that has outgrown the need for an Avatar, that growing apart from spirituality means the world has no need for a spiritual leader.

Likewise, Korra makes it very clear that the actions of its leading lady have huge consequences. When Korra deals with Amon and his “Equalists” ideals, Republic City evolves into the first democracy in the world. When Korra decides to leave the spirit portals open, spirits cross over and start living everywhere, and it restores an entire lost Nation. Just by being injured and out of commission, Korra’s absence led to the rise of a fascist dictator that threatened to become the new Ozai.


IT EMBRACED DIVERSITY AND QUEER REPRESENTATION


Even though Korra premiered in a post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world, it was still rare to see a genre show with a female lead, let alone a female lead of color. But Korra not only pushed for diversity in its cast, it also gave us one of the most groundbreaking finales in an animated series.

The series’ final image shows Korra and Asami walking hand in hand to a spirit portal, looking into each other’s eyes with a deep emotion and longing that was beyond just a friendship, before drifting into the sunset together. The indication was very clear – these two women had a deep love for each other – and it didn’t take long before the creators confirmed that the scene was the beginning of a romantic relationship.

What made the moment so significant was not only that it was one of the first times a bisexual couple was shown on-screen on a children’s cartoon, but how much it was built up. The show’s last two seasons showed us significant glances, hand-holding, blushing, and other hints that Korra and Asami had a deeper relationship than any other two characters on the show. Not only did this image become significant in the context of kid’s cartoons, breaking barriers for other shows to include explicitly queer characters and plotlines, but it also made the world of the first show richer by making it more diverse and lived-in.

The Legend of Korra is now streaming on Netflix.

Adjusted Score: 74.288%
Critics Consensus: The Legend of Korra expands the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender with narrative substance and crisp animation -- and progresses the drama and action with a female lead.
Starring:

Tag Cloud

Bravo Opinion Esquire Masterpiece Superheroe news Heroines aapi First Reviews sequel sitcom Paramount Network SDCC Universal ESPN video on demand Mary Poppins Returns dceu Sneak Peek chucky Mindy Kaling Grammys cancelled television Creative Arts Emmys USA Network elevated horror The Walking Dead cats 2016 Endgame Fall TV space cancelled TV shows CW Seed live action superhero directors Crunchyroll Holidays El Rey TCA joker GLAAD Interview 45 high school Nominations child's play TCM toy story disaster strong female leads The Purge Biopics ViacomCBS Funimation Awards Tour TV Disney Channel Sci-Fi Syfy YouTube Red toronto saw AMC Trivia Hulu batman romantic comedy VH1 comic Election Pride Month ABC Signature Tubi talk show ABC Tomatazos archives true crime OneApp Columbia Pictures Acorn TV E! Turner comics green book Pet Sematary Extras women blaxploitation Dark Horse Comics Sundance TV Paramount Plus Comic Book heist movie MTV Valentine's Day indiana jones black ghosts Photos Amazon Prime werewolf Spike 2015 Reality Competition Mary poppins The Witch miniseries Pixar tv talk Avengers comiccon FXX latino FX ratings trailers police drama critics witnail ITV Baby Yoda versus BAFTA crime drama worst movies dragons golden globes PBS screenings Trailer name the review Turner Classic Movies DirecTV monster movies concert TLC Pacific Islander Spectrum Originals Schedule YouTube Premium Lionsgate GIFs best Film Trophy Talk Television Academy Ghostbusters godzilla Quiz films stop motion festival crime thriller aliens Countdown Pirates lord of the rings dc Shondaland Pop RT21 Christmas crime new star wars movies reviews deadpool rotten movies we love hispanic Character Guide teaser Reality spy thriller cars psycho Apple TV Plus Year in Review james bond MCU Nickelodeon medical drama History E3 scene in color X-Men Watching Series jamie lee curtis know your critic Shudder boxoffice Nat Geo DGA independent 2019 USA venice APB Cartoon Network Paramount Box Office politics SXSW Kids & Family Comics on TV Infographic discovery diversity sports See It Skip It football Teen vampires game of thrones transformers scary movies Disney Plus YouTube boxing TNT die hard children's TV ABC Family 24 frames Tarantino festivals Women's History Month TBS kong 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards historical drama The Academy Starz movies asian-american emmy awards WGN nfl period drama BET Awards San Diego Comic-Con obituary Winners Horror adaptation Chilling Adventures of Sabrina french TruTV blockbusters Certified Fresh American Society of Cinematographers Animation streaming 2020 casting hist FX on Hulu Captain marvel DC streaming service Emmys Elton John Classic Film criterion satire social media Super Bowl spain book adaptation Amazon Prime Video Country parents singing competition Mystery new york renewed TV shows Marvel Television sequels 2018 PlayStation Fox Searchlight Disney documentaries National Geographic fast and furious Polls and Games ID Fox News Logo king kong canceled TV shows rom-coms sag awards Comedy docudrama serial killer 93rd Oscars TCA Awards Peacock award winner adventure YA Thanksgiving Ellie Kemper spanish language breaking bad technology anime Spring TV revenge DC Comics BBC America cults BBC richard e. Grant japanese The CW nature Action Academy Awards Star Wars cooking Tumblr finale screen actors guild Alien IFC OWN Showtime unscripted Anna Paquin quibi target composers Image Comics Hear Us Out DC Universe television HBO Go animated Legendary Song of Ice and Fire Sundance Britbox kids travel Disney+ Disney Plus 21st Century Fox RT History CMT classics Awards remakes cancelled TV series Rock superman 4/20 Film Festival Black Mirror robots Lifetime harry potter dark comic books Apple TV+ reboot a nightmare on elm street PaleyFest Binge Guide 007 IFC Films TV Land natural history indie rt archives VICE Fantasy Crackle FOX Hallmark Christmas movies Mary Tyler Moore cinemax Epix south america BET kaiju mission: impossible Star Trek Musicals cops franchise cartoon dogs rotten stand-up comedy Musical Toys Disney streaming service BBC One game show A&E streaming movies Chernobyl thriller prank halloween biography Set visit Hallmark twilight australia Comedy Central Arrowverse mutant Walt Disney Pictures Music 2017 based on movie foreign Discovery Channel slashers Television Critics Association razzies hollywood TV movies hidden camera LGBT Rocky Brie Larson Warner Bros. worst HBO Max binge Apple The Walt Disney Company CBS All Access Lifetime Christmas movies TV renewals Cannes telelvision Broadway Vudu CBS GoT Lucasfilm anthology Pop TV popular The Arrangement comedies spinoff marvel cinematic universe Rocketman Freeform Holiday jurassic park TCA 2017 HBO Summer Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt italian justice league New York Comic Con Oscars all-time WarnerMedia Black History Month laika 20th Century Fox Food Network international pirates of the caribbean Podcast Martial Arts mockumentary 2021 Writers Guild of America Winter TV Amazon series facebook A24 theme song Marvel First Look MSNBC Premiere Dates Travel Channel free movies supernatural Mudbound Red Carpet docuseries Exclusive Video Emmy Nominations Sony Pictures NBC nbcuniversal TV One cancelled stoner Best and Worst Family romance war 72 Emmy Awards Ovation CNN Adult Swim video psychological thriller 99% science fiction zombie canceled political drama halloween tv Netflix Netflix Christmas movies VOD TCA Winter 2020 SundanceTV 71st Emmy Awards what to watch zero dark thirty President scorecard Stephen King Drama crossover Sundance Now blockbuster Western fresh Calendar new zealand TIFF Amazon Studios Marathons zombies golden globe awards Cosplay Rom-Com christmas movies spider-man book Video Games movie doctor who LGBTQ Marvel Studios Superheroes documentary universal monsters NYCC dramedy spanish