War…war never changes. Especially when that war is between different parts of the same fandom. The front for the new war? Avatar: The Last Airbender, which arrived on Netflix last week and has already sparked a renaissance for the show as Millenials and Generation Z relive their childhoods through the series. But it has also sparked debates online between fans of the show and fans of its sequel series, The Legend of Korra, as to which show is superior. In all honesty, I think they’re both great for their own reasons and each serve as fantastic examples of how animation aimed at kids can still be deep, complicated, and serious without being overly dark. However, there are some ways that The Legend of Korra improved on The Last Airbender, as the show benefited from Bryke’s experience with the world and as showrunners. There are, however, things that made AtLA great that were lost in the transition to LoK. I’ll only be touching on some of these differences, the ones that seem most important to me, but I hope you understand my point by the end.
Korra’s Story Starts Out Stronger Than Aang’s…
Let’s be honest, Season One of Avatar: The Last Airbender is rough. Characters were still being established, the comedy was both more frequent and more cartoonish, and there was more filler than the latter seasons (so much so that the show itself mocked “The Great Divide” for being almost entirely pointless). The Legend of Korra, meanwhile, kicked things off strong with the Equalist plot and the drama of the Pro Bending competition that act as Korra’s first tests as the Avatar. The characters are well established and the stakes are very real, and it only got better from there.
…But Aang’s Was More Consistent
However, while Korra was able to start strong and have a very good four seasons of stories, there were always issues with pacing. The story of Korra was a much more personal one, and as such, it would sometimes get bogged down by her own issues while the broader plots shifted into the background. The constantly changing villains also meant that each season had to contain the introduction of the villain, their relationship to Korra, their rise, and finally their fall all in one set of episodes. In The Last Airbender, the story always had the same greater enemy in the Fire Nation. Yes, there were short term villains like the Dai Li or the various spirits Aang dealt with, but the biggest villains were all either a part of or in cahoots with the Fire Nation, and as such it was always easy to connect the immediate plot to the long term arcs. It also allowed for a deeper examination of the conflict, and much of the original show’s maturity comes from its willingness to show the real effects of war and colonialism on all aspects of society.
Korra Had A Stronger Arc As The Avatar…
Korra is bae, let’s be real. She’s a buff badass that doesn’t take shit and is willing to scrap with the best of them. It was an honest relief from Aang’s more traditional coming-of-age story, and compared to the sometimes unserious kid slowly learning the ropes we got Korra who’d already mastered three of the four elements. She was the Avatar as a superhero, and that rocked. She also had the benefit of being older, with more opportunities for mature characterization than her younger predecessor. She also changed in her relationship with being the Avatar, as her struggles with her spirituality and, eventually, loss of her connection with the past made her question who she was and her role in the world in a way that Aang never did. The Korra from the end of Season Four had changed more since the premiere than Aang had at the end of his series, and there’s a great satisfaction in that.
…But Aang Approached Problems In A Much More Unique Way
Aang’s strength as a character was in how different he was from the normal heroes of fantasy action shows, or even the shonen genre that helped inspire Avatar. Unlike Korra, who fit more into the self-assured and powerful mold we’re used to, Aang was a vegetarian pacifist who went out of his way to not kill or even do undue harm to his opponents. If Korra’s drama came from her constant change, Aang’s came from his static nature. His beliefs and essential self don’t ever change, he simply learns how to fit them around whatever problem he might run into. His method of handling the Big Bad, Ozai, was the emotional climax of the show as he struggled with the need to dispose of a man who wasn’t worth saving. In an action show that became famous for its martial arts and flashy bending, Aang’s biggest victories always came through peace.
Korra’s Villains Were Sympathetic And Realistic In Their Ideologies…
The Legend of Korra fandom has argued about villains since Amon first showed up on screen back in Book One, and they’ve not stopped since. Unlike the more traditional villainy of Ozai, who was the big evil monster with no heart or soul, the foes Korra faced down were as complex as she was. All of them had something about them that made the viewer feel sympathy, whether it be Amon’s call for bender/non-bender equality or Kuvira’s closeness with the Beifong clan and belief in the Earth Kingdom. None of them, not even Unalaq, were ever as bombastically evil as Ozai, but they made up for it by personally torturing Korra, especially Zaheer and the Red Lotus. They also mapped easily onto real-world politics: Amon’s version of Socialism, Unalaq’s religious theocracy, Zaheer’s anarchy, and Kubira’s militaristic fascism; all are much more easily seen in the real world than Ozai’s power-hungry megalomania. Korra’s defeat of them felt like proxy for defeating the political evils the audience was dealing with, and it added a new layer of depth to the show that the previous one lacked.
…But None Had The Overarching Menace of Fire Lord Ozai
He may have been over the top, he may have been more two-dimensional, but none of the villains Korra faced can hold a candle to Ozai when it comes to looming over a story. For three whole seasons, he was the final obstacle Aang had to overcome, the ultimate source of every problem that the Gaang had to deal with throughout the course of the show. And he was (almost) never played as anything but an evil tyrant, with almost no redeeming qualities to him beyond a long-abandoned love for his wife. People talked about Ozai in hushed tones, and it was easy to see why the more we learned about him. He had such an insane amount of power that Aang’s ultimate victory seemed almost in doubt until it happened. Plus it’s hard to not be a good villain when you’re voiced by Mark Hamill.
Korra Had A More Developed Supporting Cast…
The Legend of Korra benefited immensely from having a more static setting than its predecessor, and a big part of that was the ability for a more permanent supporting cast that got as much development as the main characters. It’s just not easy to develop a large supporting cast in a show with constant travel. Yes, in AtLA we were attached to other characters like Jun and Ozai’s Angels, but even they never got quite as much development as the Airbender Family, the Beifongs, or even Varrick. You didn’t just care about Team Avatar winning, you also were worried about Jinora going through her training or how much Kuvira’s villainy weighed on her former mentor Suyin. Our attachments to these characters gave everything that much more weight, and raised the stakes higher than ever.
…But Lacked The Memorable Side Characters That Aang Met
As beloved as the cast of Legend of Korra is, the show never had the sometimes wacky, sometimes serious one-off characters that stick out in people’s minds to this day. The globe-trotting nature of the show meant that they could introduce people and then let them go without ruining the show’s pacing. The Cabbage Merchant, Chong, the Boulder, Wan Shi Tong; people still remember them as some of the best parts of the original show. Some of the darker characters like Jun and Koh the Face Stealer were tough acts to follow for The Legend of Korra, too. It felt at times that the less important characters in that show were a little too faceless. But ask anyone of a certain age and they’ll be able to belt out “Secret Tunnel” like nobody’s business.
Korra Grounded Its World With Urban Grittiness…
After the more high fantasy world Aang traveled through, Korra’s shift to Republic City brought a new level of realism and darkness to the franchise. The almost dieselpunk setting allowed for Bryke to examine a more diverse array of problems that mapped more closely to real-world conflicts. Korra had to deal with mass inequality, organized crime, smuggling, and riots, and learn how to deal with things that can’t be beaten by throwing fire at it. The show could even delve into new genres, bringing in elements of detective stories and even film noir as Team Avatar work with the Republic City Police to deal with the current problems of the city. Even when Korra moved further out into the wider world, Republic City and its problems always stayed at the center of things. Mako’s work as a policeman helped keep a ground level perspective on the more fantastic problems that Korra was dealing with, as did Asami’s involvement with the politics and business of the city. The urban setting was a big part of The Legend of Korra forging its own identity, and plays a big part in why so many regard it so highly.
…But Was Never As Spiritual As Its Predecessor
If asked to pick one thing that really sticks out about Avatar: The Last Airbender, for many fans it was the deeply spiritual nature of the show that helped it feel like a revelation at the time and, honestly, still does. Bryke pulled on many religious traditions when creating the mythology of the show, especially Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto. Characters like Iroh, Guru Pathik, and Avatar Roku helped to serve as spiritual teachers for Aang, Zuko, and, for many, the audience. Aang himself was a hero in tune with the spirits, and frequently met both good and bad ones in his troubles. Korra did a lot with the spirits as well, including the biggest spirits of all, Raava and Vaatu, but they never had the otherworldly mysticism that the original show gave to its spirit world. Characters also frequently meditated, not just the Avatar, and a lack of spirituality was frequently cited as part of the Fire Nation’s descent into evil. I won’t get into the debate about which show had better bending, but The Last Airbender took pains to describe the philosophies behind each form of bending and how it affects the real-world actions of its practitioners. Spirituality formed the core of the Avatar world and while Korra made pains to replicate it in a more updated setting, it never quite hit the mark.
What do YOU think? Agree with these points? Think I’m the most wrong person ever? Sound off in the comments!
Images via Nickelodeon Animation