Azula bending lightning.

Between Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, Avatar has seven seasons with seven villains that run the gamut from hot garbage to top quality. I’m not even counting Zuko, who’s frankly in a different category altogether. So before Nickelodeon’s new Avatar studio expands this list by making something other than a YouTube channel of highlight reels, let’s look at all the Avatar villains and discover what makes them succeed or fail.

7. Unalaq

Korra approaching Unalaq on his throne.

It’s only natural that the franchise’s worst season would also have its worst villain. That’s season two of Korra, which wastes an entire episode giving Korra amnesia when it was already badly squeezed for time. But to give credit where credit is due: Unalaq doesn’t seem too bad at first. In fact, he appears to be an antagonistic mentor, someone who wants to teach Korra about the spirits but also has goals she opposes. Specifically, Unalaq wants to occupy the south pole and force its residents to observe northern customs.

I’m a big fan of the antagonistic mentor trope, so Unalaq actually had me excited at first, but that excitement doesn’t last. You see, Unalaq’s real plan is to open the north and south spirit portals, which will let him merge with the evil spirit Vaatu and essentially become a god. He needs Korra’s cooperation to open the portals, and he has it until he invades her home at the south pole and puts her father in prison. This is a rare instance of a villain defeating himself, and I cannot fathom what his motivation is supposed to be. If he merges with Vaatu, he’ll be nearly all-powerful, and he can make the south do whatever he wants. If he doesn’t, he can always invade a few days later. Launching the invasion before Korra has opened both portals just makes Unalaq’s job harder.

There’s something far worse about Unalaq’s plan though: everything associated with him, from his monster children to the poorly advised retconning of Avatar’s history. What’s that, did you forget the monster children? His two kids, Eska and Desna, are not only drawn differently than the other characters, but they love murder to an almost Snidely Whiplash degree. Unalaq seems to have raised them fairly well, so I have no idea where those personality traits came from. It seems the writers didn’t either, as the siblings get less and less extreme the longer they’re in the show. I’m guessing they’re supposed to be a parody of teenagers in a goth phase, but it just does not work.

The setting retcons are even worse. I know you thought that humans learned bending from studying the world’s mystical creatures like dragons and badgermoles* but no, it was actually a group of lion turtles handing out elemental control like candy. Well, that’s a lot less cool. Maybe in the next series, we can reveal that bending actually comes from midichlorians. Unalaq’s evil plan also reveals that when humans and spirits originally came into conflict, the first Avatar’s solution was to banish all spirits from the material world forever. And we’re supposed to like the first Avatar. Gross.

The capstone of this awful pyramid is that thanks to Unalaq, we now know that the Avatar setting is divided into a good/evil binary. Remember Vaatu? Turns out he’s the great spirit of darkness and chaos. His opposite, Raava, is the great spirit of light and peace. Now, it’s possible to present darkness and chaos without moral judgment, but that’s not what Legend of Korra does. Instead, it’s very clear that if Vaatu ever wins his battle with Raava, the world will immediately go to crap. That’s just our popular image of God and Satan repackaged as East Asian–sounding spirits.

To be clear: good/evil binaries are not inherently bad. You can have a great story about banishing the dark god back from whence they came. The problem is that Avatar has always taken a more balanced approach, and I mean that literally. None of the forces in Avatar, be they element types or nation states, are inherently evil. In Last Airbender, the problem wasn’t that fire was supernaturally bad; it’s that the Fire Nation was invading everyone else. The world was out of balance.

Vaatu and Raava don’t fit with the setting’s established themes, and frankly they’re a lot less interesting. Fortunately, they all but disappear after this season, but they’re around long enough to drag Unalaq down with them. Also, it’s really unclear what Unalaq thinks he’s gonna get from merging with Vaatu. Unalaq’s stated goal is to bring spirits back into the world, but Vaatu is obviously super evil, and it doesn’t seem like Unalaq had a plan for dealing with that.

6. Zaheer

Zaheer and one of his minions.

Hey look, it’s Zaheer, leader of the Red Lotus Society! The Red Lotus has always been around, and if you’ve never heard of them, it’s only because they’re so good at hiding. Okay, I might still be a little annoyed that Legend of Korra’s third season introduced a big anti-Avatar conspiracy without any buildup in the previous seasons. Just a little.

Zaheer’s first problem is just that: he and the rest of the Red Lotus are incredibly rushed. Unalaq was introduced out of nowhere, too, but he was just Korra’s uncle and chief of the Northern Water Tribe. That doesn’t take a lot of explanation. In season three, we have to explain the concept of an anti-Avatar secret society, then get into the backstory of Zaheer and his special team of evil PCs. All in a 13-episode season.

Zaheer’s second problem is that he’s a straw anarchist. And I don’t just mean he wants to cause chaos. His many speeches make it clear that he subscribes to anarchist political philosophy. The straw part is that his philosophy seems to only go as far as killing political leaders, then hoping the rest will sort itself out. Historically, there have been anarchists who took that view, but the vast majority of anarchist political energy has always focused on organizing workers. Most anarchists know and have known that without working-class unity, assassinating kings and presidents will just cause chaos and destruction.

Not Zaheer though. He wants to jump straight to the fun murder bit. This is annoying for two reasons. The first is that if you know anything about anarchist political thought, Zaheer looks incredibly incompetent. What good does it do for him to suffocate the Earth Queen if there are no worker collectives to take her place? The second is that real anarchists often face harsh discrimination specifically because so many people think their ideology is nothing but violence and chaos.

Even once we accept Zaheer’s half-baked politics, his plan to kill Korra and end the Avatar cycle doesn’t make sense. Anarchists oppose those who hold political power: rulers and the like. The Avatar doesn’t fit that description. The Avatar’s actual job is to keep the peace between four nations, not to enforce those nations’ political systems. In fairness, Korra also enforces the law, but Zaheer was intent on killing her long before that. Also, the plan itself requires Korra to go into the Avatar State, but only after Zaheer has poisoned her. If she enters the Avatar State earlier, perhaps to avoid being poisoned, he’s up a creek without a paddle. Fortunately, Korra mostly forgets about the Avatar State in season three.

Finally, Zaheer just isn’t that threatening as a bad guy. He’s a skilled airbender, but his big technique is learning how to fly. That’s something all other airbenders could already do using their gliders. How intimidating. Still, he scores higher than Unalaq because none of Zaheer’s silliness undermines the very world of Avatar.

5. Amon

Amon with imprisoned airbenders in the background.

From the moment Amon and his Equalists first appear in season one, it’s clear there’s a problem: Legend of Korra has created a conflict of systemic oppression, then made the oppressed group into villains. That conflict is between benders and non-benders, with Amon fighting on the non-bender side. I won’t say it’s impossible to do this well, as being a revolutionary does not automatically make you a good person, but it’s very difficult. Sadly, Legend of Korra is not up to the task.

To the show’s credit though, it does get the power dynamics right. We see that benders with their magical martial arts form a privileged class, while non-benders are often mistreated or neglected. There are clear grievances here, which is better than pretending that people support an uprising for no reason, but it turns into a problem when the show can’t follow through. After defeating Amon, our heroes do nothing to alleviate the problems that caused his uprising in the first place. The closest we get is some exposition explaining that Republic City is now governed by an elected president instead of a council formed by the other nations.

At best, that’s a lateral step. The only change we see is that Republic City now has political independence, which was never something the Equalists or their supporters cared about. While the new president is a non-bender, there’s nothing to indicate he has any interest in remedying the systemic issues we saw earlier. The lack of follow through might stem from the writers not knowing how many episodes they’d actually have to work with when planning the series, but that doesn’t fix the problem.

What about Amon himself though? Here’s where he draws ahead of Zaheer and Unalaq, as Amon is one scary customer. Both his background and his appearance are mysterious, as he wears a spooky mask at all times. Somehow, he can take people’s bending away, or at least suppress it. That’s something only the Avatar could do before. Questions ring in the air as each episode of the first season unfolds: Who is Amon? Why does he want to rid the world of benders? Where did he get his powers? Mystery is a major factor in keeping a villain scary, and Amon has loads of it.

Then the reveal arrives and everything comes tumbling down. Amon turns out to be… the son of a mob boss that Aang fought back in the day. He only covered his face so a side character wouldn’t recognize him. That’s what we call a Some Guy reveal. Who was Amon? You know, some guy. Learning Amon’s true identity doesn’t change the story in any way, nor does it shed light on his motivation. We learn that his father abused him, but his father wasn’t even a bender by then, thanks to Aang. That makes Amon’s hatred of benders super arbitrary. He might as well hate all male authority figures or everyone from the Water Tribe, as that’s where his father raised him.

As to how Amon did what he did: it was blood bending all the way down. Despite previously established limits, Amon can blood bend at any time, and he doesn’t even have to use martial arts moves like every other bender. And his blood powers can take away his victim’s bending, somehow. I guess bending really depends on unclogged arteries.

When you intentionally hide something about an important character, especially the main villain, you create expectations that need to be fulfilled. If you don’t have a suitably impressive reveal, then don’t conceal those things in the first place! Political issues aside, Amon could have been great if his secrets had stuck the landing. Instead, he’s yet another example of writers promising way more than they can deliver.

4. Ozai

Ozai in front of his banner.

Admit it: you’re surprised to see Last Airbender’s final boss at the midpoint of this list. Last Airbender is a great show, and its third season is particularly good, so how can its villain possibly be anything but top shelf? Mainly because he’s boring, and not even Mark Hamill’s voice acting can fix that.

For the first and second season, Ozai is kept very mysterious. We never see his face or hear him talk, even when he appears in Zuko’s flashbacks. This creates a situation similar to Amon’s, though not as intense. By keeping Ozai intentionally mysterious, the show raises expectations of what he’ll be once he’s finally present.

That moment comes in season three, and he’s just a guy. A mean guy to be sure, but about what you’d expect from the ruler of an expansionist empire at war. There’s nothing surprising about him, which makes viewers wonder why he was kept so mysterious in previous seasons. It also means he doesn’t stand out. Compared to some of the franchise’s more flamboyant villains, Ozai is kinda bland.

What about his threat level? He could make up for a lack of personality by being super scary. Unfortunately, he’s once again average. The characters say he’s very powerful, and as someone related to powerful firebenders like Zuko, Iroh, and Azula, that’s certainly plausible. But we’ve never actually seen him do anything. Instead, he’s been cloistered in the imperial palace since the show started. His only fight that we know about is when he burns a 13-year-old Zuko in a flashback, and Zuko doesn’t even fight back.

Nor does he get any threat as leader of the Fire Nation. We know he goes to war meetings, but whenever we see his army in action, its leaders seem to be acting on their own initiative, with little or no directive from the capital. Maybe he’s great at organizing logistics, but if so we never see it. The one time we see one of his plans in action, it doesn’t make any sense, as he orders his airship fleet to burn down all of the conquered Earth Kingdom using the power boost from Sozin’s Comet.

It’s immediately obvious this plan won’t work because the comet’s power only lasts a short while. Given the fleet’s starting location, they’d have run out of time before they reached a populated area, even if Aang hadn’t shown up. More fundamentally, this doesn’t serve the Fire Nation’s interest. Even the most brutal conqueror doesn’t want to burn down all the stuff they just conquered. That’s why Nazi Germany would exterminate or deport people from land it wanted rather than setting everything on fire.

With a disappointing introduction and little action to his name, Ozai feels more like a video game boss than anything else, patiently waiting for the heroes to finish their side quests before they fight him. That all said, he doesn’t have any of the truly disappointing mistakes of previous entries; he’s just not that interesting. The perfect average.

3. Zhao

Zhao in his military uniform.

Admiral Zhao is an unusual villain: in a show about elemental martial arts, very little of Zhao’s threat comes from his physical prowess. Before the first season is over, it’s clear that both Aang and Zuko can beat him in a fight, and it seems likely Katara could do the same once she finishes leveling up at the north pole. And yet, he maintains a decent threat level for his entire run on the show. How does he do it? Minions.

As his rank implies, Zhao is a military leader. He has both fleets and armies at his disposal, meaning the best our heroes can do is run away when he shows up, even if they can easily take him in a one-on-one fight. In fact, some of Zhao’s minions are actually too powerful for their own good. The Yuyan Archers in particular make short work of Team Avatar without breaking a sweat, and then we never see them again. Seems like something the Fire Nation would use more often.

Other than issues with disappearing archers, Zhao generally puts his minions to good use. He captures Aang a few times, and while the Avatar always escapes, it’s a difficult matter. Zhao also deals Zuko a blow by blowing up the exiled prince’s ship, giving Zuko some major injuries by cartoon standards. You can tell things are serious when a character’s bruise takes two whole episodes to fade away!

But Zhao’s crowning glory is the finale of season one, when he brings an unstoppable fleet to conquer the Northern Water Tribe. We see his forces relentlessly push through the Water Tribe’s defenses, but there’s more to it than that: Zhao has a plan to end waterbending forever by slaying the moon. Never mind all the damage that will cause to the rest of the world, including the Fire Nation; Zhao’s got a battle to win. And he does it, too, making it seem like all is lost. That’s a serious accomplishment for a villain, even if the heroes do find a way to win later.

Personality wise, Zhao is nothing to write home about. He’s got your standard-issue evil conqueror traits like ambition and ruthlessness, but nothing that really makes him stand out. That’s okay though, as Zuko is the season-one antagonist with emotional depth. Zhao gets the army instead, because if Zuko had it, he’d be too powerful to sympathize with.

All told, Zhao is a good introductory villain. He’s threatening, but not so threatening that the fresh-faced heroes have no chance against him. His motivation is realistic, but not particularly complex, which is helpful when viewers are still learning the ins and outs of a world. Most importantly, Zhao doesn’t overstay his welcome.

Attacking the north pole is clearly Zhao’s high water mark. Once he fails there, he’ll never be a serious threat again, no matter how many tanks and battleships the Fire Lord gives him. Fortunately, the writers knew better than to leave a defeated villain wandering around to cause trouble, and so Zhao is pulled beneath the waves by an angry ocean spirit, never to be seen again. Well, never to be seen again until Korra’s airbending teacher meets him wandering around a cursed fog bank in the spirit world, but we’ll let that slide.

Zhao’s departure opens room for a new villain to take his place, more than enough to earn him a third place slot. And what about his replacement? Don’t worry, we get to her, but first we have to dash back over to Legend of Korra for a moment.

2. Kuvira

Kuvira with an army in the background.

Hey look, it’s a Legend of Korra villain who isn’t a straw leftist. Things are looking up! They’re looking up even more because unlike the other entries from her show, Kuvira is a great villain. The most immediate reason is that she doesn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Before her season-four villainhood, Kuvira is a minor ally on team good. We see her running around in the background quite a bit before she finally takes off her helmet and gives us a name.

In complete fairness, I’ll admit this isn’t the best villain setup I’ve ever seen. Even with the three-year time jump, it’s a bit jarring to see this capable soldier transformed into a general who can take down the Avatar. However, it’s still miles better than the buildup that any of Korra’s other villains get, which is none. It’s enough that I’m at least not left wondering where the heck she came from. It also means that Kuvira’s lieutenants are mostly characters we’ve already seen, as she recruited them from Team Good rather than inventing an entirely new minion squad. You won’t believe the time savings!

But Kuvira’s status as a former good guy helps her in another, more foundational way: it gives her an emotional connection to the heroes. This time they’re not fighting some rando they’ve never heard of. Kuvira is a comrade in arms. Some on Team Avatar even owe her their lives. This connection helps make Kuvira the best sympathetic villain in the Avatar franchise since Zuko. Legend of Korra tried and flopped with all three of its previous villains, but fourth time’s the charm I guess.

The other factor that makes Kuvira sympathetic is her motivation: she doesn’t want to see the Earth Kingdom turned back over to an incompetent monarch. That’s what created the country’s problems in the first place! Naturally, things would be better if she had absolute power instead by appealing to Earth Kingdom nationalism and casting the other nations as enemies to be defeated. You can see how a reasonable person would arive at Kuvira’s conclusions even though it’s clear that she’s wrong.

Kuvira’s villainous plan is also refreshingly coherent: after uniting the Earth Kingdom under her rule, she sets her sights on Republic City. She feels justified because Republic City is built on land originally taken from the Earth Kingdom by the Fire Nation in its hundred-year war. Again, you can see where she’s coming from here. Her nation was a victim in that war, and when it was over, they had to give up rights to a chunk of territory in the name of peace? Even if xenophobic conquest isn’t the solution, that’s a legitimate grievance.

And in another first for Legend of Korra, some of Kurvira’s grievances are actually addressed once she’s defeated. The Earth King isn’t restored to power, and instead abdicates in favor of a transition to democracy. That’s a huge step up from Amon and Zaheer, whose issues were just ignored once the season ended. Granted, Republic City is still built on land stolen from the Earth Kingdom, and it doesn’t seem like anyone is in a hurry to address that thorny problem. Even so, I’ll take what I can get.

Finally, Kuvira has an excellent threat level throughout the fourth season. She has Zhao’s powerful army but is also a badass in her own right, besting the heroes several times through both brute strength and clever tactics. It’s a pleasure to watch her work.

1. Azula

Azula surrounded by blue flames.

In second place, Kuvira showed us how well a sympathetic villain can work. Now, Azula is here in first place to show us that a villain doesn’t have to be sympathetic at all. She’s cruel and vindictive, evil down to her core, and she basks in it. For most villains, such traits would come off as cartoonish, but Azula makes them work, and there are two reasons why.

The first is that we get enough context from Azula’s background to understand why she acts like this. She was raised as the favored child of a genocidal conqueror. Her father, Ozai, got his title through patricide, and it’s clear that he instilled an inherent sense of superiority in Azula. From there, Azula’s unparalleled talent did the rest. Obviously she really is superior to everyone else. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be so much better at firebending!

Perhaps more importantly, Azula turns her cruelty into an asset. Too often, writers think that random acts of malice will make their villains more threatening, when it really makes the villain look incompetent. Azula’s malice is anything but random. She uses it to pressure allies into her cause, as they’re afraid of what she might do to them. We first see this when she recruits Ty Lee from the circus via implied threats of burning the whole place down, and then again when she wins over the Dai Li* secret police by convincing them that only she is ruthless enough to win the day. We also see Azula cleverly shift blame for Aang being alive onto Zuko, which secures her political position and messes with her brother’s head at the same time. It’s a win-win!

Beyond her intimidating manner, Azula is a cut above when it comes to threat level. When she first appears, she runs the heroes ragged just to get away from her. The only way the good guys can defeat her is by ganging up on her six to one, and even then she manages to escape with some quick thinking. More importantly, she’s the only Avatar villain to succeed at her season finale goal: she captures the Earth Kingdom capital despite all our heroes’ efforts to stop her. Naturally, she does this both by being a nearly unstoppable firebender and by recruiting key allies at precisely the right moment. As someone who thinks we should write villains thinking on their feet more often, I love to see it.

Azula’s only real downside is that Last Airbender doesn’t let her live up to her full potential. At the end of season two, she is well positioned to be the final boss of season three. She has a personal connection with our heroes after fighting them for an entire season, not to mention being Zuko’s sister, and she’s already defeated them once. That would make payback so much more satisfying. Instead, Azula is pushed aside in favor of Ozai, who is not nearly as interesting. Zuko and Katara’s final battle against Azula is still one of the best fights to ever grace our screen, but it leaves me wondering what could have been if only the lady of blue fire had been allowed to take her rightful place.

With that bit of nostalgic theorizing, we draw this ranking to a close. My only regret is that there are a mere seven Avatar villains to rank. Even though I was often disappointed with Legend of Korra, I’d still love to see more from the Avatar franchise. I just hope our next villain is more like Kuvira than Unalaq.

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