When Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered 15 years ago, no one could have predicted that the animated series would become one of the greatest experiments in epic fantasy storytelling that TV has ever seen. The show had a vast and rich mythology, a unique visual style that borrowed from East Asian art and myths, and a story that explored complex themes like war, genocide, imperialism, and even more philosophical questions about fate and destiny — all while still delivering a tone that was accessible to kids. Four years after the show ended, its sequel, The Legend of Korra, doubled down on the mature themes, and further blurred the line between adult and kid animation.
The main characters were both likable and relatable — what kid couldn’t see themselves in Aang, a kid who opted to run away and be trapped in ice for 100 years instead of facing responsibilities? But more than their heroes, the strength of both Avatar shows lies in their villains. The antagonists were as different as the people from the four nations, and they were just as complex and nuanced as the heroes themselves.
THE LAST AIRBENDER WAS ABOUT EMPATHY
When you think of villains or antagonists in Avatar, the first name that comes to mind is usually Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. Although he started as the main antagonist, a constant thorn in the side of the heroes, and a master of brooding, Zuko slowly became the most complicated character on the show, and arguably the single best redemption story in television.
Kids may love the tale of Aang fulfilling his destiny as the Chosen One, but adults (or kids paying attention) know that the heart of Avatar lies with Zuko. He was evicted from his home and burned in the face by his father at age 13, all for protesting a plan that would unnecessarily sacrifice troops. Sent on an impossible quest, Zuko spent years seeking the approval of his disappointing father. Throughout the show we find out more about his tragic childhood — his mother assassinated his grandfather to save his life and then bolted forever — and surprising dueling ancestries.
But unlike most redemption arcs, Zuko’s doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye; there was no life-changing realization that instantly turned him from the dark side to the light. Instead, it’s a long, arduous journey full of missteps and mistakes, which makes the moment Zuko fully embraces his good side even more rewarding. Zuko has multiple chances to change sides, but he often makes the wrong decision, still wishing to return to the old life that was denied to him.
In Season 2, the episode “Zuko Alone” has the disgraced prince try and do good deeds for an Earth Kingdom family, but as soon as they figure out who he is, they cast him out, making him unable to escape his heritage and legacy, and forcing him to see the pain the Fire Nation has caused to the world. It is when Zuko finally starts feeling empathy toward the people he had felt anger and hatred for his entire life, that he embarked on the path of redemption.
Even beyond Zuko, minor villains got their own redemption stories in Avatar. Early in the first season, we meet a group of freedom fighters who had all suffered terribly at the hands of the Fire Nation, which turned them into extremists. Jet, their leader, wasn’t above committing mass murder if the sacrifices were to ensure the greater good. Eventually, he and his followers start to sway away from a path of war, ending in him sacrificing his life to save Aang and his friends. Mai and Ty Lee, who had been mindless drones for Princess Azula, eventually rejected her and aided the heroes in the final battle.
Meanwhile, the villains that are never given a shot at redemption are those who never feel empathy for others. In the third season, we meet an old waterbender who had been imprisoned by the Fire Nation for years, until she developed the ability to bloodbend as a way to release herself. Though the episode starts out sympathetic for her suffering — she is from the same tribe as Katara, who lost her mother to the Fire Nation — once we realize she had kidnapped Fire Nation villagers as retribution, with no regard to them being old or young, innocent or guilty, the show turned her into a full-on villain who had to be taken down by Katara.
Likewise, where Zuko was given a shot at redemption, the rest of his family never showed that they were deserving of it. Azula had just as hard a childhood as Zuko, with a mother who considered her a monster and always favored her brother, but Azula never attempted to prove otherwise, becoming a complete and utter sociopath.
THE LEGEND OF KORRA WAS ABOUT WORLDVIEWS
When The Legend of Korra premiered, it was met with critical acclaim, even if some of the seasons were a bit hit-or-miss. The show had a darker and more mature tone than its predecessor, leading to more complex themes involving philosophy and politics. But the biggest difference between the two shows was the way they approached their villains.
Where in The Last Airbender Aang had his predecessor, Avatar Roku, as a teacher, The Legend of Korra mostly did without the spiritual connection to past lives. Instead, it was the villains who served as the biggest teachers to Korra, making her grow as a character and expanding the world of the show.
Throughout its four seasons, The Legend of Korra had each of its villains represent a radical view of politics and the world, all of which challenged the way Korra herself viewed the world. Each villain was inextricably linked to a facet of Korra’s character, all while asking the audience to identify with their views. The first of these was Amon, an equalist who believed that the main setting of the season, the United Republic of Nations, forced non-benders to live as second-class citizens.
We see most government officials are benders, the biggest sport relies on bending, the military is mostly made up of benders, as well as factory jobs and even the police. Amon, therefore, leads a populist revolution by noting a legitimate criticism of the world of Avatar as a whole: Those with bending are seen as special, with everyone else just being in the way. Though Amon was certainly a villain, he raised valid concerns about the state of the world, even making Korra question her predecessor’s actions in funding Republic City.
Though the weakest of the bunch, the villain of Season 2, Unalaq, forced Korra to confront the lack of spirituality in the world, and the damage humans were making to the world they were living in. Through Unalaq, Korra learns that the world is not simply black and white, or good versus evil, but there is light and darkness in each person and spirit. Though Unalaq ends up simply a vessel for the message of the season, his message is a very important one for the show, as we finally learn exactly where the Avatar comes from, teaching Korra of the true meaning behind the Avatar’s task of bringing balance to the force.
After Unalaq opens a breach between our world and the spirit world, it allows countless spirits to cross over, which is a catalyst for Korra’s next challenge, having to reconcile people and the spirits that have been angry at them for thousands of years. This comes in the form of the Season 3 villain, Zaheer. If Amon was all about equality, Zaheer devoted his life to the idea of chaos and the natural unstable condition of the world. Zaheer represents the extremes of the air nomad life.
In the original Avatar, we hear and see all about Aang’s life as an air nomad, and their teachings of detachment. Zaheer takes those teachings to the extreme, letting go of all earthly attachments to achieve ultimate power. He’s a zealot with an absolute resolve for his ideals, but he also becomes a teacher to Korra by showing her the abuse of power that is all so common in the world of Avatar.
The last season of the show has Korra facing Kuvira, who acts as a companion to Zaheer in her ideology. Kuvira starts as the most regular of the show’s villains, but she quickly rises up as a ruthless and vicious military dictator. Through Kuvira, we see an upside-down mirror to Korra’s traits. Like the Avatar, Kuvira simply wants to restore balance to what she sees as a misguided Earth Kingdom, and sets out to restore it to its supposed former glory. Sound familiar?
Even Korra realizes Kuvira is taking over her job as Avatar while he’s recuperating from her fight against Zaheer, with the main reason between the two being Kuvira’s allegiance only toward the Earth Kingdom, versus the entire world. In a show that places all importance and power on a single individual, having Kuvira show the dangers of that ideology is a bold move for a show that aired on Nickelodeon. Korra began her journey as a hot-headed and impatient teenager who believed her title as Avatar gave her absolute authority.
Throughout its run, fighting villains who directly challenged her personality traits meant that not only did the world of Avatar grow into something different than when the show started, but Korra herself matured into a level-headed woman who recognizes the error in her ways and stands much more balanced as a result. Like the best villains of the original Avatar, by the end of the show, it is Korra’s humanity and compassion, not her powers, that save the day.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.