Avatar: The Last Airbender was an amazing show that reshaped how people saw animation. There was a complex and nuanced plot, three dimensional characters, and awesome powers of elemental control! Also, there was Toph. Let us never forget Toph, for she is the best. Not only did Last Airbender gain the adoration of children and adults alike, it did so under the restrictions of the “family friendly” Nickelodeon channel.
Spoiler Warning: This posts discusses the general status of the characters in The Legend of Korra for the first three seasons. It also mentions changes from season to season, and vague details about a few important moments in the series.
After falling in love with Avatar, fans had to wait four long years for a sequel.* Finally a new series was announced, The Legend of Korra. There was much rejoicing, for this new show had all the ingredients of success. The original creative team was on board, the setting was going to feature a steampunk aesthetic, and the stories were going to be more mature. For added diversity points, the new Avatar was a woman of color. Bright days lay ahead!
Then the first few episodes came out, and something just didn’t seem right. Major publications lauded the show and the ratings soared, but to a certain demographic of fans, the show wasn’t meeting expectations. “Don’t worry,” we said. “It’s just first season growing pains. The second will be better.” It wasn’t. The third season did improve a little, but there was still a lot missing. Were our expectations too high? Was the original not as good as we remembered it? Or, was it more that…
The Novelty of Bending Has Worn Off
Bending, the control of classical elements through martial arts, is a cornerstone of the Avatar world. Cities are built by Earthbenders. Firebenders fuel industrial revolutions. Entire cultures were created around different styles of bending. It’s clear that the show’s writers put a lot of thought into how their unconventional style of magic would affect the setting.
In the first show, the audience learned about bending at roughly the same time the characters did. Aang knew a little about Airbending, but that was it. We watched as Katara struggled with her early Waterbending forms and Zuko found out that Firebenders cannot rely on attack alone. It was a flawless example of experiencing the world through the character’s eyes.
By the time Legend of Korra started, there was little left to reveal. Characters discovered new bending tricks from time to time, but the basics were old news. While the art form was still awesome, we had time to think about its implications and wonder about its use. Why do people hit by blasts of fire only get knocked down? Why don’t Earthbenders use their abilities to trap opponent’s feet? Why hasn’t a Waterbender surrounded an enemy’s head in liquid to drown them? Even if the answer is just “Nickelodeon wouldn’t let them do it,” that’s hardly satisfying.
Because bending is so powerful, it’s hard to cover all the bases on how it could hypothetically be used. In one episode of The Legend of Korra, the characters have to fight giant, steampunk robots which are nearly impervious to their attacks. Watching the show, it’s unclear why the Earthbenders don’t just open up holes under the robots and trap them. This kind of incongruity happened in the original series too, but back then we suspended our disbelief. Now we expect more.
Some of the Characters Don’t Work
Every important character in The Last Airbender had a major arc. Sokka went from useless comic relief to veteran battle commander. Aang left behind some of his childish innocence so he could do what needed to be done. Toph began as a bad-ass who couldn’t work with others, and slowly became integral to the team.
The same cannot be said for Legend of Korra. In three seasons, some characters don’t develop, and others are only holdovers from the original series. Then there is Mako. In the first season, Mako is supposed to be the dark and brooding romance interest, which is a troubling archetype even when done well. As it is, Mako has no personality. He has no likes or dislikes. He plays sports, but only to pay the bills. He cares about his brother, but grudgingly. He is defined by the women who are attracted to him. Because of him, the show’s attempt at a love triangle falls completely flat. It’s hard to care who he ends up with because he’s so boring.
In season two the writers made Mako a detective, and even that didn’t work. In an attempt to make him look smart and independent, they had to make other characters look incompetent. The show kept trying to reinvent Mako, and it never worked.
Asami, the only nonbender on the main cast, suffered from the reverse problem. She started out interesting, but was given less and less to do as the show went on. This was especially odd considering the setting’s higher tech level. The steampunk machinery provided many ways to work her into the plot, but instead she fell by the wayside.
Even Korra, the Avatar herself, has development issues. She begins the show extremely headstrong, using violence as a first resort to solve problems. This is in contrast to Aang’s gentle and playful manner, so it was a great starting point. Unfortunately, Korra never really moves past it. Over and over again she makes foolhardy decisions that should get her in trouble, but by pure luck she turns out to be right.
The animal sidekicks are particularly baffling. They seem tacked on, included mainly because the original series had animal sidekicks so Korra has to have them too. The difference is that Korra’s animals don’t add anything. In Last Airbender, Appa was a giant sky bison who carried the characters around. He was absolutely essential to the story. In fact, there’s a whole episode dedicated him. Momo the winged-lemur was the group’s confidant, the unspeaking listener to whom the characters could confess their troubles. In Legend of Korra, the animals only use up time. Korra’s polar bear-dog is supposed to be a form of transportation, but the characters have access to airships and motorcycles, so it never plays an important roll. The fire-ferret must be there for the cuteness factor, because it doesn’t do anything else.
Pro Bending Is Painful to Watch
This one activity is so awful it deserves its own section. Pro Bending is, as the name implies, a sport which is played primarily through bending. On its own that’s a great idea. If bending existed in the real world, people would certainly play sports with it. The problem is in how it’s executed.
The game itself is terribly designed. It’s almost impossible to tell who’s winning because the rules are so confusing. Near as anyone can tell, the objective of one team is to knock the members of the other team off the back end of their platform and into the water below. Then there’s something about different zones that the players are or aren’t allowed to be in based on… something. It’s never fully explained. The scoring is even sillier: matches are played best out of four. Yes, that means there can be a tie. But wait, it gets worse! Even if one team has lost the first three games, they can win any match by knocking all the opposing players out at once. If this was football, that would be like one team getting infinity points if they could score before the first down.
Not only is that a bad scoring system, but it means the drama is incredibly obvious as well. When Korra is the only bender left standing on her team, and they’re losing three games to zero, what is she going to do? Oh look, she used the tactic that lets a losing team win with one lucky moment.
Outside of the game’s mechanics, Pro Bending also distracts from a more interesting story. The first season is only 12 episodes long, and many precious minutes are spent watching the characters play this confusing game instead of focusing on the anti-bending revolution. Which of these two sounds more interesting: violent revolutionaries who will do anything to get what they want, or two groups trying to knock each other into some water?
Worse still, Pro Bending hammers home the message that every element is the same. Whether a player is hit by searing flame or a jet of water, the result is identical; they get knocked back a few steps. We already had to suspend our disbelief about the lack of charred flesh and crushed bones; this just makes it harder. Players have no option but to trade blasts of their element back and forth. All the interesting uses of bending are against the rules. Making ice for the other team to slip on or blowing a cloud of dust into the air could be dangerous! Smashing your opponent’s head with a rock is perfectly fine.
The Avatar State No Longer Makes Sense
This is a problem the writers set up for themselves in the original series. Back then, the Avatar State was a super powered trance Aang could enter when things were truly desperate. It made him almost unstoppable, but the trade off was that he couldn’t control it. For her first season, Korra couldn’t use the Avatar State at all, and that was fine. Things went wrong in season two, when she gained the ability to enter it at will.
The writers gave Korra an ability so powerful that she could get out of any trouble. Obviously that would destroy the story. Their solution? Make it weak without explanation! When Aang went into the Avatar State, nothing could get in his way. When Korra did it, she became slightly stronger than normal. Not only was this confusing, it was a huge let down. The Avatar State was a really cool aspect of the show, and suddenly it barely mattered. In season three, Korra seems to forget she can enter the Avatar State at all. She doesn’t use it even when she’s desperate.
Avatar’s writers are hardly the only ones to do this. In Angel, the character of Fred started as a mad genius; she was capable of devising weapons against enemies that hadn’t even shown up yet. They balanced her by making her unstable, and as she worked through those issues, she became less intelligent. The writers couldn’t make the story work if Fred was in full control of her abilities.
That was lazy writing, and it’s the same in Legend of Korra. At the very least, the writers could have introduced some kind of plot device to keep Korra from using the Avatar State in season three, instead of just forgetting about it. Even worse, they bring it back at the last second. It’s as if they wanted to remind us that Korra could have used it at any time, and she chose not to for some unknowable reason.
There Are Too Many Adults
Legend of Korra has too many characters period, but the most troublesome is how many adults are in a show where the main characters are teenagers. Last Airbender managed it’s adult characters very carefully, making sure each had a logical reason they couldn’t fight the protagonist’s battles for them. In fact, the only adult we spent much time with was Iroh, and he spent most of the show deliberately not helping his nephew.
Last Airbender could do this because the ever present war with the Fire Nation provided an excuse to get adults out of the picture. The Legend of Korra has no such device. The Avatar and her friends are surrounded by grown-ups capable of solving their problems for them.
Of course, they don’t. Each time there’s a major obstacle, Korra and her friends deal with it instead. It gets ridiculous after a while, especially in the season three climax. The teenagers are deliberately sent into danger while the professional soldiers play backup detail. This makes the adult characters look incompetent and lazy.
That would be bad enough, except that many of these adult characters are connected to the previous series. Some of them are actually characters from the previous series, much older* than when we last saw them. Zuko, the scarred prince himself, makes a poor showing because the bad guys needed to escape for the plot to work.
In a twist of cruel irony, some of the show’s best characters are the same adults who forget how to fight whenever there’s a problem. It’s enough to make you think they should have been the main characters in the first place.
The Stories Are Too Short
The Last Airbender had three seasons of 20 episodes each. The entire show was dedicated to the same story: the Fire Nation War. There was depth. There was nuance. There was growth. At the time of this writing, Legend of Korra has also had three seasons. Each season has been about a completely different story, with 12 or 13 episodes each. Perhaps you see the problem.
Almost every other issue with Legend of Korra has its roots in the show’s rushed schedule. There’s no time to justify how bending is used, so we see inconsistencies. Character arcs have to be cut short, so the protagonists don’t develop. The list goes on. Legend of Korra is trying to tell very ambitious stories, and it does not have the format to do so.
For example, the first season is about nonbenders rising up in mass against the benders they see as elitist oppressors. This is absolutely huge. It has the potential to turn the entire world of Avatar on its head. At no point in the past has it ever been questioned that benders should be in charge, or if they deserve everything they were born with. The story raises a host of poignant questions. Is the rebellion leader, a masked man named Amon, really doing this for the people? Are the revolutionaries right? Can the situation be remedied without violence? Is it possible to have an equal society when some people are born with supernatural powers and others are not?
None of those questions are answered because the first season is so short. Instead, after 12 very promising episodes, the writers deploy a deus ex machina to solve all the problems. Season two spends so little time on the aftermath of this world shaking event that it’s almost like season one didn’t happen. There are more immediate examples too. At the end of one episode, a character makes a sacrifice so others can successfully get away. At the beginning of the next episode, those characters have been captured, as if the daring escape scene never occurred. There was no time to show them being captured, so we had to accept that it happened off screen.
Season two had the same problem. One of the issues faced by Korra and her friends is whether they should arm an insurgent uprising against an unjust government. That issue is incredibly complex,* but the characters brush it off like there’s nothing problematic about it. In Last Airbender, the characters spent an entire episode debating the wisdom of their plan to attack the Fire Nation. No time for that in Legend of Korra, apparently the last thing viewers wanted was a thoughtful storyline!
Season three is so pressed for time that the villains barely get a backstory, and what they do have is blurted out in a single exposition scene. What we see of them is very good, but it’s not enough. It feels like they exist only to provide someone cool for Korra to fight. In The Last Airbender, villains, like the Firebending prodigy Azula, were developed alongside the protagonists to be fully fledged characters in their own right.
These problems might stem from production decisions outside the creators’ control. If Nickelodeon will only give them 13 episodes, then that’s what they have to work with. They may not have known when making season one if there was going to be a season two, hence the need to tie everything up with a bow. However, the show is still much less than it could have been.
The people behind Avatar are very talented, and you can still see that talent shining through. There are some very good parts in Legend of Korra, it’s just sad that they are overshadowed by story elements that just do not make sense. On the bright side, a fourth season is coming up, and there were some very promising signs toward the end of season three. Here’s hoping that my next article about the Avatar universe will be more positive.
Update On Season Four
The news is finally good. Season four is excellent storytelling and a thrill to watch. The protagonists are all in top form, even Mako. The plot is tight and fast moving. The politics are well thought out. The drama is excellent.
How did the creators accomplish this? They did what Legend of Korra should have been doing since the beginning – they used what had come before. Season Four’s villain was actually introduced in season three, so they didn’t have to start completely from scratch.
The story also builds directly off of the previous seasons. Korra is still struggling with her trauma from being poisoned and nearly killed. The setting is in chaos from the Earth Queen’s death and the spirit portals opening. There are even a few nods to events from all the way back in season one. It’s wonderful.
There were a few smaller changes as well. There was a three-year time jump after season three, which allowed the writers to reset some of the show’s less spectacular characters and drop the teenage drama elements. Several side characters were left by the wayside to free up screen time. However, the primary improvement was in using what they already had. The show finally felt like it was building towards something bigger, and it was.
Like the show itself, Korra finally got the development she deserved. The final chapter of this Avatar’s story will ensure she is remembered as a storytelling success. Oh, and the show acknowledges that same-sex relationships might exist. Good for them.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?