• Wed. Apr 24th, 2024

The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

Water, earth, fire, air. Twenty-odd years ago, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created Avatar: The Last Airbender, the beloved animated children’s series that became renowned for its refined action sequences, and the precision and emotional maturity of its storytelling. Now, years after a disastrous live-action film adaptation, it’s getting a new Netflix live-action series, which begets a look back at the episodes that made the original, and its sequel series The Legend of Korra, carry in the memory of many 20-somethings who grew up on the richly told adventure.

The story is one of oppression and rebellion. When The Last Airbender starts, the world is under the yoke of the tyrannical Fire Nation, having warred against its neighboring Water and Earth nations as well as entirely wiping out the nomadic Air nation (they’re named so because their citizens can control, or “bend,” those elements). The young boy Aang is the last survivor of the air nation, as well as the Avatar — a legendary figure reincarnated to maintain balance with his unique ability to control all four of the aforementioned elements. Along with the Water Tribe children Katara (Mae Whitman of Scott Pilgrim fame) and Sokka (Jack DeSena), Aang seeks to take down the despotic Fire Lord (Mark Hamill) while evading the exiled Fire Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) and his kindly Uncle Iroh (played by Mako, then Greg Baldwin).

Set a couple of generations later, The Legend of Korra aged up its new main characters, perhaps to reflect the maturing audience of the first series, leaning into more teen angst and melodrama and eventually following these characters into their early 20s. The show wasn’t without its problems, but much like its title character, Korra often overcame a heavy burden of expectations. There’s a lot of fun in seeing time move forward, especially in its faux-20th-century facsimile of New York (where the Statue of Liberty instead looks like Aang), an age of industry given an Avatar-flavored twist (there’s even a Howard Hughes–esque comic-relief character). That modernization isn’t just change for the sake of it, but brings an interesting new complication for Korra as a new avatar — one not fighting for a balance between nations, but in a broader, more existential sense as the world changes at increasing speed.

All of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series premieres and finales are astonishingly good, so I won’t waste your time by reaffirming that “The Siege of the North,” “The Crossroads of Destiny,” or the four-part “Sozin’s Comet” comfortably stand among the best series finales of any animated series, let alone a children’s one, because that much is obvious. Instead, this list mostly focuses on the greatness found in The Last Airbender’s more episodic, standalone plots. In the case of the more serialized The Legend of Korra, this list also avoids as many premieres and finales as possible, albeit with a couple exceptions. These episodes represent both shows at their best, where intimate and personal stories collide with the franchise’s rich fantasy mythology.

This early episode demonstrates that it isn’t only Aang who will be pushed to grow up over the course of the series. While Aang becomes aware of how seriously he needs to take his role as the avatar with the understanding that his mere presence can put a target on a place for the pursuing Fire Nation, Sokka acts like a sexist jerk and is subsequently shamed for it. It’s a crucial weakness of the character, something that the new live-action show has, ill-advisedly, elected to ignore to make him more likable. “The Warriors of Kyoshi” kicks off a long and rewarding arc for Sokka as he’s humbled by Suki, the leader of a group of warrior women, who becomes a key member of the supporting cast herself. Sokka’s relationship with Suki evolves from adversarial, to respect and then admiration — a simple lesson, elegantly executed, for a character that could easily have remained just the funny guy with the boomerang.

What at first seems like a quiet standalone episode on the way to bigger things turns out to be one of the most important for character development. Aang shares the circumstances in which he found out he was the avatar, and Uncle Iroh tells Zuko’s increasingly irate crew of his nephew’s past. Just as Aang and Zuko’s struggles have been told in parallel, their respective pasts are unveiled in tandem. Zuko’s emotional turmoil is evident from the show’s beginning, but this episode masterfully reveals what lies beneath his rageful exterior: a good heart. Aang’s struggle with the scale of his responsibility combined with an exploration of Zuko’s cruel upbringing and exile push this to the very top of Avatar’s must-see list.

This late season-one episode shows off the Water Tribe’s wealthier half, full of ice-sculpted splendor — but, appropriately, it’s also a nation frozen in place because of systemic misogyny, something represented by its eponymous waterbending master. Avatar had already explored this attitude through Sokka in the early season banger “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” but this episode looks at it as a cultural problem, not just through great character work but through some killer action to boot. Katara’s (doomed) fight against the waterbending master is among the season’s best: flashy, personal, and, appropriately, incredibly fluid in its presentation. It also leads into the first season’s two-part blockbuster finale, “The Siege of the North,” which carries the episode’s B-plot— a romance between Sokka and Yui, the princess of the Northern Water Tribe — to a compellingly tragic conclusion.

“The Blind Bandit” isn’t just memorable for introducing core cast member Toph Beifong, but also for its hilarious gags. Aang is searching for an earthbending teacher based on the cryptic ramblings of his old friend, the Earth King Omashu. They find her in a place least expected: Earth Rumble 6, a parody of pro-wrestling that features players like “the Boulder,” a heel who speaks about himself in a third-person parlance much like a certain electrifying WWE figure. But it’s Toph who makes the immediate strong impression, through both her no-nonsense attitude and how she senses movement through earthbending with a Daredevil-esque radar.

Much of Zuko’s arc is about realizing the cruelty of his family, both reflecting on the sadism of his sister, Azula, and his father, the Fire Lord, during his childhood and seeing that cruelty imposed upon the world, driven to desperation by the Fire Nation’s conquest. Up to this point we’ve watched his story told directly alongside Aang’s, but “Zuko Alone” pushes the show’s best character to the center as he gets a Clint Eastwood–esque “man rides into town” story. Roaming the Earth nation alone, he comes across a destitute town ruled by earthbending mercenaries, and takes it upon himself to liberate them. Of course, his Fire Nation heritage is met with disdain, sowing the seeds for later introspection: Why would he want to reclaim his birthright as heir to a tyrannical throne? This is a non-debatable episode when it comes to talking about the show’s high points, and it arrives in the middle of a pretty unimpeachable run for the series, including the following episode, “The Chase.”

The Last Airbender’s first (and only) anthology episode features six short stories focusing on disparate character pairings dotted around the vast expanse of Ba Sing Se, an Earth Kingdom city. The second segment is the standout, a story about Iroh that is as funny and generous as the man himself. But what lingers in the memory strongest is its coda, a song sung by Iroh in mourning of his son, which now doubles as the show’s eulogy to Iroh’s distinctive voice — his voice actor, Mako, died in 2006 before the episode aired. The words “Leaves From the Vine”are sure to quietly devastate any fan of the show upon their utterance.

There are a lot of lore-heavy episodes of Avatar’s third season as it barrels towards its grand conclusion, so “The Beach” stands apart as a hangout with the show’s moodiest group, Zuko’s pack, on their “enforced vacation.” While the B-plot with the Aang Gang has plenty of fireworks, “The Beach” is primarily a great character study, using its downtime to give more depth to the antagonists while playing on the show’s usual juxtaposition between its characters’ youth and the scale of their responsibility. It also uses that contrast for some great gags, as Azula keeps her “I’m going to burn the world” dialogue throughout even the most mundane activities. But there’s an undercurrent of sympathy — a clearer perspective on why she is the way that she is. That willingness to slow down and sit with these characters is a crucial part of the show’s lasting appeal, a reminder that a lot of the best parts of Avatar are in its episodic plots.

The series did spooky before with its hallucinatory trips into swamps haunted by the spirit world, but this is a more earthly tale of power corrupting. The episode returns to a proclamation from “The Avatar and the Firelord” that no one is inherently good or bad, that such things are born of circumstance and conditioning. Even waterbending, to this point portrayed as one of the good kinds of bending, can have a sinister edge. “Bloodbending” is one of the show’s more nightmarish concepts, here appropriately introduced in a village where people disappear under the full moon. But it’s still not a simple matter of monster and victim, as “The Puppetmaster” builds a horror story out of the Fire Nation’s history of conquest.

Team Avatar and their accumulated allies finally take the offensive against the Fire Nation at a key moment of advantage. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and the upending of their plans makes this irresistible, frantic viewing. It also serves as the completion of Zuko’s long arc toward self-determination. He’s finally made sense of everything: the revelations of his family’s past, the abuse he’s received at their hands, all that he’s seen in his travels as an exile, and the dissatisfaction of finally getting what he wants (as seen in the also excellent “The Beach”). In a terse conversation with his father, Zuko finally stands up for himself, at last fully aware of how his family’s poison has spread outward.

While the following episode “The Boiling Rock,” excellent in its own right, draws the battle lines and the path forward for the rest of the series, the best parts of Avatar aren’t always in the clarity but in the search for it. This much is true of “The Firebending Masters” which, wouldn’t you know it, has Zuko in another existential crisis. He’s on the side of the angels now (though not everyone is thrilled to have him there), but that in turn has taken something from him: his anger, the source of his firebending, which he needs to teach Aang. It also contains, in my opinion, one of the most exciting moments in the show, in which the series’s end-credits song emerges diegetically, a chant to summon Aang and Zuko’s would-be teachers. Not only is there hope that the ruinous history of the Fire Nation didn’t claim everything, but also a path forward for firebending, an art to this point only considered for its danger. In the right hands, it also gives life.

Honorable mentions: “The Southern Air Temple,” “Jet,” “The Deserter,” “The Chase,” “The King of Omashu,” “The Library,” “Lake Laogai,” “The Avatar and the Firelord,” “The Boiling Rock,” “The Ember Island Players”

From the start, Korra immediately sets its avatar apart from Aang through a couple of character traits: Korra is a broad-shouldered bruiser, she’s very impulsive, and she really wants to be the avatar. Another key difference is that she sucks at airbending, despite learning from Aang’s own son Tenzin (a wonderful J.K. Simmons), because of the soft touch that it demands. “A Leaf in the Wind” finds a fun way to tie together both world-building and Korra’s training arc via “pro-bending,” a weird hybridized sport that also underlines the modernized setting of The Legend of Korra. The episode builds on the excellent setup of the pilot while bringing out Korra’s unique strengths and weaknesses, and introduces its supporting cast: the well-meaning moron Bolin and his (dull, serious) brother Mako.

The plucky underdog story of Korra’s pro-bending team “The Fire Ferrets” is derailed by the season’s big bad, Amon, the leader of “the Equalists,” a revolutionary movement that sounds pretty reasonable on paper. A good episode of Korra usually also means some great fight scenes, and this is no exception. Its climactic battle makes full use of the show’s new concepts as “metalbenders” use metal cables to ascend the stadium and Korra faces strong resistance from “chi-blockers,” non-powered combatants who can counter any element bending. The Legend of Korra fully kicks into gear as the (fake) sports action gives way to real peril, leading the season down a path full of fun twists and turns to a powerful finale.

Not only the best episodes of Korra’s second season but perhaps of the show as a whole, “Beginnings” is an origin story for the concept of the avatar. It’s rather risky — the Star Wars prequels are proof that over-explaining fantastical magic can be a little boring — but “Beginnings” turns its expansion of the Avatar myth into an incredibly compelling standalone tale, anchored by a wonderful voice performance from Steven Yeun (who has since proven to be an excellent voice actor in shows like Invincible) and art direction unlike anything the show had done before. Styled after woodblock print and traditional ink-wash paintings, the experimental design makes the episode shine even brighter.

As The Legend of Korra ventures into new territory for Avatar in the spirit realm, this episode anchors itself in the familiar, with welcome appearances from old friends and foes. It’s perhaps the most overtly fan service-y the show gets, but any skepticism dissipates with the return of Iroh. Not only is it nice to see him, but the Spirit World is a fun space for the animators to play in with a landscape that is flexible and ephemeral. Beyond Korra’s material mission of thwarting her misanthropic uncle Unalaq, placing Korra here clarifies her mission as the Avatar — one fighting not just for a balance between nations, but also for balance between nature and civilization, modernization and tradition, stability and change.

The third season of Korra, which it titles “Changes,” is the show’s overall best, capitalizing on the shifts in status quo set in motion by the second season finale. The nearly extinct Air Nation is miraculously reborn, and Korra goes about searching for new airbenders, which brings her to the metal city of Zaofu, where one of her companions reluctantly reunites with estranged family. Like season two’s “Civil Wars,” “Old Wounds” is another episode about the difficulties the older characters experienced growing up in the shadows of legends. The steely Lin Beifong and her more free-spirited half-sister Suyin are the focus, as they reconcile their strained relationship and grapple with their mother Toph’s approach to parenting. It eventually comes to blows, and in the moment it’s cool to see two expert earthbenders tear up a palace garden — but it’s just as engaging to see the fallibility of old heroes, and the adults struggling to better themselves as much as the kids are.

If there’s any one thing about The Legend of Korra that could never be argued against, it’s the action. In its latter half, “The Ultimatum” has one of my favorite examples, with the fight at the Air Temple. It’s a scene that lingers in my memory, technically dazzling and playful with the unique fighting techniques and designs of the characters: like a waterbender who uses water in place of her arms and a lavabender who shapes magma into discs. As the season’s big bad Zaheer (Henry Rollins!!) and his gang try to hold the fledgling air nomads hostage, Aang’s kids (Tenzin, Kaya and Bumi) refuse to let themselves and their students become leverage, and fight in a tense battle to defend their late father’s dream, as well as his reincarnation in Korra. It also has another Iroh appearance following “A New Spiritual Age” that really pushes it over the top as the season barrels towards its end.

The Last Airbender was about toppling a big bad evil empire, a rather easy cause to root for. Korra is a bit thornier, a clash of different parties that want lasting progress. The looming threat of Zaheer, a new airbender who wants to kill the Avatar, also comes with some interesting provocations like his assassination of a corrupt monarch, the Earth Queen. This complexity or purpose more often than not puts Korra herself on the side of the status quo, and the show continually challenges her on the long-term goals of her fight. But it also plays up the psychological toll of being the Avatar, perhaps more so than its predecessor ever did. “Venom of the Red Lotus” might be the darkest chapter for Korra as she pays a price not just for trying to do the right thing, but simply for the role she was born into. Zaheer is beaten in the end, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory, and Korra’s path forward into the final season is made more complicated by it.

Just as Zuko found himself through solitary, painful introspection, here Korra is recuperating from the previous season finale without her team at her back. A lot of time has passed, the episode prior detailing an exciting three-year time jump. The Last Airbender was comfortable with challenging young audiences with quite upsetting storylines, and “Korra Alone” is an outstanding doubling down as it unpacks the lingering psychological wounds sustained by her battle with Zaheer. The severity of that struggle isn’t something quickly overcome — it may be something that stays with her forever. That honesty is what makes the episode so powerful, and one of the very best of the series.

If “Korra Alone” made clear the severity of Korra’s mental scars from her battle with Zaheer, “The Battle of Zaofu” drives home how long they’ll take to heal. The season’s new threat Kuvira, a former ally, is now the self-styled “Great Uniter,” building an Earth Empire and looking to annex the independent city of Zaofu. Its founder Suyin is captured, and Korra is challenged to a one-on-one duel to save the city. The fight itself is great, if a little upsetting to watch as Korra finds herself on the back foot — the episode is impressive for its commitment to showing her journey to recovery will be hard won. At the same time, the fight over Zaofu exacerbates the painful rifts opened between friends and family alike, divided between those who believe in Kuvira’s cause and those who see it as an affront.

I’ve broken my own rule again — but the series finale of The Legend of Korra is tricky to ignore. Its first part gives dazzling spectacle as Korra and her friends fight off Kuvira’s imperial forces. The second part, “The Last Stand,” sticks the landing, while also standing as something of a key moment in children’s television. It’s the smallest of gestures: Korra and Asahi join hands, implying they are in a romantic relationship (with behind-the-scenes confirmation from the showrunners). Watching it now, a decade later, it hardly feels all that subversive, but look at reactions from the time, and the significance of the moment becomes much greater. American children’s entertainment has been rocky in its depiction of queer relationships of any kind, and the finale of Korra feels like it opened the door not just to the Spirit World, but to much more for kids in the U.S.

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