Power Used For Peace
A Brief Analysis of the ends of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra
I, along with many of my generation, am a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so; however a brief summary here will suffice:
Aang, last of a race of people capable of aerokinesis, wakes up after a century spent trapped in an iceberg. He finds the world suffering attacks from the Fire Nation, a pyrokinetic people, led by their Fire Lord Ozai. As the current Avatar - a sort of unifying figure and peacekeeper capable of manipulating air, fire, earth, and water - Aang must find friends and defeat the Fire Lord to bring peace to the world.
(Spoiler alert: he does.)
The Legend of Korra is the sequel series, picking up after Aang’s full life has passed and the next Avatar, Korra, is chosen. It chronicles Korra’s adventures in a changing world, as she deals with terrorists, dark spirits, dictatorships, and weapons of mass destruction.
(Spoiler alert: she does.)
And yet there is a remarkable parallel between the two shows that I have not seen highlighted before, and wish to do so here.
In most anime, indeed in most settings involving super-powered individuals, the greatest expression of a protagonist’s power involves them defeating (often slaying) an adversary. And yet, both Aang and Korra reach the apex of their power in their series, not in killing an enemy or destroying them, but in saving their life.
Both Avatars, in other words, have as the ultimate expression of their power not domination or destruction, but peace.
The Avatar as a character - and the Avatar series - can thus be thought of as highlighting the ideal of power used for peace.
Aang, and the nation he represents, are based off of Tibetan monks, and Aang himself is an avowed pacifist. Throughout his journey, he constantly struggles to find a balance between his own beliefs and the necessities of committing violence upon others to stop the war ravaging the world.
In the final season of the show, however, Aang is confronted with a new dilemma: facing the Fire Lord himself, a man too powerful to be contained or imprisoned, who is utterly committed to burning the world down if it means he can rule the ashes.
All of Aang’s friends, even the most peaceful, tell Aang that he has to kill Fire Lord Ozai.
There is simply no other way of stopping the madman.
All of Aang’s mentors - including the spirits of past Avatars - tell him to kill the Fire Lord.
He will not compromise his own ideals, not even to save the world.
He will not take a life.
And so he goes to confront the Fire Lord, a madman empowered by circumstances into a pyrokinetic of immense power, a killer spearheading a war that’s lasted generations.
Aang and Fire Lord Ozai fight, and the result is epic, but when the moment comes and Aang is about to execute the man for his crimes, he falters.
Aang will not sacrifice his own spiritual needs, his ideals, for expedience.
He will find another way.
And so Aang puts to use the advice he got from an ancient being, back when he first confronted this dilemma and went search for an answer, and does something no one has ever done before.
At great personal risk, he removes the man’s ability to control fire.
The Avatar, as a figure in this world, is meant to represent balance above all else. Not just balance between humans and the spirits inhabiting the Spirit World, but balance between different peoples as well.
The Avatar is meant to keep the world, not in a state without conflict, but in a state without great conflict - what we might call large-scale wars. They can’t - and aren’t meant to - save everyone, but rather to preserve peace on a societal level.
Aang was well within his role of Avatar to kill the Fire Lord.
He even communes with past Avatars in his search for answers, talking to several who did kill (or attempt to) in the name of peace and balance.
In other words, The Avatar is a being of great power endowed with the right and responsibility to kill those who disturb the balance-
But Aang is a (young) man who believes, down to his very marrow, that killing is Wrong.
In charting a course that brings balance to the world while not forsaking his own ideals, Aang embodies not just balance, as the Avatar must, but peace - the notion that even his enemies are deserving of grace. That balance can be found, not just in retribution, but in justice.
Korra is a very different Avatar than Aang.
Raised in the Southern Water Tribe, a pastiche of Inuit and other Aboriginal or Native cultures, she is fierce, aggressive, and vivacious. Her experiences across the first three seasons of the show temper her, and by the time we arrive in the final season she is weary, enduring, and wise.
While both Avatars’ stories have ups and downs, I contend that personal suffering is a great deal more important to Korra’s story than Aang’s.
Aang suffers the loss of his people, and the blow is fearsome, but he wakes up after it’s already over. His loss is potent, but it happens early in the series, and Aang’s natural cheer recovers, aided by the fact that not all of his friends have died.
In terms of injuries, Aang is disconnected from the spiritual presence of the Avatar in a traumatic attack, but his friends continue to support him, and his recovery is relatively swift.
In the first season of The Legend of Korra, Korra faces a hemokinetic (someone with the ability to control blood) who can achieve the same thing Aang did against the Fire Lord - take away the powers of another. She loses her ability to control water, earth, and fire, and even though she manages to defeat the villain, she believes she is crippled for life.
It is implied - though not outright stated - that Korra considers killing herself in order to spare the world a crippled Avatar. Fortunately, she is soon thereafter healed, but the experience was scarring.
In the second season Korra loses the unbroken chain of past Avatars that serve as mentors to the current holder of the title, and is temporarily disconnected from the Avatar spirit itself when it is violently ripped out of her.
In the third season Korra is poisoned with what appears to be mercury in an attempt to kill her, and she is very nearly suffocated to death in the ensuing battle. The wounds from this encounter leave her unable to walk for a long time - a critical blow in a setting where using one’s powers involves performing martial arts katas.
The fourth season of The Legend of Korra involves a villain, Kuvira, The Great Uniter, who ascends to become a dictator of immense power during the Avatar’s three-year recovery, but it would be a mistake to think that that’s what the season is about.
Korra has suffered, and her final season is the story of her recovery - both physical and mental - from that suffering. She isn’t as powerful as she used to be, her friends and foes don’t respect her abilities the way they used to, and her PTSD prevents her from accessing all of her abilities.
Korra’s journey throughout the season is largely about her recovering and regaining that power, setting up for the final battle in which she will use it against a newly made weapon of mass destruction.
With the help of her friends, Korra manages to stop Kuvira, but the weapon of mass destruction - a laser capable of obliterating skyscrapers - is unleashed, in circumstances that render it unable to be shut down. The key scene comes when Kuvira, who fired the weapon in an attempt to kill Korra, winds up in the beam’s path.
Korra achieves the Avatar state and purposefully blocks the laser before it can kill Kuvira, saving the life of the villain just seconds after said villain tried to murder her.
The fourth season of The Legend of Korra is about Korra recovering from and eventually overcoming the trauma she suffered and the self-doubt it left her with. Her last experience of the Avatar State in season three was a vicious, violent fight to the death, and Korra can no longer condone using her power to destroy her enemies the way she tried in earlier seasons.
Rather, the climax of the season (complete with triumphant music) is when Korra overcomes the laser and saves her enemy’s life. She chooses to believe in herself and face the greatest weapon ever created, not to destroy or kill, but to protect.
The violence that traumatizes Korra - that haunts her for years - was not just the violence that was done to her; it was the violence that she committed in response.
Korra isn’t haunted by the specter of her enemy, but of herself, at the feral moment when she sought only to kill those who had harmed her.
Her arc leads her to a place where she can move past that trauma by employing the same power, but towards the preservation of the life of an enemy instead of towards its destruction.
Both Avatars refused to kill an adversary whose death would have been perfectly justified.
Both saved the life of someone who, seconds prior, had tried to take theirs.
And in both cases, the Avatars created the foundation for a future peace that was built, not on a lesser evil, but on a lesser good.
There is a belief that it is moral to use violence to end violence, and sometimes there truly is no other choice. Sometimes we don’t have the ability to resolve a conflict any other way.
But that doesn’t mean that using violence is ever ideal. Violence always, always leaves scars.
In using their power to solve their problems without violence, the Avatars show us how power can serve the cause of peace without just being a bigger stick. It can also open up new paths and create possibilities that preclude the need for war.