The Legend of Korra – A Retrospective
A fantasy series with a female protagonist is nothing new, and yet executives at children’s network Nickelodeon still worry about the prospect. Old habits die hard in an old industry, perhaps.
But The Legend of Korra turned out to be one of the best written shows on their network with a fan base the world over, outstripping their flagship cartoon Spongebob Squarepants in viewership at times. That being said, the show was assaulted by pressures and frankly bizarre decisions from within the network.
Janet Varney: Oh, you mean the sexism department? Funny they have a whole department for that.
Bryan Konietzko: …Satisfying moment was they tested with some kids…they had to pull that question out of the boys… ‘Are you bothered that Korra is a girl’ ‘What?! No… she’s awesome’.
– Bryan Konietzko and Janet Varney from the Book 1 commentary
Many other things seemed to plague the show. Time pressures, broadcast schedules being thrown all over the clock, budgets cut and slashed advertising. At one point Nickelodeon decided, mid season, to pull the show from television broadcast and put it online only. The day before a gigantic showing at Comic-Con. The fact that the show came out the way it did is a great testament to the talents behind it.
What’s more, the show caused international celebration and media after its finale broke some long held boundaries in the industry.
Coming back to Avatar
The creators, Mike Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko, spent years developing the cult hit Avatar: The Last Airbender. The work was intense and draining, so they spent some years pursuing other projects and recharging until Nickelodeon asked them to come back.
“It is like I escaped from a burning building, caught my breath, and then ran back in for some unknown reason.”
– Bryan Konietzko, The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series Book 1
Unlike Avatar, Nickelodeon only guaranteed 12 episodes. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the show would go on to have three further seasons.
The show takes place in a world where people have the ability to ‘bend’ the elements of fire, earth, air and water.
There are nations divided along those elemental lines, political allegiances within and without, and a rich history in each culture.
The Avatar is the reincarnating spirit of balance who alone can bend all four elements. The current incarnation is a young woman named Korra. She is an action-oriented character, prone to rash decisions and kicking doors down, rather than meditating or peace-seeking like her previous life, the monk-boy Aang.
Korra embraces her role as the Avatar, taking to almost all the elements with ease. The spiritual side of things comes less easy, and air seems completely at odds with her personality. The job of the Avatar is, among other things, to be the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, and so Korra is eager to start learning and become the fully realised Avatar that she so desires to be.
“We wanted her to be headstrong and aggressive, someone who would never back away from a fight. But we gave her a vulnerable side too. Early on we hit upon the idea that Korra had been sequestered away in the South Pole, which is why she didn’t grow up with any close friends and hadn’t seen much of the outside world.”
– Mike DiMartino, The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series Book 1
The benders occupy a privileged position in society, as having quasi-magical powers would do. However, an uprising is building, and non-benders are becoming more disillusioned with this unfair and unbalanced society. A group known as the Equalists rises, led by the terrifying masked figure, Amon.
This antagonist is the perfect foil for Korra. She almost completely identifies herself with her bending, with her power, and with her position as the Avatar. Amon sees bending as an evil poison on the earth that must be eliminated. What’s more, he has the power to take a person’s bending away permanently.
Korra experiences genuine terror in the first season. The idea of losing her bending is tantamount to losing her identity. This is less of a fight for the fate of the world, as in Avatar Aang’s case, but a personal and political struggle.
The first season closed and people thought that was the end of Korra, until, unexpectedly, Nickelodeon decided to commission twelve more episodes. Suddenly the creators were thrown into the storm again and had to think up a new story line.
Many have criticised the second season for its lack of focus and in some cases the regression of character development. There are good ideas explored – Korra accidentally starting a civil war for example – but they don’t receive the treatment we know the creators are capable of.
That being said, the second season has what is arguably the best two-part episode in the entire franchise; The Beginning – a look at the first ever Avatar, Wan.
This is where we see some of the best of fantasy world building. The mythology of the world has been talked about, but much was left a mystery or left in folk-lore. But rather than cheapening the mythos, as is often the case, this story enhances it.
We see the seeds of the folk-lore – the dragons, the giant lion turtles, and the split between the physical and spirit worlds. And it is all done in a unique animation style that many have praised as worthy of a series all of its own.
The third and fourth seasons are widely regarded as the best and most coherent. At last the creators knew how many episodes they would get, and had a definite ending in mind. The story could go somewhere and they could weave the characters in new and interesting ways.
One of the most widely praised elements was in the relationship between Korra and her friend Asami. In the first season they were rivals in romance, with both girls attempting to win the affections of the firebender Mako. However, when neither relationship with him worked, they stay friends.
Korra and Asami never take their frustrations out on each other. In so many other shows, films and books, this kind of love-triangle has led to bitterness between the female characters. Instead here it sparks a friendship that grows and becomes something else. More on this later.
One of the characters who won over a large portion of the fan base was Lin Beifong, the middle-aged chief of police who doesn’t take crap from anyone. She is stern, impolite, and brilliant at her job. Powerful, determined, and unbreakable, yet loyal to a fault, Lin is one of the most interesting and inspiring characters on the show. When the people she cares most about hurt her, she calls them out, argues, and makes her opinion known. And still, when the moment comes, she is willing to sacrifice everything to save those same people.
The villains of each season also represent a diverse array of ideologies. Amon, the leader of the equalists, is a quasi-communist, demanding equality for all and the dismantling of power. Unaloq, book two’s antagonist, is in favour of theocracy, where his spiritual view would become dominant. The Red Lotus, led by the airbender Zaheer, are anarchists who literally kill world leaders in an attempt to bring about chaos. Then there is Kuvira, the final villain, who seems to be a fascist, military dictator.
Taking these political ideologies and airing their opinions causes Korra to question what she understands about the world. She struggles against incompetent world leaders, rigid systems that try to control her, and eventually comes up against severe trauma and PTSD as a result of violent encounters.
There are no easy answers for Korra and much of what she achieves comes with a cost and consequences. She may defeat Amon, but the world has to change and take his complaints seriously. She can stop the spirit of darkness, but must decide whether to keep the worlds severed. She can stop the anarchists, but does she really want the status-quo? And she may battle against a military dictatorship, but must ask why it sprung up in the first place and address the real problems of the world.
The show took its questions seriously and pushed the boundaries of animation. In the end, the scene that took the world by storm was that of Korra and Asami becoming a romantic couple.
Their relationship grew from rivalry, to friendship, and then developed into a loving and beautiful ending. Two characters that would, in any other show, have been at each other’s throats, instead fall in love. They respect and rely on one another, and in the end, their union speaks for the series as a whole.
Asami is a non-bender, while Korra is the Avatar. They should have been rivals, but they became lovers. They were presented as opposites, but became a balanced and caring couple.
Ultimately, that is what the show was about. Breaking stereotypes and refusing to give in to prejudices. It was about bringing people together and taking their stories seriously. Korra develops from a head-strong door-kicker, to a wise and compassionate soul. Despite her suffering, she chooses to find meaning and make the world a better place, rather than cause further division.
The show is out now on all the usual formats. Grab a box set (and a box of tissues), and sit down for a wild ride.