It’s the question that has long divided fans of the Avatar animated series: Which is better, the original The Last Airbender or its sequel The Legend of Korra?
Both Nickelodeon shows take place in a fantasy world where people can control one of the elements—water, earth, fire, and air—with the exception of the Avatar, a reincarnated hero who masters all four. Avatar: The Last Airbender follows Avatar Aang, a goofy young monk who awakens from a 100-year slumber to find the world consumed by colonialism and war. Avatar: The Legend of Korra follows his successor, a more rugged teenage Avatar struggling with her role in an industrializing society with complicated politics. Though The Legend of Korra is generally considered the more controversial of the two, each series has its own unique strengths, leaving those in the in-between camp wondering: Can’t we all just get along?
No, we can’t. Slate podcast producers Danielle Hewitt and Daniel Schroeder have been watching both series and meeting to discuss them weekly since the The Last Airbender arrived on Netflix in May. Now that The Legend of Korra has arrived on the streaming service (both are also available on CBS All Access), it’s time for them to put that preparation to good use and try to settle this debate once and for all.
The following conversation contains spoilers for both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra.
Daniel Schroeder: I think I was just on the audience age cusp for Avatar: The Last Airbender—which we’ll call ATLA for short—so I had never watched much of either series before now and was thrilled to dive in. Did you grow up with these shows?
Danielle Hewitt: Yeah, I definitely grew up on ATLA. I watched it, kind of out of order, on Nickelodeon. Prince Zuko was absolutely a childhood crush of mine. So when The Legend of Korra, or LOK, came out, I was really excited. I watched the first season and thought it was excellent. The second season, not so much, and I stopped halfway through. I only picked it up again recently when we watched as a group.
Schroeder: God, I’m really gonna have to talk myself around that second season. Even though it did some solid work at times.
Hewitt: LMAO. It’s not good.
I should preface by saying, I had a good time watching LOK! I don’t hate it, but there are just so many ways it could have absolutely been better and it ultimately falls short, whereas ATLA is such a tightly written show.
Schroeder: No question, ATLA is a great, tight series. They had a plan and executed it so well. But part of what excites me about LOK is that lack of plan. Not because I think it’s smart for creatives to be unsure of the length their projects will last—the creators made the self-contained first season without knowing if they’d be able to make more—but because I think it creates some unintended parallels between the process and the themes in the work. With ATLA, Aang has a purpose from the opening credits, a singular goal, which he achieves: master all four elements and end the war. Then the series is over.
LOK wants to figure out what happens for that next Avatar who has such importance but not the same clear purpose. Part of it felt meandering and messy because that’s what being a teen is like!
Hewitt: I think LOK errs too far on one side of the mess. The questions that they’re asking in Korra are all interesting: What is the role of the Avatar in an industrializing world? How do benders and nonbenders coexist? Is Republic City fulfilling its utopian goal? But at the end of the day, I never felt like they interrogated them all that deeply. The series lobs up all of these questions and conflicts and then just says, “Damn, that’s crazy.”
For example, Amon is a fascinating villain, and he’s correct about the underlying issue, that nonbenders can be—and are—easily oppressed by benders. The series’ reaction to that is to neutralize Amon and then … what? They move on to a new problem in Season 2 without ever addressing the very real inequities that Amon was trying to solve.
Schroeder: Sure, the problems created and never resolved in the show can be frustrating, but I contend that for one, it’d be difficult to dramatize the solutions to such intractable, complex issues in engaging ways, ’cause what child wants to sit through a C-SPAN video, even if it’s animated? And two, this show is really about Korra and the mix of her supernatural and very normal growing pains. We can easily forget that because they always had too much going on politically, but that doesn’t ruin the real pathos I got from her journey.
Hewitt: I think ATLA is more successful with grappling with its ideas: How do you repair harm? Can you end a cycle of violence and oppression without using violence? The question of how Aang should end his fight with the Fire Lord is one we talked about a lot. Aang really struggles with the notion that he has to kill the Fire Lord in order to restore balance. It goes against his religious beliefs, and he’s not sure he could do it even though, at that moment, it’s pretty clear that’s the only option. I will agree, the deus ex Lion Turtle, having this magical creature present an alternative way right at the end, may not have been the most satisfying solution.
But also, name a scene in the series more beautiful and with more payoff than Zuko’s fight with Azula at the end. I’ll wait!
Schroeder: The answer is obviously Varrick and Zhu Li’s wedding in LOK.
Hewitt: CANCELED. Romance is across the board one of the biggest weaknesses in both series.
Schroeder: LOK takes the clear win in that field.
Hewitt: Only barely.
Schroeder: That’s in part because all the characters are of dating age, so we’re not sitting here watching 12-year-olds commit to life partners. But I think LOK is stronger on love than you give it credit for. From the first season we get the start of the constant Korra/Mako/Asami love triangle, which eventually ends in the queerest way possible. While I must admit I was disappointed with the lack of depth in the beginning of Korra and Asami’s on-screen romance because it had been talked up so much in the culture by the time I started watching, it made my heart flutter to see these two women finally figure out they might be right for each other.
Hewitt: Yep! Something I really like about Korra is that the characters feel like their ages. Korra is a flawed, impulsive teenager. I like that she fails early and often. In terms of character growth, though, I feel like Aang still takes the cake. I’ll concede their circumstances are wildly different. Aang is dealing with the genocide of his people and a massive war, so he has to grow up much quicker than Korra does.
Still, Tenzin’s kids on LOK are also great little kids. I was a huge Meelo stan until Season 4, when they ratcheted the precociousness up to unbearable levels, and I couldn’t deal. And Jinora’s arc is my favorite of LOK. The way she steps into her role as a spiritual leader is beautiful. Did I cry when she got her tattoos? Maybe.
Schroeder: What’re you, stone? Who wouldn’t? For all the places Season 2 went wrong, without the opening of the spirit portals, we wouldn’t get Jinora’s story and see her come into her own as an airbending master. She’s never the show’s main focus, but her story is both essential and moving, reminding viewers of the writers’ interest in the strength and mystery of spiritual power. One of the biggest reasons I prefer LOK and think it’s the stronger series is because of arcs like Jinora’s. There are real and varied stakes for the different characters, rather than the paint-by-numbers plot of ATLA. ATLA is for children, Korra is still for young viewers but wants to think deeper.
Hewitt: I think penalizing ATLA for tone is unfair! The show is plenty ambitious and complex. The amount of world building that they do in developing four individual nations with their own customs and histories (which I would argue Korra does not do) is impressive. It’s a show directed at kids, but the ideas and the execution are top tier. I think my problem with Korra is that its intent was to do what you said: shift its audience and become more complex. I just don’t think they do it very well? I appreciate the ambition, but ambition can only get you like 25 percent of the way there. The focus of Korra ends up being all over the place in a way that makes it hard to deeply consider the themes that they’re trying to get you to think about. You’re bopping around from villain to villain.
Schroeder: Oh, no question that ATLA is one of the best animated children’s series made to date, and so much easier to watch. But I think you’re totally wrong about the world building. LOK has the 1920s steampunk vibe, a whole pro-bending league, an emerging film industry, and the spirit world. For me, the ambitious world building of ATLA was in the broad strokes, laying the foundation of an entire mythos, but keeping things light because it’s a show for children. LOK’s density of detail made it feel more grounded. Sure, it’s overly plotted and trying too many things, but that means there are any number of topics to dwell on, rather than the specific ones predetermined at the beginning of ATLA’s title sequence.
Hewitt: I guess. I just don’t know if I give them credit for naming issues. I, too, could rattle off some societal ills. If you’re going to deal with politics and don’t stake a claim, you end up by default saying, “I guess nonbenders will be oppressed forever. The fact that the bending cops literally kettled protestors is fine” and “Actually, Varrick, the war profiteer is good.” To be clear, I don’t want it all wrapped in a bow, but again, I want them to take more of a stance.
Schroeder: Excited for our new podcast where we just list societal ills and then say goodbye.
Hewitt: Sure to immediately hit the top of the Apple charts. I will say, one place where I give Korra a point over ATLA is its villains. Even though Azula and her squad have some great moments, and Zuko’s storyline is A+, Fire Lord Ozai is an empty suit of a big bad.
Schroeder: I mean, CC: most of Zaheer’s team. There just wasn’t much else going on in their heads. Zaheer got all the motivation, and they were simply henchmen.
Hewitt: OK, but you have to admit, water arms and lava bending are pretty cool! The bending innovations in Korra (lava bending, advanced metal bending, flying) are great additions, but that’s about it. They actually end up highlighting some of the problems I have with the series, namely when you get to the city of Zaofu. We saw the invention of metal bending in ATLA, and the developments we see in the first season of LOK track with the technological advancements made in the world of Republic City. However, when they got to Zaofu, I was begging them to interrogate it more. Why does this intense fortress of metal benders exist? You never get an answer outside of, IDK, Suyin Beifong felt like it?
I’m much more attached to the characters from ATLA. What I really love about the series is that everyone gets their chance to be a complex character. Sokka is a nonbender surrounded by benders. You see his development into the tactical and technological brains of the operation. Uncle Iroh is a really good example of the distance between the two series. In ATLA he’s got this tragic and complicated backstory (he was a breath away from being Fire Lord for most of his life) that is woven into all of his decisions, and you grow to appreciate him really organically. In LOK, he’s this random mystical spirit person that only benefits from the foundation laid by ATLA; it’s never built upon.
Someone I would have loved to see this treatment for in LOK is Kuvira. Season 4 could have benefited from a Kuvira backstory episode to explain her motivations, because otherwise she’s just another power-hungry leader. Instead, you get Korra in like the last 10 minutes of the final episode saying all of this character-building information after Kuvira’s already defeated. Show, don’t tell!
Schroeder: This has been a tough discussion because ATLA is so clean while LOK has the roughest edges ever. I think the even-numbered seasons are tough to love and sidestep a lot of these issues. How do you stop a fascist? How do you stop a corrupt government? But these are big questions, and it’s clear our actual society doesn’t even know how to answer them. I always thought of LOK as at its best when asking these questions, even if it never arrives at an actual answer. Putting these recurrent themes from real life in front of a younger audience helps reinforce the battle against injustice, inequality, and the villainy of adulthood complacency, even if there isn’t a perfect answer.
It’s definitely clear that ATLA started with a story and dove deeper from there while LOK tried to work backward, and in doing so the writers created gaping plot holes and end up retconning themselves every season. But even though ATLA may be the better-executed piece of art, LOK’s the one that’ll linger with me for a longer time.