The first thing any fan of The Legend of Korra will tell you is this: To enjoy it, you must not compare it to its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of course, that hasn’t stopped anyone.
Nickelodeon started it. According to Korra’s animation director, Yoo Jae-myung, the network was squeamish from the get-go about having a female protagonist. Why couldn’t Korra, a surly teenage girl, be more like her predecessor, the winsome boy Aang? When the show premiered in 2012, it never seemed to enjoy Nickelodeon’s full backing. In the middle of the third season, it was offloaded to Nick.com, an infant digital streaming site, where it languished.
No doubt feeding into Nickelodeon’s hesitations (and declining ratings) was the response of viewers, many of whom—particularly devotees of Avatar—weren’t shy about expressing their utter distaste for the sequel. While there was plenty of griping about the animation, the plot, and the quality of the villains, most of the criticism centered on Korra herself. Deemed either too competent or too incompentent, totally unlikeable or insufferably pandering, too whiny or emotionally blank, she wasn’t their Avatar.
Today, some of the backlash is understood as sexism. A character like Zuko—selfish, irritable, immature, male—is beloved for the same reasons Korra is hated; as ever, fandom is full of boy-men who can’t bear to see their favorite show get womaned. Even before Netflix announced that The Legend of Korra would be available on the platform in August, it felt the need to defend the show from the peevish hordes: “Korra’s 👏story 👏was 👏important 👏Aang’s 👏story👏had 👏been👏told👏” Now that The Legend of Korra is streaming, it’s been extremely popular—though hot takes about how bad the show is, and breathless defenses of its virtues, continue.
Buried beneath all that are legitimate critiques of Korra as the narrative actually is, but you’d have to dig like a badgermole to get to them. The writing is much less consistent than it was on Avatar; the sheer quantity of side characters comes at the expense of … everything, Korra included. She goes through so much so quickly that it can be hard to feel for her. And while the show finally finds its voice in seasons three and four—as the airbenders struggle to resurrect a culture and villains actually sort of have a reason for being—it never becomes the soul balm Avatar is.
Which is OK to say. In fact, it’s always been pretty disingenuous to insist that Korra be talked about purely on its own terms. There’s a giant statue of Aang in the middle of Republic City’s harbor. At one point, one character says to Aang’s son Tenzen: “I can’t believe your sweet-tempered father was reincarnated into that girl.” Korra—a messy steampunk yarn to Avatar’s dreamy agrarian myth—has always invited viewers to make these sorts of comparisons.
You could even go as far as to say the show was designed to subvert audience expectations. In the years since Korra’s premiere, “subverting expectations” has become a bit of a meme among fans of genre fiction. The phrase has been both a point of praise and criticism for stories like Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Game of Thrones, but mostly criticism. As franchises stretch out ever longer, writers want to liven things up and bring stories in line with the values of the present. It’s natural, and a good thing. Casting a woman as the Doctor in Doctor Who or including people of color in Star Wars movies could fall into this category.