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Legend of Korra’s messy, complicated legacy

The Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel brings its complex female hero, divided fandom, and fraught history to Netflix.

Korra looks over Republic City in this promotional art for The Legend of Korra.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The Legend of Korra hits Netflix on August 14, the first time since its original 2012-2014 run that the cult hit cartoon — a follow-up to the beloved animated fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender has been available on the streaming giant. But as exciting as that is for new and returning viewers, they shouldn’t expect more from the Airbender sequel. Korra is very different from its predecessor, and for all that some fans fiercely love and defend it, just as many consider it to be a blight on Airbender’s sparkling record.

In fact, while Airbender became one of the most influential animated TV shows of its generation, Korra may be one of the most controversial of its own.

Where Airbender garnered universal acclaim for its multicultural world, critique of colonialism, and respectful, allegorical portrayal of different Asian cultures, Korra was roundly and loudly criticized upon release — for everything from having an “unlikable” female protagonist, to its sloppy writing and messy plot arcs, to an Americanized worldview that undermines its predecessor’s themes. And where Airbender was Nickelodeon’s critically renowned crown jewel throughout its run, Korra was persona non grata by its fourth and final season. Nick ultimately yanked Korra unceremoniously from TV and wrapped the show up exclusively through the channel’s website.

This troubled history has soured Korra’s legacy. Now, as the show arrives to Netflix with a still-divided Avatar fandom, the context of 2020 reframes much of its themes and politics. Korra may be the same Korra we greeted in 2012 — but it may be even more difficult to grapple with now.

Korra’s polarized reception was mired in sexism from the beginning

Korra, like its title character itself, had a lot to live up to. The Peabody-winning animated fantasy series Airbender has been a beloved favorite ever since its original three-season run on Nickelodeon from 2005–2008. Set in a fantasy world mainly based on Asian cultures, Airbender was acclaimed for its sensitive multicultural storytelling, which revolved around a team of “benders” — people who can manipulate the four elements — using their powers to stop an aggressive, militarized nation from its violent conquest of neighboring countries. In addition to carefully avoiding harmful Orientalist tropes, the show took pains to depict its various cultural allegories as distinct. And with a pre-planned, three-season story arc, it got to deeply invest in both its world-building and its characters over time, allowing it to evolve organically to a deeply satisfying conclusion.

After all of Airbender’s success, however, came the disastrous 2010 M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film adaptation. The movie spent years battling widely publicized fan backlash over its racist casting (coining the term “racebending” after the show’s element “benders”). When it was released in June 2010, the finished product turned out to be a giant artistic embarrassment. Fans were eager for the franchise to overcome the film's ignominy, and the show’s creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, were eager to change the conversation — so in July 2010, they announced the coming Nickelodeon cartoon sequel, with this now-famous art preview of the next Avatar: Korra.

A new Avatar for a new era.

Legend of Korra was an ambitious follow-up — much like its main character. If Airbender’s main character, Aang, is a lovable, sweet-tempered boy, Korra is an irascible, cocky, rash teen girl. Aang is a lovable all-powerful kid who grows steadily into his identity and powers; Korra has to learn to be the Avatar through a series of grievous mistakes and errors in judgment. With swagger, braggadocio, and seemingly endless willpower and strength, she sported traits that would make her an ideal traditional hero — if she’d been a traditional male hero with a traditional male hero arc.

But Korra has things much harder than Aang. As a teenager, she’s desperate to ascend to her full powers; she’s rash and immature, often lashing out at people and events that hold her back. Her over-reliance on her physical strength remains an obstacle as she grapples with fear, vulnerability, and, later on, severe PTSD that leaves her largely having to rebuild her sense of self — and sidelined for most of the final season.

That weakness is hardly what we’re used to seeing from our larger-than-life fantasy heroes. Compared to Aang, who was happy-go-lucky and loved for it, many viewers considered Korra to be a terrible hero — despite her no-holds-barred physical prowess and aggressive fighting style.

Aang never fought like this.
Nickelodeon via blogginghaley/Tumblr

Janet Varney, Korra’s voice actress, told Vox she disagreed. “I always found her lovable, even when — maybe especially when — she was making mistakes or failing." Because of the nature of animation production, she said, “By the time of Korra’s Book [or season] One release, I had already recorded the whole season and had come to know and really love Korra. So I really only had one way I could imagine portraying her going forward into future Books: to continue to honor her humanity, which included all those qualities some folks decided made her … less ‘likable.’”

Varney said she really hadn’t been aware of the backlash against the character when the show was airing. “My [fandom] experiences were primarily the ones I was having at conventions, and they were overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

“Once in awhile, someone would come up to me after a panel to tell me all the ways they hated Korra, but it was really easy to just say, ‘Sorry she’s not your cup of tea.’ In that environment, with so many intelligent, thoughtful, empowered fans from so many different cultural backgrounds talking about what they loved about the show, I truly thought those people were in the minority. ... It was only years later that I started to truly grasp how divisive the show and character were for people.”

Much of that disdain for Korra is gendered. Aang is a sweet, silly, brave 12-year-old boy; Korra is a teenage girl who bucks traditional female gender roles in prioritizing independence over romance.

“I really do think a lot of hate towards Korra is rooted in internalized misogyny,” Irene, a 19-year-old Korra fan from Atlanta, Georgia, told me. “Characters from Avatar like Zuko and Aang made many bad decisions but get praised for growing from them. Korra makes mistakes, but gets bashed before haters even take the time to see how she’s evolved as a person. It’s beyond me.”

Korra’s character arc sees her grow out of many of her flaws. And for all the show allows her to be abrasive, it also gives her lots of nuance and complexity — particularly when it comes to presenting her mental illness.

”[In] season four, that PTSD storyline is so good and so sad,” Oliver Sava, who reviewed the show for the AV Club, told Vox. “It really did feel groundbreaking for a ‘children’s show’ to really wallow in trauma for episode upon episode. Half of the season was [Korra] just totally broken. Which I think ties into that ‘likable female character’ aspect — it’s a sort of intense vulnerability that I feel women aren’t allowed to show.

Compounding the character’s subversive femininity was the show’s controversial queer ending — an implied relationship between Korra and her former rival-for-love, Asami — which drew equal backlash and praise from fans. Though their romantic relationship — ship name Korrasami — was so barely there that the creators had to confirm it had actually happened after the fact, Korra had one of the first implied examples of queer relationships in children’s animation.

Korra’s now-famous final image.

“I flipped the fuck out at the end of Korra,” Sava told me. “I went crazy. I did not think that they would ever, ever in a million years do that. And I mean, [queer viewers] are starved. ... We want representation, we’ll take it. And ultimately, that final scene — yes, it’s only one scene, but it changes the entire show, the entire context of all the scenes that come before. And I think that’s very important.”

Varney also emphasized what a game-changer Korra’s queerness is. “I’ve since been to conventions in really conservative towns where I have been crushed by the hostility towards Korra’s queerness, and by association my own,” she said. “But those moments are critically important to experience in order to be a part of the continuum that takes us culturally forward. To being better. In all the ways.”

Not all of Korra was as meaningfully progressive as its controversial strong, queer, female lead. Many of its other lofty goals of reimagining the Airbender world received criticism, and rightfully so.

Airbender brilliantly deconstructed colonialism. Korra may undermine its work — even as its themes are more complex than ever.

Because Airbender’s time frame was roughly analogous to the mid-19th century, the creators decided to place Korra in a more technologically advanced era. So they pushed its setting forward about two generations, time-stamping its alternate universe somewhere around 1920 and infusing it with a steampunk-fantasy vibe. Where Airbender had been set in a largely rural world with only minimal technological development, Korra mostly took place in urban settings.

Republic City’s sporting arena, based on the Harmandir Sahib in Punjab, with steampunk dirigibles overhead.

Korra’s setting is beautiful and innovative, but it’s also come under fire for having racist overtones. In a recent Medium essay, writer Jeannette Ng criticized the way Korra leans into a heavily Americanized version of the future. In the piece, she points out many ways in which the show jettisons authentic cultural traditions in favor of embracing white industrialized civilization, all while arguably failing to explore the lingering traces that colonialism has left on the world of Airbender. For instance, its focal city, Republic City, was drawn from an odd combination of Shanghai, Manhattan, and Vancouver, with its culturally Chinese signifiers largely thrust into the background or rarely acknowledged.

Korra’s Republic City, looking a lot like Central Park.

“Everything about how [Korra] writes the future of the cultures feels wrong and insulting,” Ng told me. “It is obvious now when comparing it with The Last Airbender that it just stopped really using cultural shorthands from other cultures as part of its storytelling.”

Ng also pointed out that many elements of the show, especially today, draw comparisons to the Hong Kong resistance movement. “My reading of it cannot [but] be coloured by the conversations right now happening about colour revolutions in Hong Kong,” Ng told me. “I can’t help but keep seeing uncomfortable parallels between how the politics of Earth Kingdom get discussed and how my own city is repeatedly proclaimed as dead and riotous and ungrateful.”

Others would argue that many of the criticisms Ng and others level at the show are part of the show’s embedded critique of the power structures it’s presenting. Irene pointed out to me that the show features “concepts like egalitarianism, anarchy, fascism,” and that among the show’s varied villains are morally gray anarchists who can’t be easily written off as evil or unsympathetic.

The show’s politics have also often been criticized for being a messy, unclear hodgepodge of mixed themes and messaging that fails to do little more than prop up an idealized version of colonized society.

Even more damning for Ng is the bottom line: Korra fails to resonate with her and her other friends of Asian diaspora the way it does for Western viewers. “[Korra] makes me think that all the things I liked about Airbender happened accidentally,” Ng said. “It’s a sequel that retroactively makes the work that came before worse, because now I think, ‘Oh, all the things I thought were good are just ... [accidental].’”

“I think this comes down to behind-the-scenes representation,” Sava said. “These creators aren’t Asian. Of course that Euro influence has [appeared], because that’s their background. Maybe if there were more Asian people in positions of power on the show, there would be more authenticity.” (Airbender did have a credited cultural consultant of Asian descent, Dr. Lee Siu-Leung; Lee is credited on Korra as a translator only.)

Korra’s lack of a more diverse crew and creative team may have been a byproduct of other strains on the production — because the show seemed beset with hurdles from start to finish.

Korra faced production hurdles from start to finish — for being too “risky”

Airbender had the full support of Nickelodeon for a pre-planned three-season story that allowed it to develop organically. Korra, by contrast, always seemed to be going a step too far for the show’s parent network; the show seemed to be as rebellious as Korra was. Its fate was always uncertain from season to season, and that precarious state saw competing narratives emerge — one version where the creators failed to replicate what made Airbender great, and one where Nickelodeon never fully embraced Korra and ultimately buried it along with all its potential.

The likelihood is that both factors are partly true. To start, though the show was announced in 2010, Nickelodeon reportedly delayed the show’s production because of its wariness over a female Avatar. In a 2013 interview, Yoo Jae Myung, who headed Korra’s Korean animation studio, Studio Mir, stated, “Nickelodeon was reluctant to produce this animated series at first ... the production was suspended just because its protagonist was a girl.” (Nickelodeon has not confirmed this report; Vox has reached out to Nickelodeon for comment.)

DiMartino and Konietzko largely tried to write the first two seasons of Korra on their own, without the assistance of the large writers’ room that strengthened Airbender. Though they did eventually draft two former Airbender writers, Josh Hamilton and Tim Hedrick, as well as Airbender writing assistant Katie Matilla, the show got off to an uneven start. Its first two seasons focused a lot of attention on messy love quadrangles that many fans hated. While Korra started out getting high ratings, its season two premiere lost nearly half its viewers, and by the end of season two — generally considered the show’s roughest and rockiest — many more viewers had bailed.

Korra had to fight both a reluctant Nickelodeon and an angry, divided fanbase for its entire, messy run. It didn’t help that Airbender was seen as a children’s show at its core, despite its myriad heavy themes, while Korra was much darker and often described as more “mature” to its commercial detriment. Those themes — ranging from social uprisings and terrorism to villains who actually win victories, leaving heroes vulnerable and defeated — were a big risk for a kids’ show airing on Nickelodeon. And as the story careened along, the show and the network’s relationship started to break down.

Korra’s final season didn’t even get to air on TV — halfway through season three, just when many fans believed the show was at its creative peak, Nickelodeon pulled it from its TV schedule, citing declining ratings. Instead, the last half of season three and all of a truncated season four were only released online.

“You could really feel the fandom becoming very discouraged by season four,” Sava told me. “Not at the quality of the show but at how it was being treated. You could tell that [Nickelodeon] didn’t really care that much for it.”

Varney, however, told Vox she felt the creators had been true to their artistic vision. “I had no doubts about the integrity of the creators’ vision from beginning to end. Mike and Bryan and the team they assembled, including profoundly gifted people like [co-executive producer] Joaquim Dos Santos, are incredibly thorough, precise, and have very strong ideas about their world and their story arcs. From my perspective, they stayed their course.”

She also said that from her perspective, she saw only support from Nickelodeon. “It actually hurts my heart to know that people think of that whole thing as Nick ‘washing its hands of the show,’” she said. Though she admits to being “confused” by the decision to move Korra off the air and onto the Nick website, “Nick was still doing a ton of publicity, marketing, taking us to [San Diego Comic-Con and New York City Comic Con], etc., so I never felt at all like they were washing their hands of us.”

But she understood how the network shifts looked to fans. “I bet I would have felt exactly the same way — no matter what the intentions were behind it all. Certainly in the years since, that still comes up when I’m chatting with fans of the show.”

Perhaps even more telling than its promotion of the show, however, is that these days, Nickelodeon barely acknowledges Korra’s existence. Though there’s a lone landing page on the Nickelodeon website for Airbender, it makes no mention of Korra at all. Not until April 2020, just before Airbender’s Netflix release, did the company finally create a YouTube channel for Airbender fans — as if the entire franchise, and Korra in particular, are giant afterthoughts despite their successes.

All of this confusing history just makes the show all the more primed for a timely cultural reappraisal. But if many fans both new and old are looking forward to the Netflix release, plenty more are gearing up to re-wage old battles.

If Airbender was beloved, Korra is hugely divisive — and people are already fighting over it prior to the rerelease

When Airbender arrived on Netflix in May, it was an instant hit. It reentered the cultural conversation faster than you could say “Yip-yip,” trending at the top of Netflix’s Top 10 for weeks and renewing conversations about the series’ lasting influence and impact.

Given this success, it’s hardly any surprise that Netflix quickly followed up on Airbender’s buzz by announcing in late July that it would soon be adding Korra to its library. The news sparked much rejoicing among Korra fans, many of whom hadn’t seen the show since it aired, as well as new Airbender fans eager to see the sequel.

But if many fans were overjoyed by the news, many others were disgruntled. Even before Korra’s streaming debut, open conflicts have sprung up across the Avatar fandom, with many fans lamenting that they don’t have a sequel focused just on their original favorite characters — Airbender’s Avatar Aang and his friends.

Additionally, many fans have been rehashing the old comparisons between Aang and Korra, often with the requisite sexism and homophobia embedded in the arguments against Korra. And other critiques are surfacing: In addition to cultural critiques like Ng’s, the show’s been dinged for its “overwhelmingly white” voice cast, its argued lack of memorable characters, and for just not being as much fun as its predecessor.

Irene told me she’s torn on what to expect when the show regains the internet’s attention once Korra starts streaming. “On one hand, I’m super ecstatic that so many more people can get the chance to watch Korra now that it will be more accessible,” she said. “On another hand, I just know there’s going to be even more nasty comments from Korra haters who don’t even want to try to give the show a chance.”

The most important thing, though, is that the haters won’t ruin her love of the show. Korra, for all its faults, is still a gorgeously animated, action-packed, engaging drama, with a female protagonist who’s flawed, funny, resilient, and relatable.

“She’s such an interesting character,” Irene told me, “because she starts off as this brash, hotheaded girl who’s constantly defying orders, but after going through so much emotional turmoil she learns from her mistakes and develops into a much better person who is compassionate towards others. We rarely see female characters in television that are as strong-minded as her, and it’s refreshing to see a character who isn’t perfect and who has room for development.”

Irene also said she hoped viewers would give the show time to develop. “The vast majority of people agree that the storylines in [season three and season four] are much more entertaining, action-packed, and emotionally riveting,” she said.

For Varney, Korra’s arrival to Netflix isn’t only an opportunity to grow the fanbase, but to inspire more people.

“Put simply, being on this show has so far been the most profound and meaningful part of my career,” she said. She credits the show, and Korra’s character, with bringing her into contact with countless fans who drew inspiration from Korra’s survival of trauma, her queer identity, and her strength.

“Maybe it sounds cheesy, but there is nothing, just nothing better than that feeling,” Varney said. “When someone — and there have been so many, so wonderfully many! — tells me they got the courage to come out to their parents because of Korra and Asami … I mean, that just wrecks me in the best, best way.”

Varney told me her hope is that more people get to experience Korra in a new context.

“Now that the show may be accessible and seen by people for the first time ... ultimately my hope is that now more people get to see the show and be moved by it, inspired by it — maybe to see how flawed Korra is and take comfort in the idea that you can be a mess and still be a hero. If more of that happens, I’ll be really glad.”

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