(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: The Legend of Korra
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: Roughly 70 years after the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender, hotheaded Southern Water Tribe teenager Korra takes her first steps in her journey as the peacekeeping Avatar. But the world that greets Korra is dramatically different than the one Aang traversed — technological innovations have accelerated and the political landscape had become murkier and more complex. With the world no longer appearing to need the Avatar, where does that leave Korra?
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko gave themselves the unenviable task of following up one of the most beloved animated shows of all time. And for that, you kind of have to applaud them. Sure, The Legend of Korra is a mixed bag at best, especially compared to the near-perfection that is Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it tried something new. Gone was the largely rural world of Avatar: The Last Airbender — now we’re in Republic City, baby, a shining steampunk metropolis whose design echoes 1920s America. Gone is our cheery perception of the beloved characters of Avatar, who all apparently turned out to be horrible parents. Gone too is the simple story of good and evil that made Avatar: The Last Airbender such a compelling watch; but in its stead was a dream of tackling other political realities (which arguably was the biggest misstep of Korra). But there’s something bold about taking such big steps to distinguish itself from its beloved predecessor, and while those steps often turned into stumbles, Korra at least did offer something fresh in its cocky, bullish, wonderfully imperfect protagonist.
Like many avid fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I too was disappointed by its wildly inconsistent follow-up, The Legend of Korra. While I admired it for its ambition and its unwillingness to give into cheap nostalgia baiting, I wished it could have been as confident in its identity as Avatar: The Last Airbender had been. For much of its run, Korra was billed as the “more mature” series, willing to depict more violence and political strife, but that could only take a show so far. The characters were older, the heroes were constantly vulnerable and defeated, and the morally gray villains and frequent social uprisings made for a less straightforward narrative than Avatar. Korra was constantly trying to prove itself, but frequently lost sight of the strong, simple storytelling that made Avatar a success.
But you can’t entirely fault The Legend of Korra for its identity crisis. It was famously mired in behind-the-scenes problems, with Nickelodeon reportedly delaying the show’s production over concerns of its female protagonist and an understaffed writers room that mostly consisted of DiMartino and Konietzko for the first two seasons. Korra didn’t know if it was going to be renewed from season to season, resulting in the truncated one-season arcs, with Nickelodeon ultimately pulling it off the air and sticking it on its website just as the story was finally picking up steam.
There’s more to be said about the flaws of The Legend of Korra and how its lack of identity extends to its lack of cultural identity, but better writers than me have analyzed the show’s muddled relationship with East and Southeast Asian cultural iconography that its predecessor so gracefully paid homage to (there’s an especially troubling parallel to the Hong Kong protests that was certainly not intentional). And in the end, this is an article about why you should watch the series.
The Legend of Korra, for all its flaws, has a revolutionary type of protagonist. From the beginning, fans piled on Korra for being unlikable, irascible, angry. But Korra’s flaws, in the end, elevated The Legend of Korra from its flaws. Here was a heroine who was aggressive and immature, and who, over the course of the show, learns to embrace those characteristics rather than shaving herself down to be a more “likable” female character. Korra’s struggles with PTSD and trauma remain some of the best character building on both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra to date. And there’s, of course, her implied queerness, which ends the show on a triumphant note (even if its younger audience prevented DiMartino and Konietzko from making it explicit). While The Legend of Korra still can’t hold a candle to its predecessor, Korra at least proved to be a worthy successor.
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