The following contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.
For as heavy and epic as Avatar: The Last Airbender was, its lead character Aang often approached problems with a smile on his face. Being an Air Nomad, Aang had a “go with the flow” type attitude and he’d tell a joke or pull a funny face instead of going straight to fighting. It’s one of the many reasons he’s so beloved and why ATLA sticks in the minds of so many fans years after its initial airing. It’s also part of the reason why the show has quickly found a new life on Netflix.
However when The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to ATLA, initially aired (and in its own recent release on Netflix) some fans were puzzled. The fun-loving Aang they knew and adored had suddenly gotten more serious. Many of his brief appearances in the series through flashbacks featured little of the gregarious Avatar and he seemed more like a determined leader. Fans have wondered what happened to Aang that made him lose his trademark jokes and antics.
There are several reasons for this. First off, we only got to see brief snippets of Aang in The Legend of Korra. His biggest flashback appearance was during the first season when he apprehended Yakone, a bloodbender. Bloodbending was a deeply troubling act to Aang, so much so that he busted out his ultimate power of taking away Yakone’s bending. It makes sense why we didn’t see Aang cracking jokes in this scene. With this being his biggest appearance in The Legend of Korra it’s no wonder the “humorless” Aang has gotten stuck in fans’ minds.
The “humorless Aang” perception isn’t helped by the other big revelations about his adult life, especially since it was through the eyes of his kids. While airbender Tenzin had a high opinion of his father, Bumi and Kya had more complicated feelings. Aang, already tasked with his duties as the Avatar, also took on the responsibility of preserving Air Nomad culture. This enormous task not only contributed to his more serious outlook but also had him focus on Tenzin more than the other children. It’s no wonder they felt such animosity towards him and why their memories of Aang were viewed through such a murky filter.
The Legend of Korra made it clear throughout its run that despite being the Avatar (and the main character of the original series) Aang wasn’t perfect. He did a lot of good for the world but like anyone he was deeply flawed. Considering he was tasked with maintaining balance, preserving a whole culture, and taking care of a family it’s perfectly understandable he couldn’t handle it all flawlessly.
This negative picture of Aang rattled fans, taking the stories of Aang’s children and the brief flashbacks as proof that the writers “messed with” Aang’s character by forgetting about his humor. This, frankly, is fans missing the point and wanting the character to stagnate. Aang grew up and like most people he wasn’t the same person he was as a kid. For someone stuck in ice for a hundred years it’s easy to imagine Aang wouldn’t want to sit still and never change. That meant he’d make mistakes and wouldn’t be perfect but that’s life. He was also probably wrestling with the trauma of being stuck in ice and saving the world when he was a child. I can easily imagine Aang repressing much of this, especially with his constant duties to keep the world in balance, and that causing his more serious side to come out.
The decision to show Aang’s not as great sides enriched the character, it didn’t detract from it. He was goofy at times in the original series, yes, but as he grew up he took his responsibilities seriously and was likely wrestling with a lot of internal conflicts.
There also wasn’t much of a place for Aang’s humor in The Legend of Korra. It wasn’t his show. Flashbacks featuring him were kept to a minimum so they could let Korra stay in the spotlight. Just because there wasn’t much of a chance for his humor to come through doesn’t mean he never made a joke in his whole adult life.
However, the creators of The Legend of Korra did notice that for plot reasons they had only shown adult Aang’s more serious side and wanted to rectify this. In the fourth season episode ‘Korra Alone’ Korra meets a shopkeeper who proudly displays a photo of Aang in a pose referencing one of his jokes in the original series.
Co-creator Bryan Konietzko stated after this episode aired that, “our portrayals of adult Aang up to this point had always been so serious. We though this was a perfect opportunity to show that deep down he was still the same fun-loving trickster.”
Aang never lost his humor; it just wasn’t relevant to the story of Korra. The creative team took the bold step of not just keeping Aang the same as he’d always been but developing him into an even more complicated character. That meant we didn’t see much of his humor but it was still there and the creators made sure to remind fans of it before the series closed out.