Avatar: The Last Airbender Vs. The Legend of Korra: Ranking the Books
First airing in 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was met with near universal acclaim, and has been held up over time as a beloved animated television series. The show was commended for its diverse characters, expansive universe, and complex stories. The follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, aired in 2012, and managed to uphold the legacy of its predecessor, while pushing the franchise forward into new territory. In this article, I will countdown the 7 seasons, or books, of the two shows, to establish the best and worst seasons of the Avatar Franchise.
**Spoilers for all of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra to Follow**
7. The Legend of Korra; Book 2: Spirits
My Favorite Episode: "The Beginnings, Part 1 & Part 2"; Since "The Beginnings" episodes also serve as a stand alone origin story, I will include another episode, "A New Spiritual Age."
Book 2: Spirits ranks at the bottom of all the seasons of Avatar, mostly due to unrealized potential. If we're perfectly honest, it was good, but it could have been great. Spirits facilitated a massive expansion of the Avatar universe. It included two of the best episodes of the entire franchise, in "The Beginnings, Part 1 & Part 2." It introduced fan favorites such Varrick, Zhu Li, Bumi, Kya, and Eska, and reintroduced one of the most beloved Avatar characters of all-time: Iroh. Not to mention the Dark Avatar concept, a villain concept so groundbreaking for the franchise, that it made you rethink everything you knew about the Avatar universe.
Unfortunately, the Dark Avatar concept is also the point when you start to realize everything that Spirits could have been. Spirits should have ended the series. The Dark Avatar concept should have been introduced in Book 1 of The Legend of Korra. Vaatu should have influenced all of the Korra villains' attempts to bring chaos and darkness to the world, growing stronger as the Harmonic Convergence neared. Finally, after Korra faced all the lesser villains and the world was on the brink of plunging into 10,000 years of darkness and chaos, Korra should have faced UnaVaatu, restoring Balance at the end of the series. That would have provided the overall cohesion and pacing that sets Avatar: The Last Airbender (as a complete series) just a notch above The Legend of Korra (as a complete series).
But the conception of Korra was disjointed, preventing a huge arcing story like in The Last Airbender. Korra was never supposed to be four books long. Book 1, Book 2, and the collective of Books 3 and 4 were all ordered separately, hence the disjointed stories, awkward pacing, and the greater continuity between Books 3 and 4, than between any of the other books. And we can't judge Spirits for what it could have been; we have to judge it for what it was. And what it was, was poorly paced, kind of disjointed, and a little boring. Not to mention that the protagonist went so far left in her character development that a lot of fans began to hate her. All of these things combined to form a dense fog around Spirit's flashes of brilliance.
6. Avatar: The Last Airbender; Book 1: Water
My Favorite Episode: "The Siege of the North, Part 1 & Part 2"
Book 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender falls at number 6 entirely by default. Avatar is a franchise that got better with time, and therefore, as great as Water was, things only got better from there. Water had yet to see the introduction of great heroes, such as Toph, and great villains, such as Azula. Zuko, one of Avatar's best characters, was still very early in his character arc. The universe was also very small at this point, and the show's capacity to amaze expanded as its universe grew. But Water laid some solid foundations for the franchise. We were introduced to a cast of diverse, well-rounded characters, in an animated show with a lot of heart. Episodes like “Jet” and “The Blue Spirit,” presented a moral gray-area, setting the stage for complex conflicts in future seasons. When Aang, Katara, and Sokka reached the Northern Water Tribe in Episode 18, viewers got a glimpse of the potential for expansion in both the physical and spiritual worlds of the Avatar Universe, a potential that we would see fully manifest over the next six seasons.
5. The Legend of Korra; Book 1: Air
My Favorite Episode: “And the Winner Is…”
Book 1: Air saw the Avatar reincarnate like Michael Jordan coming back to wear the 4-5. Fans of the series were introduced to a drastically different protagonist than Aang, which ensured that The Legend of Korra would be much more than a retread of what we saw in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The shortened run (a mere 12 episodes, compared to the 20+ in each season of Avatar: The Last Airbender) resulted in a localized focus and a more cohesive, cinematic story. An engaging conflict between Benders and Equalists created meaningful tension throughout the season, leaving the viewer craving resolution at each episode’s cliffhanger. As an antagonist, Amon was terrifying, and yet, his struggle was relatable. Everything was set for Air to help Korra achieve a truly legendary status, and then Book 1 failed to bring home the hardware.
The reveal of Amon as Tarrlok’s brother Noatak, was where things started to unravel. It felt rushed, it felt shoehorned in, and it discredited the merit of Amon’s struggle, seeing as Noatak was actually a Bender. Maybe this could’ve been remedied with a longer show run, but as is, the final two episodes of Air just aren’t as satisfying as the ten episodes leading up to them. There are a few other issues with the finale as well, most notably, Korra and Mako’s kiss (the whole relationship felt unnecessary) and Korra regaining her bending abilities almost immediately after losing them, and subsequently entering the Avatar State. While it would’ve been weird to never see Korra enter the Avatar State in Book 1, especially since the production of future books was not a guarantee yet, it happened so quickly that it didn’t feel earned. Still, there’s a lot to like about Air, and its success definitely warranted the three additional seasons. If the Avatar franchise ever gets a second shot at a live action movie, I hope they make Air, as long as they can remedy the finale episodes’ shortcomings.
4. Avatar: The Last Airbender; Book 3: Fire
My Favorite Episode: “Sokka’s Master”
Fire highlighted the strength of the characters and the universe that Avatar creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino created, because Fire is almost entirely filler, and yet it’s incredibly engaging. By the conclusion of Book 2: Earth, nearly everything that was supposed to happen, had already happened, and now viewers had to wait 21 episodes for Aang and Firelord Ozai to finally square off. Fire meandered longer than it should have, even teasing a showdown mid-season. And yet, there was so much universe to explore, and so much development for the characters to go through, that it was all worth it. Book 3 epitomizes the idea that the journey is about much more than the destination. When Aang and Ozai did finally throwdown, it was everything fans hoped it would be, and the way they drove home the ideal of teamwork, by having nearly every major character play a role, made it even more satisfying. But without everything that led up to the finale, fans would not have been as invested. The beginning of Book 3 found the series creators ahead of the game, with a season’s worth of fun to be had, and fans were lucky to be along for the roadtrip.
3. The Legend of Korra; Book 4: Balance
My Favorite Episode: “Korra Alone”
Book 4 shook up the world! When Korra and Asami held hands and walked into the Spirit World to end the series, the world was presented with one of the most powerful images yet to be shown in a mainstream animated series. The confirmation of that meaningful relationship felt like it changed everything. On top of that, it capped off a season that explored some very complex issues of governance and revolution that felt like they had a lot of real world applicability. Korra vs. Kuvira was not a simple matter of Good vs. Evil. It was an intellectual debate which culminated in a non-violent resolution, demonstrating immense growth on the part of Korra. What keeps Balance out of the top 2 spots is the fact that it was essentially an entire season of falling action. Nothing quite seemed to reach the climax that was Book 3: Change. It was great to witness the fallout of the showdown between Korra and the Red Lotus, but Kuvira’s mission just wasn’t as exciting as Zaheer’s was, and thus Balance wasn’t as exciting as Change.
2. Avatar: The Last Airbender; Book 2: Earth
My Favorite Episode: “The Chase;” I know. I know… “Zuko Alone,” but the tension that was built and sustained in “The Chase” was incredible. It still gets me when I watch it, even though I know how it ends.
Toph; Azula; Zuko’s character arc; Earth saw Avatar hit its stride, and maintain it for 20 episodes, in what is one of the best single seasons of animated television I have ever seen. Toph provided much needed personality to Team Avatar. Azula provided a terrifying villain, that added a layer of depth to the already mature cartoon. Zuko became the most relatable character in the franchise. The Earth Kingdom was vast, and provided an exciting variety to the season; from swamps, to deserts, to urban locales. The action, the tension, the gravity; everything that happened in Earth had weight and meaning. In addition to this, there were life guiding philosophies and principles present. In “The Swamp,” we learned that, “Time is an illusion, and so is death.” In “The Guru,” we saw Aang knowingly turn away from the lofty spiritual ideal of enlightenment, in order to protect someone he cared about. Throughout this season, characters grapple with concepts such as duty, destiny, obligation, and, ultimately, empowerment. In Book 2: Earth, Avatar became more than a children’s show, and demonstrated the potential of animation to do much more than entertain.
1. The Legend of Korra; Book 3: Change
My Favorite Episode: “Venom of the Red Lotus”
Korra had a lot to prove going into Book 3. The finale of Book 1 and the entirety of Book 2 were a mess. But Book 3 proved that Korra was fit to hang with Aang, and then some. A great story, a complex central conflict, incredible action; Book 3 worked on all levels. Book 3 put the viewer in a chokehold of tension, and tightened it the entire season. With the re-introduction of Airbenders and the development of the character of Zaheer, Book 3 continued to expand the universe that Book 2: Spirits had blown open. The creators became completely untethered to take the show to incredible new heights. The finale saw the death of Korra and the end of the Avatar cycle as legitimate possibilities. The battle that ensued between Korra and Zaheer rivaled that of Aang and Ozai, and had irreversible consequences that Korra, and the world would have to cope with all the way through the end of the series. The game-changer that was Book 4 would not have been nearly as powerful, and The Legend of Korra would not be one of the best animated series of all-time, without the masterpiece that was Book 3.