Korra is a problematic title character, and it’s disappointing as hell

Spoiler warning level : 3/5. Some spoilers up to episode 22 / S02EP10.

Something something deal with it something something.

Before people break out the pitchforks, let me start by saying that, while not as good as The Last Airbender, I still enjoy Legend of Korra. I think it’s a fun show and I like a lot of aspects of the series, including its slightly more mature edge.

That said, LoK has yet to really hit the sweet spot that A:TLA did for me. The series is fun, the characters are entertaining (though less dimensional than their predecessors), and still carries with it the sort of whimsy and adventure that we loved about A:TLA.

Why Korra is a less than stellar lead character

One of the main issues I have with LoK is Korra herself. By design, she is shaped to be in a lot of ways the antithesis of Aang, but that has somewhat resulted in a problematic character. She has quite the shoes to fill, and we’ve been left breadcrumbs over the series that give us an idea of why she is the way she is. Yes, we get it, being the Avatar is stressful and sucks. It’s a blessing and a curse – this is something that’s been emphasized from the early days of A:TLA. And yes, Korra was pretty much locked up in a complex in relative isolation. That doesn’t seem to be an excuse for her lack of development, however, since her story started.

Temper tantrums don't help in the spirit world. In fact, they do the literal opposite of help.
Temper tantrums don’t help in the spirit world. In fact, they do the literal opposite of help. Please stop screaming.

Even for a hot-headed 17-year-old, it feels like Korra has completely failed at growing as a person and it’s a bit grating to watch. There was SO MUCH emphasis put on the need for her to connect to herself spiritually to truly understand and use her power as the Avatar to its proper and full extent. But none of that happened. She essentially unlocked both airbending and energy-bending without having ever really getting the spiritual side down.

The Avatarverse has certainly evolved and changed, and that was lampshaded by the fact that Korra’s mastery of bending was aided largely by her involvement in pro-bending, a style which deviates largely from its more spiritually rooted beginnings. But being the Avatar is a deeply spiritual role, and despite the changes in the world around her, disconnecting to that past is a dangerous road to follow. Why she keeps getting away with this up until very recently, I might just not understand.

A commenter on a (somewhat drab) Korra-bashing post on Fanpop had a much more insightful answer to the question of Korra’s issues:

She’s unlikable because she… has no concept of the qualities of heroism. She has sacrificed nothing, has taken as she pleased, has shown no maturity or growth and disrespects everyone.

Paraphrased as I don’t agree with the original commenter’s blame of feminism for this attitude. 

Funnily enough, just as in my reviews for some of the summer films I’ve watched, I’m seeing this continued trend of titles being carried more by their entourage and supporting characters than their leads. Which is unfortunate here, because one of the major breakthroughs of Korra was having a woman of color as the lead. Yet I am much more interested in Tenzin’s family – Jinora especially. And despite being an antagonist, Amon proved to be more deeply layered and complex than our own hero. Even the affectionately named “Legend of Wan” gave us a more concrete, fleshed out character in 2 episodes than LoK has managed to do with Korra in 22.

Jinora might be the best character in LoK.
Jinora might be the best character in LoK. Where is “Legend of Jinora?”

It’s so disappointing for me that she’s yet to really prove herself as someone worthy of respect, or at least being taken seriously. 10 episodes into season 2 and Korra is still as stubborn and impulsive as ever. Her need to rebel lends to being easily manipulated by Unalaq.  The way she acted in her relationship with Mako actually makes his decision to break up with her reasonable (which is saying something, because Mako is easily the lamest character of the lot). She goes into the spirit world and antagonizes the citizens there almost immediately, setting off a chain of events that arguably lead to Jinora’s capture. This is after she’s connected with Wan and learned the importance of keeping peace with spirits – something that the first avatar and her most recent incarnation (Aang) both knew well but she seems to ignore completely still.

A tumblr user had a good sum up of their feelings about Korra as more a problem with inconsistency rather than bad development:

Speaking of Korra, her character is all over the place. Very driven and badass when she needs to be, totally incompetent and out of her depth when the plot demands it, with motivations for doing things that can only be described as “that’s what was next in the script.”

I don’t think she’s terrible, but there’s a distinct lack of evolution that puts her far behind even minor characters of A:TLA and her own crew. Edit: after some banter on twitter on this topic, I do want to clear up my point a bit better.

It’s not that her initial impulsiveness is a problem – I think it’s perfectly fine that she’s a 17 year old who acts like a 17 year old. My problem is distinctly on her lack of growth, in that her stubbornness seems to extend even to her very serious experiences in season 01 (like the theorized suicide ideation). She was handed her bending back without much consequence under the premise that she might learn something from all this – but then season 2 happens and she hasn’t, at all.

It feels like “ New Spiritual Age”   might finally hint at a much-needed growth on her part. It’s easily the best episode (perhaps tied or second to Beginings 1 & 2, actually) so far, but the series is quickly coming to a close.

I’ve got some hope that she will change for the better – the whole point of this season is spirituality and with four episodes left (two double-featured nights, total), we still have some decent time to see her grow. I think this tale with Jinora will hopefully (finally) get her to take herself seriously so the rest of us can.

To the readers: What are your thoughts on Korra? Am I being too harsh? How do you think she might flesh out from now until the finale?


  • Greibach

    100% agree. The second season especially has been grating, not so much directly because of its content so much as the fact that coming in after the first season, she should know better. She should have grown.

    I’ll be honest, Airbender’s first season was pretty rough for me. I liked it, but I also felt like they were super overplaying Aang’s immaturity. The group dynamics hadn’t really been worked out. Sokka was actually pretty moody and annoying for at least 2/3 of the first season. All that said however, the second two seasons were amazing. There was a TON of character growth and development both power-wise and, more importantly, maturity-wise. The characters evolved and came into their own. I give the first season some slack because it was a new series. They picked it up fantastically.

    Then we get to Korra. I love the visuals, I liked the choice of the main character from an aesthetic/thematic perspective I suppose, and I liked that she was kind of a foil to Aang. That was all good. I liked how they used her isolation as a way to show the audience the new world at the same time as her. We discovered the chaos of the new civilization as Korra accidentally bungled into it. Those parts were great. They were funny, they were interesting, and they firmly set into place the expectations of the setting.

    Where it sort of went downhill though was Korra’s personality. You’ve covered it perfectly, so I really don’t need to repeat myself. By the end, I felt like she may have kind of learned some things about being the Avatar, and more importantly, being mature. I mean, for god’s sake, she’s 17. As much as being a teenager was a time of emotion and rebellion and all that, by the time you are graduating from high school, you should pretty much be past that phase.

    So then season 2 started and… it felt like we were right back at square one. Korra felt as petulant and immature as ever. The writing was really poor, it seemed like a really trashy soap opera. People just flipping out and overreacting about every little thing, nobody actually having reasonable conversations, jumping to conclusions, casting aside friends, family, lovers… it just felt like they were trying to create an environment of chaos, but it ended up just being a tempest in a tea pot.

    Had this been the first season, it would have been one thing. It’s okay for characters to be immature and inexperienced…. before they have gained experience. As a season two though? Jesus it was aggravating. I stuck with it cause it’s pretty, because I hoped it would get better, and possibly most importantly because I wanted to support Nick so that they would make more high quality animation like this and more excellent writing like Airbender.

    As you said, in just two episodes we got a more interesting, fleshed out character in Wan. I jokingly called it the best two episodes in Korra because Korra wasn’t in them. As sad as that is, it’s kind of true. Since then, the series has definitely picked up for me. Unsurprisingly, it’s probably because Korra is not really front and center, Tenzin’s family is.

    Ultimately, I hope that she will be fleshed out. Sadly, it’s pretty much too late as it’s in the last few episodes of the final season (right?).

    • Great points.

      I’m gonna cross my fingers for the next four episodes. Bryke does a good job of packing really powerful punches in short time. If they can create an amazing story with Wan in 2 episodes, they can conclude this story and the characters in 4, with care.

      But there are some really weird things that need to be solved. The utter character slaughter of Bolin (from a great guy in season 1 to a egocentric douche who straight up sexually harasses his co-worker!). Mako— was never my favorite, but his wishy washiness in regards to his love life is aggravating. Asami’s loneliness is horribly evident, which makes me sad because I had some high-hopes for her this season as well. But jumping down Mako’s pants mere days after he and Korra breaks up just seems so… pitiful, really.

      I don’t know. I feel like the writing and character development this season is way all over the place

  • Danseru-kun

    First of all, Korra’s anger and disrespect at Tenzin and her father are justified in the first two episodes. She was denied of an Avatar’s journey and lied to all her life. The series may have not explained that very well but Tenzin and Tonraq really messed up in that aspect for… reasons still not fully explained. If it’s simply “to protect her” that’s hardly a a good reason!

    Then the next few episodes until “Beginnings” is problematic in terms of writing, not Korra herself. Despite having every right to be angry at her dad, she still expresses her love for him and need for him. Harassing a judge may be something not really commendable, but note she didn’t use her bending there to “oppress.” Korra follows her dad’s instruction to ask for outside held as she refuses to fight her own countrymen, she asked Raiko but it did nothing.

    Then there’s the Mako thing. Her next hope is General Iroh, she’s desperate and she’s thinking that “her whole family might be wiped out.” She might be angry, rash and loud but she’s a kid trying to deal with such a difficult political situation. So when Mako denied her of a fleet of ships that might be able to help in her perspective, she became angry at him.

    That’s why “Beginnings,” “The Guide” and “A New Spiritual Age did well to her character. Everyone is expecting her to “be this and be this” while nobody can actually suggest a good solution for her to save her family and to stop the North from invading the South. Seriously, a lot criticizes her decisions without presenting alternative decisions (not behavior.) When she found Wan inside her she learned what SHE’S SUPPOSED TO DO finally. TIn Ep 9 she apologized to Tenzin for her disrespect and immaturity, she also focused solely in her duty and left all her resentment behind. In Episode 10 the series showed that inwardly she does feel like a child and this explains her behavior, her spiritual growth has been stunted since she defined herself as the Avatar at the age of four. It’s an imposed identity, and something she is struggling to live up to. Only when she sees the light inside “Korra,” her own self, does she finally grew up to her original 17 year old body. Pretty symbolic.

    Korra’s development is slow and may be frustrating at first but I think it’s too early for her to be called “disappointing.” The last few episodes have been very rewarding and helpful to her character growth.

    • SignStar Faith

      I totally agree with you. The problem with people is that they expect her to be this ‘perfect hero’ with all the morals and lessons already ‘programed’ into her. HELLO! her story wouldn’t really be a STORY is she wasn’t flawed and learned her lesson. I think people focus a bit too much on what she did wrong and should really see what she did right. She learned from her mistakes and fought to make things right. In manny ways she is kind of like the Prodigal Song from the Bible; the youngest son left home and did what her wanted, and in result it made him poor and hungry. When he returned home, he learned about humility and responsibility and when he got home, did he get an “I tolled you so!” or and “it’s about time you idiot boy!” NO he was welcomed with love and opened arms. Korra is actually a very HUMAn character, not perfect but has a good heart. I mean, even us Christians aren’t saints all of the time, but that doesn’t make us any less worthy of loving others and being loved. Personally, I relate myself a lot with Korra and am actually pretty empathetic towards the character, and maybe she just needed someone to be just as empathetic rather than yell or force the knowledge into her, ya know. Like Celestia is with Twilight Sparkle, she is always kind and patient and understanding and let Twilight make her own mistakes rather than give her a extremely detailed list on what to do. For me, that’s what Iroh did, for me is was the PERFECT mentor for her in this case. She needed someone who would emphasis with her rather than point out what she always did wrong, he said he saw LIGHT and PEACE inside of her. You guys can’t entirely blame her for manny of her flaws, after all she wasn’t exactly raised properly by older folks who were so sure they knew what they were doing and tried to mold her into what she believed they wanted. I personally can relate to that: one can get torn between who they wish to be and who they think others want them to be, which is why Korra tends to seem both rebellious and uncertain, and I think that’s very human.

      So in conclusion: Yes, Korra is flawed, not perfect, but by the end of the day, how are any of us any better? Myke and Bryan made a character who is probably more human than most characters out there, even me as an actually character designer could probably never truly capture the human essence that comes from Korra, and also age doesn’t always equal maturity, especially if you’ve lived the life she lived. You guys can bash on Korra all you want, but I will remain one of those few people who truly sees the potential and SPARK this character has. I am not ashamed to say I love the character, she had tons of great qualities as well, you folks seem to forget.

      Whatever you say, my though will remain the same: Korra is a diamond in the rough for sure!

  • Geoffrey F. Norman

    I’ve been having this very same discussion with another tea friend who watches the show. My conclusion being that the problem with Korra is simple: Her story was finished in season one.

    She was presented at the start of the series as a hothead who couldn’t learn to airbend. Why? It was diametrically opposed to her character. (However, if that were the case, waterbending shouldn’t have come that easily to her either, since it IS based on Tai Chi and all.) At the end of the season, she learned to airbend AND got in touch with her past lives. Arc: Done.

    This season, the only way they could go was backward, placing her back into petulant teenager mode. Had they waited to do all the spiritual stuff (including past life regression therapy) THIS season, she would have a justifiable raison d’etre.

  • sidbrown210

    Korra as a 17 year old compared to the 16 year olds of A:TLA is night and day. Korra acts more like she’s 13 when I compare her to characters like Azula, Zuko, even Jet, Mai, or Ty Lee. Korra just doesn’t ever evolve. The same rash behavoir in book one is even more pronounced in book two. It’s hard to believe years of being trained by the White Lotus would result in such petulance. I hear book 3 is a little better in terms of her hyper reactive near uncontrollable temper.

  • Dan Kasteray

    Alas Korra is no better in season three or four. She’s still a person who has learned nothing. She knows metal bending until it’s convenient for her to forget how. SHe still doesn’t use any proper airbending moves and even after a supposed revelation she’s still brash and trying to solve every problem with her fists. Actually in season 4 her only defining trait is her self pity

  • emmanuel prud’homme

    Hum I don’t think so Dan. she’s accomplish many thing and in book 4 she’s trying to keep the peace in Zaofu with Suyin and Kuvira. And she’s talking with the great Uniter in the end of battle and she succeed to convicing and accept the responsability is crime. For me Its how if my little daughter grown up

  • Will Drake

    I think that her abrasive personality feels even more abrasive because there are a lot of other tough characters in LoK, (Such as Mako, Tenzin, Lin, etc…) and there is hardly anything to counter balances this. For example, Tenzin and Korra butt heads a lot because they are both very stubborn, which often shows the worst of Both characters.

    Aang is suppose to be Korra’s spiritual guild to being the Avatar, but he is sadly lacking. Aang “sweet-tempered” disposition would have made a nice foil to Korra’s bullheadedness. But he’s a no show, and then he pretty much got written out of the series entirely.

    One good example of the of past Avatars is Avatar Roku. He wasn’t there all the time, but he was there enough. When Aang wanted to learn fire bending from Jeong Jeong, Jeong Jeong insulted Aang and told him he was too weak. Then Roku stepped in and told Jeong Jeong off. This wonderfully counter balanced Aang shyness with Roku’s implacable authority.

  • Michael Smart

    Summed up well. Poorly written, selfish and ungrateful. Gets handed everything and learns nothing from it.

    • Randver Larson

      Doesn’t even remotely describe her at all. In fact, you just described the polar opposite of Korra.