The Legend of Korra and the Problem With its Villains

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?

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