*Warning: spoilers for everything*
Well, folks, it’s almost over. After two great years, the most recent Avatar incarnation is winding down. Now that we’re at the last few episodes and things are getting glowing-eyes epic-awesome once more, I’ve been reflecting on both series as a whole – as well as rewatching my favorite original Avatar episodes, like “Uncle Iroh Gets a Tea Shop” and “Aang: Frog Collector.” I am continuously astonished that this show was ever greenlit; it seems too good to not be canceled after a single season.
Avatar has done so many things right that most shows – be they “adult” shows, fantasy shows, or “real Japanese” anime – get wrong. It has truly likable characters in heart-pounding danger. It has both humor that is actually funny and tragedy that is actually touching. It has dynamic protagonists, and antagonists, who change in interesting and unexpected ways over the course of the show. It deals with issues as serious as trauma, war, and genocide, but addresses them in accessible language that even the very young can understand. Avatar speaks to the best possible child in all of us, the one that made cookies when grandma was sick.
And Avatar being a kids’ shows, being a bit childish, is its greatest strength. The main characters, like the show, are pure of heart: they play games, hug each other, and actually act like children even in the face of terrible threats to themselves and to their world. This childish simplicity goes a long way. Instead of reveling in gore like most shows, Avatar shows us that each human life – a good guy’s, a bad guy’s – is precious and even interesting. Instead of soaking itself in hypersexualized imagery like most anime, Avatar has boys and girls relate to each other as human beings before they are sexual beings. Avatar has female characters that are actually people instead of sexy prizes, unlike 90% of everything else.
I really wish Avatar had been on the air when I was a kid. (All we got was Goosebumps, which, in retrospect, was really dumb.) Avatar is like Hayao Miyazaki directing a kung-fu fantasy epic on his best day. Avatar is proof that children’s media doesn’t have to be completely demented.
But, as good as the original is, its sequel trumps it. Korra has kept the best things about the original series – the youth, the real and relatable characters, the accessibility to all ages even when things are tragic – and cranked up everything that the original lacked.
Here are the three main ways that it surpasses the original:
1. Korra Is a Better Hero
Face it: Aang is a stereotype. He’s the reluctant boy hero, the wunderkind scared of his own power. It’s Shinji Ikari all over again. Even when we watch him grow out of that, it’s hard to be very interested; his character arc is dreadfully familiar to anyone who’s seen Evangelion or Gundam Wing a dozen other shows, and, frankly, the “superpowered boy overcomes his own fear” trope/puberty metaphor was never that relatable to begin with – how many of us in the real world actually have to deal with superpowers?
But Korra is not a stereotype. She’s a headstrong, damn-the-torpedoes kind of girl – something that’s been done before, yes, but rarely with a woman. Her character arc, from thoughtlessness to introspection and greater wisdom, is just plain better than Aang’s, and it’s all the more engaging because she gains her meager wisdom through bumps, bruises, and great personal risk. Korra is also, simply put, a lot more fun. Where Aang is calm and responsible, Korra is vibrant and wild. While Aang is boyish, Korra is tomboyish. When Aang meditates to gain wisdom from the spirit world, Korra punches people’s faces and asks questions later. Aang is calm and in control – Korra hangs on by a thread, leaps into danger and nearly drowns. You feel for Korra. You want her to succeed because she always seems about to fail.
Aang, on the other hand, is already wise from the beginning. He has a few issues that get resolved, yes, like his fear of the Avatar State or learning to face fights instead of running away, but throughout the show he never really moves away from being a goofy kid with a responsible streak and a heart of gold. He’s the same person in episode one and episode sixty – and that really isn’t very interesting. (There’s a good reason why Zuko is so popular: unlike the “real” protagonist, he has to struggle to survive, he has to go through terrible experiences to become the magnificent antihero we love.)
The most basic rule of storytelling is to simply make a relatable character and put him or her in danger. The biggest problem with Aang is that he never feels like he might actually fail. In fact, he never does really fail, not in a way that can’t be quickly undone.
Korra fails hard.
Aang has to face Ko the Face-Stealer without smiling, while Korra gets her bending taken away and is completely powerless before a masked psycho. Aang is nearly killed by Azula (while Katara is right next to him with magic healing water), while Korra has to fight the embodiment of all evil alone and in the terrifying spirit world she’s so unfamiliar with. Aang faces the Firelord with blocked chi (right after we see him learn a secret omnipotent technique), but Korra is poisoned by mercury, totally overpowered, and brought to the lowest depths of weakness by her most recent enemy. When it’s over, she ends up in a wheelchair. There’s no contest here. Aang faces fear, Korra faces true helplessness and trauma. Aang goes through a few close calls – Korra goes through hell.
Korra’s the one we fear for.
2. Korra Has Better Enemies
Now, I’m not saying that Azula is anything other than fantastic. She’s evil and loving it. She’s the perfect femme fatale. In a show where most of the characters are kind, where they grow as people, watching her and the Ninja Death Trio’s unrepentant cruelty is absurdly gratifying. (Zuko is also a great antagonist until he joins the good side.)
But who are the main antagonists, the ones that the story actually requires Aang to defeat? Well, in season 1 there’s a general who gets eaten by a fish and nobody even remembers his name, and then in season 3 there’s the Firelord, whose character traits are breathing really hard and flexing his pecs. Even Azula – fun as she is – is just evil. That’s her whole philosophy of life: it’s fun to be mean.
In comparison, Korra has to fight villains that have actual serious reasons to leave behind the morals of their lessers – villains with a philosophy deeper than “tee hee I like hurting people” or “GRR I AM STRONG FIRE MAN.” Amon wants to outlaw bending and enforce absolute equality. Unalaq wants to join the real world and the spirit world. Zaheer wants to eradicate all nations and heads of state and give freedom to the masses. And Kuvira wants a strong, centralized kingdom, with no political dissidents whatsoever.
Each of these villains is as twisted as Azula – Amon has a horrific backstory involving bloodbending and his father’s desire for revenge, Unalaq unleashes the ultimate evil, and Zaheer and Kuvira care nothing for human life – but they also have unique goals, ideologies, real reasons for making the decision to descend into evil. For them, villainy is the means to an end that will justify everything. That striving for a distant (and good) goal means that we can sympathize a little bit with their underlying philosophies, we can pity them when we see they’ve gone off the deep end. Our sympathies for Azula are much shallower – we only like her because she’s cool. (Here, again, Zuko is the wonderful exception, but he’s also still not a real antagonist for most of the show.)
Here, again, Korra wins hands-down. A villain with a philosophy, who has set aside society’s rules and their own humanity to grasp a desperate goal that will make it all worthwhile – that’s a villain you love, even when you hate them.
3. The Twentieth Century Is the Craziest Century
Why does each Korra villain have a philosophy?
Well, in the seventy years since Aang, the world of Avatar has gone through a lot. Aang’s world was pre-industrial; Korra’s has entered into a brave new future. The politics are changing. The technology is changing. The old kingdoms and their squabbles are almost obsolete, because with the creation of a fifth, more cosmopolitan nation in Republic City, with the introduction of home radios, stylish cars, flash-bulb cameras, and a dozen other bits of 1920s’ tech (also mecha, because Why not?), the series has evolved from its pastoral roots into a new and exciting era of rapid and epic change.
The early twentieth century is, in my opinion, the most unique and astounding period in last ten thousand years – and it’s this time that Korra deals with. The new show mirrors not only the maelstrom of ideologies that defined history from 1880 to 1930, but also that period’s astounding whirlwind of technological progress. This was when people first invented almost every device that makes modern life possible: home refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes, electric light, and so much more. It’s a great leap in human thought, a great leap in human development; it’s the time when the modern world was truly born – and it’s a wonderful setting for a series whose central theme has shifted from “Keeping the Balance” to “Accepting Change.”
As pretty as the traditional buildings and ancient kingdoms of Avatar were, they represented a static world: the Avatar would maintain balance, and the four nations would prosper forever. History was cyclical, a tale of different nobles and warlords trying to best each other over this or that island. Nothing ever really progressed, never really changed – and that’s not exciting at all.
But, in Korra, we finally have a dynamic world. Now bending and technology combine in a vivid steampunk city. Now the villains build super-weapons. Now the Avatar, and her friends, will forever change the future, because they can influence those profound changes that are remaking the life of every human being. This raises so many excellent questions: Where, in this crazy new world, does the Avatar stand? What can you believe in, when tradition is no longer your guiding light? What kind of world will exist when Korra is done?
Sure, the original Avatar also touched on technological change, and, sure, Aang also reshaped history to an extent – but, like medieval history, that story was a traditional battle on traditional grounds. I imagine that the nations have warred and shifted throughout the world’s history, and that the Fire Nation’s invasion is only the deadliest iteration of this trend. Unlike Aang and his traditional war, Korra has a chance to reshape literally everything – to create new traditions, to decide the ideological and political ground on which future battles will be fought. She’s shepherding the world of Avatar into its modernity. That’s a bigger responsibility than Aang ever had.
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