A while back, I did a pretty sharp post-mortem of The Legend of Korra's first villain, Amon. Today, it's time I did a post-mortem of its last one and my personal favorite. This one's gonna be... complicated, gang.
Amon is pretty divisive, but Kuvira has risen to a debate unto herself. The sympathy the show gives her, as well as her openly fascist ideology, has sparked countless arguments, many of which can get very heated. The most prominent is this: Is the sympathy displayed for Kuvira an endorsement of fascism? The truth, as usual with this, is pretty firmly on a gray line. Let me state my feelings first and most flat-out: No. The creators of The Legend of Korra are not endorsing fascism by depicting a fascist villain as... you know... a rounded character and cool villain. I... c'mon, guys. Looking right at you, Tumblr. Representing a genuinely dangerous ideology as a villainous yet likable figure is not the same as supporting said ideology. The term "Nazi" or "sympathizing with fascists" gets thrown around way too often when it comes to this, from Steven Universe to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Kuvira is perhaps the sole example of this who is actually fascist in anything but maybe some imagery... but in some ways isn't. It's complicated.
This isn't an "In Defense of" piece like my Amon thinkpiece, because although I personally love Kuvira, I'm going to try and do this even-handedly. I think Kuvira's badass and sympathetic, but the look into the ideas I hope to provide is more a study on what makes me so interested in her and what makes her Korra's best and most compelling villain, yet perhaps its worst.
Who is Kuvira?
Kuvira is the Great Uniter. After Book 3's antagonist Zaheer caused a massive upheaval of power in the Earth Kingdom, Kuvira, a master metalbender and determined young woman, takes the throne. Imprisoning and conscripting criminals, providing protection for villages, coercing people into surrendering to her. You name it, Kuvira's done it. In Book 3, Kuvira briefly plays the role of hero. Hell, early in Book 4 Kuvira could be considered an anti-hero at best and is an anti-villain at worst. In the absence of a traumatized Korra, multiple characters latch on to Kuvira as the new Korra, a strong-willed, determined, buff and powerful please step on me brilliant young woman. She takes full villain territory when her "peaceful" means cease to be peaceful.
Kuvira's a tactical genius, always knowing what to do to get a result she wants from someone. She's clever and resourceful, initially well-intentioned, and wants to reunite a kingdom that is falling apart. She's for these reasons my favorite of Korra's villains. The first thing you need to know about Kuvira is that she's even more right than Amon.
The second is that she's even more full of shit.
Kuvira as Korra's shadow
(Credit on this piece goes to Attyca, who drew it, I take none as it isn't mine.)
The regard in which Kuvira is most successful is providing a view of Korra without Amon and Zaheer. The two villains changed Korra. While what they did was horrible, Korra ultimately developed into a more humble person, adopting parts of their philosophies as her own. Early in Book 1, Korra yells to a crowd of protesters that they're oppressing themselves.
The simple fact is this: Much as I like Korra, she had a lot of the same ideas Kuvira has. Korra believes in her own superiority in Book 1, and in Book 2 she pulls strings as Avatar to intervene in a conflict between two tribes, potentially plunging all of Republic City into a war they had no stake in against the wishes of the democratically-elected ruler. Until Book 3, Korra is unafraid to pull rank and to exploit her Avatar status for any number of reasons. In the end, while she's lovable and the punishment was disproportionate, what Zaheer does to Korra teaches her the value of humility and freedom, in spite of his own hypocrisy.
So what if Zaheer and Amon hadn't targeted her? What if Korra had continued to think herself above all on virtue of being the Avatar? What if Korra still wanted to pull rank and control world affairs?
Kuvira is Korra with her current attitude, her genius, her arrogance and her determination. The issue is that the rest of Kuvira's personality didn't develop alongside that. Upon seeing her kingdom in tatters, Kuvira didn't leave them to their freedom. She saw their freedom, and what it got them. Kuvira takes a massive weight upon herself to save her kingdom thanks to her own past of being abandoned by her family, and it was inevitable that she'd crack. In lieu of the Avatar, the new Earth Empire has Kuvira to save them, and as they begin to bow beneath her feet, Kuvira begins to see herself as the only one who deserves to control world affairs.
It's really that simple. Much like Korra, Kuvira's a Bending prodigy and great warrior. Much like Korra, she's well-intentioned, but unlike Korra, she never loses her tendency to pull rank and conquer as she pleases. Everything's a matter of time with Kuvira; if she spares you from conquering, she's just waiting until you have no other choice. She's offering you her hand while her jackboot stomps on your foot; sure, you could tell her no, but look at your starving people! You're no good leader, but her... she knows how to lead, and she's powerful. It's only so long that a person can last before bowing before the Great Uniter.
Korra could've been just like this. In a rare sentence, thank God for Zaheer. Imagine if Korra had been there when the Earth Kingdom fell, without being humbled. At best, she might've taken Kuvira's side. At worst she would have supplanted Kuvira and decided to take power for herself, as his her "divine right" as Avatar. Korra and Kuvira even share some mannerisms.
Again, Korra isn't nearly as subtle as some insist it is. When the two fight at Zaofu, Kuvira is envisioned as the zombie-esque Dark Avatar which has been stalking Korra and causing her psychic harm, which leads Korra to lose her battle with Kuvira. This is as literal as the show gets in expressing its point: Korra could have become this.
Kuvira as an imperialist
Kuvira initially gave me one thought, and surprisingly, it wasn't the Nazis. With the way she merged her kingdom and decided to reclaim the Earth Kingdom territory that became Republic City, Kuvira immediately struck me as a British Imperialist. Oh, sure, I knew where they were going; it's impossible not to. The fascist imagery is strong with cartoons, and fantasy especially uses it a lot. Hell, I argue that you can read Kuvira as an interpretation of American imperialism post 9/11 and you can get a good read of Korra.
Kuvira starts wanting to reunite a fractured kingdom and its people. She believes that Republic City should be hers, so she manufactures a good reason to take it-- it is, after all, Earth Kingdom territory by right. Unfortunately, it's not that simple to try and take a place colonized by foreigners; those foreigners live there now, and a lot of them are suffering for the sins of their ancestors.
Kuvira brings up some very interesting moral dilemmas, if I'm being honest. She's genuinely reuniting her kingdom. Is it right to put a stop to that just because she's dangerous? What if you take her off the throne and leave it to an incompetent leader? Is that right just because he's more moral? Not to mention that she's right about the fact Republic City is rightfully Earth Kingdom territory, purged of its cultural trappings by a colonizing force and turned into a "united" domain by the Avatar. To put it into real terms, Kuvira's like someone deciding to reclaim America for its original keepers; she's got a damn good point, and violence is probably necessary to make it, but instead of demanding aid to the citizens of the country she wants to hurt its current citizens and take it for herself.
Kuvira as an imperialist is a very good read, especially considering the moral conundrums she brings. Unfortunately, many audience members, whether due to not understanding the legitimate issues and demanding things be more straightforward, or simply due to feeling Kuvira's other ideological implications make it all pointless, came to dislike Kuvira.
Kuvira as a fascist
Kuvira is honestly astounding to me. Plenty of cartoon villains use fascist imagery, but she's perhaps the first one I've ever seen who's... well, fascist. There is no other way to slice it. While there's legitimate moral questions to Kuvira, her ideology parallels the Nazis too many times to reject it, with her voice actress, the astounding Zelda Williams, even calling her "everyone's favorite foxy fascist."
Kuvira has labor camps for prisoners. She conscripts. She comes up with flimsy excuses to invade foreign nations, and she oppresses her citizens. Her troops wear stalhelms. They build war machines based on those of the Nazis. It's clear to anyone paying a bit of attention exactly what Kuvira is. While she has sympathetic characteristics, Kuvira's clearly intended as a fantasy equivalent fascist.
Which is genuinely unfortunate, because it means discussion of the character on her own merits will inevitably devolve into mud-slinging and one side calling the other a Nazi. This actually brings up an interesting discussion, so I will turn to someone smarter than myself for this: Linkara.
In comic reviewer Linkara's review of Marvel's Secret Empire event, he explains why the comic's depiction of its fascist villain protagonist "Stevil" doesn't work. Stevil has a lot of parallels to Kuvira, although I'd argue Kuvira is better written. Stevil is, like Kuvira, an interesting character marred by the creators' making them a fascist. The issue, as he explains is fundamental: Fascism is not a strong or well-intentioned ideology.
The dangerous thing about the portrayal of someone like Kuvira is that it plays into the popular myth that fascists have genuine good intention, and just went on a bad path. They never do. Fascism is a cowardly, strongman ideology, and our culture's overuse of it as a shorthand for evil means that you get cases ranging from Star Wars, where most of the fanbase will accept that you like the space Nazis, to Korra, where some fans will rant and rave furiously if you dare suggest that making Kuvira sympathetic is a good idea, to Steven Universe, where-- c'mon, you guys, they're not even fascist, yeah they use fascist imagery but it's ubiquitous among villains. I just-- c'mon, love or hate the Diamonds, I personally like them on a character and design level but despise what was done with them by the end of SU's run, the Diamonds are an allegory for a Conservative family, not the Nazis, I just can't.
The issue with this portrayal of characters like Stevil or Kuvira is a difficult one. By making a character a fascist, you instantly lose a lot of audience sympathy, and not only that, but...
The Ideologies of Korra
The Legend of Korra has a simple thesis that separates it from most cartoons. Every season, the villain represented a dangerous, yet well-intentioned real-world ideology. First came Amon, an eat-the-rich fellow with a whole other blog about him. Then Unalaq, whose motive was... something? I'm gonna go with religion, but what the fuck it was people have a billion interpretations of. Then came Zaheer, who is openly anarchistic. Then Kuvira, who's different. The others have liberal implications, but Kuvira's ideology is fascism.
Let's start by noting that this has been the subject of much debate. The fact that liberal ideologies are often played as villains and only one conservative one is villainous has caused many to argue that Korra, a cartoon that I'd argue was pretty damn progressive for its time, is fundamentally conservative. Again, this... feels like the exact sort of dogmatic ideological leaping that the show discourages.
The best summary I've seen of the villains has been the good side of their philosophies, and then the bad: Amon is Equality, but he is also Inversion. Unalaq is Spirituality, but he is also Fanaticism. Zaheer is Freedom, but he is also Chaos. Kuvira is Unity, but she's also...
Well, here's the problem. Totalitarianism and Imperialism are arguably the dark equivalent to Unity. Fascism has nothing to do with unity. Fascism is about consolidating power to a specific group of people, ruling through fear, and oppressing all those who might be able to stop you. In making Kuvira a fascist, they make a dangerous connection: The idea that fascism is the logical conclusion to unity.
And it's not. Some level of authoritarianism could be presented, but her flat-out fascism causes the points she does have to fizzle out. It's just not an accurate portrayal of her ideology, even in extremism. It doesn't work out, which is a shame because, well, she's really interesting and cool.
Shorthand for Villainy
We love a good evil, and what can say "evil" to the audience more than The Third Reich? Probably the worst foe the world ever faced, responsible for truly horrific atrocities, fascism and Nazi-esque imagery have become the default for villains, especially in fantasy settings. From Wicked to an adaptation of Midsummer Night's Dream, just giving a character an armband and a black coat in a western work of fiction will tell the audiences this is evil.
This is interesting, because most works of genre fiction won't deal with fascism in a meaningful capacity. When I think of fantasy/sci-fi works that have truly good use of Nazis or fascist imagery, I think of Wolfenstein: The New Order and, uh... Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and, uh... I dunno. That's not even getting into eastern works, which have a vastly different view of the Nazis from the western world and hence can be hard to talk about with audiences unfamiliar with the cultural differences. Just try explaining Rudol von Stroheim, who's basically an anti-hero for most of Battle Tendency, to someone with a die-hard western view point.
This shorthand means that almost any villain in a fantasy work will in some way be associated with fascism. Kuvira is a bold statement-- a villain in a fantasy cartoon who dives headfirst into actually admitting she's a genuine fascist.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra, everything in the Avatarverse uses political iconography at various points. Korra uses Nazi imagery for Amon as well, but with Kuvira it's much more meaningful. In this case, it's not just saying "fascist imagery, feel free to see her as evil." The ideology is presented genuinely, and genuinely, fundamentally misunderstood.
Kuvira vs. Kuvira
Kuvira is a very, very mixed bag, because she is undeniably an interesting villain who presents good points. Unfortunately, you can't write a fascist who has good points, because fascists fundamentally don't. This means Kuvira's worst enemy when it comes to being great is herself. When it comes down to it, it's a battle between characterization and theme.
Every Korra villain has this clash. It's a matter of dealing with how much of them is just their ideology and how much of them is the character themself. The show mixes it a bit with Amon for many audience members, although I feel it's clear enough, and nails it with Zaheer, who is essentially a living, if hypocritical, embodiment of his own ideals, even as those ideals tear away everything he ever loved.
There's rarely been a winner as clear in these conflicts as Kuvira. Our favorite foxy fascist is characterization-focused, first and foremost, as a badass and brave villainous warrior with some good points, and a counterpoint to Korra. This presentation means as a character, she is perhaps the best villain on the show. She's consistent, interesting, compelling, not to mention the pure, unfiltered awesome of watching her when she goes to work. For Kuvira, Metalbending is an art, a dance; the show makes sure you know it, too, as she is introduced in a manner akin to Korra herself, dealing with criminals the same way Korra does when she first arrives to Republic City.
Character-wise, Kuvira is the best villain on the show. Even Zaheer had his moments where he felt like just a mouthpiece for certain views. Kuvira, on the other hand, always feels like a person. She's a young woman abandoned as a child, feeling the weight of the world and truly desiring to save her kingdom, yet longing to never feel powerless again. She's a tragic villain through and through.
Ideologically, Kuvira is a glaring failure. She's not cowardly, she has good reason for what she does, she kicks ass and if fascism were like how the show presents it, as a well-intentioned but flawed ideology like the others, and sexy as fuck holy shit she could be a quality dominatrix it would be much more understandable. But the idea that fascism is fundamentally a "sexy" or "cool" ideology when genuinely presented is dangerous, and I don't blame people for taking issue with the show's inaccurate portrayal of it compared to the others.
In summary, I love the character of Kuvira, and her staunch "Iron Lady" personality. I simply wish the writers had chosen another ideology for her to represent.
These things are complex. To declare your stance on either side of this debate is hard, and this was kind of hard to write. Still, after what I did with Amon, I felt Kuvira deserved the same treatment... even if this study was a fair bit more negative than it was toward Amon, I ultimately feel that Kuvira's great characterization and badass style outweigh the cons of her ideological implications. She kicks ass, takes names, and genuinely believes in her cause. She's a fantastic character and a great villainous counterpart to our hero.
It's just a shame I have to write 3000 words to justify liking her.