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Legend of Korra creators: How the villains, politics, and new Avatar hold up

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The Legend of Korra ran from April 2012 to December 2014, and each season shook fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender with an interrogation of the franchise’s philosophic fabric. The show ran in primetime on Nickelodeon, but had the soul of a transcendent HBO epic. The story whisked Korra, a struggling teenager with near godly might, into battles waged in moral grey areas and metaphysical dimensions in which mankind’s spirituality had literally been walled off. Aang knew that a genocidal firelord was an enemy to defeat; Korra challenged the new Avatar with anti-authority protagonists who preached equality but stepped over a line. It was tricky and contemplative then, but in 2020, the sequel series may have even more to say about politics, culture, behavior, and our place in the cosmos.

With The Legend of Korra now on Netflix and CBS All Access, Polygon connected with creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko over email to reflect on the biggest choices in the show, what they’ve heard about the Korra character in the years since the finale, and why, for all its social and spiritual ideas built into the series, they still really wanted to end the show with a big-ass mecha fight. The pair didn’t have anything to add to news of their departure from Netflix’s live-action reimagining of Airbender, but they had lots to say on how the show has aged — and why there could be more story to tell.

[Ed. note: this interview contains major spoiler for all four seasons of The Legend of Korra.]

First, an ice-breaker: What was the last bit of Korra that you actually sat down to watch? Do you go back to episodes for inspiration or just to entertain yourselves?

Bryan Konietzko: The last two scenes I watched were Korra and Zaheer’s airborne battle in the Book 3 finale, and Suyin and Kuvira’s metalbending fight in “Operation: Beifong.” They were side-by-side comparisons of co-executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos’ animatics and the final animation by Studio Mir. Every time I see that stuff I am proud of the whole team and incredibly impressed all over again by Joaquim.

Michael Dante DiMartino: I haven’t watched the series since we finished it. But when I was writing the Korra comics I often referenced the art books for characters and backgrounds, and I was always amazed by the volume and quality of the artwork all the artists created over the course of the production.

kuvira and suyin fight in korra season 4 operation beifong episode

Image: Nickelodeon

In the years since the show ended, what has surprised you about the Korra character and how she went over? Did any choice in the show challenge audiences more than you expected?

Konietzko: I think maybe we knew Korra, as a character and a series, was going to be more challenging for audiences, but that was what felt right to us. You’re never going to please everyone, especially with a sequel, so you may as well do what feels best — and that’s just how we make our shows anyway. The last thing we wanted to do was make the same series all over again, even if a lot of fans of ATLA might have felt that is what they wanted from us.

It was a deliberate choice to make Korra a very different character from Aang in multiple ways. That provided so many new opportunities with the stories and character dynamics. And it would have only served to water down what was great about Aang’s character if we just made a carbon copy of him with the next Avatar. He’s such a goofy, affable, optimistic kid, so making his successor a stubborn, pugnacious, angsty teenager was bound to put off a lot of people, and I remember plenty of fan reactions to that effect. If I was surprised at anything, it may have been that it seemed like people were less willing to let her make mistakes than they were with Aang. But I didn’t worry about that stuff too much. I am always more concerned with the cumulative impact of a character’s arc.

On the flipside, there are also plenty of people who related to and connected deeply with Korra, and I am one of them. Our main characters aren’t just fictional storytelling devices to me. After the years spent toiling to manifest their stories, they become very real people in my heart and mind. And by the end of that grueling production I felt very close to Korra. I definitely have much more in common with her personality than I do with Aang’s, and her personal struggles and growth felt very real to me. The testimonials from fans of Korra were incredibly powerful and personal, more along the lines of how some fans reacted to Zuko’s arc. Some of those people were also fans of ATLA, and some were not and found a connection to TLOK first. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to reach different audiences with the same world.

What from your lives or studies or news intake at the time of making Korra informed the choice of Tarrlok and Amon as two ideologically distinct, but connected villains in Book 1?

Konietzko: After ATLA ended we had the idea for a revolutionary sect of non-bending Chi-blockers. Once we started development on TLOK and had the setting of a modern metropolis in the Avatar world we thought that concept was a good fit. The age-old tensions between those who had bending abilities and those who didn’t would be brought into sharp contrast in this huge, melting pot of a city. Even though our fantasy world celebrates the amazing powers of benders, we wanted to take a look at how these societies had developed with a bias towards benders and how that has impacted those without bending.

As for developing Tarrlok and Amon, the real world has taught us that no matter how noble a cause is, there will always be individuals who will exploit it. But as with all of our villains, we’re very interested in finding out who they are and how they ended up so out of balance.

amon standing in front of an amon rally poster in legend of korra book 1 endgame

Image: Nickelodeon

Have shifts in world culture and politics changed how you see season 1? Does the conversation echo what you were digging into in the series or challenge it?

DiMartino: We created ATLA and TLOK as series that would stand the test of time and deal with subjects and issues that people and societies have always struggled with. So, the shifts in the world right now haven’t changed how I see both series, but I have been surprised just how troublingly relevant some of the political themes are. But it’s all cyclical — which is another thing we were exploring. I’m thinking specifically in regard to the Ba Sing Se episodes in both series and how the lies and power struggles the past with Long Feng and King Kuei reverberates into Korra’s time with the Earth Queen, whose tyrannical behavior is a reaction to her ancestor’s past weakness.

In a way, Korra Book 1 feels like a comment on Aang’s decision to take Firelord Ozai’s bending away at the end of Last Airbender. How do you feel about Aang’s decision now?

Konietzko: For me, it’s more of an exploration into the ramifications of one’s choices, no matter how well intentioned they may have been. There are no easy solutions.

DiMartino: There’s a dialogue going on between both series on many levels, especially around the ability to take someone’s bending away. Aang used his power to defeat a tyrant while staying true to his values, while Amon is using his ability to manipulate and terrorize people. It’s not that the ability is all good or bad, it depends on the context and the intention behind the action.

Who was the hardest character to crack throughout The Legend of Korra, and what was the breakthrough moment that helped you make sense of them?

DiMartino: For me, Korra was the hardest to crack because she wasn’t the reluctant hero and wasn’t going on a typical hero’s journey. She didn’t fit the mold in many ways. I remember early on trying to figure out who or what would challenge her the most. Once we figured out that people like Tenzin and Lin Beifong (who should be her mentor figures) could actually hinder Korra in her quest to study airbending and take on the job she was meant to do, that helped me understand her predicament better. And coming up with Amon solidified everything. Since Korra was pro-bending, having an antagonist who was philosophically anti-bending gave her the perfect obstacle to her growth and challenged her worldview.

korra fighting zaheer in avatar state with chain around her hand

Image: Nickelodeon

On a similar note, Korra pushed far beyond the concept of ATLA, but what was one addition to the Avatar world’s mythology that you found yourself surprised to have imagined and incorporated? Maybe something that felt way out there, or you stumbled into, but then it became obvious and rooted itself in the show.

Konietzko: When we started Korra, I didn’t imagine we’d find an organic way to bring back Airbenders (beyond Aang and Katara’s decedents). But with the season 2 storyline, the pieces all fell into place in a way that seemed plausible in the realm of the Avatar universe.

Was the backstory of the spirit world always in the back of your mind during ATLA, and were there ever plans to delve into it, or even tell Wan’s story?

Konietzko: There was much about the spirit world we had not worked out back on ATLA, but this idea of a mythic, prehistoric era when lion-turtles roamed the world with cities on their backs was kicking around as far back as 2003 when we were making the test pilot. Mike and I had some broad ideas for how the lion-turtles played an important role in the creation of the first Avatar. We thought that would be a cool story to do at some point, but we weren’t sure when or in what format we would have the opportunity to tell it. As we got into Book 2 of Korra, it ended up fitting well with the themes and the plot, so we went for it. From an art direction standpoint, it was a lot of fun to come up with the different palette and background style. And I’m really glad we got to make Wan’s story with the crew we had in Burbank and with Studio Mir.

Book 3’s villain Zaheer feels like one of the boldest choices in the series. He sounded reasonable then, and today, he’s echoing a lot of what we hear from activists who want to see change in the world. Was it a challenge to put him in a position where Korra had to question and defeat him? Does Zaheer play differently now than he did then?

Konietzko: The feedback I have consistently heard from fans is that Zaheer really messes with their heads because the things he does are so awful, yet they feel he makes some really good points. And I think he knows what he is doing is awful and he doesn’t necessarily enjoy it, but whatever happened in his mysterious past was painful enough that he has accepted that as necessary. That’s why he’s definitely one of my favorite villains that we’ve ever created. I think a big part of our creative point of view is to explore the gray areas in everything, especially with our villains. We try to look at all of our characters as people first, then as heroes or villains second — or perhaps more accurately, protagonists and antagonists. If a character is simply “evil” and aware of it, then that’s really static for me. It is far more dynamic and realistic if that character believes they are on the right side. One of the things that resonated with me so deeply about Princess Mononoke was how there weren’t any villains, but rather people with competing interests. That wasn’t a perspective I was seeing in Western animation at that time, but that struck a chord with me and the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

Korra sits by a cliff as Aang stands behind her in Legend of Korra Book 1 Endgame

Image: Nickelodeon

Korra suffers a great deal of trauma across the series. What kind of conversations were you having on the writing and production side to be authentic about that? Does it feel true to the stories of survival you’ve heard in the years since?

DiMartino: Yes, it’s been humbling to have people send messages or tell us in person how much that storyline resonated with them. When we discussed Korra’s season 4 story arc, we talked about her starting out in such a dark place that she didn’t even want to be the Avatar anymore (to contrast her attitude in season 1). I remember reading about PTSD and people who had experienced traumatic events and what that recovery was like. When I wrote “Korra Alone,” I used what I felt and my life’s experiences to image what Korra might be feeling and going through in her situation.

So much of the show is about not solving every problem with a punch, but you still get to have a giant robot attack in the Book 4 finale. Did you envision that finale set piece from the beginning and work backward to Kuvira or did something about Kuvira give you the clear to go that big?

Konietzko: The idea of the giant mech was something we had kicked around a little bit for Hiroshi Sato in Book 1, but I’m glad we waited and built up to it for the series’ end. In a lot of cases, once we figure out an antagonist then that character tells us where the story needs to go. About midway through production on the series we knew we wanted to have a military dictator as our final villain, so we started aiming towards that, laying the foundation for Kuvira in Book 3. She not only provided a stark contrast to Zaheer for variety’s sake, but she was also a great foil for a version of Korra that could have come to be — one who was consumed with her power. It helped show how much Korra had grown as an Avatar. But even if Aang and Korra chose a more peaceful path towards conflict resolution, they still had massive conflicts to resolve, which makes for exciting finales. The emotion behind a fight will always be the thing that resonates the most, so we try to focus on that.

korra meditates in the spirit worlds in legend of korra book 4

Image: Nickelodeon

Last year, there was talk of a Last Airbender season 4 that dealt with Zuko and Azula that ultimately didn’t happen. Was that the case, and if so, did anything from that early development become part of Korra?

Konietzko: There was never going to be a season 4, not from us and not from Nickelodeon. Mike and I planned ATLA to be a three-season arc as far back as our initial pitch in 2002, and in 2008 we finished the story we set out to tell.

DiMartino: We finished the show exactly as we had intended. We hadn’t considered continuing Aang’s story until Dark Horse Comics approached us with the idea of returning to ATLA in graphic novel form. And at that point we worked with writer Gene Luen Yang to expand the story beyond the animated series.

Do you still have questions about the world and history of the Avatar world? Do you delight in anything you haven’t yet answered for yourselves?

Konietzko: Absolutely. Even after 18 years, I still find the Avatarverse to be a wellspring of creativity and storytelling. Mike and I built this fantasy world out of things we love, and we simply set out to make shows that we would want to watch ourselves. Thankfully that has kept it fresh for me after all this time. While it doesn’t encompass everything I want to say and do as an artist, it a really wonderful place to come back to and create within.

DiMartino: Yes, there are many seeds we planted through both series and in the graphic novels that could be expanded on and explored. The Avatar universe is a big place and has a long history so there’s a lot of potential for new stories.

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