Writing villains is hard. This is often a problem because in the plots of many stories, the characterization of the villain is the most important component and often what makes them compelling. In large scale and themed stories, villains act as cautionary tales, tools writers use to help teach an important lesson in their stories. Within the world of the TV shows Avatar: The Last Airbender and its successor The Legend of Korra, villains largely fall into the role of “teachers”. They would take a certain ideology way too far and the audience and the characters in the story would come to understand the flaws in their thinking through their failure. Despite generally (and rightly) being regarded as a masterpiece though, The Last Airbender did not have many truly great villains. There was the ambitious Admiral Zhao of the first season who was held back by a level of patheticness that overshadowed the rest of his character, and there was the much talked about Fire Lord Ozai who was suitably cruel and unpleasant but also surprisingly generic (which is odd if you consider the fact that he was a character that was built up since the beginning of the series). The writers struck lightning (ha) when they created Azula, the chief antagonist of the second season, and the only compelling antagonist that remained after Zuko officially joined the side of the heroes (for real) in the third season. To put it bluntly, Azula was a stone cold bad ass, but at the same time she was the most developed and complex villain in the original series. The approach to developing Azula was definitely under a “less is more” philosophy, with little hints about her mental state being given here and there, and with the writers leaving a lot of things for the viewers to figure out. It was very intelligently done, and for those who were paying attention, it paid off big time in the finale with a powerful message about forming connections through love rather than fear. Unfortunately, most subsequent villains in the Avatar franchise started following Azula’s example in the “less is more” style of development, and eventually it was morphed into “less for the sake of less”. The precarious balance that was present for Azula’s development was lost. All the pieces are there, but the development never follows through. I’ve already discussed where Ozai went wrong (quick recap: he was surprisingly shallow), but what about the Korra villains?
Season 1 had Amon, the masked leader of the Equalist movement. In the world of Avatar, many people are born with the fantastical ability to bend one of the four elements (Earth, Fire, Air, Water), one is born with the ability to bend all the elements (the Avatar), and some people can’t bend any elements. As a result, they are clearly disadvantaged, looked down on, and often unheard by the government. Amon represented the answer to the question of “what happens when the grievances of the non-benders find a voice?” and the plot ran from there. Soon enough, he gathered a huge following comprised of people who fight under the banner of “Equality”. Amon himself was this outrageously cool villain (largely thanks to Steven Blum’s voicing), that challenged the Avatar in the most terrifying ways. He had the mysterious ability to permanently cut off a bender’s ability to use their element. Doing so was like wrenching an enormous part of a person’s identity right out of them which is obviously very traumatic, but also a symbolic Equalist gesture. With plans to do this to every bender, Amon was able to represent an enormous threat to the world of Avatar, remain suitable for all audiences, and have a legitimate and interesting philosophical angle. Unfortunately, it all fell apart towards the end. Upon the unmasking of Amon, we finally learned of his childhood, but we never learn the direct basis for his ideology. There are definitely inklings in what we see, but not enough for us to truly connect with his character. His flashback provided a beginning to who he was, and we’ve experienced the end result, but there does not seem to be a middle. This is a problem. So much so that many fans questioned if Amon truly cared about the Equalist movement, and that if he was only doing what he did for power. The show and the creators did make it clear that Amon truly was interested in equality for all, but perhaps a closer look at the road that led him to his conclusions would have been what was best for his character. Seeing his entire movement collapse the second everyone found out his true identity was a very unsatisfactory way for him to be defeated, especially since his movement did have some legitimate points despite its extremity.
Season 2 had Unalaq as the villain. The less said about him, the better.
Season 3 had Zaheer as the primary antagonist, and although he wasn’t overly developed, he was by far the best Legend of Korra antagonist. He believes in chaos as the natural order and puts freedom above all else. He wishes to remove the Avatar permanently because of the stabilizing force one represents. So much about who he was can be seen in just his appearance alone, so a long backstory wasn’t necessary. Zaheer was clearly a spiritual individual, so there didn’t need to be a more detailed clarification to his philosophy. The concept of “true freedom” and removing obstacles to them are self-evident. While Amon’s grievance with benders was far more specific and came from a personal place, Zaheer’s motivations were far more “big picture”. It was far easier to understand him and his choices, although at the same time he didn’t have the same potential that Amon had. Zaheer was a simplistic villain with enough depth to not feel shallow. Amon was a character that brought up some deeply important questions about the show and its universe, but was fumbled towards his conclusion. In the end, Zaheer was definitely a low risk villain that proved to be highly entertaining.
Season 4 brought Kuvira, the final villain of the series. After the Avatar goes missing, and the Earth Kingdom is thrown in disarray due to the actions of Zaheer in the previous season, Kuvira stepped up and took charge as the person that would reunite the states. Of course, as villains often do in The Legend of Korra, she took her noble intentions too far and became a dictator. She ended up being too forceful in her drive to bring everyone under one rule and represented an international threat once she took interest in the construction of super weapons. As a villain, she had a ton of potential due to how sympathetic she was during the early stages of the season and her similarities to the current Avatar herself. Kuvira was responsible for reuniting the Earth Kingdom, she saved the life of the Avatar’s father, she always first attempted diplomacy when dealing with problems (although still highly aggressively), and we received some hints about her past as an orphan that may have led to her current mental state. Two things happened that ruined this however.
1) Kuvira became cartoonishly evil at a certain point. Literally building “labour camps” and forcing people of non-Earth nation origin into them was too far and killed any chance of creating a sympathetic villain. I mean, she essentially became the “Hitler” of the Avatar-universe. It becomes very difficult to take her seriously after that. The source of these racial biases and the tactical advantage of acting on them were never made clear.
2) A failure to convincingly connect her backstory to her current actions. In the finale, we learn that her adoptive mother refused to do anything to help the Earth nation which led Kuvira to take responsibility for it and become overzealous in protecting its interests due to her conflating her fears as an orphan with her nation’s abandonment. This is an interesting angle, and Kuvira’s final conversation with the Avatar was a nice piece of character development, but it simply wasn’t enough to explain the callous dictator we see in front of us; a woman who would sacrifice the person she loved most for her cause (never mind the horrible racist she apparently is too). Perhaps development to explain why her extreme actions are the only way could have helped. Maybe seeing her change throughout her years of reuniting the Earth Kingdom could make her more understandable, because like Amon it feels like we are missing a middle part to her development.
The common theme with villains that fail in the Avatar franchise is that there is an enormous blind-spot to their arcs, and not enough is given to the audience for them to come to the important conclusions on their own. The approach of leaving it to the audience worked out well with Azula because we saw just enough of her past to get a grip on her development, and further exploration into those things would not have been pertinent to the story. With Amon and Kuvira on the other hand, further developing their pasts and going farther into the specifics would have gone a long way into helping us connect with their characters, and to be perfectly honest, their backstories just seem like they would have been incredibly fun to watch. This series is known for featuring a host of compelling heroes (the two protagonists of The Last Airbender are some of the greatest heroes of any fantasy adventure ever), but it’s a shame that the villains tend to be far less interesting in comparison. It’s especially frustrating since the potential is there, but things often never completely fell into place. There was usually a missing piece.
Side Note – To sum up why Unalaq sucked for those curious, it’s that he was boring. I could go on and on about how his backstory or philosophy weren’t interesting or developed enough, but the real reason he was a terrible villain was that he was just really, really lame. He had no presence, no charisma, and no memorable character moments whatsoever. He was the villain equivalent of a professor who just rambles on for 90 minutes instead of actually teaching.
Quote of the Day:
“Sounds like you’re carrying around your former enemies, the same way you’re still carrying around that metal poison. You maybe consider you could learn something from them?”
– Toph Beifong, Legend of Korra