Review: The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)

The Legend of Korra. Created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2012-2014.

Premiere Impressions

            For a variety of reasons, I was initially hesitant to begin The Legend of Korra (2012-2014), Nickelodeon’s sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008). If you’ve kept up with my blog recently—thank you, by the way, you look pretty today—you know I’ve just recently discovered the genius of ATLA. Korra, now available to stream on Netflix, faced a series of production woes during its original creation and polarized many of the original series’ fans. As silly as I know the idea to be, I was worried the sequel might “change” my impression of the original. The show, though, has the distinction of being one of the few animated programs to feature LGBTQ representation—or so I thought—so, I decided to press on.

            The Legend of Korra takes place seventy years after the events of its predecessor, focusing on the adventures of the newest Avatar, Korra, and her close companions, Mako, Bolin, and Asami (kind of—Asami does not get a lot to do). Korra, a skilled bender, must learn the spiritual intelligence necessary to control her powers. Over the course of the series, Korra battles with various antagonists and must overcome her own shortcomings to save the world.

            Like any good sequel series, Korra carries on the spirit of its predecessor while bringing in interesting elements of its own. Like Avatar, Korra is beautifully animated and thematically rich. Perhaps the most significant deviation from Avatar is the narrative structure. Whereas Aang’s journey revolved around one specific mission, Korra’s is more of a collection of adventures, with each season featuring its own arc. For this reason, Avatar is certainly more cohesive, but Korra’s structure allows for more variety in its character-driven storytelling. Each of the protagonists thus have a variety of goals and needs throughout the series, which allows for some particularly engaging storylines. Bolin’s rise to “mover” stardom (a stand-in for early cinema and serials) provides the show with memorable levity. Korra’s battle with PTSD in season four is dark and complex. Mako’s role as love interest is a nice gender reversal throughout the series, even if it tires in the later episodes. Asami, unfortunately, is underutilized and ties the show back into capitalism more so than is comfortable for a show that advocates for togetherness and spirituality.  

            Though Korra herself evolves as a character from season to season (most so in the show’s third and fourth seasons), the defining trait of each set of episodes is the antagonist. Because the show so heavily emphasizes the role of the villain in each season, each season’s narrative really centers on how the antagonist’s actions affect the heroes. This also means that the level of success of each season is relatively dependent on the characterization of the villain. Fortunately, almost all of the villains are exceptionally well-written and, well, cool. Season one’s Amon is an exercise in anonymity and equality. Season three’s Zaheer explores spiritual liberty and, along with his followers, has the most visually exciting set pieces in the show. Season four’s Kuvira explores order and the exploitation of freedom. The one rotten egg in the bunch is season two’s Unalaq, who is just plain uninteresting. Unalaq’s characterization strangely recycles some of the same origins as Amon, and his villainous objective is far too large to bring any weight to it. Therefore, season two suffers a bit in comparison to the others.

            After waiting four seasons for the alleged LGBTQ representation to appear, I assumed, like “fetch,” it wasn’t going to happen. Then, in the series finale’s final moments, Korra and Asami decide to continue their journeys together and hold hands. And, uh, yeah, that’s it. I mean, it was a nice moment, but it was a literal moment. There are a great many queerer things that happen throughout the show (Mako’s persistent scarf-wearing, Lin Beifong’s boss energy, Bolin’s thighs, etc.), but the only “explicitly” queer moment is also stunningly easy to write-off as platonic. All in all, the final moment of the series just proves how desperate queer audiences still are for representation beyond breadcrumbs.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Varrick and Zhou Li are the undisputed MVPs of this series – in addition to being absolutely hysterical, theirs is the most important love story in the show
  • I’m aware there is a small legion of the Avatar fandom who despise the show, but I’m finding it hard to do anything but dismiss their revulsion as disguised misogyny
  • Honestly, adult Avatar Aang can get it

The Final Tea

            Though it’s nearly impossible not to compare to its precursor, The Legend of Korra both continues the legacy of Avatar, as well as standing on its own as a narratively complex and gorgeously animated series. Hesitant Avatar fans have no reason to worry.

GRADE: B+

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