On paper, an Americanized anime on Nickelodeon sounded like a bad idea. The channel was great for typical children’s cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents. But a serialized action adventure series? That was Cartoon Network’s turf. Little did we know that Avatar: The Last Airbender would be good enough to achieve acclaim from children and critics alike, and then spawn another show that would be just as loved.
The Legend of Korra was as progressive as it was socially acute. It sported a female lead (who was also queer by the end) and featured a variety of women as supporting characters, one of whom was a middle aged, unmarried police chief. Korra also kept its finger to the pulse, using a 1920s, Prohibition-era inspired setting to mirror how corrupt bureaucracies percolate fear in the real world. OK, that’s reading a little deep into the show. But Korra definitely invites more worldly rumination than your average cartoon. Like its predecessor, Korra channelled Asian philosophies through a river of classic storytelling techniques.
It deserves celebration for these and so many other reasons. In doing so, please continue reading to find out 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Legend of Korra.
15. Korra and Asami are romantically involved
The series finale of Korra ends with Korra and friend Asami holding hands before venturing into the Spirit World together. The implication that they were a couple was strong, but creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko felt the need to emphasize that online. About a week after the finale, DiMartino and Konietzko confirmed in a Tumblr post that Korra and Asami share romantic feelings for each other.
As if this creative decision wasn’t powerful enough, the creators denying this plot point any room for interpretation takes its progressive stance even further. In their moving post, DiMartino and Konietzko made it clear to anyone who might take issue with Korra and Asami’s union that they didn’t have to like it, but they couldn’t reject it as canon. The writers wanted to make an LGBTQ contribution to the lexicon of great cartoons, and did exactly that.
14. Mako is named after the actor who voiced Uncle Iroh
DiMartino and Konietzko missed Mako just as much as fans. Before his passing, the prolific Japanese actor voiced Prince Zuko’s jolly, soothsaying Uncle Iroh. Iroh is still a favorite of Airbender fans everywhere, exuding wisdom and optimism while still being a force to be reckoned with (he was also known as The Dragon of the West). While Greg Baldwin did a fine job voicing Iroh for the remainder of Airbender and in cameos on Korra, Mako would never be forgotten as the original Iroh.
In a touching tribute to the actor, DiMartino and Konietzko named one of Korra’s main characters after Mako. The fictional Mako was a firebender like Iroh, and had an on and off relationship with Korra. Mako would become a cop over the course of the series, and serve under Republic City police chief Lin Beifong.
13. Tenzin is named after the Dalai Lama
Tenzin couldn’t be less like his father if he tried. Whereas Aang was a spirited goofball, Tenzin was tightly-wound. Though shared genetics certainly wasn’t responsible for Tenzin’s uptightness, Aang did have a profound effect on who Tenzin was. When Aang died, Tenzin would become the sole airbending master. Tenzin would admirably haul the extreme weight put on him by his father, which probably explains his name.
Tenzin’s name was taken from the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Gyatso’s first name means “Upholder of Teachings” in Tibetan. This doesn’t seem far out of the ordinary, since the Airbender universe was built predominantly on influences from Asian culture.
The meaning behind Tenzin’s name offers a complete understanding of his character. He upholds the teachings of airbenders before him, destined to impart those teachings onto the next generation of airbenders. These would mainly be Tenzin’s children and Korra. Though small in number, these budding airbenders would grow powerful under Tenzin’s tutelage.
12. Nickelodeon almost pulled the plug because Korra was female
Before the pilot was even completed, Nickelodeon was close to terminating Korra‘s production, all based on the concern over a female protagonist. Thankfully the network changed their minds after watching the finished pilot, but it’s upsetting that Nickelodeon actually considered dumping the show on such regressive grounds
During an interview with NPR, Konietzko divulged that the executives at Nick worried about airing an action show with a woman in the lead role. According to the interview, NPR was told, “Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.”
This myth was promptly debunked in Korra‘s test screenings. Boys who attended the screening said they didn’t care about Korra being female, and instead were thrilled by how awesome she was. Thanks to the screening, Nick’s better angels won out and they pushed forward with Korra, which to this day appeals to girls and boys alike.
11. Kuvira was voiced by Robin Williams’ daughter
This wasn’t the first big name casting that occurred on Korra, but it was certainly an interesting one. Zelda Williams, the daughter of famed comedian Robin Williams, played Kuvira on the third and fourth seasons of Legend of Korra. Williams didn’t have any voice acting experience previous to Korra, but she gave an impressive debut as Kuvira.
Kuvira served as a military leader in the Earth Kingdom. She was an earthbender who could also bend metal, a highly difficult skill to learn. Kuvira extended an autocratic rule to regions of the Earth Kingdom, and in exchange she offered protection from bandits. Kuvira was not kind to those who rejected her offer.
Williams’ granted the Airbender universe its best big bad since Azula. Fitting, since Kuvira’s quest for power echoed the rise of the Fire Nation during Aang’s time. Williams and the writers on Korra added more layers to Korra and Aang’s world, adding gray morality to each elementally based faction in the Four Nations.
10. Pema shares her name with a character from the Uncharted games
While Mako and Tenzin were named after real people, Pema has the name of a fictional one. With Tenzin’s wife, DiMartino and Konietzko allegedly took the opportunity to tip their hat to the popular Uncharted video games.
Uncharted is a series of video games centering on the adventures of treasure hunter Nathan Drake. There are four games out currently and a spinoff game will launch August this year. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Drake encounters a Tibetan explorer named Tenzin, who has a young daughter named Pema. The Pema in Korra is married to Tenzin, so therein lies the key difference between this pair and the one in Uncharted.
Of course, both names share real life connections as well. Tenzin, as explained before, is the name of the current Dalai Lama while Pema is the name of his sister. There’s also Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun and renowned author of over twenty books.
9. There was a debacle over putting “Avatar” in the title
Copyright infringement was a tiny obstacle in Korra finally landing on its name. Originally, the show was intended to be called Avatar: Legend of Korra, but that changed when it ran into trademark roadblocks set up by James Cameron’s Avatar.
As time went on, and unconfirmed sources spread rumors as to what the true title of the Airbender spinoff would be, Nickelodeon finally landed on a title. Well, two actually. In the United States, the show would assume the title The Legend of Korra while overseas it would maintain the title Avatar: Legend of Korra. It seems Cameron’s copyright claims only reached as far as America’s borders.
Legal matters aside, Korra would certainly face an uphill battle for media prominence if it was constantly confused with Cameron’s epic. Still, with the show being such a big success (and with Avatar sequels getting delayed ad nauseam) it might not be unreasonable to guess Korra would have become the definitive property with the word “Avatar” attached to it.
8. Marks Eva Marie Saint’s first animated role
Korra was guaranteed a younger audience. But being the intelligent writers that they were, DiMartino and Konietzko were talented enough to write something that could appeal to a wide range of ages based on quality alone. However, quality would only keep older viewers engaged once they were inside Korra‘s world. DiMartino and Konitzko would also have to find a way to open the door for them.
One of the smartest moves the duo made was to cast a Hollywood institution as one of their best characters. To play an aged Katara, DiMartino and Konietzko managed to get Eva Marie Saint. Saint was an Oscar winning actress who starred in timeless classics such as On the Waterfront (which she won for) and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
While Saint’s career spanned decades, covering everything from The Love Boat to Superman Returns, until Korra she had never taken a stab at animation. By the time Saint voiced Katara, she was eighty-eight years old.
7. Featured crazy famous actors
Since it’s evident that Korra featured a talent surplus, this entry will get the remaining big names out of the way. Most notably, Korra featured J.K. Simmons as Tenzin. As Simmons was doing voice work for Korra, he also filmed Whiplash, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Korra also roped in talent from live action TV (which, to be fair, includes Simmons, who was on Oz and The Closer). As Mad Men was ending, Kiernan Shipka juggled her role as Sally Draper with the role of Jinora, Tenzin’s daughter. Aubrey Plaza, who played the morose April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation, lent her voice to the morose Eska.
Lastly, alternative comedian Maria Bamford acted on a large portion of Korra as Tenzin’s wife, Pema. If you’ve seen Bamford’s manic Netflix comedy series Lady Dynamite, it might surprise you to think she was also on a children’s cartoon. But Bamford, the foremost comedian when it comes to silly voices, has plenty of voice acting experience, including parts on Adventure Time and CatDog.
6. Aang and Sokka are the only Team Avatar members not alive in the show
In Korra‘s four season run, three major characters would return as their older selves: Katara, Toph, and Zuko. Since one Avatar has to die in order for another to unlock their powers, Aang had died long before Korra’s adventures began. The other major Airbender character who had died before that point was Sokka.
Sokka, Katara’s brother, was a the jokester of the original Team Avatar (sometimes purposefully and sometimes on accident). He was a skilled navigator who was proficient with a boomerang. Sometime after Aang’s death, Sokka would die offscreen due to unspecified causes. Before he died, a statue of him was built at the Southern Water Tribe Culture Center to honor his legacy.
DiMartino confirmed Sokka’s passing in an interview with Screen Crush, but neither he nor Konietzko provided a reason for his offing. Sokka did appear once Korra as his older self (played by Chris Hardwick), but it was in a flashback. Aang also appeared in flashbacks as his older self.
5. The actress who voiced Asami was in The Last Airbender movie
At least something good came out of M. Night Shyamalan’s movie. The Sixth Sense director made a live action film based on The Last Airbender. It was a particularly low point in a long line of duds for the once promising director. Since then, Shyamalan has bounced back somewhat thanks to The Visit and Split. It seems Seychelle Gabriel, who played Princess Yue in Shyamalan’s doomed Airbender film, bounced back as well.
In Aang’s time, Yue was a princess of the Northern Water Tribe. As a baby, Yue bonded with the Moon Spirit, Tui, a union that would initially save her life before ultimately taking it. When Tui died, Yue sacrificed her life and took Tui’s place as the Moon Spirit.
After Syamalan’s The Last Airbender tanked, Gabriel entered the true Avatar universe as Asami Sato in Legend of Korra. Asami was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and eventual inheritor of his company. Though not a bender, Asami was a technological genius. She invented her own weapons and wielded them expertly.
4. Pro bending was based on mixed martial arts
During Aang’s era, bending was more or less pure. Earth, water, air, and fire were the four elements that somebody could bend, based on which nation he or she was born into. As time went on, benders like Toph Beifong developed variations on typical bending forms. Metalbending was a twist on earthbending, lightningbending a deviation from firebending, and bloodbending branched off of waterbending.
For Legend of Korra, much of the real-world martial arts styles that inspired traditional bending in The Last Airbender mostly remained the same, as Korra director Joaquim Dos Santos attested in an interview with The AV Club. But for more advanced bending, like that found in a professional bending arena, Santos turned to alternative fighting methods.
Both Santos and show creator Bryan Konietzko were fans of mixed martial arts, or MMA. Unsurprisingly, the pro-bending craze that swept Korra’s Republic City took inspiration from different aspects of MMA. For instance, the pro-bending playing field had rope lining it’s boundaries much like a boxing ring would.
3. Republic City was based on many different cities from various time periods
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Last Airbender was the aesthetic of the world mirrored our real world throughout history. Legend of Korra continued this regimen, modeling Republic city around a mishmash of cities worldwide from the 1800s to the 1930s. The urbanization of the Four Nations directly corresponds with our world, albeit in a fantastical way.
Republic City in particular drew from famous landmarks located in American, Asian, and Canadian cities. The statue of Aang on Republic City’s Yue Bay was based directly on the Statue of Liberty. Other New York attractions that influenced Republic city include Central Park, which inspired Avatar Korra Park, and the Silk Road Bridge, based on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Other cities that served as framework for Republic City include Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chicago, and Vancouver. Other fixtures of Republic City bare resemblance to parts of London, like Hyde Park, and the use of trollies in San Francisco.
2. An Earthbender would have been the next Avatar
From each Avatar to the next, a different bender becomes the master of all elements. Aang, an airbender, came after a firebending Avatar named Roku. Before Roku an earthbender named Kyoshi served as Avatar. The cycle would go Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. Korra, a waterbender, was the logical next step for Avatar Cycle.
This means that Korra’s successor would have bean an earthbender, but their job would have entailed a unique challenge that none of the other Avatars had. In a battle with the dark spirit Vaatuu, Korra lost the ability to convene with the spirits of past Avatars, a luxury Aang never had to live without. It’s unclear if the next Avatar would be able to reconnect with the Avatars of the past, or just have Korra’s spirit as a guide. Or neither.
Things could have been much worse though. Korra’s entanglement with Vaatuu temporarily separated her from the spirit of light, Ravva. In this moment, it seemed that Korra would be the last Avatar ever, until she and Ravva converged again.
1. Korra learned her Avatar status at a younger age than any Avatar before her
After Aang’s death, Korra unlocked her powers at the age of four. Bold even as a child, Korra demonstrated all four types of bending in front of The Order of the White Lotus to prove she was the Avatar. Though her technique was messy, her ability to tap into the elements was undeniable.
Korra is one of two known Avatars to discover their powers before turning sixteen. Aang also found out he was the Avatar earlier than usual, at age twelve. With the Fire Nation’s invasion looming, Aang was told he was the Avatar four years prior to turning sixteen. Young and afraid, Aang responded to this news by running away from the Air Temple, a decision that ended with him frozen in an iceberg.
Though Korra began bending the four elements at an earlier age than Aang, she would have troubles of her own on the path to mastering them. She would have a particularly rough time mastering airbending, a process that would test the patience of both her and Tenzin, her teacher.
All four seasons of Legend of Korra are available on Amazon, the first three on Prime!