What have you done with your pandemic? Seen the rise (and maybe the fall) of a sourdough starter? Gone on 4,000 walks — gotten into foraging? Consumed unreasonable quantities of bourbon while pondering the brutal denouement of the Anthropocene? Or has your Netflixing led you to finally unearth an early-oughts animated kids’ adventure show, then proceed to dedicate seemingly countless hours to watching, re-watching, laughing, even crying a little, analyzing, and appreciating — only to discover that that show has a sequel, which you can’t wait to try, but which then ends up leaving you abysmally, catastrophically, appallingly disappointed? Good — let’s talk about it.
Avatar: The Legend of Korra is a sequel series to the much and deservedly beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender. In both series, some characters can control (bend) certain elements—air, water, fire, or earth—but only one person can control more than one element (and indeed all four). That person is the Avatar. The Avatar is an immensely powerful bender who, if they die, is reincarnated in a cycle that roots each subsequent life in one of the four nations (each derived from their relationship with one of the four elements). The Avatar is also the link to the Spirit World: they can commune with spirits, seek advice and draw power from their past lives. The Avatar’s job, at least historically, is to maintain balance on earth — specifically between the four nations.
That’s the world that The Legend of Korra and The Last Airbender have in common. What separates them is what fundamentally drives their stories.
The Last Airbender—which, while not perfect, is both playful and painstakingly structured—follows a small group of young underdogs, led by a non-violent (or at least anti-violence) vegetarian monk, as they try to overthrow a hugely powerful imperialist regime, often with the aid of outcasts, refugees, fugitives, hermits, hippies, backwoods weirdos, and other members of society’s fringe. Put simply, it is about revolutionaries.
Meanwhile, The Legend of Korra is about people in seats of entrenched, often inherited power, trying to maintain the status quo against revolutionaries. Though the rotating villains and the often-wandering plot might make the show at times incohesive, its messaging is remarkably consistent. The Legend of Korra has been called feminist, anti-feminist, a critique of privilege, a critique of Marxism, important for representation, anti-queer, culturally insensitive, and complicated, I am here to tell you that it’s not that complicated at all: it is, in fact, deeply philosophically conservative.
The Legend of Korra‘s Villains
Let’s start with The Legend of Korra’s villains. There are four seasons of The Legend of Korra, and each is more-or-less self-contained, with its baddies and its arc.
Season One has our hero, Korra—a stubborn teenage Avatar from the Water Nation—facing off against Amon, leader of the “Equalists”. The Equalists are a dazzlingly obvious amalgam of the real-life, topical-at-the-time-of-writing Occupy movement, along with the hacktivist collective Anonymous.
The Equalist movement wants… well, equality. Specifically for non-benders, who, it argues, are being oppressed by people with bending abilities. Or, this is what we’re led to believe. In actuality, Amon just wants power, and is more than willing to incite a violent revolution to get it.
Season Two finds us in a similar situation: here, we meet Unalaq, whose stated desire is to restore the balance between the human and spirit worlds by opening up bridges between them — rather than relying on the priest-like position of the Avatar to talk to spirits for you, now anyone would have access. However, while Unalaq might seem like a Korra-verse Martin Luther, he wants to become the Dark Avatar — he wants to release and then fuse with the spirit of chaos and subsequently reign and wreak havoc.
Season Three features the Red Lotus, another collective trying to tear down existing power structures to create a free and equal society. But equality, according to Red Lotus doctrine, is only achievable through murder, mass chaos, torture, and destruction. (At this point in the series, it’s easy to think that at least the Red Lotus mean what they say, but just because the show’s creators have made them unique doesn’t mean we should applaud them.)
Last, we have Season Four’s Kuvira, who also rises under the banner of unity: she’s trying to feed and protect the poor. Or is she?! Of course not. Like Amon and Unalaq before her, Kuvira just wants power, and she’s willing to do anything to achieve and keep it.
So, what are the writers of The Legend of Korra telling us? They seem to suspect all revolutions are corrupt and bad regardless of their purported good intentions and that all they will achieve is harm and destruction. It seems the message is that revolutionaries are just lying megalomaniacs masquerading as folks with integrity. Just like with America, the time for revolution has passed, right?
Moreover, the time for imagination has passed: all of the creative power throughout The Legend of Korra comes from bad guys. Bad guys invent mechs, airplanes, and movers (the series’ name for movies). A character, Varrick, switches sides a lot but is only creative when he’s on the wrong side — a sign of his switch back to the good guys in Season Four is his refusal to invent. Why? Because creativity itself is suspect in this science fantasy. In The Legend of Korra, the bad guys initiate the opening of spirit portals (ultimately a good thing). It’s the bad guys that release prisoners, feed the poor, and talk about possibilities for change. All the vision, all the energy in The Legend of Korra, comes from people who must be stopped.
The Legend of Korra‘s Heroes
Who, then, are the heroes of The Legend of Korra? There are so many of them. Maybe we should start with a list. Just a partial list — we can begin by naming:
- Lin Beifong, the metal-bending chief of police
- Metalbender and monarch-of-sorts, Suyin
- Opal, an airbender and Suyin’s daughter
- Tenzin, airbending master, and city councilor
- Bumi, retired military commander (crucially not the same as the brilliantly wacko King Bumi from Airbender)
- Kya, waterbender and healer
- Ikki and Jinora, precocious sister airbenders
- Meelo, the purposefully gross farting airbender (Since grossness, along with someone’s being annoyed, stands in for funny in The Legend of Korra — amongst the series’ failings is its loss of Airbender’s genuine sense of humor.)
What do all these good guys have in common? They are all related to heroes from the original series. There are two types of heroes in The Legend of Korra: somebody’s child and somebody’s assistant. You don’t have to be related to a previous hero, though — somebody rich can work in a pinch, too. One of The Legend of Korra’s heroes is Asami Sato, daughter of Hiroshi Sato; Hiroshi is based on a tycoon-version of Theodore Roosevelt.
Then we have Korra herself. Since being the reincarnation of a 10,000-year-long line of Avatars wasn’t enough, Korra is also the daughter of a character who, it turns out, is the de facto Chief of the Southern Water Tribe and the rightful Chief of both the Northern and Southern Water Tribes.
All of these “heroes” have immense inherited status. Many have immense inherited wealth.
To be fair, the series offers a few counterpoints: there are Mako and Bolin, brothers born into poverty who live on the streets for a while. They achieve a certain level of success through Pro-Bending (bending meets Ultimate Fighting Championship but with more rules), but they ultimately lose. (Before losing, though, they’re thrilled to accept corporate sponsorship from Season One’s miniboss.) Mako becomes a cop and then a bodyguard. Bolin becomes something of a movie star, then he ends up serving under Kuvira (Season Four’s villain) as a glorified attaché until he gets wise and flees.
We also have Kai, another street urchin who raises himself through bending (is there any other way?) in order to become… essentially a capable sidekick.
Despite whatever impressive qualities the brothers or Kai might have, they aren’t born leaders. They’re resigned to the caste, happy to work inside, with, and for the system. All three are eventually rewarded with the ultimate achievement for anyone born at the bottom: they get to date someone born at the top. Kai dates Aang’s granddaughter, Jinora; Bolin dates Toph’s granddaughter, Opal; and Mako dates both Asami and Korra. For a while, at least.
Speaking of birth, let’s focus briefly on the role that family plays in The Legend of Korra, because it is occasionally bizarre — who you are related to seems to matter more than almost anything else. The good guys never raid a prison until someone they’re related to (or Korra) has been captured. Tenzin—poised as the series’ wisest, most mature character—at one point escapes from a place in the Spirit World called the Fog of Lost Souls, where countless other lost souls surround him. Still, he only rescues his siblings and daughter, leaving everyone else to languish for eternity.
In Season Three, the great Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se burns to the ground after the Earth Queen is killed (because what else could possibly happen in the absence of authority?), and while the city is burning, Mako and Bolin stop to save their extended family. But they don’t help anyone else. In Season Four, the engineer Baatar Jr. is mainly reviled and later forgiven because he is Suyin’s son (not to mention grandson to one of The Last Airbender’s most beloved characters). There is a very conservative algebra at work in The Legend of Korra, for whose lives matter — only the lives of the people closest to you.
Back to the heroes: whether high- or low-born, what they all have in common is that they are reactionary, meaning they don’t act, they react. No good guy initiates a big plan or action within the scope of the series — the goodies only respond to the big plans and actions of the villains. Their role is to maintain the status quo. They are all conservative, by definition, and despite anyone’s monastic robes.
(The Legend of Korra is not uniquely guilty in this — it has been, in fact, the modus operandi for superhero comics, as well as superhero films, pretty much as long as they’ve existed. David Graeber has an excellent essay on how this came to be, as well as on the effect it has on viewers; read it, and you might never think of authority, not to mention Marvel films, in quite the same way again.)
Let’s compare The Legend of Korra’s heroes with The Last Airbender’s. An easy start is with Bolin—Korra’s chummy pro-bender-turned-actor-turned-secretary—and Sokka, a young Water Tribe warrior who makes one of the original series’ central triumvirate, along with his water-bending sister Katara, and the preteen Avatar of the title, Aang. Bolin often seems like a tonal copy of Sokka: both are jokesters, and they seem to want to serve the same narrative purpose of breaking up serious moments with levity. Bolin is usually just along for the ride, getting caught up in other people’s schemes, from Shady Shin’s to Varrick’s to Kuvira’s. Meanwhile, Sokka is endlessly inventive — he’s always coming up with his strategies, inventions, jokes, and nicknames. He’s the ideas guy, and his ideas usually work (even if his intuition sometimes fails).
In The Last Airbender, we also have Toph, a badass 12-year-old earthbender who invents metal-bending on purpose. (Korra, who struggles to learn air-bending, can just suddenly do it when the story requires it, and then can suddenly restore a person’s bending ability when it’s been taken away by a villain — much like Bolin can suddenly lava-bend in Season Three of The Legend of Korra, while Zaheer, a Red Lotus villain, slowly and deliberately teaches himself to fly.) Even The Last Airbender’s Zuko—the conflicted prince of the Fire Nation—goes on a long and painful journey toward being the person his uncle Iroh (a cartoon bodhisattva if ever there was one) knows he can be. He is constantly trying to learn and improve.
Then we have the countless smaller characters who help support the Aang Gang, including swampbenders, wandering musicians, perfume-making nuns, an insane herbalist, an onion- and banana-loving guru, and a wacky, da Vinci-like mechanist. These small good guys live outside the normal parameters of a capitalist system. In contrast, people within the system, especially those in power positions, are far less important to the narrative or are noticeably compromised. Master Pakku, the water-bending master and a high-ranking member of the Northern Water Tribe’s more urban society, is a sexist; General Fong of the Earth Kingdom will do anything – including attacking Aang and sinking Katara in quicksand – to propel the Avatar into the spiritual beast-mode known as the Avatar State. The Earth King is an idiot. Toph’s rich parents suck. And so on.
The exceptions to this unspoken rule about relative social status and morality are all members of the White Lotus, a group of old fogies/masters who tend to be less focused on status than on the greater good. Of course, nothing can be perfect, and crabby reformed-misogynist Pakku is a part of this group. While the White Lotus’s other members include former generals and kings, personality-wise, none of them fit in well in a civilized society.
Almost none of the characters you’re supposed to sympathize with in The Last Airbender has a real job, with the occasional exception of soldiers (mainly the Kyoshi Warriors and fighters from the Water Tribe — though let’s remember, these people are mobilized against the imperialist Fire Nation. They aren’t a standing army; they are the resistance). The one time Sokka signs up on a fishing vessel, he is punished for it — a storm nearly kills him. Likewise, the Cabbage Vendor (a running gag of a merchant whose produce keeps getting smashed) suffers. It sometimes seems like the only people who willingly participate in capitalism in The Last Airbender are either bad guys—curiosity-shop running pirates, pro wrestlers-cum-kidnappers, or sandbenders who steal and sell Avatar Aang’s pet sky bison. Or, they are insane, as in Dock/Xu/Bushi of the Painted Lady’s floating village, who has as many personalities/careers as he has hats.
In The Legend of Korra, however, you need to get a job. Mako and Bolin don’t take up pro-bending just for the love of the game — those dudes gotta pay rent. Another of our heroes heads up the police force. Tenzin serves on the city council. Asami runs her father’s business. And they’re all doing fine, right? You see, the system works. You just have to learn how to work within the system.