To adopt the voice of the old-timey radio announcer who does the “previously on” segments for The Legend of Korra, there’s big news in Republic City. After the runaway success that Avatar: The Last Airbender had on Netflix this summer, the streaming service announced that the Nickelodeon animated series’s sequel series, The Legend of Korra, would be coming to the platform on August 14. Avatar’s creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, went back into their original universe several decades later with Korra, which moves things into a 1920-ish version of New York, with a set of adult main characters who are older than the original Avatar gang. The series ran for four “books” from 2012 to 2014, and yes, while it’s already on CBS All Access (shoutout to all five devoted Good Fight fans), we’re very excited for it to get a bigger platform on Netflix starting tomorrow.
So, what can you expect from Korra if you just binged Avatar for the first time this summer? What are the two shows’ comparative strengths and weaknesses? And is Zhu Li an icon? (Obviously, yes.) We got two of Vulture’s Avatar heads together to do the thing, by which we mean discuss.
(Note: Light spoilers for the series lie ahead, including references to its finale.)
Jackson McHenry: We should start with the first book, since Korra was originally going to be just a miniseries, but if you’re going into the show from The Last Airbender, you’ll probably notice just how different Korra’s tone and animation style feels from the jump. It reminded me a lot of something influenced by detective serials or even Batman cartoons, with Korra, the newest reincarnation of the Avatar, going around trying to solve one big noir-ish mystery. A change of pace from the epic end of the first series, to say the least. What was your first impression of watching the show?
Zoë Haylock: I came into Korra knowing two things: I loved The Last Airbender and that Korra eventually got gay. After having so much fun rewatching The Last Airbender (for the third time) in quarantine, watching Korra seemed like the obvious next step. But I was totally unprepared for the way Korra differs from the heart of TLA — that is, a ragtag group of best friends fighting toward a common good. In Book One, as Korra travels from the training facility in the South Pole she called home to bustling Republic City, I felt similarly, venturing out from the familiar safety of Aang’s story and suddenly expected to contend with the problems of an unfamiliar place.
Korra’s greatest similarity with TLA, to me, is in the details. The show gives you so much that it’s easy to get lost in a moment. I love the Batman comparison — that’s totally what it feels like every time Asami gets behind the wheel of a car. Which, I mean, a car! Once the initial shock wore off, it was the innovations and the way they built on the incredible world of the original that made me obsess.
JM: The thrill of Korra eventually getting gay is very important to me, even if I did spend a lot of the show wishing it got gayer faster. (Bolin clearly needs to come out, this is my personal hobbyhorse, but anyway.) But I agree, there’s a lot to adjust to, especially in Book One, where it feels like the creators wanted to strike out hard in a new direction for the show, and there are relatively few moments that connect back to the characters in the original. If you immediately want to know what happened to Zuko after the end of Airbender, you’re outta luck.
But Republic City looks gorgeous, especially whenever they include a painterly backdrop of the harbor or its pseudo Central Park, and so much thought was clearly put into the world-building. Korra befriends two competitive bending stars, Mako and Bolin, and the show does a great job with scenes where the matches play out without much exposition, trusting the action will explain itself. Book One’s central mystery has a compelling hook, with the idea of a villain bent on erasing the class differences between benders and non-benders by taking benders’ powers, though I wish it went a little deeper and darker. Amon’s … not entirely wrong? That’s true of a lot of the Korra villains, though, especially in the later books when it weaves back in more of Airbender’s spiritual side.
ZH: Not only does Korra have shorter seasons than TLA, but each season focuses on a different villain, starting with (the totally-onto-something) Amon. It gives us a couple of iconic villains, each with a compelling set of morals that Twitter stans debate to this day, but I wish we had more time to duke it out and also see the effects of the resolution.
The first season sets us up with our new Team Avatar: Mako, Bolin, and Asami, a non-bender whose father aided Amon’s revolution. I have a complicated relationship with the relationships in Korra: I want to give these disgruntled young adults who have spent so much of their lives just trying to survive some credit for not knowing how to navigate their romantic relationships, but … it’s a mess. I think they deserved more time to build up to the romantic climaxes. As it is, the relationships suffer, just as the rest of Team Avatar’s storylines suffer. In later seasons, the focus on Korra and her personal relationships — especially with villains — really becomes the core of the show, as they strip away expectations.
JM: There’s a “The Last Jedi before The Last Jedi even came out” quality to Korra, in that the show keeps trying to blow itself up structurally in ways that are both exciting and sometimes baffling, and in that if you tweet about it a lot of men will show up to yell their opinions. Not to spoil some of the specifics of what happens in the later Korra books, Avatar powers-wise, but I really admired the creators’ willingness to go to extremes in terms of the world-changing decisions Korra makes and, often, the psychological trauma she puts herself through. It’s a different, less-direct arc than Aang has. He’s got this immense power but slowly has to come to terms with being able to use it. She keeps using her power, and then keeps facing the unintended consequences. I wish the books had 22-episode seasons, because there are a lot of implications I wish Korra could sit with for an episode instead of powering through to more plot, but I think Korra’s inner conflict is handled in a way that feels daring.
ZH: Where Aang was wise beyond his appearance, Korra “has a lot to learn” just about herself. With each misstep, no matter how potentially world-ending, we see her attempts at learning from it and her frustration when she comes upon another hurdle. Aang was the Avatar in a world that desperately needed him; 70 years later, they couldn’t care less about Korra. Korra’s struggle with being made powerless by bureaucracy, by non-benders, by her own mind, is incredible to watch unfold as she faces challenges that previous Avatars couldn’t even have imagined. Throughout the show, we watch her find her purpose in a modern world seemingly intent on destroying her. (Which, mood.) It’s not the relaxing quarantine-watch The Last Airbender was for me, but I came out just as inspired to go beyond for the greater good.
JM: Korra, a total mess to inspire us all. This is definitely a show that’s lighter on the surface fun than Avatar, even if there is still a lot of it. I love the writers’ commitment to jokes that are so dumb they go all the way around and become clever and funny (as in, most of the things Bolin or Varrick say), and their ability to conjure up a lot of detail about a world in a few gestures toward characters’ backstories or customs.
One frustration I had watching Korra this summer that’s a holdover from Airbender is that, for a show that’s heavily indebted to Asian and native cultures, the voice cast is very starkly white. It’s pretty jarring to hear and recognize people like J.K. Simmons or Aubrey Plaza or even Kiernan Shipka as the voices for characters who are all referencing stuff built out of non-white mythologies. 2012 wasn’t that long ago. So I was excited about the prospect of DiMartino and Konietzko going back to this world again for Netflix’s live-action Avatar remake and actually casting native and Asian actors (unlike the live-action movie we shall never discuss), though I’m less enthused about that remake after they left over creative differences with Netflix. Sure, you could make an Avatar show without the two of them, but one of the things that Korra proved is those creators alway seemed open to tweaking and further exploring this big universe they’d created. I guess that’s what Korra’s big, moving final gesture is all about.
ZH: The new live-action is a rare chance to make so many Avatar casting choices right and, really, the least they could do. You’re so right, though, Korra’s expansion on TLA’s history and lore is a testament to the original inspirations, both culturally and stylistically. The animation in Korra is breathtaking, thanks to South Korean animation house Studio Mir. In fact, I’ll say it: The animation is what gets me through some of Korra’s big, moving endings.
Ultimately, I just wish we had more time for it all — more introspection, more airbenders, more Zhu Li, more gay panic. What comforts me about the finale is that after all this time spent dismantling the Aang journey, Korra’s ending mirrors his. The world is evolving and they don’t know where it’s going, but they know what they’re doing. (Yes, all I’ve been doing in quarantine is watching cartoons and crying …) Korra is a ride, whether or not you’ve seen The Last Airbender. The puns, the lovable animal companions, and the scene-stealing minor characters all make for an entertaining binge-watch, even if you just want to get to the finale’s bisexual twist. Yes, they could’ve done more, but it certainly left the door open for Korra’s uncertain but hopeful future. Part of the show’s legacy is its sprawling universe, and that includes the world the fans built for it online based on that finale.