Legend of Kora (2012-14) | poster excerpt

Possibility-Bending: An Anarchist Critique of ‘Avatar: The Legend of Korra’

The optimism found in Avatar: The Last Airbender darkens to cynicism and violence in the follow-up series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Why did this happen?

The Legend of Korra
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Nickelodeon
2012-14 (US)

Violence and Anarchism in
The Legend of Korra

So why, then, is everyone trying to overthrow the system? Well, real anarchists believe that capitalism is inherently violent to most of its subjects — unless you are rich (and often even if you are), it’s constantly taking a toll on your spirit, and usually your body. Anarchists believe capitalism is an entrenched and successfully monetized form of coercive oppression. So, is it okay to use violence to oppose a violent system?

Here’s another popular belief among anarchists (some of them, anyway): One way to create the reality you want is to act as though it already exists. (One might think philosopher Judith Butler’s ethical obligation unrealistic.) So, does the reality you envision include violence? If not, then you must find a way to become non-violent.

Why do none of the anarchists in The Legend of Korra follow this logic? Because everyone in The Legend of Korra is violent. While Aang, in his series finalè, reflects, “I’ve always tried to solve my problems by being quick or clever, and I’ve only had to use violence for necessary defense, and I’ve certainly never used it to take a life.” While his three-season series The Last Airbender bears a careful and carefully considered exploration and rejection of the act of killing – which far exceeds the squeamishness of most made-for-kids television—that spirit of non-violence doesn’t carry far into the sequel. 

Interestingly, though, it almost does. When some pilots are shot down late in Season One of The Legend of Korra, the series goes out of its way to show most of them eject from their planes. Soon after, the villain Amon and his brother Tarlock are allowed to escape, letting Korra defeat them without having to cross the line and kill them. It seems the show is tentatively following in its predecessor’s footsteps — it’s granting everyone the right to live. Then it changes its mind: Tarlock decides, rather suddenly, to kill himself and to take his brother with him. And so: Korra’s hands are kept clean, but the show is not. From there, the killing gets easier. 

Korra kills Unalaq, the principal villain, at the end of Season Two, though she kills him when he’s a half-spirit. (Mulligan?) Zaheer, the leader of the Red Lotus, then straight-up murders the Earth Queen in Season Three — we watch as he draws the air out of her lungs, as she gasps for breath, and it’s questionable whether or not we witness the death. This season ends with every other member of the Red Lotus—all except Zaheer—being killed in battle. 

In Season Four, we watch Kuvira murdering random soldiers with her giant laser, but then the show seems to remember itself and ends with the refusal to kill Kuvira. But the writers still have to justify this decision — Korra doesn’t save Kuvira because, in the words of Aang, “all life is sacred” and killing is wrong”, but because “I see a lot of myself in you.” This kind of dialogue between hero and villain is the most brazen of clichés, and it also harkens back to the show’s fixation on family. There is an ethics at work that does not value life but values specific lives for specific reasons. 

Speaking of violence, only two named bad guys die during all of The Last Airbender. One is “Combustion Man” (well, he’s almost named to die), a mute assassin who shoots explosive blasts out of his third eye chakra and who essentially self-combusts by accident. The other is Admiral Zhao, a classic baddie – brutal, ambitious, the works. The Ocean Spirit takes Zhao—scoops him off a bridge with a God-sized hand and just… takes him away—but notably only after it has separated from Aang, who merged with the spirit during the Avatar State in order to defend the Northern Water Tribe from a deadly Fire Nation siege. The Legend of Korra’s series tries to smudge this death by having Zhao appear in the Spirit World, but I’m not buying it or even really care; the natural world is Admiral Zhao’s judge, not his fellow humans. 

I do care, however, about the other big on-screen death in The Last Airbender, which belongs to a scrappy, leader-of-the-lost-boys resistance fighter named Jet. When we meet Jet, he’s fighting the imperialist Fire Nation, just like all the rest of our heroes. But Jet’s willing to hurt civilians in order to achieve a minor victory. He’s stopped from doing so and eventually redeems himself, at least to a degree. Still, shortly afterward, he’s mortally wounded by the leader of Ba Sing Se’s repressive secret police (who, for what it’s worth, hits him with the kind of earth-bending strike that people get back up from about every seven minutes throughout the rest of the series). 

Let’s focus on Jet for a moment because his death might serve as a way to understand how many of the same people who created the careful, imaginative, deeply humane Avatar: The Last Airbender turned around and made the sloppy, conservative, deeply pessimistic Avatar: The Legend of Korra

Consequences in The Legend of Korra

Stories, especially stories made for younger audiences, have lessons. It doesn’t matter whether we intend them or understand them — they are there. What are some of the lessons we learn in The Legend of Korra? Let’s look at The Legend of Korra’s attempt at an origin myth: how a guy named Wan became the first Avatar. (Hang in there — we’re coming back to Jet soon.) 

Some 10,000 years ago (according to The Legend of Korra), people lived on the backs of giant lion turtles—basically huge, sentient, floating islands—because they were safe there from the spirits that freely roamed the world. Whenever humans would leave the turtles’ backs, the turtles could grant them bending so that the humans could protect themselves. (Here, we’ve got to ignore that this contradicts earlier explanations of how people learned bending.) However, when the humans return to their floating homes, they have to give the power of bending back. 

Wan and his buddies are poor and hungry, while the family that runs the town on his specific turtle’s back has all the money and all the food. (In this origin myth, capital and inequality already exist; they are a given.) So one day, Wan goes away and the turtle gives him the ability to firebend, but when he comes back, he holds on to the bending. Then he goes and robs the rich kids and feeds the poor. 

Well done, right? Not according to this myth. 

According to this myth, Wan should have listened to his friend, who said, “You just gotta accept the world is the way it is. Some people have power. Some people don’t. And you don’t.” For the crime of not returning his bending to the turtle and for not ratting out his friends, Wan is banished. But he’s also banished for opposing the status quo. 

Wan’s next big mistake? He comes across a pair of giant spirits who are locked in a wrestling match of sorts. One spirit is obviously losing, and Wan comes to its rescue and frees it. This is the dialogue that follows between Wan and the spirit, Raava, whom he struck so that the other spirit could escape:

“Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Yeah, I helped a spirit who was being bullied by you.”

“You are gravely mistaken. I was keeping him under control.”

“And what gives you the right?”

“You don’t even know who I am, do you?” 

The very end of The Legend of Korra is… interesting. There’s a return to a “killing is bad” ethos. There’s both a much-lauded and well-derided pass at queer representation. And then the newly crowned Earth King just, out of nowhere, decides to step down as monarch — he’s suddenly convinced that “the Earth Kingdom would be better off if the states were independent and had elected leaders.”

See? Things get better. You just have to trust the people in positions of power to eventually do the right thing, in their own time, in their way. Soon we’ll all have a representative democracy, where no one is poor or hungry ever, and everyone gets a PlayStation VIII, and butterfly puppies appear out of rainbows.

Back to Jet: after watching Jet die from a single rock-bending strike, you can’t help but watch the next couple of episodes and think, “Why isn’t that person dead? Why isn’t that person dead?” But it’s not a question of earth-bending force or logic. The reason Jet died is because the show chose to kill him.

Jet crossed a line: he attempted to kill innocent people. He was the character in the original series on the right side but most willing to use the wrong tactics. For this same reason, the blood-bending Hama (a waterbender whose rage has led her to use her powers in a truly heinous way) is put away for the little left of her life. There is a clear moral stance here: it’s not just important to work for the cause of good, but to work in a good way. 

In this conflict between right cause and right action, Jet is a nascent form of a The Legend of Korra villain. The big difference, though, is that when the writers got to The Legend of Korra, they no longer wrote that Jet was on the side of right at all. What happened?

Perhaps, while The Last Airbender was nearly an anarchist meditation/fantasy about a way to be in the world, The Legend of Korra is an example of how becoming mired in a capitalist system can inhibit your ability to imagine or to create: perhaps the writers set this show too close to the mess of their reality, their confusing experience, and they lost their vision for most of the series. (How else can you explain that every adult character carried over from The Last Airbender still has the same hairstyle as their 12- or 15-year-old self — with the exception of Aang, who’s sporting a cringe-worthy goatee that’s suspiciously similar to certain images of series creator Michael DiMartino?) 

Or perhaps the idiotic pushback the show’s creators received for centering their new story around a female Avatar made them swing back toward a conservative world view, in an attempt to balance and appease (idiotic) fans. Or maybe they experienced a creepy Orson Scott Card-style political conversion. Maybe specific personalities were absent from the writing room of the second series. (Anyone named Ehasz, for instance.) Maybe somebody involved was personally afraid of Occupy or Anonymous. 

Whatever the reason, The Legend of Korra seems certain of one thing: when the Earth Queen dies, the only possibility is fire, destruction, and chaos. People cannot handle themselves — they need leaders, preferably the sons or daughters of previous leaders. They need to be kept in their place by whatever means necessary. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying to you or will eventually betray you. 

Where do we go from here? Although Korra was separated from her past lives at the end of Season Two of The Legend of Korra, we are not — Avatar: The Last Airbender is still wonderful and is still, thankfully, available to stream. Also, unlike Korra, we are not trapped in a world that precludes possibilities; if things look dim for us, just think of Aang waking up to the hundred-year reign of the Fire Nation and somehow retaining both his purpose (“Helping people, it’s what I do”) and his delight (“Will you go penguin-sledding with me?”). 

You can do this, too — just imagine a better future, then get on your flying bison and make it so.


Works Cited

Edwards, Tyler. “The Legend of Korra and Mixed-Message Feminism“. The Artifice. 19 September 2014.

Gessen, Masha. “Judith Butler Wants Us to Reshape Our Rage“. The New Yorker. 9 February 2020.

Graeber, David. “Super Position“. The New Inquiry. 8 October 2012.

Jo. “The Legend of Korra: Anti-Feminism or Bad Writing? Nerdy Girl Notes. 25 June 2012.

Jones, Jenna. “Avatar vs. Legend of Korra: the Feminist Debate“. The Webster Journal. 10 September 2020.

Kocic, Julia. “The Legend of Korra – An Allegory Against Marxism?“. The Sydney Tory. 10 January 2021.

Ng, Jeanette. “The Inescapable Whiteness of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, and its Uncomfortable Implications“. Medium. 25 July 2020.

Romana, Aja. “Legend of Korra’s messy, complicated legacy“. Vox. 13 August 2020.

Silman, Anna. “A Primer on Orson Scott Card and the Ender’s Game Controversy“. Vulture. 12 October 2013.

Wong, Kevin. “Politics and Privilege in The Legend of Korra“. The Artifice 15 July 2013.

Woodger, Woody. “Childhood Ruined: Korra’s a Cop! Neoliberal Recuperation in The Legend of Korra“. Counterclock. 24 October 2020.

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