legend of korra

Beyond Pictures: Humanity and the Legend of Korra

In my pontificating about animation for the last couple of years, it’s natural that one show has crossed my path more than enough times- Avatar, once The Last Airbender, now the Legend of Korra. It’s a show that brought a sense of classical maturity to western animation, and truthfully, it’s one of my favourite creations. Recently, the second season has just passed for Korra, and I thought I’d give my two cents on what’s gone down.

Korras’ final two episodes for season 2 have been absolutely stunning. I’ll just put that out there because for the most part this series has been one heck of a roller coaster in quality.

Legend of Korra

I mean, it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the ride. Having been a fan since The last Airbender, season one’s strong opening episodes had me hooked from the start. I lost faith roundabout the halfway point however when it appeared that character development and empathy had been sacrificed in favour of masses of plot dumping, mostly about characters we’d not been given any chance to really know. It culminated in the most disappointing reveal of the villain and Deus ex machina I had encountered within the series since TLA’s third season- and with Korra having remained the same from the beginning to the end of season 1, I remained rather unimpressed.

Season 2 felt more like a step in the right direction- new writers were brought on to carry the workload and the humour the series was well known for began to return. More focus was put on the ideological values actually affecting the characters story arcs and even the role of the avatar itself was explained. Heck, the prominent use of the 1920’s flavour was properly utilised within the world building leading to some great new characters and ideas. The pacing was much more thought out than the previous season, even if at times it felt as though they were dragging their feet (particularly with Unaloqs’ goals and ideals which seemed reasonably predictable from the start.)

Legend of Korra Group Brothers

And then the final couple of episodes kicked in. Characters began discussing how their spiritual power could only be matched by their personal power and sense of identity. They suddenly began being multi faceted (and the humour became less about Bolin being annoyingly unfunny.) It culminated in a rather impactful ending- Korras’ connections to her past selves were severed and her entire demeanour changed. You’ll noticed that as her failures finally stacked up from the start to the end, she became more morose, more internal, and far more neutral in her approach to objective thinking. The finale raises a great deal of questions as to how the series will progress into the future- which we know it now will. Nickelodeon has insisted on optioning more seasons, the only proviso being that they must be self contained in case the viewership tanks halfway through. It’s fair game in a sense as it means that the writers can attempt a satisfying ending if the whole series shuts down.

As a series it was a far more interesting experience- and by the end it had me feeling genuinely surprised at how things would turn and what might happen next, a simple but always clear indicator that something has you invested. While there are still elements i’d love to see explored (the mafia are always fun when they’re involved, and there’s even a lot of undercurrents of bitterness from them towards both Amon and Asami in their personal vendettas, which we don’t know enough about) I think it covered a lot of interesting ground in the condensed time it had.

But you know what? There’s something missing. Something the original series had. It’s not just about the world building, the semantics of how things worked, the ideological and political stuff. I mean we had a lot of that in TLA but that was never why the series was as good as it was.

I feel in some instances, we’ve lost the humanity that made Avatar so special. The sense of empathy, the ability to truly relate emotionally, the power the series had in depicting strong observational truths.

Legend of Korra Iroh

The point of TLA was not to show another magical world that dealt with more serious issues, but moreso the impact upon the people surrounding it. War was not about one side vs the other, in Avatar it became about how countries cope through war in their own various ways. Themeing was important from the very start, every character throughout that war was themed around the idea of choice. Some individuals wanted to see the fire lord selfishly crushed by the avatar just to end the war and move on. Some turned a blind eye in the hope of maintaining power. We were shown how ordinary people, even soldiers belonging to the fire nation, had been affected by the war. In humanising these events with both humour and natural happenstance we were able to be more affected and given a stronger desire to see how it would all wrap up. There’s a particularly beautiful moment when we experience Iroh’s loss in Tales of Ba Sing Se- the once proud dragon of the west grieves over his son in a very raw expression of loss. It’s a simple slice of empathy we haven’t really seen in Korra amongst all its other characters, though it often borders on expressing it.

A better analogy is how Aang experienced spiritual growth versus how Korra received spiritual growth. When Aang visited the Guru to learn how to control the avatar state, he went through a series of Chakras to achieve different elements of control. Now, on the one hand, these could be seen as arbitrary notions that simply allow him more power, akin to a character learning about a new state of power in Dragon Ball Z and then taking forever to use it- but instead they are actually part of Aangs’ character development. The Guru forces Aang to pay attention to what he must do in his own life to achieve each Chakra, and explains through each stage how Aang will evolve as a person through completing that process. In some cases Aang is reluctant, but both he and the audience now understand the necessity of what he must do, and we see Aang truly change as a person through these kinds of training. It’s much more than getting stronger. Conversely, Korra in season one becomes spiritual only to access plot dumps. Not plot dumps that challenge her view on her role as the avatar such as when Aang contacted the past to figure out a peaceful solution to his plight in ‘avatar day’, but a simple plot dump so that she knows who the bad guy is. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Legend of Korra Civil War

The same can be said of Korras’ airbending- all the other elements had been covered in the previous season. We had seen how Water bending could actually be more than a gender-specific healing tactic, how fire became an extension of ones body and required a looseness to the characters personality, and how earth represented a rigidity that the user had to embrace. There was even a point of Aang finding Earthbending tough as it was the polar opposite of his laid back, air bending style. In each case the characters were presented with a mental problem as much as a physical one, and by overcoming it, they changed as people. Korra never really went through this with airbending- she learned how to do it but without any real understanding of why she needed it or how it could benefit her. To use an ability to its fullest extent, we know that the avatar must understand it in every sense. By doing so, their personality and problem solving abilities are affected. Why was this so difficult to write for Korra?

The writing has definitely lost that very balance that Aang tried to achieve all those years ago- the conflict between the characters desires and their duties. It’s really basic storytelling stuff, but its part of why that original series had such a wonderful response from viewers. People recognised these behaviours and felt more invested in them. Your gut twisted in a knot when a more powerful individual managed to stop Aang from doing something over horribly arbitrary reasons. Heck, we had a blind twelve year old girl depicted as one of the strongest warriors in the series and rather than making her utterly perfect, her disability was actually discussed alongside her prowess. The level of depth shown there was really remarkable.

It’s not to say that season two has not exhibited such progress. Wan, the first avatar, ends his life feeling totally and utterly unfulfilled. It’s an emotionally charged and relatable moment because it rings true of what real people go through when they try to get their affairs in order, at any stage of their lifetime. He has spent his entire life attempting to bring peace, yet even then he is not done with his time on earth, and it’s utterly heartbreaking that Raava has to leave him to continue the cycle. Korras’ realisation that she must find her own character traits as a strong willed person in order to create a light force against the darkness is another well conceived moment- a moment that might have been stronger if the series had truly built upon her self loathing as being detrimental to her power. Again, it’s a simple change but much like the way spirituality is affected by emotion and character growth in the first series it would have been a lovely bit of themeing.

The show can be a real force for good. I still hear people criticise the original series because Aang didn’t murder the fire lord- deus machina or not, I loved that the show stuck to its guns of finding a middle way, and because the build up to that conclusion had been so strong I truly didn’t mind seeing it happen. Such arcs have not been experienced in Korra, particularly in season one when it was truly squandered. With Season 2 ending on such a strong change, there is all the potential now for season 3 to truly ramp up the storytelling power and deliver us something more challenging in the nature of character depth and dialogue. Yes, the religious argument was compelling but sadly never expressed strongly enough amongst the entire populace. There was a strong opportunity here for religion amongst the people of Avatar to be discussed to further the heroes goal, much in the same way that Aangs’ vision was shaped by how he saw people dealing with the war.

Legend of Korra spirit

In the end I think it’s good that the show is still pushing new ideas and methods out there. Some things are sticking with audiences, some aren’t. What truly matters is that they’re trying. The level of risk in children’s animation, which is becoming increasingly more family friendly and allowing adults to revel in its quality, is increasing and each time the boat is pushed out to be enjoyed by others. It will inspire creators to go on and take similar risks. It will certainly inspire networks to do the same if it continues to be popular. Ultimately it will get people to raise their game regardless of whether or not they think it works- because it has enough to it to be discussed so that we can, effectively, use it to measure what we can and can’t achieve if we also choose to push the creative envelope.

Here’s to hoping later seasons improve upon these thoughts. On the other hand, I could easily go for an entire show of Verrick pooping money to compensate.


B-Mask was not always a purveyor of animation. Having credentials ranging from frog slinger to hash seller, he has experienced life to its fullest extreme from under his tiny rock. He hosts the series known as Beyond Pictures which aims to look beneath the surface of works- understandably difficult in this day and age.

3 Comments on “Beyond Pictures: Humanity and the Legend of Korra

  1. I felt like the ending of LoK didn’t make too much sense as Korra (along with Jinora) by themselves beat Unuloq (I don’t know their spellings) who was fused with the goddamn spirit of evil and chaos and turned himself into the dark avatar.

    Maybe I missed something though.

    I don’t know whether you do requests or not, but would you consider discussing a cartoon network show? I’d like to hear your thoughts on one of those.

  2. I’m going to approach this from a slightly different perspective. While I will agree with you that LOK does have weaker characters in a lot of ways than TLA did…I’m not sure that’s really because the writers aren’t doing their jobs (character wise, at least, plot wise they certainly need work since they aren’t exploring stuff as well as I’d like).

    TLA takes place in a more medieval society and LOK takes place in a Modern Urban society. Now, one of the big compelling things about TLA was the driving force of desire vs duty. That was what made Zuko so amazing as a character and made Aang much more tolerable as a character. Both desired something strongly, Zuko to regain his father’s respect vs his duty: first to capture the avatar and then to the world as a whole when he came to realize what that actually meant. Aang because he wanted to just be an airbender, but was pushed into a position where he had to violate everything that stood for not just by killing the Firelord, but in what the other elements meant and how they contradicted Airbending. Duty, and doing one’s duty, were very important things in Medieval societies. And all of the main characters were people who understood what duty and honor meant. Zuko was a prince, Toph was earth kingdom aristocracy due to the power and wealth of her family, Sokka and Katara were the children of a Chieftain, and Aang was a monk schooled in duty and discipline.

    Flash forwards to the Modern/Urban era. Duty…has pretty much lost its importance to society. The Equalist/Bender conflict would have been a great chance to explore this, but it at least hints at it. In the TLA time period, those who did not have bending used their skills for the good of their lands alongside those with bending. Nation came before person, and the abilities of a person didn’t matter so much as that what they were skilled in helped their family/town/nation/etc. In the LOK time period, at least in Republic City…that isn’t the case. Survival isn’t as dependent on different individuals who are skilled in certain things. Where as in TLA there might be one blacksmith for five towns, in Republic City you’d probably have five blacksmiths. The value of a skill becomes less important, and the duty of that person to use their skill also drops. Now you’re not producing for the betterment of your community, you’re producing for the sake of your individual self against other people.

    Now lets look at the primary characters of LOK. We’ve got Korra, who while her father may have been Chief of the Southern Water Tribe was in fact raised more by the White Lotus, so she probably wasn’t raised on the “duty to ones people” like Katara and Sokka were. Instead she was raised from a young child to an attitude of “you are the avatar and the most powerful bender in the world.” She has not concept or need of duty, she’s been raised as a powerhouse (and depending on ones views of the White Lotus, as a tool for their machinations rather than a true Avatar to bring balance. If I remember correctly, they didn’t want her leaving them when she did. It might explain why she was so easily swayed by her uncle, the WL had trained her to be easily suggestible). Next we’ve got Mako and Bolin (who got derailed from everything he was said to be inside two episodes). They’re both orphans living on the street with only each other. They have no concept of nation, duty, or honor, their primary focus is Survive. In fact, there is a bit of shadow character development in Mako who goes from being a sports star out for himself to a cop willing to put the job before anything else. Bolin is a great example of the Survive tenant as the foundation of his character because he’s willing to do anything to improve his lot and life, regardless of what others think of him. He doesn’t understand Honor, so he cannot understand Duty. Asame, Robber Barron (can’t remember season 2’s water tribe guy with all the money), and Asame’s Father are all examples of Non-benders who suddenly found themselves free from the restraints of Duty and proceeded to follow much the same path as Bolin, in that their tenant wasn’t Duty, but Survive and Succeed. That’s why both Asame’s father joined in with the Equalists, and Robber Barron signed on for the rebellion of the southern water tribe out of money and a desire to improve their own standing. Asame, being raised in such an environment and trained for such an environment functions that way too. She doesn’t have a Duty, because even though she’s trying to save her family’s business and thinks she’s doing it out of duty, she’s driven largely by survival. That’s why she was crushed when she failed in that, without the sense that she could get up and go like what happened with the Gaang got defeated.

    This lack of Duty also breeds in a lack of team spirit, if you will. in TLA the Gaang worked with those around them, even complete strangers, because their survival depended on it and because everyone realized that there were Duties that they had to do. Even enemies could work together if it meant accomplishing the survival of their group. Come LOK and society doesn’t have that “team spirit” because people don’t have to work together to survive, they have to fight each other to survive. While this has always been an element of Urban life (and TLA did have signs of this) it became far worse in the Modern era like LOK is set in. People didn’t care about their neighbors as much because there aren’t enough jobs and that guy next door isn’t the one who helps you bring in your harvest…he’s the one that could be the guy taking the job you need. This is why the LOK characters seem so self absorbed and not connecting to each other, much less strangers.

    Which goes to explain the rather terrible way the love quadrangle went. Part of the appeal of the whole Aang/Katara/Zuko love triangle was that a lot of what stood in the ways of each character was a much their duty. Aang loved Katara and she loved him, but he was the avatar and his duty was to the world so Katara felt like she couldn’t just take him. There was a lot of passion between Zuko and Katara, but Katara’s duty to the avatar and Zuko’s duty to his people put up a massive wall between them. Yet when you get to the Asame/Mako/Katara/Bolin relationship…the driving force of conflict isn’t personal duty…it’s personal desire. Mako wants Korra and Asame out of both physical desire…but also that Survival trait I mentioned. Both women are powerful, attractive, and offer him the chance at a better life than he’s had so far. That’s why he doesn’t take Bolin’s feelings into account when going after Korra, because as much as he wants to look out for his brother and has…Mako’s instinct is to survive. Bolin too falls prey to this and why he apparently goes from being a smooth ladies man before the show to the sniveling creature he is through the rest of it. He was driven by the chance to join with a powerful woman that would have granted him a place in high society…and lost it, then tried to get it back however he could (such as those serial movies in season 2). Asame looked at Mako as a strong man who could give her what she wanted, since all her needs were already taken care of. That’s why she could dip below her social station, her future was secure so she could fulfill her desires. Mako was the alpha and that’s why she never looked at Bolin, despite the fact that they might have made a decent couple. Then we get to Korra, who was raised pretty much as a shut in raised in her own power and status (possibly also as a weapon, see above) who knows her place in life is secure. Mako is the obvious alpha and provides her with a wildness and freedom she’s never known, so she can “dip down” like Asame does, if you will. She hasn’t been raised with how being with Mako might effect any of their duties. She hasn’t even really been raised to think of anyone’s feelings beyond her own. Korra was essentially raised as a narcissist who doesn’t think by the White Lotus.

    That’s why through season 1 and 2 Mako waffles between Korra and Asame. Who gives him the best survival. That’s why Asame goes back to Mako after he and Korra break up, because she’s lost everything where as Mako is (atm) a rising star in the RCPD who can provide for her. Bolin sells himself out for money and goes after the girl of fame. Mako however at this point has realized his need of survival and learned the nature of Duty, that’s why he will risk everything as a cop to do his job, and why he’s willing to break up with Korra and then be with Asame (not just because his feelings for her, those weren’t stronger than his feelings for Korra, but because she’s there, she professes her feelings, and she needs help and Mako sees it as his duty to help her). Korra doesn’t gain much in character development except in two instances, when she looses her bending and then at the end of season 2 when she looses the previous avatars….literally ripping from her the source of her power, prestige, and narcissism. What she didn’t learn at the end of season 1 is something she may have learned because of the end of season 2, in which case we may see a shift in her personality from the narcissistic powerhouse she has been to someone who thinks more about others.

    It’s subtle, and the writers might have been better off showing it more obviously but…I think that’s why the LOK characters act so different from the TLA characters do and why it feels different. The story Urbanized…and brought with it all the problems of urbanization.

    • Helsen, that was a very good idea, but I think you got it a bit wrong. That wasn’t subtle writing, it was a missed opportunity. The best thing about TLA is that you didn’t need to know about sociology and history to be able to get the message. Subtle is using juxtaposition of scenes to mirror each other. There were no nobs to this theme at all. I think the white lotus teaching the avatar being the reason why Korra is so weak spiritually is a great idea, but the discussion about the whole white lotus teaching camp is only touched on in the second season and is only used to make Korra choose evil water bender guy over Tenzen. The problem with LOK is that they are an hour long, but feel like less gets done then in 30 min TLA episodes. Korra first season should have been her meeting more people in Republic City and by interacting with them, bring lasting peace. Aang needed to make friends and set the example in order to bring balance. Bringing down Amon should not have defeated the Equalist Movement. Aang brought balance back to the world, Korra just unmasked Amon. The main theme of equality is never resolved. The main theme of equality is not part of any character arch. The same thing happens in the second season. The theme of old way spiritualism vs the technological focus society never goes any where. It get’s drop for evil water bender is evil. The evil dark spirit thing is really stupid. Not only does it feed on evil, it makes spirits evil?

      I’m going to compare LOK to Man of Steel. At the end of the day, I don’t get the point. They have a lot of creativity, but at the end of the day, it’s the lack of a message. LOK and Man of Steel just seem to be the hero wins at the end of the day.The only lesson I remember from Korra, off the top of my head, is “be the leaf”.

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