Why I Like The Legend of Korra More Than Avatar: The Last Airbender

This is probably pretty blasphemous to say, but I liked The Legend of Korra more than the original Avatar: The Last Airbender show for a lot of reasons. Despite the show’s obvious flaws that fans of the franchise are typically quite loud about, the show also has a lot of strengths that are undermined by the mere fact that it was so different from Avatar.

If you’ve read the Yokai Calling series already, you can probably see the influences of Avatar on my work. It is still one of my favourite TV shows to date, and I imparted a lot of my love for the show into my writing style and worldbuilding. The elemental magic, the martial arts, the Asian culture, the journey. Although while Avatar is more inspired by Chinese and continental Asian cultures, I imparted my love for Japan and Japanese culture into the Yumihari World instead. Other Asian cultures are present, and gain more presence as the world grows, which is also very exciting, but I digress.

Why I Liked the Legend of Korra More than Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved cartoons in North America, and it’s no wonder why, when it’s so rich in cultural diversity, memorable characters, themes that resonate with both youth and adults, and a story that delivers on compelling storytelling structures.

But oftentimes, The Legend of Korra is often left out of this discussion. Many people dismiss it as not nearly as good as Avatar. Others (like me, for a long time), don’t bother watching it for fear that it will ruin the masterpiece that is Avatar. But now that I have watched all of Korra, I regret that decision quite a bit. I’ve missed out on this engaging show for years!

Still, despite my love for Korra, it’s easy to see why so many people prefer Avatar to Korra. Arguably, Avatar is the stronger show in terms of composition. The overall simplicity of the story arc, and the predictable structure of Aang’s journey to gather his elemental strength, allowed for a powerful execution across the story as a whole, as well in the character development of the entire cast.

The Legend of Korra didn’t have that same simplicity. While it is a show that explores the development of a new Avatar, her circumstances were completely different. And because of the lukewarm response from fans right at the very beginning of the story’s development, Korra never really had the same opportunity to develop as a cohesive story arc because the show was constantly under threat of being cancelled. It’s really sad to think that people were so caught up in their love for Avatar that they struggled to appreciate The Legend of Korra for what it is, and as a result, the creators could not make an interconnected, sweeping tale on the same level as Avatar.

Yet, working with what we did get from The Legend of Korra, there’s a lot to love.

1. A Strong Female Lead

I think the sad reality is that a lot of people didn’t appreciate Korra’s character development the same way I did. Arguably, The Legend of Korra was ahead of its time by putting a dark-skinned, headstrong teenage girl as the main character for the show. She broke the expected mould for female characters in TV, putting a woman in charge who was prone to making mistakes, being overconfident, and having to grow into her role while surrounded by characters (and a lot of men) who were disapproving of her actions.

This mimics the reality for a lot of women in our society, especially people of colour. Women who are headstrong and make mistakes are often rebranded as bitchy, incompetent, and annoying. This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to the real world, either. There are countless examples of imperfect female characters in fiction who are needlessly criticized by readers and viewers while their male counterparts are equally prone to mistakes and overconfidence and yet escape criticism unscathed, or at least rarely to the same extent.

I truly enjoy how Korra is unapologetically flawed as a female character. She is not defined by femininity nor by her non-feminineness. She is not guided by masculine traits, but by a holistic need to achieve balance within herself, and within her world, in her role as the new Avatar. Sure her methods are brute force at first, but this comes from her unbalanced upbringing, rather than from a drive to make her more masculine.

2. The Evolution of Bending

In ATLA, bending is very simple: there are four elements and four types of benders. Water, earth, air, fire. You’re born to a nation and gain the bending in accordance with your genetics, assuming you have a parent who was a bender.

The mould was broken a few times with powerful benders who could twist the elements: blood bending, and lightning bending.

However, TLoK takes this ten steps further and bending evolves to encompass many more branches of available power. In addition to the four natural elements, plus blood and lightning, there was lava bending, metal bending, energy bending, and other creative advanced techniques designed amongst the four main elements.

I love the evolution of bending because it shows not only is the world advancing technologically but “magically” too.

However, it’s metal bending that makes me happiest. According to the Wuxing element system, there are five elements, not four: water, earth, wood, fire, and metal.

In the Shinto (Japanese) versions of these systems, there are 5 as well, although it’s not metal. It’s Aether or Void, a heavenly, ethereal essence that in the Yokai Calling series, I’ve interpreted as spiritual or “divine” energy, but I’ve split the talk about the five elements into another blog post. You can read that right here.

3. The Spirit World

I’ve always been fascinated by the spirits and supernatural creatures in Japanese myths and folklore, which is what drew me to Studio Ghibli films. For the same reason, I adore the spirit world in ATLA. While there are not exactly Chinese spirits in Avatar, at least in my understanding (I’m not familiar enough with those stories to say for sure how they developed in comparison) the spirit world plays a role in both ATLA and Korra.

However, the entire season 2 of TLoK is centred around the spirit world and the development of Korra’s spiritual abilities. Through the spirit world, we learn more about how benders came to control the elemental powers, the separation between humans and the spirits, and how the avatar was created as a force of balance between the elements and the spirits.

I was enthralled by the storytelling and intrigue in this season, the spirituality and dichotomy between humans and spirits. It was an enormous inspiration for me while writing the Yokai Calling series and for planning a lot of the Yumihari World, especially while writing Blood of Dragons and during the updated editions of Spirit of the Dragon and The Dragon’s Eye.

4. Mature Sense of Morality That Isn’t Black or White

There are four primary antagonists that appear in Korra. Season one fought for equality between benders and non-benders. Two fought for integration between the spirit and human worlds, like there had been long ago. The third fought to demolish the authoritative grip of world leaders and give more power to the people. Finally, four fought to unify the fractured Earth Nation and bring prosperity where the season 3 antagonist failed to.

Each of these themes is complicated and “right” but challenges the dichotomy of white and black morality, as was the standard in ATLA. For as beautifully told ATLA was, there was never any debate over whether it was wrong for the Fire Nation to subjugate the other three nations. After all, they all but wiped out the air benders and held the Earth and Water Nations paralyzed under the threat of more violence.

However, thematically, TLoK was much more complicated. We should all strive for equality, for consideration for all humans and living beings, to give more choices to the people who occupy our world, and that is the heart of the antagonists’ beliefs and goals in Korra.

The issue arises with execution. Each of these antagonists sought to achieve these otherwise worthwhile and necessary objectives through means of violence and hate, often similar to the violence and hate that was inflicted upon them. For example, the non-benders who were subjugated by benders, the spirits who warred and felt violence at the hands of humans, Earth Nation citizens who were impoverished by generations of kings and queens.

Each season posed a moral dilemma between the necessity of change and the execution of said change. I personally felt like the extreme measures taken by the antagonists served to highlight the necessity and better pave a road for Korra to then acknowledge the desire for change and find another way to instigate the change, often at a personal cost to herself.

5. Awareness of Mental Health and Internal Struggles

I was pleasantly surprised with season 4 of Korra, which dealt to some degree with mental health, specifically PTSD and associated symptoms. After a particularly challenging conclusion to season 3, Korra did not make an immediate recovery as you would typically suggest in this kind of hero-centric show targeted at a youthful audience.

However, a large part of season 4 was about learning to achieve inner balance and mental stability after experiencing extreme physical and mental trauma, all while dealing with the expectations from other people (and the internalized expectation) of being the world’s hero.

I’ve always been of the opinion that not enough stories deal with the extreme end of the internal struggle that heroes go through as a result of these heroic expectations, what happens to them when they are not able to meet these expectations anymore, or even temporarily. So to have those themes show up in Korra, on top of so many other deliciously important topics, it made me so happy.

***

So, while The Legend of Korra does have its flaws, and the show is arguably not as good as Avatar: The Last Airbender, that is a subjective opinion that I wish hadn’t kept me from watching the show for so long. Korra has so many strengths and what I have listed in this newsletter really is only a fraction of the truth!

Have you watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra? Which do you like more?

—Erynn

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After many months of re-thinking and editing, I’m here today with the official announcement for the updated edition of Spirit of the Dragon! I’m happy to give you a preview of the new edition of the book.

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In just a few short days, The Dragon’s Eye will be officially available for all readers across various platforms. It is book two of the Yokai Calling series and a direct continuation of Spirit of the Dragon, so go read the excerpt from the previous installment first if you missed it!

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Because they belong to someone else.

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