Nickelodeon’s ‘The Legend of Korra,’ Soon on Netflix, Is a Great ‘Avatar’ Sequel and You Gotta Deal with It
Many ‘Avatar’ fans have long derided the ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ sequel. And although ‘Korra’ did undeniably struggle on some fronts, it absolutely dominated in others.
The Legend of Korra was always going to be a different show. Most obviously, the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel intentionally chose a protagonist who, in many ways, was her predecessor’s polar opposite. And the series itself, set decades after Avatar, occupied a very different world from the one Aang trekked all those years ago during his quest to defeat the Fire Nation.
Some Avatar fans have long derided Korra. The rationale behind the backlash is a melange of justified frustration and some garbage takes. As Korra makes its way to Netflix on August 14, just as many have finished watching (and re-watching) its predecessor, it’s worth revisiting these arguments—because a lot of the bitter backlash Korra has faced over the years for “ruining” Avatar lore has been unfounded and unfair.
Korra certainly has its pitfalls, but so does Avatar. Like Tui and La, the Moon and Ocean Spirits who circle one another for eternity in the Northern Water Tribe’s koi pond, the two shows’ push-and-pull is actually the heart of Avatar lore. And the existence of one only enhances and deepens the other.
One common Korra critique holds true no matter how you slice it: The sequel series’ character work rarely lived up to Avatar. (Sorry, Bolin fans, but lovable and goofy as he undoubtedly was, he never touched Sokka’s brash adorability.) And while its writing style, which relied on regular time jumps, expanded its storytelling possibilities, Netflix viewers will likely find it slightly less addictive to binge as a result. One of Avatar’s greatest strengths, after all, is the cohesion and fluidity of its narrative. Korra simply took another approach.
But a large portion of the backlash against Korra has nothing to do with its execution, but its very concept—specifically, the fact that it’s a new story rather than a continuation of Aang’s. As Netflix’s own Twitter account recently argued, however, Aang’s story had already been told. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a complete and beautifully concluded narrative, and sometimes it’s best to simply let a good story stand. After all, plenty of recent TV revivals have proven that continuing a story past its natural conclusion can yield boring and disappointing results.
One of Korra’s smartest moves, in fact, was choosing an Avatar who stood apart from Aang in almost every respect—including age. We first met Aang, an Air Nomad, suspended in an iceberg at age 12; throughout his journey we watch as he masters the three other elements, water, earth, and fire. Korra, meanwhile, hails from the Southern Water Tribe like Avatar’s Katara, is 17 by the time Korra begins, and can bend everything but air.
The central characters’ personalities stand apart as well: Where Aang is playful and, at times, juvenile, Korra is self assured and tough—and a little volatile. As a result, each character’s personal growth as they come into their own as Avatars is distinct and fascinating to watch from beginning to end.
And although Avatar was a remarkable show for never talking down to its viewers, Korra was always a little more mature and nuanced in the subjects it tackled.
That’s not to say that Avatar was a simple kiddie show. There’s perhaps no illustration of this better than the fact that the Avatar meme “There is no war in Ba Sing Se”—which references the disinformation campaign seen in the Earth Kingdom capital city—has been used in response to various lies from the Trump administration. Throughout its run, Avatar tackled the devastation of war and political corruption through the perspective of the children and teens trying to save the world. It did so with clear eyes and a refusal to pull punches.
But Korra used that solid foundation to take things a step further. The show tackled complex challenges, both personal and societal—from PTSD to social inequality through the lens of benders vs. non-benders, and the strengths and pitfalls endemic to different forms of protest and resistance. It also expanded on Avatar’s lore, more closely examining bending styles like metalbending, which only briefly appeared in the original series, and introduces new ones like energybending. At every turn, from the political landscape and stakes to its world-building, Korra took what was already there and expanded on it. Sometimes the results were fascinating (see: villains like Amon, who aimed to create an equal society by taking away benders’ powers), and sometimes they were a yawn. (As someone who doesn't care about real-life sports, my interest in pro-bending was... very low!)
It’s also an inescapable truth that Korra’s writing never quite lived up to the comedic triumphs and narrative cohesion of Avatar. Pound for pound, the original series comes with far more laughs. Avatar’s narrative digressions and “filler episodes” also feel far less tiresome than Korra’s, which could be downright frustrating.
But some of the problems with Korra’s writing were not entirely within its creators’ control. For new viewers especially, it’s worth offering some context: Nickelodeon, for lack of a better way of putting it, really screwed Korra over in its final season. The network removed the show from its televised line-up and relegated it to the Web with little promotion—and more crucially, Nick also slashed Korra’s budget.
As co-creator and executive producer Bryan Konietzko noted in a blog post at the time, the show faced a choice: Either let go a significant portion of its crew, or make a clips episode. The result was one of the show’s most infamously disappointing installments, “Remembrances.”
Mitigating circumstances do not alter the quality of the final product or obligate fans to adjust their judgments accordingly. But this debacle does speak to a larger issue with Korra’s legacy: How can a brilliant and nuanced series overcome a lack of support from its own network? Aside from the considered critiques, some of the dismissiveness toward Korra is rooted in sexism; some feels distinctly homophobic (more on that later); and some of it feels like the end result of a series that never got the hype it deserved.
The hate against Korra herself can often revolve around the idea that she is arrogant—a quality plenty of beloved male Avatar characters (*cough* Sokka) shared without drawing any such ire. Truthfully, though, her stubbornness and tempestuous nature were there for a reason: they were traits she grew out of as she matured into a true Avatar, just like Aang learned to leave some of his more childish qualities behind. As a protagonist, Korra was always more complicated than Aang—and more challenging for viewers. As a result, her hero’s journey is actually more satisfying by the end.
But let’s talk about that ending. To some, the story’s conclusion, with Korra and her longtime friend and quietly queer-coded love interest Asami basically holding hands as they walked into the sunset, felt like unearned fan service. To others, it was a triumph—LGBTQ+ representation on television at a time when such things were rare, and on a children’s series to boot. Konietzko himself called out the homophobia endemic to some fans’ complaints about the finale in a blog post at the time.
First, Konietzko emphasized that he'd first begun suggesting Korrasami during Book One in the writer's room—rebutting arguments that the writers had given the pair a last-minute romance to satisfy shippers. The understated nature of the relationship was not the result of any reluctance toward the romance on the writers’ part, he added, but the result of an assumption they could never portray such a relationship on a youth program—and there were limits, he confirmed, to what they were allowed to portray on-screen.
In retrospect, Korra’s ending captured perhaps better than anything where the show's chief strength lied. At every step, the series was looking forward. That was true not just of its gorgeous animation and steampunk twists on Avatar’s original aesthetic, but also of its thematic approach and story decisions. Avatar crafted a beautiful narrative out of traditional martial arts and Korra saw it through to its future, leaving boundless possibilities for what could come next. Given the wave of complex (and queer) animated series that would soon follow, it didn't do a half-bad job of keeping the legacy alive—and setting the stage for what would come next.