Unpopular Opinion: Avatar – The Last Airbender vs The Legend of Korra

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I know, I know some people don’t think Avatar counts as anime.  I respectfully disagree and I explained why here.  Honestly at this point arguments over whether Avatar should or shouldn’t count as anime aren’t that interesting to me.  A far more interesting one, and one which I see a lot less of is the question of how the two different Avatar sagas compare.  There will be spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.

I feel like this particular comparison doesn’t get made enough or get taken seriously enough because while a lot of people have seen the Last Airbender, I’ve found that less people have seen Legend of Korra.  Moreover there is a tendency to automatically declare the Last Airbender the winner by way of nostalgia.  However I think the two are on pretty even terms, to the point where I can’t say with confidence which one I like better.  Let’s do an overview on their differences before I get into their particular strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest differences between the two Avatar sagas is their overall structure and the age of the main characters.  The Last Airbender is clearly aimed at a younger audience even if an older audience can fully appreciate it.  All of the characters are very young, they’re all low to mid teens even by the end of their journey.  The Legend of Korra is aimed at an older audience, the characters are young adults, at the very least they look at least 18 and most of them have jobs.  The age difference will inform a lot of tonal differences between the two Avatar sagas but I’ll get into that in more detail later.  The other main difference is their story structure.  The Last Airbender is one continuous tale, an epic adventure told in three parts as it were.  It lasts 61 episodes and during that time it is dedicated to one over-arching conflict, with plenty of subplots to spice up the journey.  The Legend of Korra is slightly shorter, clocking in at 52 episodes, and while all the seasons build on each other and are loosely tied together, each story covers it’s own distinct conflict.  Likewise the two sagas are broken up differently, the Last Airbender is broken into 3 books, while Legend of Korra is broken into 4 books.  Now onto the weaknesses of each.

Both Avatar sagas have a tendency to feature comedy and melodrama scenes which I can only describe as “it makes me cringe.”  I have a really hard time seeing earnest, likable characters make utter fools out of themselves and awkward juvenile romance has a similar effect.  The Legend of Korra is probably less of a problem on this front because the relationships feel at least more like late high school or college level romances, though the cringey humor is still a persistent problem. That said I do kind of hate how almost all of the cringey bits in Legend of Korra are dumped onto one character and thus makes me feel that he is woefully underappreciated whereas the Last Airbender spread those scenes around more, even if Sokka was where the source of the majority of those scenes.  The Last Airbender, because it’s one big story and the longer of the two sagas has more episodes which are one-off stories which may or may not matter.  Most of the less important one-of episodes happen early in the story, as the Last Airbender continues the more focused the story gets.  Legend of Korra on the other hand has more random problems related to each season, though the change in how Legend of Korra treats the avatar state is one of the most consistent problems, so I’ll describe those as I go.

Like their shared weaknesses, both Avatar sagas share some strengths.  The bending and fight choreography is excellent across both sagas.  Both sagas feature creative fighting tactics, awesome displays of raw power, and importantly, battles where the heroes are in no way in control.  Most battles in both sagas are struggles, Team Avatar rarely steamrolls anyone and sometimes they are forced to retreat or outright lose.  Likewise, even though bending is the main mode of combat various martial arts, beasts and tools can tip the balance in any fighter’s favor.  The settings of both stories are detailed and nuanced, though Legend of Korra involves a lot less traveling around meaning it’s settings generally get more attention while the Last Airbender does a better job of fleshing out the world as a whole.  Both sagas have a strong group of central characters and imposing villains as well.

I think what will determine which show you like more will ultimately come down to which of the two following things you find more interesting: A grand adventure story of epic scope and world shattering consequences wherein an underdog hero most overcome incredible odds to the save the day, or a series of conflicts full of a smattering of different ideas wherein an overdog must fight against powerful individuals for the greater good.  Personally I find Aang’s story more appealing when it comes to narrative, however I’m also a huge fan of the mish-mash of interesting ideas which color Korra’s story.  The fact that the Avatars are underdog and overdog in their respective sagas is a factor to consider as well.  This has a substantial effect on the nature of conflict in the stories.  In the Last Airbender Aang stands up to fight and defend key locations when he has to but most of the time he’s forced to run and fight another day.  In the Legend of Korra it’s the reverse, the bad guys try a plan and when it fails they’re usually the ones running.  Likewise in the Last Airbender it’s up to the heroes to be the inventive and creative ones to overcome the difference in power, tricking the bad guys to win the day, in the Legend of Korra the bad guys are the one’s being crafty and the good guys are frequently getting deceived.

Here I want to talk about the cons of the sagas.  The Last Airbender’s cons come almost entirely from the “cringe” scenes detailed above and occasional pointless episode, the only other real factor is that you might want older heroes because the Last Airbender’s are on the young end, younger than I typically like.  The Legend of Korra on the other hand has a collection of small problems in addition to the cringe.  I don’t like who they handled the spirits, it’s very inconsistent with some spirits being amazing or fitting into the tone the Last Airbender set for the spirit world and others are generic vague shapes of darkness.  The avatar state is another issue in the Last Airbender not only was it substantially more powerful but it also represented a loss of control and Aang had to undergo special training to master it.  Korra seems to be able to use the Avatar state at will despite no such training but it does little more than give her a decent power boost, she doesn’t lose control nor gain access to the same kind of power Aang did.  And this is the case both before and after her connection to the prior Avatars is severed so it doesn’t make sense.  Lastly, lightning.  In the Last Airbender it was the pinnacle of firebending and a skill few could use.  It’s used too much in the Legend of Korra.  It makes sense for a pro-bender like Mako to use lighting but somehow a random gang boss using lightning seems like a stretch.  It doesn’t help a bunch of electrocution tech is produced and used all over the place in the series as well.

Let’s talk advantages.  I think the Last Airbender has the better narrative and at least two of the best characters, Toph and Zuko, both of whom show up as old people in the Legend of Korra.  I think I also have to give Aang a slight edge over Korra because seeing her get tricked all the time isn’t quite as interesting as seen Aang trick other people all the time, though her being older is a plus.  As described above the Last Airbender is an underdog story and it takes place on an enormous scale.  My only real problem with the narrative is a lack of nuance, with only a few exceptions all the firebenders are bad and everyone else is good.  The narrative does justify this in broad strokes, it is after all a central conceit of the story that the Fire Nation attacked 100 years ago, but it would certainly be interesting if we got the perspective of a firebender who didn’t necessarily agree with what was going on but had little choice but to fight for his country, or something like that.  Iroh sort of fits that role but it’s not until deep into the first book that it becomes apparent.  It’s hard to say for sure but I think most of tactics used in bending battles are better in the Last Airbender as well, though the Legend of Korra has some interesting ideas of it’s own, mostly where unique or special benders are concerned.

The Last Airbender spent a lot of time fleshing out a huge, well constructed world.  It built distinct cultures and put a lot of detail into how the bending powers would shape the construction of cities, weaponry, cultures and events.  The Legend of Korra directly benefited from the pain-staking effort poured in from it’s predecessor, however it’s not slouch on the setting front either.  The Legend of Korra features a few new locations, most notably Republic City and Zaofu, the home of the metal bending clan.  In addition it shows how technology has advanced over the last few decades, how there’s now a professional bending sport, pro-bending, and many metal benders make the bulk of Republic City’s, a city Aang and Zuko co-found after the events of the Last Airbender, police force.

There’s also lot of focus on things that were created as a direct result of what happened in the Last Airbender.  For example, the main conflict of the first season of the Legend of Korra dealt with the tensions between benders and non-benders as a sizable faction of non-benders called the Equalists wanted to do away with bending entirely so everyone could be equal, you know like SJWs, dragging people down to establish “equality.”  That’s not a joke there’s even a non-bender guy Korra meets early on who whines about how oppressed he is by benders despite clearly having an education and freedom of speech without the threat of violence, at least until he pisses off Korra, it’s fucking prophetic.  And like the SJWs, the Equalists have their own militant movement that attacks benders and their main weapons are a mix of new tech and the chi-blocking technique invented by Tai Lee in the Last Airbender.

Likewise the children of the Last Airbender’s main cast play a prominent role, there are several stretches where they have to examine and work through familial issues they had and still have.  For example Toph’s two daughters, half-sisters born to different fathers, went down very different paths because Toph gave them all the freedom in the world in response to how her own parents were overly strict and controlling, and this caused them to clash and left a scar on their relationship. Which is something they have to deal with when the meet again in Zaofu because Korra had to go there.  As a side note because of this visit Korra does get to learn metal bending, something Aang never gets around to doing.  The Legend of Korra is chock full of stuff like this, some of it’s important and some of it’s a statue of the poor cabbage merchant who always lost his cabbages in the Last Airbender.

When it comes to the setting the only issue I have with the Legend of Korra is that it seems to be more willing to just sort of throw stuff out their and hand-wave it.  In the Last Airbender there was nothing that didn’t really make any sense, the result of all the work put into fleshing out the details.  In the Legend of Korra there’s nothing which breaks the story or which seems overly implausible, at least until we get to the spirit-vine powered Godzilla-sized robot in season 4 (not a joke).   But there are some things, central to the various stories that aren’t really explained either.  Like why does the water tribe have a method to calm spirits but no one else?  It could be that because the spirits founded waterbending, whereas various beasts invented the other bending disciplines, it has a special connection with spirits but no concrete answer is given.  Likewise why does merging the spirit and physical world suddenly grant all kinds of non-benders airbending?  It could have something to do with the energies of the spirit world recreating balance between the four elements, but again no concrete explanation.  None of these occurrences are really problematic but they are sort of reflective of how the Legend of Korra plays faster and looser with it’s rules, especially where the spirits are concerned.

It’s here that I think the case could best be made that the Last Airbender is the “better” story.  The Legend of Korra is willing to toss out all kinds of ideas and not flesh all of them out properly, or it will allow certain concepts and powers to be inconsistent to make them do what the story wants.  Though again save for the giant robot nothing strains the story overly much.  The Last Airbender features very few, if any such inconsistencies, the best example I can think of is the bending-sealing power the lion-turtle gives Aang because that was left unexplained.

However I also think this general process of throwing all kinds of ideas at the wall to see what sticks largely works out and could make the case that the Legend of Korra is the “better” story.  I’m a particularly big fan of season 3 where Korra is fighting a small group of anarchists three of whom have special bending and one of whom is a former non-bender turned airbender, and he’s really fucking good at airbending.  That season in particular had a lot of great battles and it gave the creators room to flex their creative muscles when it came to new moves and bending techniques.  However, while all the seasons are good, some are clearly better than others, and the worse ones can be harder to slog through.  That said even the lesser ones have nuggets of gold, like how season 2, my least favorite one has two episodes which take us back in time and explain how the Avatar and bending first came into being and that was awesome.

The other big advantage the Legend of Korra offers to me and people my age is that the characters are older.  Most of the characters are working jobs, and their’s plenty of involvement from characters from the generation born between Aang and Korra’s stories.  This serves as the foundation for a shift in how the two series handle romance, with much of the Last Airbender’s romance being awkward pre-teen nervousness, while the Legend of Korra plays around more with relationships and their problems, like how being overly focused on work can cause a relationship to fall apart.  The Legend of Korra also has a big focus on family because Aang and Toph’s kids and their children play such a prominent ongoing role across the four seasons.  As you might expect the message is overall a positive one but there is plenty of time spent on problems families can have and I think it’s a nice touch.

In summary, the Last Airbender offers a great world to explore, an epic adventure to follow and young heroes fighting impossible odds to save the world.  It’s great fun to watch, fleshes out the world and characters in great detail and offers a long story with a satisfying conclusion.  The Legend of Korra offers a more adult perspective on the world of Avatar and while it is less consistent and less consistently good it ultimately makes up for weak points by having especially good good additions and story concepts.  To steal the phrase from my Lord and Savior Digibro’s mouth, I think the Last Airbender is more consistently impressive but I think the Legend of Korra reaches both higher highs and lower lows.

Having just finished both back to back I think I slightly prefer the Legend of Korra.  I like the greater variety of interesting ideas and the all the details showing how the world, and key people in it, have evolved out of the Last Airbender.  I like that the characters are older and that we spend a lot of time focused not on the Avatar but the people around her, something not as present in the Last Airbender.  Also Asami is best girl across both series, though the Legend of Korra never gets a character quite as entertaining as Toph, at least not until Toph shows up.  The best qualifier I can give as to why I prefer the Legend of Korra is that it has more memorable moments for me.  Both sagas have plenty but it’s the little stuff that gives the Legend of Korra the edge, like when old Toph offhandedly says her daughters, the leaders of the two top metal bending organizations in the world, never really picked up metalbending that well.  Anyway I could go on and on trying to argue each and every little detail but doing that by myself would be exhausting write and probably to read as well so I’ll wrap up here.  If you’re interested in discussing either Avatar saga please feel free to leave a comment.  See you in the next one.

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