The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Avatar: Re-evaluating the Impact of ‘The Legend of Korra’

'The Legend of Korra' faced a lot of hatred from people who felt as if the story wasn’t relatable or didn’t follow what they had imagined it to be; they were wrong.

 When The Legend of Korra (LoK) first aired in 2012 I knew of its existence, but had no interest in watching it; I was misguided, as a young internet teen, by the shallow and often misogynistic critiques that I read of The Legend of Korra by older, male Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) fans. They’d talk about how cocky she was, and constantly compare the two. The controversy was reignited in May when Netflix began airing all the seasons of ATLA, but at the time, did not pick up LoK. Now, due to the popularity of ATLA, Netflix has picked up LoK and will begin airing today. Prior to this, the show was only available for streaming on Amazon Prime with the Nick Hits channel subscription. 

This lack of access coupled with internalized misogyny and nostalgia for ATLA dissuaded me from wanting to delve into the female led LoK. I began the show craving the familiarity of ATLA: the characters I knew and loved, the depiction of the struggle between good and evil—the question of what evil even means because of Aang, the 12-year-old monk protagonist of ATLA, and his pacifist views. However, these emotions quickly dissipated as I fell in love with the LoK world.  LoK is not ATLA, but it doesn’t try to be, nor does it need to. The Legend of Korra is a show that could stand alone; it builds a vast, complex world that mirrors our own, with a protagonist that breaks the confines of a strong female character.

The Legend of Korra follows teenager Korra, the reincarnation of the Avatar succeeding Aang; a female protagonist that is often rude and crass, but is also caring and gentle. The show is based off of a mix of  “…1920s fictional Shanghai meets Manhattan” according to creator Konetizko. Through the four seasons, Korra undergoes a significant amount of challenges that pile on one another. This is the most vital part of the show, the portrayal of heroic fights as traumatic events, a portrayal that seems so simple, yet many shows fail to do so. Seeing the sort of backlash LoK faced, perhaps show producers were worried. The LoK discourse often resembles the discourse surrounding Captain Marvel, many Marvel male fans were quick to denounce Brie Larson as Captain Marvel because of her strength and strong woman archetype. Women who do things wrong are seen as unlikeable whereas men have redemption arcs. This concept is magnified for LoK as Korra is a woman of color, disabled, and queer. When I watched it for the first time, many of the things I had been brainwashed into thinking were bad about LoK were the exact things I loved so much.

the-legend-of-korra-season-4-episode-2-korra-alone
Nick

Korra undertakes multiple challenges throughout the series, each leaving her with unsolved trauma as one fight ends and another begins. The most traumatic fight for Korra occurs in Season 3, Episode 13 “Venom of the Red Lotus.” The main antagonist of the season, Zaheer, and his crew poison Korra, leaving her unable to walk and unable to go into the Avatar state. Though Korra and her friends do defeat Zaheer, the toll upon Korra carries over to the next season. As Season 4 opens, we see that 3 years have passed and during this time Korra has been in physical therapy with Katara in order to regain her ability to walk. The isolation and slow rehabilitation time drive Korra into a deep depression. She is haunted by visions of Zaheer and her spirit self; during one scene in Season 4 Episode 2 “Korra Alone,” after Korra is ridden with flashback while practicing walking, Katara reassures her: “Your body thinks it’s still in danger, but you’re safe here.” 

That’s when I started to cry, as someone whose disabilities were overlooked as a child, seeing a strong teenage girl experience doubt in herself was beyond moving to me. My own PTSD, depression, and motor abilities issues were reflected in a way that I have yet to see in other shows with epic batltles, but little consequences for their heroes. Recovery is difficult, Korra goes through years of physical therapy in order to be able to walk again. At the same time, she is also dealing with the weight of being a teenager who is supposed to save the world but she can’t. Even though Korra herself struggles, she is never framed as weak for it. In order to recover, Korra goes on a long journey herself, trying to reconnect to her spiritual side. During this journey she learns not to resent herself for her traumas and struggles but instead accept them and grow from them. Oftentimes, once heroes win a big fight, that is where the story ends. Triumphant, and happy. By going further than that, and showing the cumulative effects of trauma, show creators Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko make Korra human. Though some felt this made the show too complex for children, I feel as if when I was younger the complexities would’ve made my own life not seem so lonely.

Another aspect of the show that would’ve been helpful to a younger me is the show’s queerness. Admittedly, it’s not amazing representation, but what is featured in LoK is more than I would’ve experienced in other shows at the time. Korra begins the LoK having a male crush and boyfriend,  eventually dating a woman by the finale of the series. The gay elements are all undertones until the final scene (though, still, they just hold hands), but not by the fault of the creators. Just as they had to with ATLA, DiMartino and Konietzko had to fight Nickelodeon to make the story how they had intended (by the way, in the comics they do actually kiss!)

korra-finale-hed
Nick

The setting in Republic City is reminiscent of industrialization and its impact on humanity. This atmosphere is emphasized by the big band jazz music and machinery. The advancement of industrialization is also one of the antagonists of the fourth season. In the beginning of the series, the advent of modern technology is seen as remarkable, but quickly grows sinister. Technology is able to replicate and overcome feats of nature such as Korra’s bending. Additionally, the creation of Republic City by Aang led to the creation of a police force as it appeared to become too much for the Avatar to handle and industrialism eventually leads to authoritarianism. The moment that was particularly relevant to me was the scene in which the bender council of Republic City begin enforcing a curfew for all non-benders. The police and military characters in LoK are indicative of the faultiness of similar institutions in real life. Lin Beifong, former chief of police, quits being a cop because she knows she can’t change anything via the means of the law. Bolin, earth-bender and best friend to Korra, joins an authoritarian army because he is manipulated into thinking he is helping. The antagonists tend to be in positions of power and they gain further power in the same way evil people do in real life, manipulation and promises of prosperity. 

The hatred of the Legend of Korra was rooted in misogyny and homophobia and I see that now as someone who is queer and a woman. When I watched the show, I could only think of all of the opposing themes: technology versus nature, light versus dark, tradition versus progression, old versus young, spirit versus physical, mind versus body and so on. LoK explores the contrast and connection between these ideas, showing the viewer that it’s not one or the other but rather that opposites must coexist with another.

The creators of the Avatar universe have created two important pieces of television history, shows that have broken the mold of what Hollywood thinks is interesting. Queer, disabled, and not perfect: just as I am. Korra is a genuinely funny, complex character with so much growth, who many can relate to. Legend of Korra deserves to be remembered for its dynamic characters, himbo representation, attention to detail, exploration into the Avatar universe and perhaps most of all, that scene in Episode 1, Season 1, “Welcome to Republic City” when Korra is a toddler and she has SUCH a chubby tummy; it’s very cute.

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