What Can Superhero Movies Learn from ATLA & TLOK?
What lessons could Aang teach Miles Morales? How might Korra relate to Tony Stark?
With the recent addition of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse to Netflix and having begun a rewatch of The Legend of Korra, I found myself noticing a large number of plot parallels between the acclaimed Avatar series and many of the superhero movies that have come out in the past decade or two. Some are more obvious, as both pertain to individuals of superhuman ability (most of the time), with the plot centred around their development as people with great power, and thus, great responsibility. But after diving deeper into this comparison, its applicability only increases. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, having remained free of many of the pitfalls that befall highly focus-group-tested films like those in the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, managed to tell stories that would feel fresh, although not necessarily unfamiliar in the same company as Marvel and DC. By addressing a few of the familiar tropes in modern superhero movies that also show up in ATLA and TLOK, perhaps we can find some new life in a genre many have turned their noses up at. For the sake of accessibility, the phrase “superhero movies” will mainly refer to the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, as well as the X-Men films and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.
Spoiler Warnings for the following: Iron Man, Iron Man 3, Thor, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Legend of Korra.
- Heroes as Fully Public Figures
One of the most interesting moments in many superhero movies is when/if the hero’s secret civilian identity is revealed to the world, thus making them a by-proxy danger to those they care about. The same goes for the Avatars, who inversely eventually become recognized no longer as ordinary people, but the one person able to control all four elements, and implicitly tasked with creating and maintaining balance in the world. These reveals raise the tension of preexisting conflict by forcing the hero into wariness of how their actions might affect those around them. The most notable superhero example would be Tony Stark’s deliberate self-reveal as Iron Man, thereby designating himself as a public vigilante, even going so far as to eventually provoke the Mandarin to attack his private home and kidnap Pepper Potts. The Avatars’ reveals usually take the form of the public witnessing their ability to bend multiple elements, with Korra taking the extra step of announcing herself as a steward of Republic City.
While superheroes have the privileged convention of codenames and costumes, the Avatars only occasionally utilize disguises (save for Aang’s time in the hostile Fire Nation), mainly relying on the slow spread of information via word-of-mouth. “Avatar” is a title akin to “sir” or “doctor” rather than an alter-ego, a complementary detail to their identity that implicitly designates their inherent power. This angle to the role of public hero has gone largely under-utilized in superhero movies, where the hero is portrayed both as an ordinary member of society and its established protector. Imagine if Peter Parker had pulled the same stunt as Tony Stark, and how that would affect his life as the “friendly neighbourhood Spiderman”, or perhaps the repercussions of the public learning Iron Man’s identity sooner than Tony would prefer. I’m admittedly a big fan of the Iron Man and Tom-Holland-Spiderman movies, but perhaps some higher tension could have been found in their narratives.
2. Powers as an Analogy for Self-Security
This trope is one of the oldest in the book and has proved an effective and powerful analogy in many superhero stories. Superpowers, whether natural, man-made or otherwise, provide a convenient vehicle for portraying how a character finds themselves. Because powers are typically unique to those who bear them, the hero’s proficiency in their powers can often be used as a measure of how secure they are in their own identity. Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is a direct reflection of that, tending to students’ personal needs along with supporting them in their superhuman training. The iconic “leap of faith” scene in Into the Spider-verse is as powerful as it is not only because of the beautiful animation sequences, but because it shows Miles finally experiencing the world and the role of Spiderman on his own terms, framed by his newfound confidence in his abilities. In a similar way, everyone who trains Aang and Korra helps them gain a better understanding of themselves in order to become proficient in the elements. Toph taught Aang to be more decisive and (literally) stand his ground. Tenzin taught Korra patience and to remain confident but flexible. Both ATLA and TLOK use the cultural characteristics associated with their respective elements to shape the Avatars’ development as people.
Where ATLA and TLOK differ from most superhero movies is the fact that in the world of the Avatars, large groups of people share the same powers, creating a unique community of learning. Elemental bending holds the potential for a great variety of skills therein, as shown by advanced, niche or hybrid styles like metal-bending, blood-bending, and lava-bending. Commonality of talent allows for variety of styles. The closest we’ve been able to see this type of community built around a common ability in superhero movies is the relationship between the various iterations of Spider-beings in Into the Spider-verse, which allowed Miles to learn not only that he can be Spiderman, but that he can also create a Spiderman all his own. Superhero movies tend to focus on individuality, and while sometimes there are opportunities for commentary on super-collectives like the Avengers and X-Men, the idea of an entire society built around a common superpower has yet to be seen outside of the world of the Avatars.
3. Power Loss
This is one of the less commonly-found tropes to be found in superhero movies, save for Thor’s banishment in his first MCU film, and Tony Stark’s suit breaking down in the middle of nowhere. In both Avatar series, the removal of bending ability is a major plot point, with The Last Airbender ending with Aang permanently taking away Firelord Ozai’s fire-bending, and Amon blood-bending away Korra’s ability to bend fire, earth, or water near the end of the first season. In most of these cases, the loss of power forces the character to deal with their personal shortcomings which had up until then been compromised for the sake of their powers. Thor’s banishment forces him to evaluate his identity apart from being heir to the throne, Tony Stark must return to his roots as a resourceful inventor rather than just a rich guy in a weaponized suit, and the threat of Ozai is altogether neutralized as the power he’d sacrificed all emotional bonds for is also stripped from him. In Korra’s case, the mere idea of losing her bending scares her enough that she must gain a better understanding of herself and the role of Avatar beyond her bending ability. In all cases, the loss of superpowers literally humanizes the character, in that they are no longer necessarily superhuman. Obviously, Thor is still a demigod, Tony Stark has always been human, and Korra’s air-bending is triggered by the loss of the other elements, but there remains an undeniable deconstruction of the characters’ understandings of themselves.
Power loss as a narrative device can thus only prove effective if the character is well-written and the power loss provides a new perspective to them, diegetically or not. Conversely, if the character proves uninteresting or unrelatable without their powers, the audience will struggle to care about them in general. This is why Spiderman is so widely-beloved by youth and young adults: they relate to Peter Parker and then become excited by Spiderman as a heightened extension of Peter Parker. Aang chooses to remove Ozai’s bending rather than kill him outright because Aang recognizes his humanity, and finds it more just to restrict Ozai to his own human limits. Aang’s abilities as Avatar act as an extension of his preexisting character, and without his bending would remain loveable.
There was a time when I, like many people I know, was tired of the same superhero tropes and narratives getting recycled, rephrased, and regurgitated into the same lukewarm commentaries on heroism and responsibility-with-respect-to-power. And with the monolithic storytelling machine that Disney is, I doubt that regurgitation will entirely go away any time soon. But I cannot deny that movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, as well as other remarkable films that weren’t discussed here (e.g. Logan and Thor: Ragnarok) have given me new faith in the genre. There are still so many different stories to be told with the heroes we’ve become so familiar with, and new heroes to be created, as long as we don’t restrict what a “superhero movie” can be.