Review: The Legend of Korra

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.

The Equalists

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.

Pacing

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.

Unsatisfactory Ending

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.

Conclusion

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.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Legend of Korra

  1. The fact it was intended as a 12-parter ONLY, ties up a lot of these grievences for me. TV bosses are notorious for wrecking the visions of their producers (“Oh, I know what’ll help, let’s air this awesome scifi show about time travel out of order, to get better ratings” genius).

    I’m willing to give the writers a chance for that, and wait eagerly for the real fun to start now they have time to play around with things and are out of the confines of pilot syndrome aka “This is a first season. You must do well. If you don’t we’ll pull the plug and never employ you again.”

    That being said, I haven’t watched The Last Airbender. I was looking for something short I could finish up easily rather than commit to and Korra fit the bill. I imagine once I do see it (I love the worldbuilding aspect!) Korra will pale in comparison. But we’ll see.

    A well put review. Thank you.

  2. I’d say that the romance was actually not a minor problem, as it wrecked most of the core cast, making them either unlikeable or irrelevant. Though the creators wanted a “cheesy teen romance,” they are not very good at writing it. It pains me now to think that they want to “delve deeper into the romantic relationships” in book 2, wherein Bolin will find love in a “bizarre” way and Mako might be able to go to the spirit world with Korra (if one concept art is to be believed). It also seemed to undermine our female protagonist by making her love life more important than her actual journey, which led the show to fall into some old sexist directions (being coddled by a knight in shining armor when she was unconscious, getting her ultimate power because her man was in danger, the idea that just because she is a girl, she has to fall in love). There was a reason why Lauren Faust did not add romance to her show, saying that it has derailed many a girl’s cartoon in the past. Anyway, what was some wasted potential or characters that this season could’ve explored?

    1. I do agree that including romance because the main character is female is very annoying, and the romantic subplots did get in the way of character development a lot. The way you’ve put it I can’t help but agree it was a major problem, but for the purposes of space I decided to focus on three things wrong with Korra and explore those and nothing else, it the review would have gotten too long and felt too complainy.

      In terms of lost potential, I think the biggest one is exploring morality. In Aang’s journey, we go from Fire Nation = Evil to a more nuanced approach to good and evil where, while Fire Lord Ozai and Azula are the main villains, the show is sensitive to the fact that birth != destiny, and there are both good firebenders and bad people from other nations.

      With Korra, it’s Amon = Evil and so are all Equalists, whereas everyone else is good. Tarlok seems to exception, but then we learn he’s related to Amon and it seems like he’s evil because he’s Amon’s brother, because of his father, as if evil is isolated so evil people must be related. The possibility that the Equalists might have a legitimate complaint about the treatment of non-benders by benders is ignored. We never see the other side of the coin. I feel if the whole story of Korra defeating Amon had taken three seasons, the morality behind this core conflict of Equalists vs Benders could have been explored and we could have been shown the other side, enabling Korra to have to make decisions along the lines of “lesser of two evils”, thus giving her some genuine, non-romance internal conflict, rather than her just fighting evil all the time.

      I also think it would have been fun to explore Asami’s position in the team and the wider conflict more. She’s a non-bender, but a priveledged one who is part of Team Avatar, so she could legitimately be sympathetic to both sides (if the Equalists’ core complaint had been addressed more anyway) and also be the subject of suspicion from both sides – why would more prejudiced benders listen to her when her Dad was supplying machines to the Equalists? Why would Equalists listen to her when she left her Dad’s home and joined the Avatar?

      Finally, I would have liked to see how Korra, Lin Beifong and even Tahno, the leader of the Wolfbats pro-bending team, coped without their bending after Amon took their abilities. It could have presented some really great challenges where they have to learn to think differently, as Aang did in Bumi’s tests early in the first season of The Last Airbender, and provided some internal conflicts where they each deal differently with the loss of something which is such a fundamental part of who they are.

      I’d better stop now lest this comment become longer than the original review.

  3. Pingback: 2012 | Ally's Desk

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