Korra the Legend - resonant character evolution at its best

As a TV series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra has definitely had its ups and downs. Its supremely popular predecessor, The Last Airbender remains the consistently better show. Then again, the uneven Korra experience can be blamed on a few obstacles that the original show never faced – such as impromptu season length changes and budget cuts.

But I’m not here to excuse The Legend of Korra’s flaws. I’m also not here to squee in delight over Korrasami leaping out of the closet and into canon (I’ve done enough of that on Twitter over the last month). What I want to do in this post is make a case for the show as the more emotionally complex, relatable and rewarding of the two Avatar series. Simply by focusing on the title character.


Whereas The Last Airbender was a high-spirited globe-trotting fantasy adventure for the whole family (with a hero band of 12 to 15 year olds), The Legend of Korra always pitched itself at a higher level. We meet the next generation Team Avatar in young adulthood, and our 17-18 year old protagonists are already starting to grapple with grown-up concerns like surviving financially, and debating whether old ways and old mentors should be obeyed… or new ways of thinking embraced.

In The Last Airbender, Aang makes the fantasy genre’s default transition from fun-loving kid to saviour of the world. From fleeing responsibility, he eventually accepts it along with all the tough decisions it requires. It’s a straightforward, (largely) emotionally remote character change we’ve seen hundreds of times.

Korra’s evolution, by contrast, is far more complicated. More real. More relatable.

Korra’s personal journey is one that I am sure many people in the audience have made, or are currently making, as young adults. It is a path I myself have tread, and am still navigating.

Let’s review.


Born and raised in the icy Southern Water Tribe, Korra is the Ultimate Special Snowflake. She is revealed to be the latest Avatar incarnation at 4, and she revels in that knowledge from an early age. Her guardians keep her cut off from the rest of the world and in this remote, sheltered environment she grows up supremely confident in her abilities. She is actually entirely justified in doing so as she excels at her training and achieves mastery of three of the four elements (water, earth and fire) well before 18. “You are the Avatar. You are the Chosen One. You are destined for greatness,” is evidently what Korra hears over and over during the thirteen years that follow her discovery. It probably becomes her own mantra, feeding her ambition to make a difference.

Korra is young and gifted. So what if she hasn’t unlocked her connection to the spirit world yet? Pfffft. Who really needs it when you can just power through every situation?


Naturally, Korra’s arrival in the “real world” of Republic City is a bit of a shock to her. Her classically trained fighting styles aren’t as effective on the streets as they were back in the arena of the remote White Lotus compound. Still, Korra commits to learning from her new environment.

It’s just that over the course of the show, exposure to harsh reality slowly erodes Korra’s confidence in herself. Her jubilant “I’m gonna change the world… with my fists!” cockiness fades.


She still always performs. She still spectacularly saves the day no matter what impediment she’s saddled with (loss of her bending, deadly mercury poisoning, separation from spirit Raava and all her past Avatars guides) but the psychological damage she endures is deep and insidious.

Despite being one of the greatest Avatars of all time in terms of her accomplishments – one of which has massively positive, world-changing results – Korra doubts her worth. She doubts the contribution she can make to the rapidly changing world.


In all four seasons of the show, the chief antagonists express the same message to Korra: that the Avatar is no longer necessary; that people will and do get on better without her around.

At the same time, nobody – her family; her band of loyal friends – really worries about Korra because of her proven resilience and strength. Her allies get on with their lives because they believe she’ll come right… leaving her feeling even more isolated and alone, with nothing but a monstrous crisis of confidence to keep her company.


Korra’s handling of her crisis becomes gradually more self-destructive. She slips into depression at the end of Season 3. Season 4 picks up three years later, and Korra is still wading in darkness. Despite physically healing from the worst of her injuries, she has arguably sunk deeper into despair, frustration and self-loathing. She withdraws from the world. She retreats from her friends and family. She goes so far as to strip herself of her identity and willingly subjects herself to beatings by bargain bin foes in backstreet fighting arenas.


Korra is haunted by visions of her greatest foe – which turns out to be herself in the Avatar state, at the pinnacle of her power. In short, the one enemy she cannot defeat is her potential for greatness. Ashamed, she no longer feels that she can deliver on what she is seen (by others, and particularly herself) to be capable of. And it has left her limp, miserable and endlessly searching.

What started out as a breezy action series has, particularly in the third and fourth seasons, gained gravitas. That’s true even if you simply stop your interpretation of the show at “Korra is suffering from posttraumatic stress.” Personally, I prefer to read The Legend of Korra as a powerful examination of what it is to be a young adult in general.


Now I’m sure some people would file this reading under Privileged Problems, but for me, Korra’s transformation reflects what many people go through. Hers is the personal journey of the middleclass overachiever – those fortunate children encouraged and nurtured; those children led to believe they are different and that there is no obstacle they can’t overcome. Drummed into them is the belief that with hard work, they will be acknowledged and find success. They will make their mark; their efforts will be rewarded…

Which typically, when they leave the shelter of home and college in their early twenties, and enter the real working world, results in a massive, confidence-shattering blow. Like Korra, most will be battered with the message of their irrelevance and impotence. Like Korra, most will continue to flash a determined face at the world, but it takes a particularly strong person not to bruise beneath the veneer over time.


And that is just one of the many, many ways that The Legend of Korra is moving and inspiring. Korra’s supreme physical power does not translate into emotional invulnerability. What people say to her still impacts deeply. From a concern about her approval ratings in Republic City to brooding over what Zaheer and Amon have said to her, Korra internalises all the different voices commenting on her worth.

That someone as immensely powerful as Korra falters, speaks to viewers going through the same thing. It’s reassuring even as it’s painful to watch – with Korra sinking deeper than most under the weight of others’ opinions and her own expectations.


It’s worth noting that even from the first season, there were flashes of something more poignant going on beneath the skin of our cocky, flexing hero. After unleashing some serious smack talk about how she’s going to bring the season’s main villain to justice, she meets him face to face… and is terrified. She is the all-powerful Avatar, but she is afraid. Her bluster extinguished, she eventually breaks down in tears.

Who Korra is is not who she’s been told she is. And that really is the spiritual journey our hero makes over the course of four seasons – finding peace, a balance point, between the two versions of herself. And it’s not a balance easily struck. Kudos to the writers for not giving Korra a quick fix when the opportunity presented itself. It’s clear that Korra is fundamentally changed by her emotional struggle. Forever.


At the same time though, it’s clear that Korra’s battering has ultimately benefited her. You see it clearly through her continual comparison with “Great Uniter” Kuvira. Kuvira is another young woman raised in seclusion and encouraged to seize her full potential. Yet she has never experienced a crisis of confidence, and it shows in the callous way she makes decisions on others’ behalf.

Having had her arrogance stripped from her like Raava and her past lives, Korra is the better person – more thoughtful, compassionate and in touch with matters relating to both humanity and the spirit realm. Not to mention at peace with herself.


As rough as her road has been, Korra is a more balanced person for walking it.

It feels strange to say this about a show set in a universe where martial arts and element-based superpowers are muddled up with Steampunk and Far Eastern spirituality, but I feel that The Legend of Korra is ultimately the more real and resonant of the Avatars.

Disregarding its refreshingly positive and progressive attitudes to representation, this animated series won’t be easily forgotten, because ultimately it gives hope to all of us still living with traces of Zaheer’s mercury within us.

Comments

Keona Tang said…
An amazing write-up, and I completely agree with your point about LoK having greater resonance with those of us in our young adulthood (or even just plain ol' adulthood). It was a fascinating show in the same way that Avatar: The Last Airbender was for its audience. Korra has become quite possibly my favorite female character of all time, and it's largely due to the fact that she did face adversity and conquer it, even with the deck stacked against her. She's an inspirational figure!
Job Merkel said…
I really enjoyed this post, especially when reading the connections you made between Korra and those fortunate children, nurtured and encouraged. I'm a huge fan/nerd of all things Korra and Aang and I've never read a take on it like this. Thanks for sharing.
Eric Krapf said…
Hello. I was wondering if you have watched Steven Universe and what you think about it. For some reason I feel this show has a kindred spirit to it.

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