Warning: this review contains major spoilers.
The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: the Last Airbender, set some 70 years later, in which the new avatar, Korra, finds herself caught up in a civil war in Republic City and fighting a mysterious masked opponent who seeks to take bending powers from those with bending abilities.
I’ll start by stating that I do not rate the series highly. I generally enjoyed watching it, but was constantly aware of major flaws in the story and probably wouldn’t have gotten far in if it stood alone, without Avatar: the Last Airbender backing it up. By the second half of the series it started to pick up a little in terms of excitement, but left behind many unanswered questions.
There are several problems I have with this series. I felt the comedy was rather forced and the show took itself too seriously, where its predecessor was often more lighthearted without detracting from often serious moments. The romantic subplot was shallow and predictable, and given too much prominence. But these are minor problems. The big issues I had with the Legend of Korra are explored below.
I have quite a big problem with the idea that a group called Equalists, whose main grievance is that they’re being discriminated against because they do not possess an ability which other possess, are the bad guys. Amon, sure, he’s evil: he seeks to impose equality by removing bending abilities, and is happy to use violence and threats to achieve this. Presumably (because by the end we learn he is himself a bender) this is all in order to gain uncontested rule of Republic City, though this is never explicitly stated. So yes, he’s a bad guy and I have no issue with Korra and the rest of Team Avatar opposing him.
But he gains followers because people are dissatisfied with the status quo, because benders abuse their abilities to gain advantage over non-benders – and later Tarrlok compounds this by imposing a curfew on non-benders but not on benders, almost unopposed (and even Tenzin, who does oppose him, fails to make a strong argument against the policy). Non-benders have a legitimate complaint and it is ignored, it is treated as a symptom of the followers of Amon and thus evidence of their being “bad guys”.
The effect of this is that it feels like Korra, Tenzin and the rest are complicit in the oppression, that they don’t care about the very real grievances of the non-benders. The writers have made a major mistake here – they have introduced the possibility of moral complexity, and then simplified it to black and white and hoped the audience didn’t notice. They touched in huge potential, and abandoned it. Everything becomes generalisations. Future Industries boss Hiroshi Sato, Asami’s dad, for example, joins the Equalists because a fire bender was responsible for the death of his wife; he thus assumes that all benders are evil. Equalists follow Amon, therefore they are bad guys. The writers fail to explore more subtle motivations and leave everything in black and white.
The series feels very much like a tale in three parts. There’s the slow build up, where everything is mostly about a tournament which seems to have no relevance to the plot until the arena is attacked. We don’t even encounter the core conflict of the series until a couple of episodes in. Then after the attack on the arena, when Amon starts putting his big plan into action, there’s a lot of running around and kidnaps and arrests and over the top reactions from Tarrlok and Team Avatar finally trying to do things to resolve the conflict and defeat the bad guys. Then there’s the last episode, when more happens than has a right to and at the same time not enough happens between when the heroes hit rock bottom and when they win.
Pacing is, admittedly, a difficult thing to get right all the time. Episodes where characterisation is more a focus than plot progression feel like filler sometimes, but episodes which are all action leave the audience wondering why they should care. A balance is needed.
The Legend of Korra doesn’t have that balance, though. The ending is what tipped it. It was far too rushed. There was potential, at the moment when all of the characters had fled, when Team Avatar were living in the sewers, Tenzin and his family were who knows where, Lin Beifong had been stripped of her bending and Iroh and lost his fleet. There was potential at that point for the characters to claw their way back to victory through hard work and incremental gains.
Instead Korra and Mako run off to confront Amon while Bolin, Asami and Iroh go after an airfield we didn’t even know existed at the start of the episode, they each encounter obstacles but overcome them and win fairly easily. There isn’t even time to give Iroh any character. He’s just this cool action guy related to a character in the original series and voiced by the same actor – little more than an easter egg for fans of the original show, not really a character so much as a plot device with a big “win” button on his forehead.
The pacing is way off, and because the finale is so rushed and the potential of the situation ignored in favour of a quick solution, I thought that the writers must have been told that the show was cancelled, that they had two more episodes to go, and to wrap it up. Apparently not, though, as Wikipedia suggests it was intended as a twelve episode series in the first place, and has since been extended. So the writers made the mistake from the outset.
The ending has so many more problems than merely having been rushed. It doesn’t feel satisfactory. The characters go from down and out to victorious in too short a timeframe, which makes it seem very easy, which in turn begs the question – was all that build up worth it?
There are a lot of unsatisfactory elements to the ending. Korra lost her bending: Amon caught her and destroyed her ability to bend. Except, oops, actually that airbending thing she had some trouble with earlier in the season? She can do that now for no reason. And by pure coincidence she airbends Amon right out into the water, and off washes his fake scar, and he waterbends to save himself, and everyone sees and realise he’s not their hero after all the end. What? No seriously, what?
Firstly, this is incredibly convenient for Korra for her opponent to be so easily exposed as a fraud. Secondly, while the Equalists might now no longer care much for Amon, their grievances won’t suddenly disappear because they don’t like the bad guy now. Thirdly, Amon technically gets away – except that he doesn’t, because he takes Tarrlok with him and Tarrlok blows the boat up. So not only did Korra fail to ultimately defeat Amon, because he ran away, but the writers tied up the loose end in a way which doesn’t feel satisfying because it wasn’t set up well and in a way which does cut off any potential further storylines involving Amon.
And after all that, Deus ex Machina, aka Aang, comes along and fixes Korra’s bending so she can bend everything again, and she in turn returns Lin Beifong’s bending to her, and everyone lives happily ever after. Potential is lost once more – had the story had more time, both Korra and Lin could have been shown dealing with the massive change to their lives that come about as a result of their lost bending powers – an Avatar who can only bend air and really shouldn’t be that great at that since her studies went badly, and a former chief of police and daughter of the famous first ever metal bender suddenly powerless. Lots of potential there for character development. But nope, Aang fixes it, Korra doesn’t have to work for it and it’s all wrapped up nicely in a bow.
What I did like
Having said all that, I did enjoy some elements of the show. Up until the big reveal, the mystery behind who Amon was and how he could take away bending powers was compelling and made him more sinister. The fact that he had this ability made him a believable antagonist, someone who could be a genuine threat to the Avatar.
I also liked that the Legend of Korra didn’t tread over the same ground as the Last Airbender in the form of the respective avatars learning bending. Aang knew airbending and had to learn everything else; Korra knew everything else but struggled to learn airbending. We didn’t go through Korra facing the same challenges Aang did. This is what a sequel should do: present new challenges even when the characters fulfil a similar role.
The Legend of Korra also presented a world which had changed and advanced in the 70-odd years since the events of the Last Airbender. There are cars and a densely built city, different political structures from before and the old political divisions, the Earth Kingdom, Fire Kingdom divisions in particular, are now erased, the old wounds presumably mended by the original series’ characters in the intervening time. The world is presented as one which changes and adapts as new influences are brought in – and that is as it should be.
Overall, the series fails to live up to its predecessor. It lacks the charm, the ability to laugh at itself, which the Last Airbender demonstrated (most obviously in The Ember Island Players in season 3, when the characters watch a play of their own adventures where their personalities are exaggerated and distorted for the amusement of the audience – especially Toph). The core conflict is simplified unjustifiably and the other side of the coin is never given the credence it deserves. The ending is both rushed and unsatisfactory, with Korra being an almost passive agent in the final moments – merely chasing Amon away and then having her bending powers restored by Aang with little hardship suffered.
Overall I’d give Legend of Korra 4/10.