The Legend of Korra is an excellent television series, to the extent that I reckon Korra is probably a better protagonist than Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Aang in most ways. She’s far more complex and has a conviction that allows her to make mistakes and learn from them. I think a lot of people conveniently forget about the times Aang lost his temper in ATLA, instead choosing to remember him solely as the guy who said, “Flameo, hotman!” and beat up the bad guys in a nice guy way. He definitely took some lessons on board, mind, but his narrative trajectory is more of a straight line than Korra’s, whose turbulence is what makes her so enduringly resonant and believable.
Ultimately, though, The Legend of Korra will never live up to its predecessor. Again, I’m not going to give it loads of hassle here – I genuinely really like it! It’s just that The Last Airbender is one of the greatest shows ever made for some very specific reasons, several of which Korra flat out ignored. Seeing elemental bending manipulated into professional fights in a UFC-esque arena was fun for a while and I guess the big-budget combat scenes looked cool, but narratively speaking, Korra is a mess. It rarely feels as if the story is connected to the previous episode, and if you’re watching it for the first time, anyone’s guess as to what the following episode will be about is just as good – or bad – as the next person’s.
The most obvious comparison to make here is the characters. As I’ve said, Korra is probably better than Aang, at least in terms of how she’s written. Aang struggles with earthbending, has a little cry, and then it’s all sunshine and rainbows – Twinkle Toes has smashed the boulder. Korra, on the other hand, simply cannot get airbending for the longest time. This causes her to disobey her mentors and use her powers as the Avatar in immensely reckless ways. Watching this is tough, because you want to root for her – even though she’s being an idiot, you understand why she’s behaving the way she is. I reckon I’m personally way more like Korra than Aang.
That’s where the superiority ends, though, and even this instance is only slightly differentiated and up for debate. Bolin is great, but he’s just knockoff Sokka. Mako is supposed to be Katara here, I suppose, and wow does he fall short of those aspirations. Katara, alongside Zuko and Iroh, is one of the best characters in the entire Avatar universe, and you’re giving us a self-serious cop who keeps cheating on everyone as her replacement? Katara laughs at you. Naga and Pabu are cute, too, but come on – these are the new Appa and Momo? I don’t think there’s any argument you can possibly make that refutes how subpar these new iterations of the same archetypes are – plus, there’s no Toph equivalent. Asami is a great character – one of the best in Korra – but she’s nothing like Toph Beifong. I’m not saying the show should have borrowed from ATLA’s characters verbatim, I just mean that, when you’ve been this brazen about reincarnating the entire crew in a new setting – right down to two animals, one big and one small – it feels weird to arbitrarily leave someone out.
I’ll give Korra its dues for villains – fucking Henry Rollins as Zaheer?! As in, that Henry Rollins, the anarchist lead singer of Black Flag – that’s pretty impressive. It’s a shame Korra wasn’t all about Zaheer, because the Equalists stuff from season one got boring fast, Unalaq was a pain in the arse, and there was no way in hell Kuvira was going to be able to meet the sky-high bar set by Zaheer in season three. I also know for a fact that Korra was only supposed to be a single season long – imagine Korra with just the Zaheer arc and the show’s conclusion. Now that’s an ATLA contender!
This leads me to my main argument here – Korra’s story is absurdly incoherent. It’s Lost-tier arbitrary in its progression, but at least Lost had the excuse of being inherently weird (and very good). Every time I watched an episode of Korra I forgot what happened in the one before, and didn’t really care about what was going to happen in the one after. It’s just loads of stories squashed into an ostensibly continuous narrative that’s held together by sellotape – and I mean the sellotape that you accidentally half-stick to itself so it doesn’t even really work that well. All of the gaps are visible and it makes it really hard to buy in. ATLA, on the other hand, managed to do artsy episodes like Zuko Alone and The Tales of Ba Sing Se, which froze that overarching narrative in place while providing crucial context for its progression. It just felt far more cohesive, as if it had all been dreamt up and cleanly segmented into exactly 61 episodes, whereas Korra felt like it was being written in real-time, with all of the deadline-induced impulses that come hand-in-hand with that.
When I think back to ATLA, I don’t just remember Aang turning into water Godzilla at the end of season one, or taking Ozai’s bending away in the series finale. It’s not all Zuko vs Azula or Iroh manifesting the Dragon of the West as he spits wicked fire at the walls of Ba Sing Se. I remember Aang accidentally burning Katara when he gets carried away with firebending. I remember Sokka being made a holy show of by the Kyoshi Warriors as they proved that women could, in fact, be much better fighters than men. I remember Zuko reciting lines to himself in the forest before trying to tell Aang and the gang that actually he’s a good guy now. Most of all, I remember Uncle Iroh on the hill, singing Leaves from the Vine on his late son’s birthday. I have a tattoo of that last scene spanning half my right arm, because I think it’s the best and most emotionally striking scene ever written.
Korra has very little of this. The moments of romance feel more artificial because of how fleeting they are (I’m a fan of Korrasami, though – it’s a shame that got what, ten seconds of screen time?) The character dynamics feel less palpable, and it’s so difficult to provide anecdotal evidence of having watched it. Tell me something that happened in ATLA and I’ll be able to picture it vividly in my mind’s eye – “I remember that!” Do the same with Korra and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll have no idea what you’re on about. Despite being longer than ATLA, it somehow tells less of a story while feeling significantly more rushed. There’s not a single poor episode in ATLA, whereas Korra is propped up by its handful of good ones – which, admittedly, are very good, they’re just few and far between.
If you prefer Korra to ATLA, I salute you – that’s your prerogative. Honestly, though, the storytelling and character development is so much more artificial and less developed. With something as naturally organic as ATLA – which is also steeped in a kind of infectious innocence that allows flickers of sweetness to emerge even in its darkest moments – it was always going to be difficult to write an on-par follow-up, never mind a better one. Korra, however, got nowhere near its target – it went for the bullseye and missed the board entirely. It’s still a great show, but ATLA will always be the greatest.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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