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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.