[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Legend of Korra.]
Most action/adventure animated shows, particularly the anime shows that inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender, follow the hero’s journey narrative archetype. A young hero discovers he’s got some secret power and a very important destiny to fulfill. Then the boy has to overcome his self-doubt, accept his destiny, and set out on a journey to become the very best, like no one ever was.
But that’s not The Legend of Korra. The Nickelodeon sequel series features a different, more complex portrayal of a hero, one that is allowed to learn from her villains, doubt her place in the world and face failure. Korra may not have the same sense of humor, and her story may not be as straightforward as her predecessor’s, but it gave us one of the best portrayals of heroism in an animated show.
“I’m The Avatar! You Gotta Deal With It!”
The world of The Legend of Korra is not as black-and-white as the story of Avatar Aang. The villains have complicated motivations and backgrounds, and they become intrinsically connected to Korra’s self-growth.
In the first season, Korra loses her bending to Amon during a fight, which severely damages her self-confidence for Season 2. She also realizes that, though Amon’s methods were dangerous and extreme, his followers did have good concerns about equality for non-benders. Korra realizes this when she witnesses the police rounding innocent non-benders up and arresting them for no reason.
When Korra’s uncle shows up talking about the world’s spiritual imbalance, Korra doesn’t see Unalaq’s ulterior motives to free the literal spirit of evil, because she realizes Unalaq has a point about the world growing apart from its spiritual traditions. The fight against Unalaq and the spirit Vaatu is catastrophic for Korra, as it leads to her losing her connection to all her past lives forever. In spite of this and Unalaq’s clearly evil intentions, Korra recognizes the value in his teachings, and decides to leave the portals open, allowing humans and spirits to live together in harmony again after millennia apart.
The show has Korra fight and defeat her enemies, sure, but also suffer immensely because of them and learn from her ideas. In season three, the extremist Zaheer nearly suffocates Korra, and leaves her in a wheelchair. It’s a gruesome way to end a season, but more important is how it continues to haunt Korra halfway through the following season. In a rare move for a mainstream children’s cartoon, The Legend of Korra spends most of its last season exploring Korra’s depression and PTSD and how it affects every aspect of Korra’s self.
The final breakthrough comes when Toph helps Korra realize the similarities between her and her enemies. Being balanced is having both bravery and compassion. As Toph tells Korra, her villains wanted things Korra was supposed to fight for: equality, freedom, spiritual balance, they just go about it the wrong way. Korra suffered enormously, but in the end, she became a more understanding and balanced Avatar by acknowledging the value of compassion and understanding.
“When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
Rather than running away from responsibility like Aang, Korra is eager to accept the title of Avatar. In the first episode, four-year-old Korra reveals herself as the reincarnation of Aang by bending earth, water, and fire before yelling “I’m the Avatar! You gotta deal with it!”
While Aang immediately refused the call to adventure, leading to him getting frozen in ice for 100 years, Korra always wanted the responsibility and title. She heads out, alone, to Republic City when her teachers tell her to be patient and postpone her airbending lessons, eager to prove herself. This exudence of confidence and recklessness quickly works against her when she charges head-on into Amon, loses, and allows him to take hundreds of benders’ powers away.
The show continues this thread in Season 2, showing how Korra becomes afraid of her own judgment and becomes overly reliant on others to make decisions for her. She leaves most of her decisions to her clueless boyfriend, Mako, she shuts out Tenzin and follows Unalaq’s every world without question — leading to the liberation of a giant evil spirit.
It is not until after she sees the good caused by her decision to keep the portals open that Korra starts to become more confident in her abilities. Her path to learning may be rockier than that of Aang, and she has to suffer greatly to learn the right lessons, but The Legend of Korra always makes it a point to show how Korra learns to pick herself back up after falling, and become a better Avatar because of it.
“Korra, you’ve transformed the world more in a few years than most Avatars did during their lifetimes.”
When Korra first embarks on her journey as the Avatar, she discovers the world is more hostile than she anticipated. Korra didn’t just appear after 100 years to find a world desperate to get help from the Avatar. Instead, she is arrested by the cops in Republic City after capturing some thugs, because she acted without authority. When she tries to defend herself, Korra is told she should have just stood aside and left the police do their job instead.
You see, in its exploration of industrialization and modernization, The Legend of Korra presents a world that is growing increasingly apart from its spiritual roots, and apart from the Avatar. The show has a bigger focus on police, politicians, and due process being used to resolve things that were previously left to the wisdom of the Avatar. Indeed, the world has become a less spiritually balanced place, bending has stopped being an art form deeply rooted in culture and tradition, and is now used for menial tasks and even professional sport. In a world that doesn’t care about spiritual balance, what becomes of the Avatar’s job?
Things get even more complicated when The Legend of Korra throws politics in the mix. Not only does Korra get animosity from the authorities in Republic City, a place founded by Avatar Aang, but she is constantly talked down by those in power. When Season 2 does away with Republic City’s leading council and elects its first president, he refuses to intervene in the Water Tribe Civil War despite Korra’s urging, because he won’t interfere in internal conflicts. Later that same season, he reasserts Republic City’s neutrality by refusing to mobilize his troops against Unalaq — even after hearing of Unalaq’s plans to free a giant evil spirit that can destroy the world.
The introduction of world politics in The Legend of Korra brings with it a ton of roadblocks for Korra herself, and it explores the idea that maybe the Avatar is no longer needed when diplomacy can solve things peacefully. Korra constantly finds herself unable to act because the Nations’ leaders don’t recognize her authority, and she’s even banned from Republic City and Ba Sing Se because of this. The final nail in the coffin comes when Korra brings back the Air Nation, and Tenzin vows to use the new airbenders to follow in Korra’s footsteps, travel the world, and offer aid to those in help — effectively taking over the Avatar’s job. Even though Korra eventually realizes that she is needed, and helps bring an end to a powerful dictatorship, the final season has Korra confront the idea that the world will never be fully in balance, and that perhaps her job is simply to guide others to bring it back to balance instead of doing so herself.
The Legend of Korra may not have the same epic hero’s journey as its predecessor, and Korra herself may not fit a standard definition of a cartoon hero. But there is no denying that Korra made some incredible changes to the world, saved thousands of people, and more importantly, used her failures to learn to become a wise Avatar.
The Legend of Korra is streaming now on Netflix.