In The Legend of Korra, what's so bad about 10,000 years of darkness?

November 13, 2020

Over the past few months, I watched the entire run of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and have now completed the first two seasons of its sequel series, The Legend of Korra. While Avatar is a straight-up masterpiece, I’ve been disappointed with Korra.

I understand most people agree things pick up from here, but the end of Season 2 presents a specific narrative problem that I keep seeing repeated in other works, perhaps most notably in the Star Wars universe.

FilmCritHulk recently watched the series, posting thoughts on each episode, and I’ve followed along with his analysis of the storytelling issues that plague Korra, at least so far. He also emphasizes — and I agree — that the animation and score are top-notch, and the direction is high-quality, but even his fairly comprehensive essays don’t touch on this peeve of mine, which is that the good guys and bad guys come pre-defined instead of revealing themselves in the actual story.

In Season 2, Korra discovers that avatars first came about because one of her past incarnations, who would become the first avatar, disrupted a stalemate struggle between a Light spirit and a Dark spirit (they have names, but it’ll be easier to understand if I don’t use them). When the Dark spirit broke free, it threatened to plunge the world into darkness, and so the Light spirit melded with the man to become the first avatar, defeated the Dark spirit, and trapped it in a sort of spirit-world prison, where it’s been for 10,000 years. Now, Korra’s uncle has a plan to break out the Dark spirit and dominate the world.

In the course of the story, we’re meant to understand that Light is good and Dark is evil, but, crucially, the spirits, themselves, don’t immediately show what it is they’re doing that is so “good” or “evil”. The Star Wars Episode IV opening crawl refers to the “evil Galactic Empire,” but the word “evil” is superfluous because pretty quickly the movie shows us that the Empire is an authoritarian regime willing to destroy entire planets in order to enforce political power. (Poor Alderaan.)

In Korra, the Dark spirit eventually melds with Korra’s uncle, who starts trying to destroy Republic City, ostensibly in an attempt to wield the full power of the Dark spirit against the uncle’s enemies. If the Dark spirit really was intent on bringing about 10,000 years of darkness, it’s unclear why its first action would be to knock down buildings in the unified nation’s capital city. It’s a little like the Undertaker returning to WWE after a long absence, declaring that all the forces of evil in the universe are flowing through him, and that with this awesome power, he is solely focused on gaining the WWE Championship belt.

Through a series of uninteresting power-ups, Korra defeats the Dark spirit and vaporizes it into mere energy that floats away in golden embers. This is treated as a happy ending, but it didn’t have to be an exercise in banal in-universe mysticism.

Earlier, the Light spirit explains that it is impossible to destroy either the Light or Dark spirits, because the concepts of light and dark can’t be destroyed. Perhaps one side would dominate for a long time, but eventually the other would regenerate and the struggle would renew again. That is, obliterating the Dark spirit is a short-term state on the universe’s time frame, but eventually it’ll be back, just not in Korra’s lifetime, or in the foreseeable future.

There’s a choice in here that goes undefined and unacknowledged. What was so bad about 10,000 years of darkness, anyway? When the Light spirit is temporarily defeated, we see the world “plunged into darkness,” which looks like a permanent evening with green aurora borealis over Republic City. What if the Dark spirit isn’t “evil” so much as one force competing against another force, the Light spirit, for dominance that the people living in the material world might find essentially value-neutral? After all, this is a universe where certain people have powers to bend elements, and spirits are part of the collective understanding.

The show gets around to suggesting that the Dark spirit stands for hurting and subjugating others, which is bad, but there was an opportunity to have Korra wrestle with the idea that the Dark spirit isn’t inherently bad and the Light spirit, which is melded with her as the avatar, is not inherently good. After all, the opening line of Korra’s introduction sequence says: “Only the avatar can master all four elements and bring balance to the world.”

There was “balance” when the Light and Dark spirits were in a stalemate, wrestling for control, yet locked together. There was a strong imbalance when the Dark spirit was imprisoned, and there will be strong imbalance now that the Dark spirit has been dusted. What if 10,000 years dominated by the Light spirit is actually a bad thing? There can be no light without dark, no good without evil, et cetera et cetera, so what tragedy awaits the world when the Dark spirit isn’t around to provide balance against the Light spirit, and what consequences should Korra experience for her role in failing to bring balance to the world?

That’s something that the Star Wars saga has largely failed to address*. While every Jedi talked a good game about bringing balance to the Force, every one of them, from Kenobi to Yoda to Luke, concludes that, in practice, “balance” means eradicating entities who engage with the Dark Side of the Force, and the Sith are inherently bad. In the final three movies of the Skywalker saga, Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, I thought I detected a setup for Rey to discover that the Dark Side is necessary for the Force to have any meaning, and that she could acknowledge and even honor the Dark Side’s existence while also respecting how seductive and dangerous it is. Instead, the movies ultimately default to an uncomplicated understanding of the Dark Side as a catchall concept for badness.

The folks writing Korra may have considered this opportunity in their show. After all, at the end of Season 2, they had Korra question whether she should close the portals to the spirit world and whether the avatar should be the bridge between the two worlds in the first place. She even says her uncle was right that people and spirits should live together and that her role will fundamentally change, a parallel to Black Panther and T’Challa admitting Killmonger had a point about Black freedom and therefore T’Challa’s role must change.

The crazy thing is, Avatar did such an excellent job of humanizing the citizens of the Fire Nation, and Zuko in particular, that halfway through that series I started wondering if they’d pull the rug out and explore whether the Fire Nation had actually “attacked” like Katara says in the introduction sequence. I would absolutely believe that show’s brain trust could handle something that complicated with skill and grace. Korra hasn’t come close to earning that trust.

All that said, Korra need not be a “complicated heroine” the way that middle-aged white men are often cast during the Peak TV Era; she can hold my attention as an undoubtedly good young woman and doesn’t have to struggle with whether she wants to be good, a la Jimmy McGill. But what Korra could have taken from top dramatic productions from Aeschylus through Better Call Saul is drama’s less compelling when good and evil are defined by received wisdom, or preconditions for the plot. Instead, good and evil sides ought to be dramatized, and Korra’s journey to figure out who is good and evil, and what it actually means to bring balance to the world in relation to good and evil, is the most interesting thing the series can explore, especially as a show aimed at young people who are most likely to identify with black-and-white, clear-cut morality figures like Luke Skywalker rather than characters who operate in gray areas like Han Solo.

In Korra, the Dark spirit is evil, and that’s fine, but the series would have been richer for letting it be evil with a purpose truly tied to the Light spirit’s goodness, rather than just another enemy to be destroyed.

*Here’s where I note that I’ve not consumed every bit of canonical Star Wars media. I’ve seen all the theatrical films except the Clone Wars animated movie, and for that matter I have not watched the Clone Wars television series, so I could easily be missing a great counterexample. That said, the number of people who have seen only some number of the nine main films and have never consumed any other Star Wars content probably far outnumbers the people who have consumed any of the non-theatrical-film content, to the point that, for practical purposes, there isn’t much point in talking about, say, how the moral ambiguities in The Mandalorian affect the public’s understanding of the main Star Wars films.

(Image: Vaatu, the Dark spirit from The Legend of Korra.)