Living under the shadow of a masterwork can be daunting. Living under the shadow of one of the best television shows of all time can make a work feel small by comparison. For The Legend of Korra, the creators took on a monumental task that was fraught with obstacles and still somehow churned out a fantastic show in its own right.
The Legacy of Aang
After the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender, fans were begging for more in the world of elemental benders. Despite being such a monumental work, AtlA was ultimately a kids show crafted for a kids network. To age up the show with its audience, Byran Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino decided to advance the entirety of the bending world; LoK would take place several decades after AtlA, in a world fundamentally different from the one fans knew.
Paired with this fundamentally different world was a fundamentally different Avatar.
Korra is different from Aang in almost every way imaginable. Where Aang was placid and peace-loving, Korra is brash and violent. Where Aang sought change through ideas and conversation, Korra seeks change through violence and action. Aang is an airbender; Korra is a waterbender. Most strikingly different, for fans, critics and Nickelodeon itself, Korra is not a man.
‘In an interview, animation director Yoo Jae-myun revealed that Nickelodeon wasn’t sold on the series because of the female protagonist. “The production was suspended just because the protagonist was a girl,” he said.’ (via Observer)
Korra is critiqued in the way that any woman with power in fiction is critiqued: as a Mary Sue. Despite her raw power often leading to mistakes, this criticism was leveled at LoK in 2014 and continues to be voiced even now. The only way to view Korra as less earning of her power than Aang or the other Avatars is to critique her womanhood itself, and pivots the argument on sexist talking points.
Although much of Korra’s plots and subplots are about differing points of view concerning equality, it was the critiques outside of the show that nearly brought The Legend of Korra to its knees. It wasn’t only Nickelodeon who had a problem with producing an action-packed show with a dark-skinned woman as its protagonist — plenty of misogynistic fans in the Tumblr era were all too ready to decry her decisions, points of view and very existence as not befitting Aang’s legacy.
It’s here that LoK sought to be something both familiar and different in the hands of its creators. While Aang’s story was one of single-minded course (the subdual of Fire Lord Ozai), Korra’s story had to change because of budget cuts, timeslot changes, and network decisions. To fight the constant shift in the show’s viewability (including Nickelodeon taking LoK entirely off the air and putting it on their digital-only website), Korra had to adapt across four seasons — both as the show, and as the Avatar.
The Legend of Korra is, ultimately, about equality. Each season makes a statement about perceived equality and its effects and actions, typically spurred on by the perspective of that season’s villain. In Season 1, Amon resisted the privilege of the bending elite and wanted to show the populace that equality means existing on the same playing field. In Season 2, Unalaq wanted a world where spirits and humans were not removed of one another, and light and darkness were not separate entities. In Season 3, Zaheer of the Red Lotus despised a world of ruling classes and monarchs, believed that freedom could only be attained with oppressive governments were destroyed. In Season 4, Kuvira sought to right the rampant anarchy of the Earth Kingdom and create a unified empire that served its citizens equally.
Despite their good intentions, every villain of LoK suffered under their own fatal flaws. Amon was a grifter and a narcissist. Unalaq was corrupted by his lofty ideas. Zaheer was a violent sociopath. Kuvira was a destructive dictator. Their views on equality suffered under what they lacked, a pursuit of the good. Korra took on this responsibility in each season, initially seeking to be a bridge and a champion but instead falling under the weight of the expectations of being an Avatar before finally becoming the last — and first — of her line.
A Grown Up Avatar
The Legend of Korra was not afraid to tackle concepts and issues in its stories that AtlA could not touch because of its age range. While LoK’s dip into teenagery love triangles was initially met with strong reactions, the messiness of the characters within the show allowed them to grow in complex ways. Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami faced challenged in a world of capitalist regime and industrialization. This new team Avatar spends much of the show apart, handling the issues of their own lives alone before being reminded again and again that there is no panacea like friendship.
LoK matured its plot and took chances against the network limitations of Nickelodeon. Character deaths are messy and brutal. Team Avatar fractures. Korra makes brutal mistakes. We are shown that Aang was a bad father, that the legacy of bloodbending destroyed lives. We see someone suffocated via air bending, and killed by decapitation because of metal bending. The Avatar line is destroyed. A dictator levels a city. Fan favorite characters are displayed with their fatal flaws and some characters die off screen. Korra and Asami fall in love, and (despite no on-screen kiss because of Nickelodeon) start a new life together.
Where The Legend of Korra succeeded was in the way it decided to handle itself, not purely as a sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender but as a new show in a new era with new rules. Korra doesn’t just step out of Aang’s shadow, she is removed from the entire lineage of Avatars and becomes her own person, uniting the human and spirit realms and bringing in an entirely new era. The legacy of Korra is one where resistance, change and action is created through violence, where the spiritual aspects of the Avatar must live within the ever-changing industrial world.
Most surprisingly at all, we are shown that Aang’s legacy is not realized through his attachment to the Avatar, but through his own family. One of the pivotal moments of the show is when Tenzin and his small family of benders finds out that the opening of the spirit portals has gifted bending to the world — and created an entirely new Air Nation.
Despite its few stumbling moments, The Legend of Korra overcame network adversity and fan expectation. It exists on its own rights — a show that explores adult themes within the world of bending, a show that is centered around the coming-of-age troubles of a young girl who discovers that being gifted at a young age comes with its own slew of problems. Korra grows, learns, adapts and changes. She becomes more than someone that Aang can be proud of; Korra is the dawn of a new era.