The Imperfect Excellence of The Legend of Korra

The follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender is a must-see.

After adding Avatar: The Last Airbender to its library to the great delight of fans, Netflix and Nickelodeon are following it up with the arrival of ATLA‘s sequel series, The Legend of Korra on August 14. For those who appreciated the opportunity to rewatch ATLA without having to navigate sketchy flash players on watchcartoononline, and for those who found out for the first time what they’d been missing, the new buzz is same as the old buzz; the consensus is that ATLA is still a nearly peerless work of American television.

The Legend of Korra is more divisive. There are some who feel let down by the series for various reasons, ranging from the premise to the particular choices in character construction and plot development. There are others who think Korra surpasses the original, appreciating aspects like the more mature themes. But, if there is a consensus, or, if there is a right opinion in my *pushes glasses up on nose* expert opinion, it is this: Korra is very good. It’s not as good as ATLA.

That’s a lukewarm take and not much to build a compelling blog post around, but for me it’s a premise that reifies ATLA‘s greatness, highlights the accomplishment of the expanded Avatar canon, and validates Korra as a series worth watching once it arrives, whether you’re an aficionado revisiting it again, an ATLA fan finally diving into the sequel, or a new viewer riding the momentum into another new discovery.

Let’s start with the first part of my I forgot I was drinking that tea temperature level take: The Legend of Korra is very good. I was slow to warm up to it at first, disoriented by the steampunk aesthetic and technology and slightly put off by Korra as a hot-headed and temperamental central protagonist. But I have come to love the show more each time I have watched it, now that I’m willing to tolerate the steampunk and have come to appreciate Korra’s demeanor (she rocks). The characters are varied and compelling, the soundtrack amplifies the action, the themes are complex and relevant, and the animation is flat-out gorgeous. It achieves a rare mix of action, humor, art, and intellect, and its best moments are absolutely chill-inducing. Before even making any comparisons to the original series, Korra stands up on its own.

That being said, the second part holds true; it’s not as good as ATLA. Again, before even judging Korra as a successful sequel, it’s clear to me which one is better. Korra is flawed, with some inconsistent writing that is, at times, maddening. There is also, I would suggest, a dearth of towering achievements – with two or three notable exceptions, there is a lack of character arcs, scenes, or themes that stand out as something people will be talking about for years to come like they’ve just seen it for the first time. In short, Korra has problems, and nothing besides the animation reaches the heights greatness demands.

But when we consider the two shows as original and sequel, the deficit in quality is actually to the credit of both. Korra is what it is while following the ATLA formula. For all the ways in which it is its own show, it is clearly cut from the same cloth. The fact that it followed the ATLA formula and is a very good but flawed series is a testament to the greatness of ATLA; Korra shows that the ATLA elements are not enough to make a perfect show and leave room for failure, but somehow the original series dodged almost every conceivable obstacle and reached near perfection. However, the fact that Korra is, for all its shortcomings, still a great show, is proof of how compelling the ATLA forumla is; a deus ex machina here or a giant robot there isn’t enough to undermine the various secret sauces that go into the ATLA recipe.

When you see how things could go wrong in Korra, it makes you appreciate that those things didn’t go wrong in ATLA. When you see the errors in Korra, it makes you appreciate how much work the ATLA elements are really doing.

This makes ATLA sound pretty great, but maybe fails to properly laud Korra, that is until you continue to consider them together and think about what it was that the creators actually tried to do in Korra. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino set out to make a follow-up to one of the best, most beloved shows in history, running many of the same plays while also expanding in some bold ways. The degree of difficulty there is off the charts – and they succeeded. Again, there are real problems in Korra, and it doesn’t boast the list of mind-blowing achievements like its predecessor, but it’s still a really good show and a really good follow-up.

Could the follow-up series have picked up a few days, months, or years later, continuing to focus on Team Avatar as they restore balance to the world ravaged by 100 years of war? Yes. Could they have gone back to a time period well removed from the events of the original? Also yes. But by choosing the setting they did, Konietzko and DiMartino chose the fertile but unforgiving lands of a healthy distance from beloved material while still firmly in its shadow, and the result is a show that reckons with the questions that mature storytellers and mature audiences ask. Yes, we want to know what Aang did as Avatar after saving the world, but Korra presents us with his legacy, both as a geopolitical figure and as a father. We want to see what Air Nomad civilization looked like; we are shown the weight of building from one family and the identity crisis when Airbenders spring up in the other nations. We might want more martial arts-inspired bending battles and the aesthetic of medieval and early modern Asian history; we look towards how the world would change with advancing technology that would give non-benders more even footing with benders.

The best stories almost never end with “and they lived happily ever after.” They end with something like, “Well, I’m back.” Life goes on even after the big bad has been defeated. The ending of Avatar is unambiguously joyful, but it does hint at the difficult road ahead to heal the world and some of the loose ends that remain. Korra dutifully reckons with what comes next, but pushes the time frame further down the road to give a broader, more contextualized picture of how, even after Aang saved the world from destruction, more baddies arise. Conflicts remain. There is always work to be done.

And, while depicting this evolving world, Korra also follows in ATLA‘s footsteps by dealing with mature, relevant themes, such as totalitarianism/fascism, government corruption, anarchism, weapons of mass destruction, and PTSD. Its final scene changed television with a representation of a same-sex relationship in a show nominally meant for children. Meanwhile, it recognized that much of its audience would be ATLA fans now in their teens and 20s, and imbued the show with a more mature feel, as it is more violent, contains more political intrigue, and is more frank in depicting the characters as sexual beings (all while maintaining a suitability for children).

All of this is to say that I think Korra is not just a good follow-up; it’s just the kind of follow-up ATLA needed and deserved.

The particular success of Korra can also help unlock the wider Avatar universe. Since 2012, Dark Horse Comics has released six complete graphic novels written by Gene Luen Yang, Faith Erin Hicks, and the showrunners about the exploits of Team Avatar after the conclusion of the series. And, guys, they’re freaking great. I don’t read comics or graphic novels, and so I came to these very late – well after the conclusion of Korra – and reading them has felt like such a natural continuation and expansion of the story. Korra showed me that Avatar could go beyond the confines of ATLA, and that this expanded canon was worth exploring. Then there are the recent novels about Avatar Kyoshi, written by F.C. Yee with guidance from DiMartino, and they go so far above expectations it’s tough to overstate. Part of the joy in watching Korra and reading the graphic novels and books is seeing how rich the Avatar universe is. It’s a creative ocean that has depth beyond the things hinted at in ATLA, and holds great opportunities for more stories even when the original gang isn’t around. That’s a great joy and, frankly, a relief for fans, given that some series don’t quite hold up beyond the basic canon *cough* Harry Potter *cough*. It’s not Tolkien’s legendarium or Martin’s Westerosi tax codes, but few things are. It’s also proof that the creators have more to say beyond their original story, and that the source material is strong enough for multiple creatives to be successful (looking at you, Star Wars).

(This is where I don’t share my thoughts on the live-action re-imagining being made for Netflix other than to say I don’t get it).

The buzz around ATLA since it came to Netflix has been fun, and I’m hoping that something similar will happen with Korra as fans revisit and reevaluate and newcomers see what they’ve been missing. If all we ever got from Konietzko and DiMartino was Avatar: The Last Airbender, that would have been enough, but The Legend of Korra is a worthy follow-up that I am looking forward to diving into once again.

Zhu Li, do the thing.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


One thought on “The Imperfect Excellence of The Legend of Korra

  1. Pingback: TFW Bumi Talks to His Dad’s Statue | eloquent mumbler

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