The Legend of Korra: Empathizing with Villains

A traditional hero’s journey portrays villains as impediments the hero must overcome, not as building blocks for the hero to progress as an individual. The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, portrays many of its villains in a way that questions the hero’s own motives and abilities. In The Legend of Korra, the villains are all inextricably linked to Korra’s journey as the series’ heroine. Not only are the villains connected to Korra, but perhaps even more importantly they are linked to each other through Korra. Each season, and thus each new villain, addresses another facet of Korra’s character. They each induce viewers to think: “What if the villain has a point?”

Viewers’ first introduction to the Avatar, Aang of the original series, inhabits a more ancient-looking world and is a spiritual person. Korra inhabits a modern world and strains to connect to the spiritual aspect of herself. Villains, by their very nature, are often misguided by a lack of vision. Despite carefully laid out plans and calculations, villains are unable to see past their own perceptions and conclusions and punish others for it. How Korra faces each subsequent villain reflects her current state of mind. This allows Korra to continually reestablish a level of spirituality within herself by figuring out who she is aside from “the Avatar.” The villains in The Legend of Korra mimic the Avatar’s function itself. Themes that are important to both the Avatar universe and Korra’s character continually disappear and reemerge in newer, “reincarnated” forms.


Avatar Aang removing the bloodbender Yakone's bending in a flashback from the episode "Out of the Past." Amon wants the same power so he can remove bending from the world completely.
Avatar Aang removing the bloodbender Yakone’s bending in a flashback from the episode “Out of the Past.” Amon wants this same power so he can remove bending from the world completely. All images in this article are stills captured via the The Legend of Korra DVDs.

The first villain Korra encounters is Amon, leader of The Equalists, whose mission is eradicating bending altogether. He has the rare gift of being able to remove people’s ability to bend the elements. For Korra, this is a terrifying prospect. How can she still be the Avatar if she can’t bend the elements? For fans of The Last Airbender, this ability should not come as a surprise. The last time viewers saw such an ability it was in the hands of a twelve-year-old named Aang. In Aang’s case, he was a boy wracked with fear at the idea of having no choice but to kill his enemy, the Fire Lord. In the midst of his spiritual crisis, Aang is given the knowledge of how humans first learned to bend the elements from a Lion Turtle in “The Old Masters” episode. Using this knowledge against his enemy, Aang takes the Fire Lord’s firebending away and thus renders him powerless. Whereas Aang removes the Fire Lord’s bending as a merciful last resort, Amon in The Legend of Korra uses this ability as an act of control and suppression.

Amon makes the claim that benders oppress non-benders. This topic has already been tackled in Kevin Wong’s article for The Artifice, “Politics and Privilege in The Legend of Korra.” Tarrlok, who is actually Amon’s brother, points out to Korra how she also uses bending to intimidate people into getting what she wants. Korra’s tendency toward aggression is one of her chief characteristics. Amon certainly has a point. What if bending is just another form of oppression, an unfair advantage given or revoked at birth? Despite all the implicit bender bias that goes on, one must keep in mind that both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra make a point of having non-benders be a part of the Avatar’s main entourage. The Avatar’s function is to keep the world balanced and care for all nations, which includes non-benders as well.

Amon’s anti-bender propraganda is meant to exaggerate the schism between benders and non-benders by exploiting the Avatar’s inherent weakness in the eyes of non-benders. By having the fate of the world rest in the hands of the Avatar, a bender and an all-powerful one at that, non-benders will no doubt feel slighted and frustrated by a lack of participation. During Korra’s first visit to Republic City and thus viewers’ first impression of it, the bender and non-bender conflict has already reached a climax. Korra witnesses a group of firebending thugs hassling a non-bending shop owner over unpaid debts. They threaten to set the man’s shop ablaze simply because they can. Even when Korra tries to help this shop owner against his assailants, her bending inadvertently destroys much of the street’s infrastructure. By showing this bender and non-bender conflict in the place Aang once deemed would be the spiritual and harmonious center of the world, Amon’s propaganda will likely play upon the viewer’s thoughts as well. 1

Amon stealing a firebender's bending abilities from him in "The Revelation" episode.
Amon stealing a firebender’s bending abilities from him in “The Revelation” episode.

Amon and his group of followers known as The Equalists have a similar rationale to the villain Syndrome from the animated movie, The Incredibles. Giving non-benders access to mechanized chi-blockers is analogous to Syndrome leveling the playing field between superheroes and their average human peers with his inventions. The Avatar is the bender who unites all four elements in harmony. With Amon, no matter what type of bender someone is, he can take that power away. Amon’s method of equality undoes the origin of bending itself, which humans learned by observing nature and being taught by animals, and thus severs a link between man and nature. Amon wills himself as an anti-Avatar, having complete control over the elements while at the same time rejecting any affiliation with bending whatsoever. It is also like Kurt Vonnegut’s famous dystopian vision of so-called equality in “Harrison Bergeron,” where those who excel are forcibly handicapped so as not to offend their mediocre peers.

Non-bending issues aside, one can’t neglect the source of those ideologies. Amon’s rationale is not: “If I can’t bend the elements, no one else will either!”. Amon wins non-benders’ support under false pretenses. He is not just a bender, but a gifted one as well. He’s a very powerful bloodbender. Bloodbending is one of the series’ most feared styles of bending since it can take control of other people’s bodies against their will. It’s illegal and as far as taboos go, it’s about as bad as performing the forbidden curses in the Harry Potter series. Think of the communal aversion to “Crucio” being demonstrated in class in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film. That same disdain and outright horror is displayed when Katara reluctantly uses the ability to save her friends from the bloodbender Hama in Avatar: The Last Airbender’s episode “The Puppetmaster.” Even Prince Zuko, one of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s long-standing antagonists, is visibly unnerved when he first witnesses Katara bloodbending in “The Southern Raiders” episode. Returning to The Legend of Korra, though viewers have seen bloodbending’s power before, it had never equaled an Avatar’s.

Bloodbender Noatak, under the guise of being a non-bender named Amon, in the episode "The Revelation."
Bloodbender Noatak, under the guise of being a non-bender named Amon, in the episode “The Revelation.”

As a bloodbending prodigy, Amon has no personal reason to banish bending. Why would he go to such lengths to masquerade as a non-bender? That is a question the series itself never gives a definitive answer to other than suggesting Amon’s long-time obsession with absolute equality. As his brother Tarrlok mentions, Amon obsesses over fairness almost all his life. As a child, this includes kindness and helping those deemed inferior but that warmth is soon lost during his teen years. 2 Like many so-called peace movements in our world, what begins as a non-violent protest can quickly turn violent with impatience.

A young Noatak (now known as Amon) looking after his little brother Tarrlok in the episode "Skeletons in the Closet."
A young Noatak (now known as Amon) looking after his little brother Tarrlok in the episode “Skeletons in the Closet.”

One other possible conclusion is that Amon, whose birth name is actually Noatak, is unintentionally replicating certain childhood traumas. When Amon conducts his first major Equalist gathering, he constructs a tragic childhood background. It’s complete with poverty and murder and disfigurement just in case any of his fans doubted his dedication to the non-bending cause. 3 That story though is a false one. Amon’s real childhood trauma comes from having a cruel and perfectionist bloodbending father, Yakone, who raises his two sons as cold-blooded killers (no pun intended).

Korra’s vision of Aang removing Yakone’s bending is a precursor to what Amon routinely does to benders through his Equalist movement. Why would Amon take Aang’s place in this scenario? After all, it is this event which spurs Yakone into forcing his sons to take his place as master bloodbenders. 4 By taking other benders’ abilities away, Amon unknowingly encourages his father’s own cruel behavior to repeat itself in other people. From a psychological perspective, Amon may want to take Aang’s place in the original event against Yakone. He wants to take power away from his father, something he does once as a child and repeats over and over as an adult against other benders with the Equalist movement.

Whatever Amon’s personal reasons for igniting a non-bending revolution are, his presence does a very important thing for Korra as the Avatar. He unintentionally unlocks her ability to airbend, which she had previously struggled to do on her own. Who knows how long it would have taken Korra to airbend were it not for Amon’s help? It’s like how Bolin later discovers he can lavabend when lava threatens to engulf both him and his friends. 5 Being put in a life or death situation is sometimes the only way one truly realizes what he or she is capable of. As Asami mentions to Korra later in the series, the Equalist movement also helped give non-benders a level of recognition they never had before. Amon helps non-benders realize they are just as important as benders are. 6


The first Avatar, Wan, sending the spirits back to the Spirit World and severing the link between them and the material world. This is why the Avatar is known as a bridge between the two worlds, but Unalaq believes humans and spirits should live together.
The first Avatar, Wan, sending the spirits back to the Spirit World and severing the link between them and the material world from the episode “Beginnings, Part 2.” The Avatar is known as a bridge between the two worlds, but Unalaq believes humans and spirits should live together.

Though Korra’s confrontation with Amon enabled her to finally airbend and go into the Avatar State, she is still a long way off from being a fully-fledged Avatar. She can airbend, but that in no way makes Korra an airbender. To borrow Toph’s famous nickname from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra lacks Aang’s graceful, “twinkle toes”-style bending and instead keeps the same rough style she uses with the other elements. She’s not yet the spiritual person an Avatar needs to be.

Unalaq subduing a restless spirit in the episode "Rebel Spirit."
Unalaq subduing a restless spirit in the episode “Rebel Spirit.”

Unalaq, her next opponent, appears to Korra both as her uncle and a man with a rare ability to tame the dark spirits who have recently gone rampaging. Unalaq tells Korra that these spirits are merely angered by the world’s overall lack of spirituality and he can teach her how to calm the current rift between humans and spirits. 7 It would seem Korra needs this opportunity more than ever. He is the one who initially suggests to Korra that matters are not simply black and white or good versus evil. Like humans, spirits have both light and darkness within them. It’s important for Korra to grasp this since an Avatar has to show leniency, especially with one’s enemies.

What Korra learns about light and darkness is key to how she later defeats him. Realizing that darkness cannot exist without light is how Korra briefly summons a force of light without the help of Raava. 8 It’s crucial when Korra learns of the Avatar’s origins, which began with a ten-thousand-year struggle between darkness and light in the world. 9 One also realizes why, after thousands of years of history, there was never a bad Avatar. Couldn’t any of the previous Avatars have gone rogue and not care about keeping the world in check? The answer is that no matter an Avatar’s individual personality, Raava is forever fused to them and therefore an Avatar can never lean too far into darkness.

In that origin story, Avatar Wan is the Pandora of the Pandora’s Box myth and accidently tips the balance in the world toward chaos. Despite Avatar Wan spending the rest of his life trying to repair his lapse in judgment, it makes Unalaq’s actions seem like a reversal of the original Avatar’s mistake. Unalaq wants to unify humans and spirits, not separate them, so what could be wrong about that? Unlike Amon, Unalaq wants an Avatar in the world. The difference is Unalaq wants to be that Avatar. He wants to be a new type of Avatar, one that ushers in a new era of chaos using dark energy. He is a reflection, not a reversal, of Avatar Wan’s original mistake of releasing chaos out into the world. To be human is not enough for him.

Amon’s tampering with the world’s energies actually has unintended positive consequences. Unalaq is more like Prometheus than Pandora. Korra would not have learned the useful spirit-calming technique without Unalaq’s tutelage. By inducing Korra to open the spirit portals, the nature of the world changes forever. After defeating the dark spirit Vaatu, Korra decides to take Unalaq’s advice and leave the portals open. 10 Korra not only allows spirits and humans to live together but also relinquishes the Avatar’s monopoly as the bridge between the material and spiritual worlds. Unalaq’s actions, which cause this shift in the planet’s energy, also give bending abilities to select non-benders. This contributes to a major rebirth of airbending in the world, allowing Bumi to finally be the airbender he believes his father Aang hoped he would be.

Unalaq permanently merging with the dark spirit Vaatu in the episode "Darkness Falls."
Unalaq permanently merging with the dark spirit Vaatu in the episode “Darkness Falls.”

Unalaq’s villainous motivations are more of the garden variety, trading in the weak human flesh and soul in exchange for all-mighty powers. His motives are mainly self-centered, even at the cost of his two children. With little personal backstory, he appears less complex than Amon. He lacks the tortured and mentally scarring childhood or the vigilante’s search for justice by whatever means necessary. Even in Varrick’s black and white films or “movers” as he likes to call them, the actor who plays Unalaq depicts him as if he had a mustache to twirl, a cape and top hat to skulk around in, and intended to tie some poor damsel to a set of train tracks. 11

Unalaq's on-screen depiction in one of Varrick's "movers," from the episode "The Sting."
Unalaq’s on-screen depiction in one of Varrick’s “movers,” from the episode “The Sting.”

Perhaps Unalaq seems as cartoonishly evil as Firelord Ozai often was in Avatar: The Last Airbender because he’s meant to be. For someone who sincerely believes the world being consumed by darkness and discord is not only good, but something he can control, Unalaq seems a bit laughably short-sighted. Yet many villains have thought so before him. Think of all those bad guys in the Indiana Jones films who foolishly tamper with powers they know so little about in the hopes it will make them immortal somehow or at least invincible. Unalaq’s true power is not his own, but one derived from his dark master Vaatu. He does not realize his own vulnerability.

After facing the spirit of darkness, it seems only fair for Korra to confront the darkness inside herself. When Korra enters the spirit world during Unalaq’s arc, her fears transform her into her childhood self. 12 This makes Korra similar to Jinora, who proves more receptive to spiritual energy than her more knowledgeable father Tenzin. 13 It seems as a child, conventionally thought of as purer and more accepting than adults are, Korra is able to befriend spirits that initially frighten her. Her encounters with Unalaq allow the often cocky and strong-headed Korra to admit she is sometimes afraid, a feeling initiated by Amon. Korra’s fight with Unalaq brings her to her lowest point so far in the series by exposing one of her greatest fears: “Who am I if I’m not the Avatar?”. Unalaq and Vaatu are direct predecessors to Korra facing her own psychological demons later in the series.


This is Zaheer in the episode, "Enter the Void." He wants to free mankind from bondage by executing world leaders.
Zaheer in the episode, “Enter the Void.” He wants to free mankind from bondage by executing world leaders.

Not everyone is happy about the human and spirit unification, especially since it means the Spirit Wilds have taken over Republic City. This change is a catalyst for the next villain Korra must face, Zaheer, who is all about impermanence. Zaheer argues that chaos is natural. Chaos for Zaheer differs from Unalaq before him. It’s not about dark energy or evil power, but about the world’s naturally unstable condition. Civilizations come and go and order is essentially an illusion created by man. What better explanation for the vines that now take over the infrastructure in Republic City. 14

When a number of non-benders suddenly gain new abilities, it doesn’t go as smoothly as either Korra or Tenzin would have hoped. As Aang’s only airbending offspring, Tenzin expects to resurrect the Air Nation to what his father once knew. However, the new airbenders are either afraid and want their bending taken away or have little interest in leaving their homes to become air nomads. 15 16 There is a clash between what the Air Nation once was and what it can be now. Team Avatar’s first airbending recruit ends up being an orphan thief who only joined them to avoid imprisonment. 17 The energy shift gives certain people power it probably shouldn’t. It happens to give one of the world’s most dangerous criminals the ability to escape his prison.

Zaheer answers the original question raised by Amon’s storyline about non-benders having diminished roles in a world dominated by bending. Unalaq’s defeat and Korra’s decision to keep the spirit portals open gives Zaheer the opportunity he needs to take action. Zaheer was born a non-bender. Despite his inexperience, he quickly emerges as one of the most powerful airbenders the world has seen. If one talks about the standard principles of enlightenment alone, Zaheer succeeds where Aang failed, albeit unintentionally. When Zaheer’s girlfriend P’Li is killed in battle, it destroys his last earthly tether and grants him the rare airbending ability of flight. He is only the second airbender to have ever accomplished this feat, which had long been treated as an urban legend. 18 Never having to face the death of the girl he loves, Aang of Avatar: The Last Airbender is able to choose his love for Katara over mastery of the Avatar State in the episode “The Guru.” Zaheer uses his girlfriend’s death as a release from bonds to gain greater power. P’Li’s death, not his own personal realization, breaks his earthly tether for him.

This is a stark contrast to Korra’s sacrifice at the end of the series, where she risks her own life out of compassion for her enemy. Despite his violent tactics, Zaheer is not a stranger to acts of goodness. He once rescued his girlfriend P’Li from a life spent in servitude and seems to genuinely seek mankind’s elevation from bondage. 19 What makes Zaheer a villain is that he is willing to kill other people for the sake of an abstract ideal. His version of enlightenment and freedom does not include the essential components of compassion and wisdom, which are two qualities indivisible from one another.

Zaheer, in the episode "The Metal Clan," shows great interest in the airbender Guru Laghima's teachings about freedom.
Zaheer, in the episode “The Metal Clan,” shows great interest in the airbender Guru Laghima’s teachings about freedom.

Zaheer’s character has a strong affiliation with Buddhist concepts such as non-attachment from worldly cravings as well as awareness of the impermanence of all things. This connects to Unalaq’s speeches about spirituality. Instead of Unalaq’s concern over a tribe’s lack of spirituality, Zaheer’s arc concerns an individual’s spirituality. Even Toph, whom viewers of Avatar: The Last Airbender know as a brazen and fiercely independent tomboy, disappears from society in search of enlightenment. Reliance on oneself without an authority figure’s influence is a major aspect of Zaheer’s philosophy.

Korra has to test-drive Zaheer’s philosophy for herself. Though she can always rely on the help of her friends and family, this is the first season where Korra starts to feel truly alone as the Avatar. Never before has there been an Avatar, aside from the original, who cannot look to his or her past lives for guidance. This reality is especially brutal when Zaheer poisons Korra and she has a nightmarish confrontation with memories of her past enemies. Korra is an Avatar who is truly on her own, held together by her worldly connections but barred from otherworldly refuge.

Initially, an aged but in no way less feisty, Toph helps Korra recover from defeat. She helps Korra get rid of the physical poison in her body, but The Legend of Korra makes a strong distinction between physical and psychological ailments. It is Zaheer who is instrumental in Korra’s recovery from post-traumatic stress and depression later on in the series. As a hero, Korra has to meet her enemy twice. Once as a standard hero versus villain scenario and second as a healing process from trauma.

It is quite fitting for Zaheer to become an airbender out of any of the other elements. He often spouts the famous teachings of Guru Laghima. 20 He is an ardent admirer of airbending culture, but seems to have missed the memo about the Air Nation’s preference for non-violence. Despite Zaheer’s great respect for the Air Nation, he is also not above wiping out the entire new generation of airbenders should Korra not give herself up. Though he does not succeed, Zaheer and his accomplices’ actions end up destroying an ancient Air Temple and no doubt a lot of important historical artifacts and remnants of Air Nation culture with it. 21 How can a true airbender think nothing of such desecration?

Airbenders are the most spiritual benders. The air temples, where the Fire Nation killed the original airbenders, are hidden away on mountaintops. It is easily reminiscent of Buddhist monasteries. The fact that the Fire Nation was able to desecrate those elusive sanctuaries in Avatar: The Last Airbender became a symbol of the world’s overall loss of spirituality during the Hundred Year War. Zaheer destroys a great deal of beauty in the world for the sake of his new world order. His group’s cause even comes at the cost of his girlfriend’s life, but her death only reinforces his belief rather than crushing it.

Receiving the miraculous gift of airbending out of the blue makes Zaheer believe he has a “divine right” of sorts to create the new world order he’s dreamed of. This is reminiscent of religious fanatics who will use certain natural phenomena as signs and sanctions from the gods to do whatever they see fit. It makes Zaheer a particularly frightening enemy to face. Not only does he believe his actions are necessary, but that they are morally correct and the universe supports him all the way. Being guided by the teachings of the ancient airbending master Guru Laghima, one has to ask oneself, how could the words of a guru possibly lead him astray?

The corrupt Earth Queen making her subjects cower before her in "The Earth Queen" episode.
The corrupt Earth Queen making her subjects cower before her in “The Earth Queen” episode.

Zaheer sees himself as a revolutionary, one who releases the Earth Kingdom from the tyranny of its monarchy. It’s not difficult to see his point. The Earth Queen is undoubtedly a corrupt ruler. Even Su Beifong of the Metal Clan in Zaofu, which is an incredibly safe place devoted to artistic pursuits, thinks the monarchy is an outdated system of government. 22

The Earth Queen is mean-spirited, self-absorbed, and neglects (or is at least oblivious to) the sufferings of others. She is often depicted as if she were a dictator, not just a queen. Fans of Alice in Wonderland will likely be reminded of The Queen of Hearts’s demands for random and unwarranted beheadings when they see her. Mako and Bolin’s own grandmother has a portrait of the Earth Queen on her mantelpiece and does not allow criticism of any kind from anyone about the Earth Queen’s efficacy as a monarch. Even when her home is burning to the ground, she refuses to leave this royal portrait behind. When Bolin forcibly saves his grandma, the only belonging she takes is the Earth Queen’s portrait. 23 Though this unwavering loyalty to the queen doesn’t seem forced upon Mako and Bolin’s grandma, it does resemble a cult of personality common to totalitarianism. To suggest that these are allusions to the ardent and militant devotion directed toward dictators such as Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin, and perhaps most importantly the Kim dynasty in North Korea would not be far-fetched.

Zaheer executing the Earth Queen in the episode "Long Live the Queen."
Zaheer executing the Earth Queen in the episode “Long Live the Queen.”

Zaheer’s reasoning does not differ all that much from what birthed the French or American Revolution, with their pursuit of the lofty goal known as liberty. Most revolutions are the blood-stained patches of history where anger, resentment, and acts of revenge override the human capacity for kindness and understanding. They often bring out the worst in us and Zaheer’s case is no different. As a member of the Red Lotus, the anarchist splinter group of the White Lotus, Zaheer takes the extremist route of what he believes is attaining peace. His idea of freedom involves executing world leaders so that power is in the hands of the people. He knows this will likely result in rioting, violence, and overall confusion but believes this is not only inevitable but good.

Having people forced to think for themselves for once and show their true thoughts and actions when respectability and order do not intervene is certainly important. Absolute freedom is something people often say they crave, but dread and turn down when faced with its reality. Zaheer is a man of his word since after killing the Earth Queen he does not decide to take charge of the Earth Kingdom himself. Instead, he leaves and lets Earth Kingdom citizens loot whatever valuables they can find and set the place ablaze. 24

As bad as the Earth Queen is, she hardly deserves her cruel demise at Zaheer’s hand. Since airbenders are peaceful nomads, viewers likely see airbending only in a positive light. It is a graceful, defensive art about balance and designed to disarm one’s opponent by using their own force against them. Remember in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode “The Headband” how Aang defeated a Fire Nation bully without landing a single punch? It’s often a reactionary bending concerned with agility and nimbleness and as Meelo often says, requires you to “Be the leaf!”. 25 Airbending concerns the breath, which one assumes by default means it is only life-giving.

With Zaheer, it is the first time viewers see airbending being used in such a brutal and agonizing way. An airbender robbing another person of his or her breath seems unthinkable. By robbing the Earth Queen of her air supply, Zaheer is essentially removing her right to freedom. Since Zaheer only sees the Earth Queen as a figurehead for greed and corruption, it blocks his ability to see her as another person who also deserves a chance at freedom. Zaheer is unable to show mercy towards those he opposes. This gives Korra a model for how an Avatar should not behave. Acts of mercy and forgiveness become crucial for Korra as she faces her next opponent, Kuvira.

Korra and Zaheer even end up being on the same page when it comes to Kuvira. Zaheer realizes his actions unintentionally created a tyrant. With his help, Korra is able to reconnect with Raava and she learns more about how to energybend. This is crucial in Korra’s final battle. By the end of the series, even Zaheer gets what he wanted as far as the monarchy is concerned and without any bloodshed. Prince Wu, the Earth Queen’s successor, plans on dissolving the monarchy on his own terms.


Kuvira reuniting the Earth Kingdom, which she transforms into her own Earth Empire.
Kuvira, in the episode “After All These Years,” reuniting the Earth Kingdom which she eventually transforms into her own Earth Empire.

It’s essential for Kuvira to be the final major enemy Korra must face in the series. Kuvira is shown to viewers even before her major arc in the final season. As a citizen of Zaofu, she helps in the fight against Zaheer and even tends to the injured. 26 Unlike her predecessors, she is not shown leading protests, bidding for greater power, or leading any radical organizations. She seems entirely average, in a good way. She seems both kind and responsible. Maybe there’s a reason for that. It takes viewers off guard, just as it would be difficult to imagine an Avatar committing any sort of bad behavior or at least not being a prime example of human goodness.

The only alternative to the Earth Kingdom ruled by Kuvira is one ruled by the inept Prince Wu, who cares more about fancy celebrations and flirting with pretty women than actually ruling. He relies heavily on Mako to do just about everything for him, including protecting him from dissenters. Viewers’ first introduction to Kuvira in action as a leader is when she single-handedly captures a group of bandits while hardly breaking a sweat. 27 When faced with the option of having either Kuvira of Prince Wu be the new Earth Kingdom leader, the choice seems all too clear.

The problem is that, unlike one’s first impression of Kuvira from Zaheer’s arc, Kuvira is also extreme in her ideologies like Zaheer. With Kuvira, viewers see a distorted funhouse mirror of Korra’s traits displaced on a military leader. Kuvira is an obvious riff on overzealous dictators. She wants to restore the Earth Kingdom to its supposed former glory but believes only she has the leadership it takes to get it there. Sound familiar? As the Avatar, Korra is meant to do much the same thing. Even Korra realizes Kuvira is taking over her job as Avatar while she’s been busy recuperating from her fight with Zaheer. The only difference is that, as the Avatar, Korra owes her allegiance to all nations and all people whereas Kuvira is solely concerned with the Earth Kingdom at the expense of all outsiders.

Kuvira perceives herself as a generous and benevolent leader, but as Toph points out to Korra that is a dangerous mode of thinking. The issues that routinely plague mankind are far too big for any one person to assume they can fix. 28 Kuvira overestimates her own importance. This is something Korra must also learn. Since Korra is the Avatar, she also sees herself as the world’s saving grace. However, to be the Avatar, Korra must be a master of herself and a servant to her people.

Being a servant of the people is something strongly associated with royalty, which Zaheer and Kuvira have reached the same conclusion about. Kuvira also believes the monarchy is an outdated system. Not unlike Adolf Hitler’s rationale of restoring Germany’s bruised pride after the First World War, Kuvira will do whatever it takes to make sure the Earth Kingdom will never be mocked or hurt again. She even goes so far as to dub the Earth Kingdom as the “Earth Empire” instead, echoing the symbol of “The Third Reich.” 29 Like any dictator and all of Korra’s previous enemies, Kuvira goes too far.

Kuvira creating her new Earth Empire in the "Battle Zaofu" episode.
Kuvira creating her new Earth Empire, with force, in the “Battle Zaofu” episode.

She operates on a “Join or Die” policy, reabsorbing territories into her Earth Empire through intimidation and wiping out any that stand against her. Siphoning supplies from those who don’t bow to her rule, she bends the opposition until it breaks. Even those who willingly submit to her authority don’t flourish. Instead, they turn into slave labor camps. She amasses her own private army and with the inventor Varrick’s help builds a superweapon at the expense of the spirit vines in the Foggy Swamp. As with Unalaq, Kuvira messes with powers she can’t completely control. These are all the unsettling symptoms of an emerging totalitarian government.

Whereas Zaheer wants freedom born out of chaos to reign supreme, Kuvira is obsessed with order. This is why her followers must swear absolute and unconditional allegiance to her. She loves to see her soon-to-be subjects grovel for her mercy and proclaim her as “The Great Uniter.” Kuvira is under the illusion Zaheer was also under, that she provides people with freedom. Though Kuvira is certainly no fool, her narcissism does make her somewhat susceptible to overt pledges of loyalty. Zhu Li, Varrick’s excellent but overworked assistant, convinces both Kuvira and Varrick himself that her years of being unappreciated have converted her into an ardent follower of “The Great Uniter.” 30 Of course one can pin that down to Zhu Li’s great acting skills, which draw upon her actual pent-up feelings, but it’s more than just that. Kuvira truly believes she is an awe-inspiring savior and relishes having a yes-man remind her of her own vision of herself.

Kuvira’s quest for power is a repetition of what led to the downfall of the Fire Nation under the helm of Fire Lord Ozai at the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Fire Lord Ozai thought the Fire Nation was superior and it was a “manifest destiny” of sorts to wipe out all the other supposedly weaker elements. What comes with this lust for power and control is an apparent lack of vision. In The Legend of Korra, Korra is arrested upon her first visit to Republic City for dishing out a personal vendetta. She fights thugs and is arrested for doing so. Whether or not one agrees with her vigilante instincts, Korra gets into trouble for deciding to take matters into her own hands just as Kuvira later does with the fate of the Earth Kingdom.

Kuvira initially has Varrick on her side, whom viewers have come to expect to be a businessman after a profit before anything else. Bolin, on the other hand, viewers know to be a good-natured young man. He is a little naive perhaps, but usually well-meaning. The fact that Bolin initially supports Kuvira’s reunification of the Earth Kingdom lends credibility to her claims. Even Korra, who’s prone to initiating conflicts, does not at first think Kuvira is as serious a problem as she is. Korra originally believes she and Kuvira can reach a negotiation. 31 Despite Varrick’s selfish tendencies, he shows signs of having a conscience while working under Kuvira. It is only when Varrick’s doubts about Kuvira convince him to abandon ship at the risk of his own life that viewers realize how much of a problem Kuvira really is.

While Kuvira is busy trying to pick up pieces of the Earth Kingdom and patch them together into the new Earth Empire, Korra is left in her own state of disorder. During Kuvira’s rise to power, Korra has become sullen, withdrawn, and cautious which is a far-cry from what viewers have come to expect from her. Her defeat at the hands of Zaheer leaves her broken with little hope of her ever fully recovering. The initial solution to this problem seems to be removing the lingering bit of poison left in her body from the fight. With Toph’s help, Korra is able to push past her fear of previous enemies so that she can give full focus on the ones ahead of her.

Everything seems settled, but that would be too easy. Korra’s first one-on-one confrontation with Kuvira is far more taxing than she imagined. It also shows how, despite all the poison being removed from her body, she is still plagued by a nightmarish reflection of herself that hinders her ability to fight at her full potential. Throughout Korra’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, she is haunted by a shadowy doppelganger. Whenever she gains confidence in herself, especially in combat, the appearance of this dark side of herself causes her to slip up and underperform in battle. 32

This figure is initially designated as being only a psychological projection of Korra’s mind. However, when a spirit disguised in the form of a dog growls at this “other Korra” viewers know it’s not just a mental projection. 33 That’s not to say the “other Korra” is real in a flesh and blood sense, but it’s something tangible that can’t simply be wished away or miraculously cured. This “other Korra” is a precursor to Korra’s major problem in facing off against Kuvira.

Korra meets her match and a reflection of her former self in Kuvira.
Korra meets her match and a reflection of her former self in Kuvira in the episode “The Last Stand.”

Korra begins her journey as a hot-headed and impatient teenager. Her initial introduction to viewers is an explosive one, as a toddler who blasts through a wall and exclaims with gusto about her status as the new Avatar. 34 It’s no accident that despite being born a waterbender, she is a natural when it comes to the aggressive elements of earthbending and firebending. Airbending, which requires a calmness of mind Korra finds difficult to master, is her trouble spot and unlike her previous incarnation, Korra is anxious to become a fully-fledged Avatar as soon as possible.

Kuvira may appear to be a cool and calculating villain on the outside, but much like Princess Azula of Avatar: The Last Airbender, there exists deep resentment and anger beneath that facade. In the series finale, Kuvira reveals the unlikely connection between her desire for world conquest and her personal background. The now-scattered Earth Kingdom is a painful reminder of her rootlessness as an orphan, feeling unwanted and having to construct and carve out her identity all on her own. 35

In Korra’s final showdown with Kuvira, viewers witness a much matured and level-headed woman facing the impetuous teenager she once was. It’s no wonder Kuvira is the only main female antagonist of the series, to make her and Korra’s connection clearer. If Korra can stand as the woman she is now against the woman she once was without falling apart, only then can she become the Avatar she was destined to be. This stands as an entirely different conclusion from Aang accidently regaining control over the Avatar State and finding a compassionate loophole around having to outright kill his enemy. In Korra’s case, she has no choice but to face her demons if she wants to emerge a hero.

When Korra shows compassion for Kuvira in the end and defends her against an energy blast, it is nevertheless a reflection of the finale to Avatar: The Last Airbender. 36 Unlike Korra and perhaps even Zaheer, Kuvira is willing to sacrifice her own fiancé in exchange for power. Like Avatar Aang, Korra no longer lashes out at her enemies in anger. By retaining her humanity and compassion when she is most likely to abandon it, she does what a villain would never expect of an enemy. Her humanity is so great by the final episode that it even inspires Kuvira to surrender, but not out of weakness. Korra’s compassionate demeanor makes Kuvira realize how much pain she’s caused and the extent of the Avatar’s power despite that.

Final Thoughts

The first half of the series has villains focused on remedying some past event, whereas villains of the latter half are all about the present. That’s a journey Korra must make herself, pushing past old traumas in order to face current ones. The villains of The Legend of Korra are not exactly the cuddly, huggable kind who make viewers burst into tears over how “relatable” and misunderstood they are. Amon, Unalaq, Zaheer, and Kuvira are not kind people and they commit plenty of horrible acts in order to carve the world into the image they most desire.

The same act can have entirely different connotations and consequences depending on who is responsible. If one isn’t careful, intentions and results can be radically different from one another. Amon wanted people to be treated fairly but decided to handicap people to get there. Unalaq wanted the spirits to return but decided to unleash darkness upon the world. Zaheer wanted freedom but only through violence and disorder. Kuvira wanted to unify her home but became a ruthless dictator to do so. All of them began with well-intentioned goals but were too consumed by their own visions to notice when their plans took wrong turns.

Works Cited

  1. “Welcome to Republic City.” The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2012. DVD.
  2. “Skeletons in the Closet.” The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2012. DVD.
  3. “The Revelation.” The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2012. DVD.
  4. “Skeletons in the Closet.” The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2012. DVD.
  5. “Enter the Void.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change.  Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  6. “Remembrances.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  7. “Rebel Spirit.” The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  8. “Light in the Dark. The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  9. “Beginnings, Part 1.” The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  10. “Light in the Dark.” The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  11. “The Sting.” The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  12. “A New Spiritual Age.” The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  13. “The Guide.” The Legend of Korra – Book Two: Spirits. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2013 DVD.
  14. “A Breath of Fresh Air.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  15. “A Breath of Fresh Air.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  16. “Rebirth.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  17. “Rebirth.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  18. “Enter the Void.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  19. “Enter the Void.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  20. “The Metal Clan.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  21. “Enter the Void.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  22. “The Metal Clan. The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  23. “The Ultimatum.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  24. “Long Live the Queen. The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  25. “A Leaf in the Wind.” The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2012. DVD.
  26. “Enter the Void.” The Legend of Korra – Book Three: Change. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  27. “After All These Years.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  28. “The Coronation.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  29. “The Coronation.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  30. “Enemy at the Gates.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  31. “Enemy at the Gates.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  32. “Battle Zaofu.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  33. “Korra Alone.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  34. “Welcome to Republic City.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  35. “The Last Stand.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.
  36. “The Last Stand.” The Legend of Korra – Book Four: Balance. Writ. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon, 2014. DVD.

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  1. Amon has a great build up, an even greater character design(like a V for Vendetta of The Avatar Verse), but the most disappointing twist I ever encounter. Personally, I’d actually prefer that they didn’t reveal his identity at all,(they could have use the Noatok’s story as a misleading clue). Just let him die or vanish mysteriously with no one ever seen his face.

  2. GREAT article. Do you prefer the ALTA series or TLOK series?

    • Thank you! I know this sounds like a cop-out, but I like both ALTA and TLOK for different reasons so it’d be difficult to choose between them. I remember falling in love with the ATLA series as a kid because there just aren’t many shows like it. It’s one of those shows that’s slotted as just “kid’s entertainment” which I think does a disservice to the level of intellect and maturity involved. TLOK continued that tradition of being progressive and not dumbing down difficult discussions. The creators did a pretty good job of unifying both ATLA and TLOK (like how Book Three: Fire of ATLA leads into the next element of Air in Book One of TLOK). It’s been a hot topic to pit Aang and Korra against each other and that’s certainly fair game . . . but I also think that’s somehow missing the point. What I like about both shows is how they’re not about beating up the bad guys, but about reconciling one’s own sense of goodness.

    • It’s like comparing apples and oranges, in a way. If I HAD to choose though, i’d probably go with Avatar the Last Airbender though.

  3. Maranda

    Personally, the villain i prefer most is Kuvira because like Zaheer she actually wasn’t being evil for evils sake. I also liked how kick-ass she was and how she always managed to stay calm in difficult situations. The fandom’s loyalty was definitely tested between Kuvira, who was completely badass and had a large LOK world fan base and Wu, who was a complete douche. Overall Kuvira was a great character!

  4. It would’ve been really awesome if Amon had his original backstory and got his powers from Vatu, it would’ve tied in better to the spirits in the second season. (still my favorite tho).

  5. 1) Amon
    2) Kuvira
    3) Zaheer

  6. Sean Gadus

    Great Article! Very extensive and well written!

    I really think you did an excellent job comparing the villains in the series and discussing critical details of their character and how they are portrayed!

    • Thank you! While I was writing it and rewatching the series, I noticed a lot more connections between the characters that I’d never picked up on before. It was cool to look at the narrative in an entirely different light.

  7. Clement

    Unalaq he was an extremely boring character. But I did enjoy Amon’s backstory. Do you think Unalaq could’ve been more interesting if he had a reason to be evil?

    • Unalaq isn’t one of my favorite villains either. It’s funny you mention that since the TLOK creators themselves make a reference to Unalaq being somewhat of a weak villain. Is it the “Remembrances” episode? I think so. The one where all the villains so far are concocting evil plans on the phone and they try to leave Unalaq out of the conversation. Adding complexity and depth to a character tends to make a him/her more interesting to watch, so it may have worked in Unalaq’s case too. He was problematic as a villain since that lack of complexity made it, though not impossible, more difficult to feel sympathetic toward him. It seems like he was simply power-hungry from a young age, having betrayed his own brother out of pure ambition. If anything, one might pity him because of all that he blindly threw away. I actually felt more sympathy towards Korra in Unalaq’s arc than Unalaq himself. That scene where she permanently loses her connection to her past lives is pretty brutal.

  8. Love the breakdown of character traits here. Fantastic article.

  9. Zaheer is one of the greatest character in Legend of Korra.

  10. Thorton

    I would love to see Aang vs Zaheer. I think that would be a tough battle, but maybe Aang would win, but just barely.

    • I’d definitely want to see that battle. That’d be an airbending showdown for sure. If Aang’s allowed the Avatar State, he might just win. If not, I agree that Zaheer would be a pretty tough enemy to face (being both an incredibly powerful airbender and having the advantage of that poison). Then again . . . Aang grew up with other airbenders around whereas Zaheer just isn’t as prepared for combat with other airbenders. That’s why Zaheer had more difficulty fighting Tenzin compared to some of the other fighters. Who knows?!

  11. I related to Kuvira, till they revealed her backstory and gave her rise to power an excuse for lashing out because she was an orphan. That was so cliche and weak. In my eyes, it ruined her character, they spent the entire season bringing up just how ruthless and cunning she is and they throw that in after her defeat in the finale and it kills it. I don’t know that’s just my opinion.

    • Yeah, I agree. Kuvira’s a cool character, but I think what they could have done to make her orphan story feel less cliched is to weave that issue more throughout the narrative as a whole in the final season. Though it connects nicely with the Earth Kingdom’s sense of disorder, it seems to be an out-of-the-blue revelation in the finale. Still, Princess Azula of ATLA’s issues with her mother only come to light in the latter part of that series as well. That scene where Azula breaks down crying after an apparition of her mother tells her she loves her is heartbreakingly powerful by comparison to Kuvira’s confession of abandonment issues. I guess it’s because Kuvira’s story is pretty much confined to one season whereas Azula’s a major antagonist for much of ATLA and therefore had more screentime to devote to character development.

    • I did think it was a bit cliche to go the “orphaned” route, but i wouldnt say it ruined her character, atleast not completely, but thats just my opinion.

  12. it would have been interesting if amon was truly normal and his anti-bending was given to him by vaatu, connecting season 1 to 2

    • That’s what i would’ve loved too. I thought the twist with him being a bloodbender “severing” their bending was kinda weak. Amon’s arc would have made Vaatu’s arc look that much better if they went with that idea.

      • you know what would have been cool? vaatu winning! not only that but instead of unalaq, vaatu possesses korra instead as a final insult to raava and in season 3, zaheer and his allies would, well ally themselves with korvaatu (vaatu is the spirit of chaos after all) connecting the seasons and we see the desperate struggle of everyone trying to save korra from the evil within

  13. Awesome article. I was hesitant to begin TLOK after watching ATLA because I didn’t know if any other tv show could keep the magic going. But many things about TLOK-including the character development and depth of the villains- changed my mind.

  14. Jenae

    This is exactly why I love this series! It’s so real and so thought-provoking, making you rethink your own values. It’s hard to find a great show like this!

  15. Hortense

    Kuvira : For the last villain of the series, she was really weak in term of her conflict with the main character, Korra only met her one, they have no personally interaction or grudge against each other. And her final resolution make no sense to me, she want to unite the Earth Kingdom, and she already did that, then why did she continue to invade Republic City? Why provoking war if you only want peace and stability for your people?

  16. Kuvira came across to me as the only villain with a consistent, logical and not ‘evil for no reason’ motive. She wanted to bring unity and order to the Earth Kingdom, which made sense, as we saw that in the absence of order, people were suffering (bandits were running around terrorizing people, citizens had no access to food etc.) and the Earth Kingdom was breaking down. Thus her motive was understandable and made her a good example of a ‘well-intentioned extremist’ rather than a “mwahahaha, I feel like being randomly evil!” villain. She then faltered, however, by becoming increasingly ‘evil’; throwing people in concentration camps, attacking civilian areas, becoming tyrannical etc. In the end though, she was just about saved (albeit by giving her a weak-feeling backstory) by having her repent for her actions and accept punishment, rather than go down fighting/be unrepentant like the others did. This made her the best overall LOK villain to me.

    And then Amon… Like Kuvira, he had a logical and understandable motive; wanted equal rights for all people and to end oppression. Can’t fault him for that. The only problem is his methods: using terrorist activity to achieve his goals. An instant ‘well-intentioned extremist’ is thus established. Seems like a great villain so far. Then, in the finale, his character is… wrecked. He turns out to be a fraud, goes partially crazy (starts Bloodbending everyone, murders his second-in-command in cold blood, and then fights Korra, despite knowing that his revolution cannot be salvaged at this point), has his motives become unclear (was he really after equality, or was he just a power-hungry tyrant like his father?), and then dies without ever explaining his reasons for his actions. In short, he started out well, but then got ruined in the finale, and by the end no longer had a clear consistent motive.

    And finally, I empathise with Red Lotus. Most positive point: they aren’t completely ‘evil’. But for me, that’s where the positive points end. I do not find their motive to be logical or well explained. Okay, so they want disorder and chaos, and don’t like laws and order. But why? Not liking dictators is one thing, but not wanting ANY order or laws? So they want a world of complete anarchy? Zaheer was clearly unhappy when his lover P’Li was killed. In a world without any laws and order however, it would be perfectly normal for people to get killed, so why should he be unhappy? In a world without laws and order, killing people is no longer restricted. So if someone wants to blow his girlfriend’s head off, what business does he have being unhappy? He wants a world of chaos. In a world of chaos, that’s what happens: people can go around killing each other. This suggests to me that Zaheer at least, if not the Red Lotus as a whole, have not thought their goals through. They don’t like order or laws, but don’t seem to have thought about the downsides of life WITHOUT those things. They come across to me as childish rebels; people who think “hey, a life going around causing havoc and being considered tough guys sounds like fun!”, without realising that life without laws is highly dangerous: sure, you can have fun, but you also can get stabbed by tougher people. Is it worth it? Probably not. So the Red Lotus to me were disappointing as villains. They gave us some great fighting scenes, but as characters I found them underwhelming.

    • Natisha

      The moment Kuvira started sending people to concentration camps is when you knew she was going to become evil or corrupted. If she would have just stayed a strong leader instead of a corrupt one, it wouldve been better. I think that was put in there to give Bolin and Varrick incentive to leave her.

    • Espinal

      I wish that LOK could have at least had ONE consistently ‘not-completely-evil/crazy’ villain. Just one.

  17. I loved Zaheer! I didn’t care for airbending, but after Zaheer appeared it became my favorite.

  18. Amon was well founded and could have been an incredible antagonists but became wasted potential.

  19. AilShumate

    I’m not sure who I liked more between Amon and Kuvira. Overall I think I liked Amon’s character more but his potential was completely squandered and the S1 finale took a massive shit on him. The Red Lotus are by far my favorite villains from LOK. They remind me so much of the original Team Avatar: bald airbender, genius bender with a disability, living off the land, fighting oppressive governments, four masters of every element, etc etc.

    It was very entertaining watching them fight and I really sympathized with them.

    They were just four friends doing what they believed was right, no matter the cost. I even loved that creepy melody that played whenever they did stuff. I only wish we could’ve saw more of them & learned their backstory (comics?).

  20. Sol Mello

    I loved kuvira as a bad guy. Tho when korra beat her or stopped her. Her back story or flaw of being abandoned by her birth parents. I think Kuvira hated opal. See before suyin had a daughter. Kuvira most likley thought oh no. Now she has her actual girl

  21. Unalaq was just so bland and uninteresting, which is a shame.

    • Totally. Unalaq was boring and predictable as a generic bad guy that they tried to seem to have “good” intentions.

  22. I liked Zaheer and the Red Lotus, because they saw leaders and the like as unnecessary so they went out to stop them, because that’s what they believed in and their bending was so good to watch. Amon is my second favourite as him supposedly being a nonbender was a really cool idea for a villain and his mask was awesome. The twist with him being a water bender was good and bad as I thought him being able to block peoples bending with bloodbending was great and it’s bad cause he wasn’t a nonbender. Kuvira is a bit behind Amon, she seemed like a extremely real villain, planned out everything she was going to do and technically restored order to the Earthn Kingdom besides Republic City. Unalaq and Vatuu were my least favourite because they were so cliche, Unalaq’s goals were never explained properly and was willing to kill his family to achieve his goal.

  23. I think, for fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zaheer was the most menacing. He was taking what a guru had said, right out of the temple where the descendants of Aang reside, and does what Tenzin, Aang’s airbending son, could never do: be one with the spirit world, so intensely, to eventually “Let go your earthly tether. Enter the void. Empty and become wind.” (“Enter the Void”, Book Three: Change, Episode 12). He could communicate with his team, even while in the spirit world and talking with Korra at the same time, and eventually was able to float above the ground.

  24. This article was interesting and it gave me a lot to think about.

  25. Keeling

    Great work. Big fan of Avatar and I personally don’t have any issues with the Avatar villian’s. I actually really liked Zhao and Ozai despite their lack of character development, their personalities really worked for me. That is of course with the exception of Unalaq, guy was just boring. Also Kurvia just reeks of wasted potential.

  26. Kiteguy666

    Unalaq was conceptually a great villain, It’s just that his execution was………… meh.(Unalaq is still a great villain on his own, but compared to the others, he’s terrible)

  27. I loved watching this show so much when I was in high school. The characters were always a lot more than met the eye, and I loved how you grew with them as you watched the show. The villains really helped give the story purpose. Like Avatar, the villains changed throughout the story, and developed different relationships with the characters.

  28. I thought Kuvira had a lot more depth to her character than the rest of the villains. She was made to be very similar to Korra, so I thought having Kuvira as the villain was an interesting direction to take the show.

  29. Voncile

    amon is so badass and the twist was awesome

  30. I have to jump on the “Amon shouldn’t have been a bender” bandwagon. As much as I love both Korra and original avatar (which is a lot mind you), I think that the Amon thing was just the latest in a history of Avatar setting up cool moral dilemmas, and then just copping out. Like with firelord Ozai. Ang actually had a tough choice, and had to grapple with killing someone for the greater good. Then that choice is invalidated by him suddenly finding a way out. It would be the equivalent of getting the classic trolley problem, and then having the answer be superman swoops in and saves everyone. And Amon being a bloodbender basically takes any responsibility or culpability from Korra. She sort of doesn’t have to deal with the bender/non-bender issue, because suddenly she isn’t fighting an oppressed human, but another bender.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the show (both of them) a lot, but they keep doing this. They will set up moral dilemmas and issues and then give the heroes a third option that is a cop out. Now, I haven’t watched Korra in a while (I should rewatch), but I remember Zaheer being one of the better villains. From what I recall he wasn’t invalidated like most of them are.

    (Apologies for the semi-rant). And yeah, good article. Interesting stuff said in comments as well.

  31. I love the argument that you make in this article, and I’m a huge fan of the villains in LOK because, like you said, they’re not “relatable” or “misunderstood”. They’re characters with definitive motives and ideologies that are at times very morally ambiguous or downright immoral. However, I love that each character is crafted to serve a crucial function in Korra’s development and at the same time acts as a sort of foil to her character at a given point in time. This seems to be especially relevant with Kuvira, whose physical strength and fortitude starkly contrasts with Korra’s bending crisis in Book 4. Loved reading your analysis, and you’ve definitely got me thinking about how well-crafted these villains are!

  32. Truly fascinating article, great job. When I watched LOK years ago I was always in awe of the character’s depth, but more so the villains rather than heroes. I initially started out disliking Korra herself. In the first episode the contrast between her and Aang was blatantly apparent. While physically skillful, she neglected to see the spiritual side of reality. As I continued to watch though, I saw how she grew along with the opponents she encountered. The more she faced opposition, the more that she let go of her selfish behavior and closed mind. The villains of LOK arguably taught her more than even someone like Tenzin. I also thought it was brilliant on the writer’s part with how they gave each villain a specific ideology to strive for, and though they became so blinded in the pursuit of their ideals they ended up hurting others, their goals weren’t evil. Amon stood for equality, Unalaq for spirituality, Zaheer for freedom (essentially), and Kuvira for unity. These were all ideals which Korra would have to bring into the world so that she could truly become the avatar and make a positive change.

  33. RachelHart

    I absolutely loved this! Korra is a masterpiece, and the theme of a privileged public figure masquerading as a voice for equality and the ‘common man’ is all too relevant these days. I also love that you drew comparisons to Harrison Bergeron! It’s one of my all-time favorite short-stories and it fits well into the theme of your essay. Yours is the first article I’ve come across here on the Artifice and I’m psyched to read more!

    • I’m glad my article made such a good first impression! Yes, as you mention, I think the “privileged public figure figure masquerading as a voice for equality and the ‘common man'” will always be a relevant issue. Public figureheads for so-called peace and goodness as well as defenders of the underdogs with very ardent followers, as with Amon, can be full of hypocrisy. It can actually devolve from good intentions and intelligent thinking into a vehicle for greater narcissism and arrogance. Thank you for the lovely comment by the way.

  34. Paul A. Crutcher

    Interesting examination by aprosaicpintofpisces of the antagonists in *The Legend of Korra.* As an adolescent/YA series, it can be seen as a bildungsroman, a chronicle of the education of Korra and a didactic tool for the mirrored youth. We expect high culture to deliver content (assuming it’s not simply aesthetic) rich and representative of the human experience, with characters and events that strike readers as true and important. A glimpse into the best literature or film or TV or gaming is to see characters as round, as flawed, as grappling with ideologies, as craving love and power, and so on. When Amon, Zaheer, or any of the other villains noted in the article deliver the promise of roundness, we take note because we can appreciate a rich story convention and high literary marks. It’s that realization that this character is not a simple, flat trope that piques our interest. Imagine the antihero, as the antihero often has flaws that are not twisted-but-rationalized villainy. The ultimate problem with viewing *Korra* as more than a pop bildungsroman is how the program directs Korra and the viewer into – and out of – the ethical dilemma. The most impactful stories, as I imagine most people would agree if they thought about it for a while, are the ones that compel you to think, that don’t provide answers, that unsettle and provoke is. Although perhaps I’m just too much of a lit professor.

  35. chrischan

    I think Unalaq felt like the weakest of the LoK villains because he didn’t turn evil by going too far with his ideology, he just wanted to be powerful and evil and was using his belief and spirituality to trick Korra into getting what he wanted. There was great promise when Unalaq was first introduced, because people can and have and do commit evils in the name of religion and belief, but it was like he dropped all of that and said ‘Nah, I was kidding, I just want to be the anti-Avatar. Psyche!’.

    • You make such a great point! Yes, his ideology is not as clearly formed and it’s not the driving force of his actions as with the other villains. Since his narrative arc is about a loss of spirituality and him wanting to be the “anti-Avatar,” it could have been related to the trope of man trying to turn himself into his own god. I think Unalaq’s ideas about spirituality could definitely have been explored further to make him a more compelling character.

  36. Unalaq was a stupid villain, I think that them made him the dark Avatar because we already saw Wan vs Vatuu so it needed a twist but a have to say that the one they made was dumb. I Total did not like how Korra lost her connections to the past Avatar’s don’t even get me going that was so stupid I hated that. Korra did make some stupid mistakes in that fight!!!!

  37. Karen

    This was certainly a thorough analysis of the villains and Korra herself I had not quite considered. I had truly enjoyed Amon as a villain, but I definitely agree that Unalaq was a bit on the, er, lacklustre and under-developed side. It’s interesting how you make comparisons to Ozai’s own lack of development and how one-dimensional he might appear as a villain; perhaps it’s the nostalgia goggles but I had never thought of him in that way.
    Korra definitely had a lot to make her grow, and I really like how you traced that growth through each villain – what they stood for and how she reacted.

  38. Awesome article, I loved this!

  39. Ackerman

    Zaheer and Amon were probably the best. Though, I did enjoy the others as well. They were all compelling it their own way.

  40. Congratulations on the Article of the Month win for this!

  41. This article is so in-depth and really brought attention to characters most fans don’t think twice about – great job!

  42. Great article.
    I remember hearing a lot of negative feedback about LoK while it was airing. Some of it made sense. The first two seasons had pacing issues, and the love triangle (Rectangle? Rhombus?) was handled poorly. Season 3 however, was remarkable. And once the larger arc of the story became clear, a lot of the nitpicky issues fell to the wayside. Excellent show overall, and fantastic use of villains.

    • That’s how I felt about it. It’s difficult for sequels to attain the same status of the original. Fans of ATLA are obviously going to end up comparing subsequent series and spin-offs to it and were more critical of TLOK than if it were a stand-alone show. Those expecting TLOK to be like ATLA were likely somewhat disappointed. As you mention, TLOK’s flaws transform into something else when you take a look at the whole picture. Despite the pressures the creators were under in terms of appeasing fans and circumventing Nickelodeon’s censors, I think what they were able to pull off was pretty remarkable and made it a worthy successor to ATLA.

  43. Personally, I believe the villains were a lot better in the Legend of Korra. They’re representation of Korra’s journey seemed more real, and added more depth to a central character that I don’t particularly love. To me Korra was an enjoyable Avatar, but it was frustrating at times to watch her journey. Also interested in the fact that you didn’t bring up the different government connections and the villain. You hinted briefly with Kuvira, and Totalitarianism, but Unulaq also suggests a strong lead towards a Theocratic government, Amon a socialist, and of course Zaheer is the anarchist. Still, thoroughly interesting article.

    • Excellent point about the government connections, McCooper. Although I try to be as in-depth as I can, I often realize too late that I’ve left some facet of the discussion unexplored. An artist’s work is never done as the saying goes!

  44. BreannaWaldrop

    Personally, I love a show that makes me empathize with the villain. I will certainly be catching up with Legend of Korra.

  45. I recently rewatched all of Legend of Korra and soon after found this article. The amount of research and analysis put into your piece is really impressive. I think your analysis of the villains and their role in Korra’s growth is spot on. It also fits very nicely into what the storytellers frame the Avatar as–a figure that brings balance to the world, whether it’s between benders and non-benders, people and spirits, or people and people.

  46. Zander Jones

    The continuation of the villain’s agenda each season also shows a progression on the events of the world’s changing order on the people that emerge in response to this change. Each villain’s failure informs the changes in the world that create the circumstances for the next villain to arise. Its very poetic.

    • Exactly! I agree. Korra’s character progression and the evolution of the villains (and the changing Avatar universe) all tie together very nicely. They’re all heavily dependent on each other. I guess, like a phoenix rising from the ashes so to speak, “evil” always finds a way to exist. And luckily, I think the same holds true for “goodness.”

  47. The analysis of this piece is incredible; each antagonist has clearly been given a lot of attention in successful efforts to see an opposite perspective to what the audience initially coincides with.

  48. I personally haven’t seen the show but I have been meaning to once I rewatch Avatar: The Last Airbender (and no, not the live action movie). This article along with many other excellent reviews has definitely added to my interest.

    • Thanks! I’d like to hear your thoughts once you get a chance to watch the series. I’m still trying to forget that movie ever happened. It’s too bad it bombed the way it did. If it had been handled well, it could have been a cool adaptation. Instead it was just bad as a film, regardless of its attachment to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Now I think no other movie director will touch the franchise with a ten-foot pole for a long time to come. When I originally saw it in the theaters, I felt like I was watching a cheaply made TV movie or straight-to-DVD film, which is never a good sign. It was so stilted acting-wise, poorly written, laboriously paced, etc. I could go on . . . but I’ll spare you that much.

  49. ees

    I’ve always been impressed with the in-depth political world building of the Avatar franchise. although i haven’t seen Korra yet, this article has sparked my interest.

  50. Gavroche

    Very interesting and thoughtful article (that I regret not finding/searching earlier!)! I liked Amon, in the first book (though I found his ending a bit lower than the rest of his arc), and, while I was disappointed by Unalaq in the second book, the Red Lotus and, then Kuviera struck me as really good villains. Both have a great continuity with one another: as Korra herself highlights in the episode ‘Remembrances’ if Zaheer hadn’t killed the Earth Queen and wreaked havoc in the Earth Kingdom, no ‘Great Uniter’ would have been needed to restore peace. But both present, at the same time, two opposed (and extreme) visions of the world – the Red Lotus wanting, basically, anarchy, while Kuviera wants, basically, order.
    I think there is also another element that, simultaneously, bring them closer, and pull them apart. Both Zaheer and Kuviera were, though unwillingly, ‘‘created’’ by Korra. Therefore, what she feels like being her ‘responsibility’, her ‘fault’, adds to the tool already on her shoulders. However Zaheer was created by Korra’s action – her decision to leave the Portal open – while Kuviera was created by Korra’s inaction – because she was still healing, she couldn’t do her job as the Avatar and restore peace in the Earth Kingdom, reasons’ why Kuviera was sent.
    To me, in a ‘‘macro-analysis’’ point of view, this strong continuity – dependence almost – between book 3 and book 4, and especially here through their villains, adds a new layer (of complexity? – at least, of causality) to the world of Avatar. It indeed highlights – even more – the difficulty to keep balance, as those diverse threats are not just rising one after the other almost randomly, like after some kind of reset, but, on the contrary, they are – deeply – linked to one another, in a rocking motion. A rocking motion in which the entire world, Avatar included are trapped in.
    Plus, in Kuviera’s arc especially, Korra’s feelings may echo with Aang’s story and how he felt guilty for not being there when his people were killed, though, I admit, in a far weaker way. (Maybe I’m just over-interpreting everything!)
    On quite another topic, I noticed that, at least for Zaheer and Kuviera, love is used as a way to first make the audience empathize with them (if they can love, they may not be that evil), then that love highers the stakes. We see both of this villains love someone, and then lose him/her, whether it is by choice or not, and that loss pushes them even further in their ideology.

    [I hope my long and tardy paragraph was understandable, as I am neither a native English speaker nor fluent in English – yet!]

    • Your English sounds just fine to me. I wouldn’t have even realized you weren’t a native speaker had you not mentioned it. I absolutely love your analysis (or your “over-interpretations,” as you call them), Gavroche! Your insights are brilliant. You really seem to understand what I was trying to say with this article. Each villain is so intimately entangled with the others that the series’ plot seems to have this unstoppable domino effect to it. I’m so glad you stumbled upon my article and took a chance on it. Thank you for reading!

      • Gavroche

        Thank you! Google did help me a lot, though!
        My pleasure! The Legend Of Korra is a marvelous and elaborate show, and your article really pays tribute to that!

  51. Strong article indeed. I got emotional at the point concerning Kuvira’s hubris.

    I sympathize with the Red Lotus group myself, not overlooking their fatal assumptions about destroying false authority. Using the same means rulers use to oppress, namly force and violence for misconduct, can only lead to more disharmony. And so it does.

    One scene not mentioned above stands out to me: the moment when the Avatar and Zaheer meet for what seems the final time. The only man alive and second in history, who is able to levitate is chained to the ground while doing so. Powerful stuff.

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