Complex villains: ATLA and ALoK
So, I was trying to convince my friend Alex to watch Avatar: Legend of Korra and I was talking about the four main villains of the show and how they represent extreme policial ideologies and how this is different from Avatar: The Last Airbender where there’s only one villain, but another difference struck me.
The villains from ALoK are way more human than the villain from ATLA. And that humanity adds complexity.
In ATLA, we have Fire Lord Ozai.
He’s ruthless. He is power hungry. He also represents an ideology, and that is imperialism. Ozai follows his father’s footsteps by fighting a war against all the other nations and by gaining power. He is the ultimate bad guy. There is no damn good thing about this man. He is absolutely horrible, and the whole plot of this show is “let’s take down this dude!”
Then we have ALoK. Like I said, like Ozai they all represent ideologies, but you also learn their intentions and you learn that their intentions actually aren’t that bad. In fact, you can easily agree with their motivations, but they took it too far.
First, we get Amon.
He stands for communism. He saw the increasing inequality between benders and non-benders (and don’t say that he was lying) and he was against it. Yes, he’s kind of biased since he was secretly a bender as well, but initially he just wanted to see equality between people.
But his way to equality was a quite violent revolution and hurting innocent benders, non-benders, and just everyone who didn’t agree with his glorious revolution. That’s messed up.
Then, we have Unalaq, who stands for theocracy.
Unalaq just wanted people, especially Korra, to get more in touch with their spiritual side. Only Korra is the bridge between two wonderful worlds, since she’s the Avatar, and he wanted it to be more accessible to others. He wants spiritual freedom and balance.
Doesn’t sound that bad, amiright? I mean, why is Korra the only bridge between those two worlds? But Unalaq wanted to unite those two worlds so that he could rule over this new united harmonic world as a God (more as Satan), completely undermining the current state of both worlds.
Korra defeats him. But there’s new danger: Zaheer and the Red Lotus.
The Red Lotus is anarchy. They are a group of skilled benders and they see the current state of the world and they disagree with all the oppression, especially in the Earth Kingdom. The queen misuses her power to oppress the lower classes. Well, she oppresses everyone, actually. The Red Lotus wants a world without oppression from authorities and institutions, which is understandable. Oppression isn’t good.
But they straight up murder the queen and they plan on taking out other figures and they think chaos is the only way to have a society. That does not work out, obviously, because it is fucking chaos.
Korra also defeats these guys and apart from Zaheer, no one survives. It takes a huge toll on Korra and the Earth Kingdom is still torn apart now that the queen has been murdered.
So Kuvira sees her chance.
Kuvira represents facism. Kuvira saw how her people had to suffer now that there’s chaos in the Earth Kingdom and she wants peace and order. She wants to show the world that the Earth Kingdom can come back from disaster and she wants to provide protection towards her people.
Make the Earth Kingdom great again.
And yes, when you see the sorry state of the Earth Kingdom, you can understand it. When Kuvira talks more about it in the last episode when they’re in the spirit world, it is kind of relatable.
But as Korra says, acting as a dictator isn’t good. Forcing people to join and oppressing the outsiders isn’t good. Her arrogance towards the other nations and her supriority complex…. those things aren’t good. “Earth Kingdorm first, Earth Kingdom first” eh?
These villains stand for equality, balance, freedom, and unity. And those things aren’t necessarily bad. This edit is the best way to show how twisted their ideas have gotten:
(I found this one on Google, but I tracked down the source, so please also reblog it from the original artist).
This isn’t new. It is quite common knowledge that these guys represent communism, theocracy, anarchy and facism. But like I said, this makes them all more human than Ozai. In book 4, Toph basically says it herself:
“You ever considered you could learn something from them? The problem was those guys were totally out of balance and they took their ideologies too far!” - Toph.
You have to take them down from this “villain teer” and see that you can actually learn something from them BUT that doesn’t justify their actions. Learning from these villains is part of the plot and it is part of Korra’s character development.
And you can say that by the end of the show, they have all achieved their original goals in some way. Non-benders got a bigger and stronger voice in the world and they elected a president to represent them in the United Republic Council (Amon). The spirit world is more accessible and humans and spirits live together in harmony (Unalaq). The Earth Kingdom got rid of the monarchy and they are starting democracy in the hopes that oppression from authorities won’t happen again (Red Lotus). There is a new stronger Earth Kingdom that has risen from the ashes of the failed monarchy and there’s peace and order in the world (Kuvira). This once again highlights the fact that their original intentions and motivations weren’t that bad.
This humanises them even more, but that makes it also kind of more tragic. Ozai is purely evil, or at least, he is presented as that. These people are not. You get reminded by the fact that human beings with great intentions are capable of awful things. Despite everything, you still feel bad for them. You feel a pang of sadness when Tarrlok kills himself and takes Noatak with him. You feel as helpless as Kuvira when she tells Korra why she did everything and how she is hurting. And so on.
Ozai isn’t like that. Ozai’s defeat was so damn satisfactory. Even when it comes to Ozai’s (or Sozin’s) intention, there isn’t anything good. They justify their actions and they spread their ideas towards the Fire Nation, but that is all propoganda. When Zuko gets banished, and he gets out of the Fire Nation, he can actually see that he’s been lied to for all of his life.
“Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history and somehow the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was! The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation. They don’t see our greatness. They hate us. And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world…” - Zuko, being fucking awesome.
You cannot say anything good about imperialism. All of this, and the fact that he is so far away from our heroes, make him nothing more than the “pure evil villain”. That is why our heroes are so shocked to see his baby painting. It is the only time in the story where they get hit by his humanity so directly.
(Aang was already aware of it, because of his own personal dilemma about killing the Fire Lord).
Ozai is also “less human” because he sees positive traits as a sign of weakness. Aang sparing him makes Aang less of a person. Love is for the weak, which makes Iroh an idiot. Emotion is for the weak.
But when Korra shows Kuvira compassion, Kuvira is inspired to step down. When Tarrlok “reunites” with his brother, Amon is actually hopeful about life again. Zaheer and P’li are in love. These ALoK villians are human, intelligent, and full of life. Ozai... isn’t.
So, all of the villains from ALoK have some sense of humanity and complexity and Ozai lacks both of that. Does that mean that the writing of ATLA is the perfect example of the one-dimensional uncomplex villain?
BOY YOU’RE WRONG.
You can say that the complexity of the villain is still there for the entire Fire Nation and its ideals. Namely, Azula still exists.
Azula represents her nation’s ideology as much as her father, but she also represents the complexity and the humanity.
And yes, we know that not all Fire Nation citizens are bad and obviously, Zuko was the villain in book 1, but for the full picture, we will count Zuko and Iroh as the heroes in this story.
Whereas Ozai is seen as the uncomplex all-bad far away villain, you have Azula and her gang hunting down Aang and his friends. And you get to know her a little bit. You know her fears and her wants. You realise that her Nation has fucked her up beyond “repair” if you can call it that. Especially in book 3, you see a different side of her. She’s saddened by the fact that her mother never loved her (or at least, she’s convinced herself that her mother never loved her) and she’s afraid of failure now that she’s seen what Zuko’s been through. She has two best friends who betray her, because that friendship was built on fear instead of love. You don't see a far away villain. You see an unbalanced little girl who has feelings. You see a person.
Azula slowly slips into madness.
We get to the final battle between Zuko and Azula and it’s a long time coming. The moment Azula got introduced at the end of book 1, you know that there’s a showdown between these two waiting to happen. Azula’s entire storyline has been building up to this exact moment. But during that time, you’ve got to know Azula. Yes, she’s awful and she’s done unspeakable and unforgiveable things, but you’ve seen her humanity.
Zuko and Azula (and Katara) have their final battle. The music is great and the closer it comes to the climax of the battle, the more exhilarating it becomes. The animation and the fighting are well done. It is all ready for the epic showdown, just like the defeat of Ozai. And fuck yeah, Zuko wins. Aang wins. Azula and Ozai are defeated.
But when you watch Ozai’s defeat with a satisfied grin on your face, you watch Azula’s defeat and your heart just breaks.
This is one of the biggest achievements of the show. They have finally taken down Azula, the huge threat. But it isn’t a happy moment. There is no celebration. There’s no joyful and upbeat music. Instead you watch a girl, a human person, cry her eyes out and the heroes watch her with a sad look on their faces. You realise once again that Azula is a person and just like Zuko, you feel pity instead of triumph.
And that is what makes ATLA and ALoK so special and complex and also extraordinary. I’ve said it before: so many kids shows deal with good ole “good vs. bad”, the “right vs. wrong”, but Avatar has always been more complex. It is about balance. I am not saying that the classic “good vs. bad” is always bad storytelling or boring or predictable, but the whole story of balance adds a whole new layer of complexity and the humanisation of these bad people adds another layer of complexity.
It makes these damn shows so amazing.
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