At the risk of sounding like an anime-watching fat middle school girl, I absolutely love Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series Legend of Korra. Every now and then, a cartoon injects social and political commentary so seamlessly into its structure that calling it a mere kids show is a betrayal. I don’t like one over the other; I prefer to think of them as one story. The second half of the story, Legend of Korra, is generally regarded by fans as the better of the two. What’s strange to many commentators is that the demographic watching Korra is mostly young males.
The fact Korra has a female lead and has the demographic it does is what shocks them. It doesn’t shock me in the slightest. Good shows will find an audience, whether it’s before or after they air.
Let’s dissect why men like this show.
1. Male characters are treated with respect
Too many shows with female leads attempt to make the audience believe she is better for merely being a woman. One of the ways they do this is by surrounding the woman with incompetent bumbling idiots, or make the villains unrealistically evil men. Korra does not do this. Sure, Bolin is goofy, but that’s not his only trait.
In fact the men are just as strong and capable, and the villains’ goals are admirable though their means are extreme. The final villain of the series is a woman whose goals are probably the most misguided. Arguably the most hated person in the series is a woman, but her being a woman is not the reason why
Korra has great female leads with Korra and Asami, and great male leads with Mako, Bolin, and Tenzin. The villains are consistently interesting, and the supporting characters were never disappointing. This is because the creators had respect for their characters.
2. The action was never disappointing
To this day, my favorite fight in the series is Zuko vs. Azula, but all of the fights in Avatar are memorable. This is why some boys even liked The Powerpuff Girls, which I have no shame in admitting I did. This goes double for Kim Possible.
Bending is a hell of an equalizer on top of it. Korra is an astonishingly powerful character, even as far as Avatars go. This is preciously why few of her opponents met her force on force. Even the non-bending Asami makes use of tools and technology to even the odds.
Every season features at least one stunningly beautiful fight. The most interesting thing to notice in retrospect is that the good guys lose more than they win. They basically spend the entire first season perpetually getting the shit kicked out of them. Outside of the Airbender kids kicking some ass, the good guys finish the first season without a victory or having to flee from every encounter.
After every loss, they brushed themselves off and kept fighting. Not a single member of Team Avatar knows how to stay down, whether it’s Korra continuing to fight while poisoned, or Tenzin whose fight against the Red Lotus is painful to watch, but his conviction makes it impossible to turn away. Men love the underdog, and not a single fight in the series gave me the assumption the good guys were going to win.
3. More relationships, less romance
Not that I’m against romance, but plots with female leads tend to hammer the romance subplots hard. While these subplots are present in Korra, they’re never intrusive. What the show focused on instead was relationships. Unsurprisingly, the least interesting relationships were the romantic ones. Korra reminded me that sometimes the most interesting relationships are between heroes and their villains.
Korra learned something from each of her villains. Whether it was Amon beating humility into her, or Kuvira essentially being her reflection, Korra carried her villains with her.
My favorite relationship in the entire series isn’t even one you see, but one that is implied: Aang and his children.
Aang is one of the greatest Avatars who ever lived, but he was kind of a failure as a father. Outside of a few questionable political moves like the foundation of the Republic of the Nations, this was one of the few signs of Aang being a truly flawed human. Decades after their childhoods, two of Aang’s children resented him because of his preferential treatment to their sibling. I imagine Bumi had a severe inadequacy complex due to being the son of the Avatar and being born a non-bender.
As for the final romance of Korra and Asami, I don’t think there was enough foundation for that level of relationship. In an attempt to avoid stereotypes of straight heroes, they walked right into the far blunter stereotype of “she’s tough, so she’s a lesbian.” The fact they gave her a shorter haircut didn’t help. Though in all fairness, she is probably bisexual.
4. Korra crossed lines that Airbender didn’t
I will forever stand by my opinion that the introduction of Energy Bending as a means to defeat Fire Lord Ozai was a deus ex machina. It’s been unsuccessfully defended for years now, but the greatest crime was that it made Aang’s mental torture, and the realization through speaking with his past lives, meaningless. Even a former Air Nomad told Aang he needed to be prepared to kill Ozai.
While Korra never had the balls to kill a major character, it didn’t shy away from death like TLAB did. Throughout the series, we see a murder/suicide, a murder where someone literally gets the air sucked from their lungs, and someone’s head exploding. Personally, I thought Suyin was dead when Kuvira attacked the docks to raise the stakes, but they sufficed with killing a character not seen since the first season, conveniently brought back just in time to die so no one important had to.
Korra, in terms of what Nickelodeon let them get away with, is still one hell of an accomplishment. I know how most of you must feel about the shoehorned final romance, but I offer you a choice. You can watch a truly amazing series that made a few questionable narrative choices, or watch Uncle Grandpa. Your call.