The Legend of Korra is a fun and exciting cartoon with great animation and voice acting, lots of humor, and interesting stories, but doesn’t quite make a solid landing as a sequel to Avatar.
The Legend of Korra is set 70 years after Avatar: The Last Airbender, centered around Republic City, an independent city-state founded on the Earth Kingdom land colonized by the Fire Nation in the war from the previous series. Korra is the next incarnation of the Avatar (Aang in the previous cities) and the show follows her struggles to keep peace and balance in the world.
Barring a few episodes that really rubbed me the wrong way, I enjoyed watching Korra. Taken individually, each season’s story was engaging and touched on meaningful topics. The new characters were interesting and had their own dynamics. The love triangle is one of the most enjoyable ones I’ve ever seen, in large part because it was major to the characters, but didn’t take over or ever derail the larger plot. Korra herself has a unique character and character arch from Aang that I felt was satisfying. The villains had more nuanced motivations than just “take over the world”. Unfortunately, some of these great stories were undermined by a lack of follow-through in the themes, and inconsistent characterizations to serve the plot.
Avatar had a simple “the Fire Nation and world conquest is Evil” theme and introduced nuance by showing lots of different people’s individual experiences and motivations. Korra tries to make the discussion around authoritarian governments and oppression more varied, with villains that have motivations (except season 2) that are less clearly “evil” and with whom you can identify in some aspect, but never really addresses why exactly they are wrong, other than people are getting hurt as a side effect. I think this could have been helped by not having the villain defeated in the final episode of each season, but earlier, leaving some time for dealing with the aftermath, or possibly more time spent on that in the beginning of the next season. Each season felt disconnected from the conflict of the other seasons, and there wasn’t an overarching story to hold them together. I also wish they had spent more time exploring the founding of Republic City, both to have more opportunities to see past characters (Sokka barely appears) and to better understand the struggle in building a fair and equitable society.
The move into a kind of steam-punk future (telegraphed by the Fire Nation’s war machines in Avatar) gave room for some fun flare that made the art direction consistent with but distinct from its predecessor. I especially enjoyed the 1940’s radio commentary. The additions to the world’s lore were interesting, even if some felt a bit like a retcon.
Overall, I highly recommend The Legend of Korra. I think kids of almost all ages can enjoy it, and there is enough meat for adults as well.
To expand on the consistency and follow-through issues requires a bit of spoiling, so stop now if you don’t want spoilers.
Although the new characters mostly act consistently and are well-formed, there are a few places where behavior is just odd. The most egregious is when no one listens to Mako when he is warning them about a traitor. Maybe once would have been ok, but it stretched over the course of several episodes, and felt out of place with the established relationships. This happened a few other times, where people would not listen or talk to each other for no discernable reason other than the episode needed it.
There were also many inconsistencies in the aged characters from the first series. Other than Zuko, none of their lives seemed to make sense, and we weren’t shown enough to understand why. Why did Toph become chief of police? Why did Aang show such favoritism as a parent? Why did Katarra let him? Why is Toph living in a swamp (the given explanation that she can see the whole world doesn’t ring true to me, why would she care?) Why was Sokka in Republic City when his biggest goal had always been protecting his tribe. There could have been interesting stories exploring these shifts, but we weren’t given enough to make it truly satisfying.
The other place I felt the series fell short was in having decisive things to say about the overall theme of each season. Some of this is caused by a lack of clarity in the setup. We don’t know why Aang established Rebuplic City, but didn’t include non-benders in the government, and hasn’t done more to make any kind of world government that would prevent another Fire-Nation-like attempt to conquer the world.
In the first season, the conflict centers around the oppression of non-benders by benders, with an uprising led by Amon. This could have easily been the theme of the entire series but is effectively forgotten after Amon is exposed as a bender (although his death is a really great scene). It is suggested later that the president of republic city is a new position motivated by that conflict, but Korra never has a moment where she realizes that Amon was right, or that she needs to bring balance to that conflict as well.
The second season has the poorest motivation of all. Learning about the spirit world and reconnecting the two worlds is interesting, but Korra’s decision to reunite the two worlds is based on almost nothing. We are shown the story of how the worlds were split, and according to that story they absolutely should be, the combined world was terrifying. It needed the alternate story from Unalaq about why he thought the portals needed to be opened, about what was lost, other than just being corrupted by power. It could have been an interesting exploration in how the division and the imprisonment of chaos was actually the source of the imbalances in the world, but in the end, the portals were opened kind of on a whim, and Vaatu is destroyed instead of returned to a balance with Raava. There could have been a distinction made between “Light and Dark” “Order and Chaos” and “Good and Evil”, but it fell into the standard trope of “Order must be better” without really exploring why.
Which leads into season 3. The main goal of the Red Lotus society is anarchist in nature, which could go along with the “Order vs. Chaos” theme, but it is never really brought up. It is barely tied into the themes of oppression (chaos being the ultimate in personal freedom) and there is no discussion of how society attempts to limit some freedoms in order to ensure greater overall freedom.
Before discussing season 4, I have to note that I was completely baffled by the expectation of Korra and her uncle Tenzin that gaining Air Bending would suddenly make people want to be, or just automatically be, Air Nomads. It goes against what seems to be the point of Republic City, that people can be a part of a nation separate from their bending. I do think that was what the writing was getting at, but it was weird, and then overshadowed by the Red Lotus conflict and forgotten.
And then in season 4 the Earth Kingdom’s authoritarianism, first shown in the thought policing in Avatar and then in the conscription of Air Benders from Season 3, goes full force as Kuvira reconquers the Earth Kingdom after the Red Lotus assassination of the queen sends the country into chaos (although, considering the monarchy was a puppet government, it shouldn’t have had that large of an effect). There is some good exploration of propaganda and “for a greater cause” arguments here, with Bolin being taken in by Kuvira, but the racial cleansing is barely mentioned as an issue, and again authoritarianism is presented as being wrong without really delving into why it is wrong, other than the main characters keep saying it is. And at the end of the season, Kovira kind of flips a switch and changes her mind and everything’s fine.
Each of these themes could have made a great over-arching theme for the entire series, or been great subplots among a common arch, but they aren’t ever brought together. In Avatar, Aang always knew how he was going to bring balance to the world, “Defeat Fire Lord Ozai and end the war.” Korra never has that focus, and, even at the end, there isn’t a way to summarize what her goal was or will be. I think it would have been fine if she didn’t know that through most of the series and discovered it along with us. It could have been breaking down the barriers between nations, like she did between the real and spiritual world. It could have been finding some way to unite the tribes in preventing dictators from ever rising again, or protecting the rights of every individual. It could have been about the balance between order and chaos. Korra touched on a lot of heavy themes, better than most shows do, but without that central focus I think it lacks some of the punch that Avatar had.