The following contains spoilers for AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER and THE LEGEND OF KORRA.
Lightning bending is one of the strongest abilities in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with Azula’s lightning attack nearly killing Aang for good. It’s also one of the rarest techniques, with only Ozai, Iroh, and Azula able to generate lightning on their own. Even Aang, the avatar, and Zuko could only redirect lightning. It was incredibly powerful and only used for huge moments in the story.
This is why when The Legend of Korra first debuted (and as new fans have rediscovered it on Netflix) many fans were confused why lightning bending seemed so commonplace. In ATLA only a select few knew the technique, now new lead character Mako was working in a factory with many other lightning benders generating much of the power for the city.
So what happened in the span of time between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra? Why wasn’t lightning bending special anymore? Why was it so common?
The answers to these questions involve digging beneath the surface of what’s seen in the TV series. On a casual observation, yes, lightning bending is more common. However, it’s not the only bending skill that became more widespread in the time jump between ATLA and Korra. The one that got the most exposure on screen was metal bending, a technique invented by Toph. She was the only metal bender in the world at the end of the series but by the time Korra rolled around we had metal bending police officers in Republic City.
This change was explained in the ATLA comics by Dark Horse, which continue the story of the series. In the early comics Toph starts her own metal bending school (which will feature in its own comic coming next year) which grew in size over time. Metal bending became much better known and practiced to the point the city of Zaofu was made entirely of metal and populated by many metal benders.
It’s reasonable to believe that something similar happened with lightning bending. While Ozai, Iroh, and Azula were the main practitioners of it in the original show that doesn’t mean they were the only ones. As revealed in ‘The Legend of Korra Book One: Air – The Art of the Animated Series’ co-creator Bryan Konietzko stated that bending lightning was “usually reserved for the inner circles of Fire National royalty and high-ranking military officers.” Okay, so we know there were more than three lightning benders and they probably taught it to others. But how did, Mako, a kid living on the street, learn to use it?
Again we have to bring in the ATLA comics. Throughout the run we saw the world slowly embracing an industrial revolution, with refineries being introduced in ‘The Rift.’ Over time this advancement in technology lead to the creation of power plants, ones that needed their power generated by lightning. These jobs were very risky and weren’t likely to be taken by the upper levels of Fire Nation society. This likely lead to blue-collar workers being taught lightning bending solely to work in these factories, which is where Mako was at the start of Korra.
Konietzko confirms that charging up the massive batteries in the city’s power plants was incredibly taxing on a person’s chi reserves. “That’s why the plant bosses tend to get desperate, strapping young men like Mako to sign up for the grueling task.”
Put simply, capitalism and its need to exploit the lower classes is why lightning bending became more common in The Legend of Korra. It’s not as common as bending earth, fire, or water but the rapidly evolving technology of that era in the ATLA world meant more lightning benders were needed.
This also opens up a lot of fascinating ideas for the ATLA universe. Where lightning bending was once seen as nearly exclusive to the royal class it could now be viewed as something to look down on, a technique for the lower class. Do the upper levels of Fire Nation society even practice lightning bending anymore? Are you seen as “lesser” for knowing how to do it? It still takes some skill, not every fire bender can do it, but perhaps some don’t want to for fear of being labeled as a lower class worker.
It’d be interesting to see any stories set far in the future after Korra as technology advances. Would even more lightning benders be needed? Would they find some other way to generate electricity? What happens to these lightning benders after years of work in these factories? Give us a sequel, Nickelodeon!