‘Avatar: The Legend of Korra,’ Lin Beifong, and Sacrifice In Action Movies

I caught up on Avatar: The Legend of Korra, the sequel to the critically acclaimed and totally awesome Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, about a world where certain people can manipulate the elements, yesterday. Overall, The Legend of Korra is a fantastic second series, and does an excellent job of moving the concepts that the original series laid out so well—that there are benders who can manipulate one element and an Avatar who can control them all—from a feudal setting into an industrialized future, and in giving the original characters descendants who share some of their characteristics while standing fully on their own as characters. One real standout for me was Lin Beifong, the chief of Republic City’s police force. And her arc at the end of the season embodied what I’ve seen as a small trend in female action stars: sacrifice, and a recognition that not everyone can get out alive.

That arc is as follows: Lin, having started the season skeptical of Avatar Korra, who’s been a somewhat disruptive presence in Republic City, has become Korra’s strong ally. After the forces controlled by Amon, a radical who wants to forcibly eliminate the powers of all benders, take over the city, Lin flees with Master Tenzin’s family, determined to protect the last surviving airbenders. And when it becomes apparent that Amon’s forces will overtake them, Lin sacrifices herself. She takes down one of Amon’s ships in a colossal act of metalbending, and when she’s captured, she refuses to compromise. In one of the quietest sequences in the show, Amon takes Lin’s bending from her, the lull in the soundtrack a powerful representation of the sudden absence that has made Lin much of who she is.

The sequence actually reminded me of what I thought was one of the most misunderstood elements of Zack Snyder’s fantasy action movie Sucker-Punch. That film, about girls confined to a 1960s mental institution where some of them are forced to undergo transorbital lobotomies, contains two major sacrifices. In one, Rocket (Jenna Malone) suffers a double death, protecting her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) from the blast of a bomb in the movie’s fantasy world, and stepping in front of a cook’s knife to save her in the world in which the girls are actually living. And in the movie’s conclusion, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), submits to the lobotomy she’s loathed and feared so that Sweet Pea can escape the asylum. It struck me at the time that there was something uniquely female about recognizing how tightly the jaws of the system were clamped around these girls, the tremendous effort it would take to free just one of them, and the decision by the main characters to prioritize the love between sisters and friends rather than themselves. The uniqueness of that perspective seems to have gotten lost in other critiques of Sucker-Punch, but it’s stayed with me, a specific rebuke by Snyder to the rather manly idea that competence and bravery will see all the main characters through to the end of most action movies, no matter the odds.

Lin has a happier fate in Korra: after communing with her past lives, the Avatar is able to restore her lost powers, and to a certain extent her lost self. But there was no such guarantee when she lept from her safe perch to go up against a system more powerful than she was, and in defense of something other than herself.