Unsolicited Thoughts On Narrative Structure in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra

Earlier this week, a discussion on Twitter — instigated by Shawn Murray (@HighbrowShawn) — sought to debunk an unattributed assertion that Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra was “as good, or better than” its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. While no defenders of this position emerged, the conversation was spirited and put me in the mood to examine the franchise’s evolution more closely. At first, I jumped in merely to point out what I thought was the closing argument on the case. “They never knew that they were getting another season,” I wrote, “so every season is self-contained.” To me, this was all one needed to know. Avatar has an epic, overarching narrative that spans three seasons. It’s perfectly paced and never in doubt of going somewhere. Korra, on the other hand, is comprised of four disparate seasons, tracing no clear linear progression and never building to the same catharsis. However, there’s more to it than that. Korra has more to answer for than its questionable release schedule. It represents an entirely different approach to world-building in the fantasy genre — curious, coming from the ingenious original creators of Avatar; Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.. The Legend of Korra suffers from its persistent testing of its own boundaries, and breaking from the static world which is sought to draw viewers back into.

Avatar: The Last Airbender drew fanatical viewers from a remarkable range of ages and backgrounds. It captured the imagination of a generation or more, and it satisfied at every step of its progress. Three seasons, three acts, a perfect hero’s journey, and a hopeful, unexpected resolution. However, it isn’t praised enough for one of the hardest aspects of large-scale fantasy storytelling: consistency in world-building. In the pilot episode of Avatar, the viewer knows the “rules,” for lack of better term, of the world in which it takes place. There are benders, they can manipulate elements. There are four nations, there is a map — something objective and unchanging. The story’s conflict is a war. This has nothing to do with the existence of the world we have just entered, or any fundamental parts of it. The war is strictly political. It’s recognizable. It’s a colonial story. However, there’s no threat of a spirit suddenly bursting into the material realm, for example. Viewers know what to expect and it is delivered. Even Aang, our hero, the one chosen by fate to do something unprecedented, is merely a part of a historical system. He’s the current protrusion of an endless line of “avatars” into the material world. Everything is preordained. The storytellers are playing a game on a board made specifically the right size.

The Legend of Korra is not so successful in this department. While lifelong fans were excited for the return of Aang’s world; to explore its kingdoms and empires more, to meet new tribes of obscure benders or hybrid animals, they were instead thrust into a steampunk caricature of the old franchise. Somehow, the feudal world of Avatar had reached the twentieth century overnight. This is not off-putting because fans wanted to be told the same story over again, it’s off-putting because it betrays the timeless nature of this world as we understand it. In every flashback throughout the show, Aang’s past lives seem to live in relatively the same world as him — with the same technology, customs, and culture. It was clear that Aang lived during a disastrous one hundred year war, but that still functioned merely as an illness of the world, not a fundamental change of it. Life went on, people still worked, cabbage salesmen hawked their wares, and the war took its course. Suddenly in Korra’s time, the world has shifted permanently. Republic City is outside of all nations. Cars replace wagons. Movies are produced. This is hard to swallow after buying into the countless hundreds of years that the world was, as far as viewers know, exactly as Aang left it. It also minimizes one of the Avatar’s main functions: to maintain balance. “Balance” suggests a comfortable type of global stasis. In Aang’s world, everyone knew how things were supposed to be. There was no question of going backward or forward. There was only peace or war. With those mechanics, it’s hard not to see advancement as an agent of either one or the other. It’s hard to imagine the rise of guys like Verrick above kings and queens without some effect on the overall “balance” that Korra is sworn to protect. Most importantly, the satisfying ending that viewers have come to expect from a story in this world is a return to balance, to stasis, to peace. With Korra’s world changing constantly, they can never expect to see that again.

Of course, the habit of Korra’s creators of changing their fictitious world had several shake-ups worth examining. For example, Korra’s decision to merge the material world with the spirit world. This subtly and permanently altered how spirits were characterized in the series as a whole. In Avatar, they were archetypes, outside of time. They were manifestations of the ethereal. They weren’t subject to growth or change. The decision to turn them into characters, even in the capacity that they did, cast a different light entirely on all of Aang’s experience with spirits.

There are also the additions to the mythology to consider, particularly Raava and Vaatu. While the two part episode “Beginnings” stands out as one of the series’ best, the inclusion of Raava and Vaatu physically within Korra’s story ultimately subtracted from the efficacy of the Avatar world. For one thing, it over-achieves its goal of raising the narrative stakes. It feels as though nothing has ever had more magnitude, and nothing ever will. The very fabric of reality is under threat. This is simply too big of a conflict to fit into the world of Avatar as fans know it. What’s worse is that there is no satisfying return to balance, as mentioned above. Korra fails to hold the world together. She loses her connection to all of her past lives — a remarkable leap to make in a franchise like this — and permanently opens the door to the spirit world. The season ends confusingly — no triumph, no peace-as-usual — only questions as to how the world of Avatar will look when viewers return, and if they will still recognize what they liked in it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is not flawless, and The Legend of Korra is not completely flawed. However, it’s incredible to study how a brilliant piece of fantasy storytelling like Avatar morphed into an experimental boundary-pusher like Korra. It may serve as a lesson in what creators should or shouldn’t do in sequels — even of their own successful franchises — and how an intellectual property can grow with its viewers. Korra probably isn’t the last we’ve heard from the world of Avatar, and it’s unlikely that Korra’s problems will deter viewers from the next iteration. Hopefully, however, the Avatar’s return will usher in a renewal of tight, well-planned storytelling, of consistent world-building, and of balance.