The time-honored question: Avatar: The Last Airbender vs. Legend of Korra.
Those who instantly shout, “The Last Airbender!” are our stalwart defenders, but the Korra fans are our realists, our breath of fresh air.
The Last Airbender is our childhood, and that’s fine because the show is good. It is witty, fun, it has character. But in some ways, it is unrealistic, and fits into nostalgia almost too well.
Legend of Korra is radically different. We can argue for days about worldbuilding or comedy or animation, but I feel there are three fundamental reasons why LoK was the show we needed.
It uses the Avatar structure to explore:
- Friend group dynamics
- Motivated, realistic villains
(Spoilers for all seasons of The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra).
Love in Avatar Korra’s World
Relationships can be tough, awkward, unbearably cute, or [insert adjective here]. In TLA, Aang and Katara beat back and forth for the entirety of the show, ultimately ending up as each other’s soul mates. That’s a good love story, right? As viewers, it’s nice to have the hero succeed romantically, but is it really satisfying?
Mako and Korra have a rocky relationship from day one, but gradually they grow to love one another, they fight, they break up, it gets sticky, etc. Doesn’t that reflect near perfectly what many of us go through? And isn’t it more emotionally satisfying to watch Korra’s romantic journey, for her to ultimately end up with someone better for her after her hardship?
LoK does what TLA does not, and it broaches friendship after a failed relationship, or even a failed relationship in general (Sokka and Yue are one example, but they didn’t fail because of fundamental character differences, they failed because Yue had to fulfill her duty.)
In this way, LoK is a more vivid representation of the real-world experience, and a valuable teaching tool for young viewers about the expectations for relationships.
Maintaining Friendships Through Hardship
Arguably one of the best things about TLA is the road tripping, the Team Avatar bonding time (my favorite is when they go to the play on Ember Island).
While fun to watch, is the Aang Gang really how most friendships work? Many have argued that one of LoK’s faults is that Team Avatar isn’t as connected as it was in Aang’s time, but I think that this is one of the best things about Korra.
It demonstrates that friendships are work, and that people can drift apart. One of the most sentimental moments occurs in season two when Bolin admits to Asami that he feels like Team Avatar is falling apart, that everyone is doing their own thing.
Even though the characters lead their own lives apart from the team—Bolin the movie star, Asami and her company, and Mako the cop—they ultimately make time for one another in the broad scheme of things and defeat the villains together. It is almost like reassembling a D&D group for another jaunt, and it feels more realistic than the extended sleepover that is the Aang Gang.
Motivated, Relatable Villains
Okay, this is the part where everyone yells about how great a villain Azula was, and I will admit, she is a pretty iconic baddie. Her blind ambition and wickedness make her formidable, but what is she fighting for?
She’s obviously attempting to reconcile her childhood and please her father like she wasn’t able to please her mother, but for the most part she follows the Firelord’s desires for world domination.
Ultimately, that is what the series is about, fighting back against a rising imperialist regime. The most interesting villains are interspersed throughout the series, like Hama, the bloodbender seeking revenge, or the sly bureaucrats of Ba Sing Se. But their screen time is limited and when they disappear, the impending doom of annihilation returns.
LoK is a bit more realistic, and the villains are infinitely more relatable. Amon is radical, but he simply wants equal rights for non-benders, the minority in Avatar Land. Taking peoples’ bending away was cruel, but we understood why he did it.
Season two was pretty weak as a whole, and Unalaq lapsed back into the annihilation trope. And Zaheer was a little more radical than Amon, but we could clearly understand his goal, and in all honesty, he just wanted equality too, but approached it from a socio-political angle.
Kuvira is by far the most intriguing villain LoK has to offer, because we saw her start off fighting the Red Lotus and defying anarchy, and we witnessed her grow to want peace and prosperity for her people, even if she had to forcibly unite the Earth Kingdom.
She has motives, but she fell prey to power, like many leaders or politicians do. While what Kuvira did in pursuit of her Empire was wrong—the reeducation centers, destroying local cultures, and attacking Republic City—I was saddened to see her get arrested.
Her course for a United Empire echoed the imperialism of Ozai’s Fire Nation, but at least we understood why she was doing it. She was more antihero than villain, and she reminded me of Zuko from the original series, a Zuko who took a more radical stance. Perhaps if Kuvira had an Uncle Iroh she might have been able to join Team Avatar too.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the The Last Airbender. It was a large part of my childhood; I remember there were days when I was a kid where I’d sit around with my brother watching the show on DVD, playing the Avatar trading card game.
But, as an adult, I find that Legend of Korra makes you think, it’s more complex, and the characters are more developed.
No matter on which side of The Last Airbender vs. Legend of Korra argument you might fall, it’s clear there’s something for everyone to enjoy in both shows, be it the simple nostalgia of Aang’s crew, or the sometimes-awkward dynamic of Korra and her friends.
If you liked this review, check out some of our other reviews on the Signals From the Edge Blog!