Sad Fact of Life Disappointment

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Everyone knows what disappointment feels like. It’s a sad fact of life. One of the worst kinds of disappointment is when you’ve seen someone do really well at something, and then the next thing they do doesn’t even come close to holding up. Especially when the two things are fundamentally related to each other and the second can be considered a sequel to the first. That kind of disappointment hurts deep in your soul. Let’s talk about Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, shall we? Both of these are animated television series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, often collectively referred to by the ship name, Bryke.

However, The Last Airbender is critically acclaimed as one of the greatest western animations of all time, while it’s sequel… isn’t.

I didn’t know this at the time I was watching, but it so happens that I binge watched all of Avatar and Korra one after the other, and in doing so, I felt the drop in quality like a punch to the gut.

So imagine my surprise when I later found out that there were people who actually thought that The Legend of Korra was better than Avatar. There aren’t that many of these wrong headed people, but there are still far more than I am comfortable with existing. Now I was completely befuddled, so I went into the online communities to find out why people can think such a thing, and what I realized was that many of the people with this opinion fundamentally misunderstand The Legend of Korra and what it stands for.

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In other words, their opinions are objectively wrong. And now I’m going to explain why the characters, world building, and themes are better in Avatar the Last Airbender than the Legend of Korra. First I need to describe the premise of both shows to you. In the beginning of ATLA, we are in the Southern Water Tribe, which appears to be at the South Pole of this world. We focus on two characters, Sokka and Katara, and soon learn that their father is away at a war that has been going on for a hundred years and their mother is dead. We also learn that Katara can waterbend, which is a kind of magic that allows her to manipulate water.

Together, they uncover a boy frozen in ice, who turns out to be the long-lost Avatar Aang, the reincarnating one who is the only one who can bend all four elements, and is also the only one who is able to defeat the fire lord, king of the fire kingdom, which has been conquering the earth and water kingdoms for these past hundred years and which is now on the verge of ruling the world because of their technological superiority. Also, there was at one time a fourth nation, the Air Nomads (the tribe which Aang was born into) but they were genocided by the fire lord Sozen and now Aang is the only one of his people left. Aang feels responsible for the world being out of balance, since as the avatar, his job is maintaining balance. The events of TLOK start about 70 years after ATLA. Aang has died, presumably of old age, and has reincarnated as a female member of the water tribe named Korra.

From the very beginning, It has been established that Korra is going to be a very different kind of avatar from those that came before her, as it has been established in-universe that Avatars don’t normally begin learning how to bend elements other than the one that they were born learning until they reach 16, and an elaborate test must be conducted to discover who the Avatar is, but we are introduced to Korra as a small child, bending three of the four major elements effortlessly and proclaiming, “I’m the Avatar. You gotta DEAL with it!”. The organization called the White Lotus took it upon themselves to protect the Avatar from threats, and they arguably do so too well, leaving her largely ignorant and naive to the world around her. Now that you have a decent idea what the shows are about, we can start to get into the nitty gritty of what makes one better than the other. The first and biggest reason is the characters at the center of each show.

For my first point, I’ll say it straight. Aang is simply more likable as a protagonist than Korra. Aang’s character is a mild mannered prankster who never wanted to be Avatar but who was thrust into a role of enormous responsibility at the ripe old age of twelve. He endures the knowledge that everyone he ever knew has been killed with a stiff upper lip, and one of the few times in the series when you see him get truly angry is when Appa, his friend and pet flying bison, also the last thing he has from the time before he got frozen in the ice. Other times he gets angry are when the lives of his friends are threatened, or when he finds the skeleton of his old friend Monk Gyatsu, surrounded by the skeletons of fire nation soldiers. These instances of anger were obviously well justified, and actually help to build sympathy for the character. Korra, on the other hand, has a temper problem that is never fully addressed by the writers in the show.

For instance, as a result of her failure to immediately learn Airbending, she unfairly lashes out at her teacher, Tenzin, even breaking one of his most valuable possessions on one occasion. It has ben established that in order to Airbend, one must be able to let go of worldly attachments and embrace freedom. However, Korra is very clearly attached to the way she is used to doing things and to the rituals of sports, and she manages to gain airbending in the end without growing past any of this as a character, making Tenzin out to be in the wrong when there is no actual reason to think of him as such. This also points to another major issue that I have with TLOK: the world building just doesn’t make sense. Time and time again in TLOK some new mechanic would be introduced that completes shattered my suspension of disbelief. But I digress. Moving on to some of the other characters. Sokka and Katara are iconic supporting characters.

I’ll start with Sokka. When their father, Hakoda, left with all the other men of the tribe to go off to war, Sokka was the oldest male left back home, making him the de jure leader of the tribe. Even though he is too young to truly lead a tribe, he takes his responsibility seriously and tries his darnedest. When we first see him in the series, he is a 15 year old, and he is earnestly trying to train a bunch of toddler boys to be warriors. His efforts don’t yield much fruit, but he tries relentlessly. As a result of his upbringing, at the beginning of the series he places a heightened emphasis on gender roles and being a leader and being the one in charge, but as theories progresses, he learns the value of humility, he learns to respect women, and he learns how to follow. From the depth of character I just described, you probably wouldn’t guess that Sokka was the comic relief character, would you?

Well he is, and even so, the writers built him with care, depth, and nuance. Katara was Sokka’s younger sister, however, in the absence of parents she took on the mother role out of necessity. Their actual mother was killed when fire nation soldiers came looking for the last water bender in the tribe, and katanas mother lied and gave herself up, when in fact Katara was the Waterbender. On this fateful day, Katara saw the face of the man who killed her mother, and this traumatic memory would stick with her forever (some people claim that ATLA shouldn’t be taken seriously because it is just a show for kids. I beg to differ.) After the death of her mother, Katara began to take on many of the responsibilities of a grown woman and developed a motherly personality, taking care of not just her own family, but the others around her too.

In practice, however, her tendency to mother everyone around her often leads to her being seen as a grouch. As the series progresses, she learns to overcome sexism and the gender roles expected of her while getting others to accept her skills, to trust those around her and those who care about her, and perhaps most notably, to forgive those who have wronged her. Two of what are widely considered to be the best episodes of the series involve her in this regard. In one of them, Katara meets a woman originally from the northern water tribe, who was a survivor of what essentially amounts to a fire nation concentration camp. This woman spent every moment of her time there trying to concoct a way to escape.

Eventually, she invented a torturous method by which she was able to control the blood inside the bodies of her captors. After seeing this horrible method, Katara refuses to ever use it. She uses it twice. Once in the aforementioned episode, to subdue the very woman who taught her the technique. The second time was I that other episode I mentioned, against the man who killed her mother. She very nearly kills him, but in the end, chooses forgiveness. Now lets compare those character arcs to those of brothers Mako and Bolin. These two are the sons of a Firebender and an Earthbender. Their parents were killed by muggers and they had to live on the street and do occasional work for a gang along with running small time scams in order to get by.

What I just said sounds like it could be an interesting story by itself, but it happens off screen. Most of it doesn’t even get a flashback, it is simply told to the audience through dialogue. This severely lessens the impact of what could have been a very emotional and engaging story. Instead, the grand majority of what we see Mako do on screen is involved in a twisted and honestly rather annoying and immature love triangle, which takes up space in the series that could be devoted to more important things, like fishing out the themes. Bolin, on the other hand, aside from being good-natured, barely has a character at all and exists almost entirely as comic relief, without the nuance or character development of a character like Sokka.

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