The main characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are defined not just by loss, but large, soul-destroying personal traumas. Aang, the main character, may be pretty giddy about bending all four elements, but he has to deal with waking up a hundred years after the genocide of his people. His issues of cultural displacement are revisited throughout the series. Zuko, the antihero and Aang’s initial antagonist, may be a prince, but he must face being abandoned by his mother and tormented by his father, the Fire Lord.
The Legend of Korra takes a different route with its protagonist. Set seventy-five years after the first series, Korra is a powerful and enthusiastic Avatar born and raised with every advantage. She doesn’t have a large trauma in her background, at least not one as big as death or abandonment.
It’s established that Korra has led a sheltered life, one largely friendless due to her Avatar training but buoyed by supportive, loving parents and single-minded teachers.
What she loses during the first season of LoK as she tries to save Republic City from Amon is not culture, parental support, or identity, but confidence. Korra’s growth as a character isn’t measured by what she can come to terms with in her past but what she builds in her present.
This leads to much more subtle character building. Korra’s the protagonist, sure, but she has to learn how to be “good” and what the Avatar role means to her. Her teachers have taught her a certain perception of herself. The antagonist in the first season may be Amon, a masked assailant rallying all the anti-benders in the city, but Korra’s biggest obstacle is herself.
I think this is the root of why the sequel series has such a different feel for fans. Aang, in his first season, fights to find his place in the world, specifically in “The Siege of the North” Parts 1 and 2, where he ends up going into the Avatar state to protect the Northern Water Tribe. In these episodes, Zuko fights to capture the Avatar only to hit a personal crisis when he does, realizing this may not be what he wants after all.
Korra, in her first season, just wants to be who she thinks she is in the first place:
the powerful Avatar. She suffers losses before the first season finale, true, but what she loses — her love interest, Mako, and three of her four bending powers — are restored quickly in the finale. Her world may be grimmer and grittier, what with Amon eventually becoming a full-blown terrorist, but in some ways, the character stakes feel lower.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Aang and Zuko’s tragedies make it easy for the audience of A:TLA to sympathize with them. Yes, The Last Airbender may have a lot of shades of gray, but it’s never a question who the audience is meant to root for. As the audience, you are with Aang as soon as Katara alludes to there being “no more airbenders” in the first episode, “The Boy in the Iceberg.” When Zuko’s abuse at the hands of his father is revealed in “The Storm,” we see his frustration and hatred of the Avatar are born from his wish to gain acceptance from his father.
Korra’s desires are less complex because she appears to only want to do good in the role that’s been given to her from birth (“Welcome to Republic City”), but it’s more difficult to see if she’s always in the right when pursuing this goal. Her lack of a background tragedy makes her more complicated as a character, changing her from someone who’s 100% sympathetic to someone more fallible and human. She’s extraordinary in what she pushes herself to achieve, not what she’s risen above.
I think much of the audience, like myself, wants to fantasize that we’re Aang or Zuko, and it’s us against the world. We struggle against people who have hurt or are trying to hurt us. I wonder, though, if the more of the audience is like Korra, instead. Our struggles might instead come from our expectations versus reality. How much of life for the generation I’m apart of is harder than it needs to be simply because, like Korra, we all thought things would just fall into place?
I appreciate this change in writing. The Legend of Korra really has been established as its own series. It’s easy to feel for a character completely orphaned by circumstance, and while this certainly doesn’t make Aang and Zuko badly written, it’s a short-cut to compelling drama. Making Korra in the same mold would have been the writers re-creating the same show. Korra’s conflicts are about debating her own worth within the identity she assumes she must have. Avatar: The Last Airbender’s characters, due to the higher contrast of their conflicts, are easier to feel for.
So, perhaps, Korra needs to lose something dear to make her own conflicts as, if not more, enriching. The finale of The Legend of Korra’s first season, “Endgame,” has its high points, but an ending that wraps everything up in a tight bow isn’t one of them. Korra gets back all her powers and gets a boyfriend in the space of a few seconds. It’s a moment that shows the writers really trying to adjust to a compressed season size (A:TLA has 20+ episodes a season, LoK around 12 to 14) and it’s paced strangely. Korra has a goal and achieves that goal, the conflict minimal and internal.
The Legend of Korra’s season two finale, “Light in the Dark,” however, gives us a main character who loses a great many more things. In season two, she fights with her family, allows the antagonist, Chief Unalaq, to take control of the Southern Water Tribe, and lets her stress deteriorate the relationship she has with Mako.
Only when Korra begins humbled does she earn the ability to overcome the obstacles she’s set up for herself. Much of what Korra loses is restored, like her family and the peace in the Southern Water Tribe, but Korra and Mako remain broken up and our hero also has to grapple with the results of Unalaq’s world takeover.
Korra ends the season sad but with humility. This can be contrasted with Aang and Zuko, who fight against what others have done to them, but, by and large, tend to learn from the mistakes of those who came before them rather than their own gaffes. Even Zuko, who does a lot wrong as an antihero, creates problems for himself and the other characters due the programming he’s undergone by his father. Korra has to work to absolve herself, not just correct the conflicts around her.
Because of the problems she creates and then solves for herself, the losses she feels and the obstacles she creates and overcomes, I think Korra has the most potential to grow and change as a character. Audiences see a flawed character working not to overcome a trauma or tragic backstory, but to take responsibility. Korra may suffer, as most main characters in stories with conflicts must, but she can’t always be a victim of circumstance. In starting with a more immature protagonist, audiences ultimately see a more mature story. Aang and Zuko are characters trying to re-orient themselves in their cultures and world, but Korra is a young woman truly learning how to be an adult.