WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T FINISHED THE SEASON 2 FINALE OF LEGEND OF KORRA!
I finished the Legend of Korra season 2, and saw much debate over whether or not Korra had improved by the end of the season. So I thought back to Aang's journey in Avatar the Last Airbender and picked out the internal and external conflicts that he faced. Korra's inner conflicts, although very different from Aang's, are addressed symbolically as well. Once I realized that my reason for not liking Korra as a character was because I compared her to Aang all the time, I decided to reflect on the two character's stories and discovered that although they are very different, Aang and Korra face similar hero tropes and solve them based on similar motivations. Both must accept and acknowledge who they are.
We began our interest in the world of the four elements through Aang, the last airbender.
This story began with conflict, and the ever important theme of hope.
Aang was the archetype of the orphan. No family, no nation even, and a mountain of guilt followed him for running away, just before the fire nation attacked and wiped out the airbenders.
Needless to say, Aang's story was a powerful one. As the only person who could bend the four elements, Aang literally had the entire world on his shoulders. And his return as the Avatar is not just the return of Airbenders, but the beacon of hope that the world will not be eclipsed by the greed and power of the fire nation.
So Aang begins his story as the underdog, not able to use all the elements equally, and constantly running from the fire nation. We immediately attach to his loss, his guilt and his confusion with the world around him. He was gone for a hundred years, and his disappearance has put the world out of balance.
But just as any hero story begins, there is not only external conflict, but internal conflict as well. This internal conflict for Aang was reflected in his proficiency with the other three elements. Aang was able to bend air, because he grew up with airbenders, but the other elements were attached to other elements of himself that he was not able to connect with as easily.
Air was the peaceful and fun side of Aang. He was able to float through life without a care on most occasions. Water was not too difficult to adapt to, because he was able to relate to the patient and accepting side of the water benders. He had to accept sacrifice, and he had to learn the importance of his task as the avatar to bring balance to the world. Earth was a very difficult element for Aang to use. He wasn't used to facing things head on, and had run from his destiny long before the war. Earth was a challenge because it showed a different side to Aang that he didn't want to accept. He didn't enjoy being harsh, and he was always trying to find peaceful solutions to problems. The most difficult element for Aang to accept was fire. There was a lot of baggage he carried about the destruction of his people, the enemy he had to face, and his own guilt at using fire carelessly. And this element presented a new problem that he didn't want to accept. The element of fire was a part of Aang's identity. So the elements were symbolic of Aang's journey from an orphan into a hero.
His most difficult struggle was the pressure to kill the fire lord. But in the end, Aang was able to make his own decision, and do what he believed was right. He took the fire lord's power away, and by doing that, saved the nations and stayed true to who he was. By the end of Aang's story, he becomes the savior by facing his inner conflicts and accepting who he was.
He becomes friends with his enemy, Zuko, and together, they rebuild the nations and the world, establishing peace.
So our journey with Aang is a coming of age story, and each main character in the show Avatar the Last Airbender is fleshed out and important to the plot. It was a phenomenal story, with the tropes of good versus evil and the introduction to a new and well constructed story world.
We leave Aang, and discover that many years have passed since his defeat of the fire lord, and we are introduced to Korra, the new Avatar.
Korra is very different from Aang. For one, she's not an orphan at all. Instead, Korra is the rebel.
She is well trained in three elements, and has no problem using them. But she can't bend air, because she doesn't accept that part of her identity. She is not intuitive and repeatedly acts on impulse. Her character is more headstrong, stubborn and less accepting. Her inner conflict is one of self identity, as well as adapting to change. Thanks to technology, benders are not more powerful than non benders. So Korra's inability to bend air reflects her inability to know who she is, and to adapt to change.
Even with a mentor, Korra's rebellion gets worse, and her impatience, ruthlessness and carelessness have dire consequences. She loses the support of the people, and cannot connect with the past avatars directly.
She only achieves inner knowing once all her external elements are lost. Only when it becomes a last resort, does Korra learn to connect with her destiny as the avatar.
But her journey to self identity is not over. There is a new threat, directly tied to Korra's inner struggle. The spirits, which represent the intangible side of Korra, are becoming dark and attacking the physical world. Up to this point Korra has been able to avoid the spiritual side of herself, and only tap into it when it is necessary. But now, she has no choice. She must learn from the past, and change her attitude about the world in order to save it from destruction. She begins by abandoning her mentor, more comfortable with the direct solution presented in front of her. Her choice causes her to unknowingly help her enemy and doom the world to darkness.
Her journey takes a dramatic shift when she loses her memory. Left with nothing but who she is, Korra is once again able to connect with the past avatars and learn the story of the avatar's creation. This new knowledge gives Korra the ability to listen to her intuition. And the conflict of good versus evil is presented in both physical and spiritual form. Korra once again tries to be direct, but she fails when everything is taken from her. Her only hope now is herself. Her identity. By the end of Korra's story so far, she defeats the darkness by discovering the light within herself. She no longer feels burdened by the accomplishments of the past avatars. She stops comparing herself to Aang, and makes a decision on her own. Korra has finally grown from a rebellious teenager into a powerful and self aware hero. She defeats the darkness by her own means, and chooses to leave the spirit world and physical world connected, symbolizing the balance that Korra has made with the physical and spiritual parts of herself.
The epic symbols, tropes and emotional arcs of these stories reflect timeless tales around the world. The hero doesn't start out as a hero, they grow as a hero by facing their inner conflicts and discovering a reason to save the world. Korra and Aang go on very different journeys, but both achieve balance within to save the world in the end.