Most fans of Nickolodeon's animation will remember Book One of The Legend of Korra. It was an intensely divisive opening season for an intensely divisive series. I personally love Korra to death, flaws and all. Mainly because I absolutely love Korra herself. She's brash, badass, buff, brilliant beyond belief. I think she's an excellent character, and I will die on this hill. Also, she has a cool dog.
So, I'm not here to talk about Korra herself because it would boil down to a couple hours of me just saying "Damn, look at that MASCLE." Instead, I'm here to talk about the series' first main villain, Amon, who remains possibly the single most divisive antagonist in the series. While all of them have their disputes, except the universally-despised Unalaq, Amon is the one who usually brings the most debate, due to his status as the show's first main villain and the social conflict he brings to the series. To this day, there's debate over whether Amon is a good villain, whether he's cool or lame, whether his motives make any sense.
Well, I have time to waste and work to ignore, so let's talk about Amon!
We obviously have to start with the question: Who is Amon?
Amon is this cool masked, hooded dude. He leads a revolution of normal people against Benders. His revolution is a violent social movement which argues that Benders, people with the ability to control the elements of the world, are oppressing non-Benders due to their lack of powers, and have been for years. Amon claims to be blessed by the Spirits with the ability to remove Benders' Bending, an integral part of them that they have lived with their whole lives. Amon is willing to de-Bend people, and not only that, he will happily kill to achieve his goal. That said, first thing you need to know about Amon is that he's right.
The second is that he's full of shit.
One of the things that needs to go mentioned in any analysis of Amon is that he's not blessed by the Spirits at all; he's a Bender himself, a Waterbender and specifically a Bloodbender. His backstory, including the scars on his face from his supposed assault by a Firebender, are fake. Amon does have a tragic backstory, being the abused and tormented son of a powerful Bloodbender, turned to a borderline sociopath who hates Bending and uses Bloodbending to de-Bend others. He actually wins his final fight with Korra, de-Bending her temporarily, but she manages to Airbend him out a window, where his secret is exposed.
So, let's talk about him in a bit of depth, shall we?
Amon is right.
So, Amon's movement, a social movement, has obvious parallels with a lot of things. While, in society, we don't actually have people who can Bend elements, Amon has a point, as we are repeatedly shown. The police is composed primarily of Metalbenders, the City Council is composed entirely of Benders. When the time comes, the Council is more than happy to crack down on all non-Benders to get rid of Bending.
It's commonly debated what exactly Amon is supposed to represent. Marxism and Communism are the interpretations I personally prefer, as he's rallying an oppressed lower class against an upper one born into greater power. There have been arguments that he's an allegorical Adolf Hitler, that the Equalists are populist Nazis. There have been arguments that Amon is even a particularly harsh take on racial protest groups, although... well, to be blunt, the class divide is very clearly what the show focuses itself around in Book One. While there is an inherent race divide in that in real life, there... more or less isn't one, unless one considered "Bender" and "non-Bender" two distinct races, which I certainly don't.
Amon's not right to hate Bending or Benders, that's made clear. In the end, Amon is fundamentally a broken, fucked-up child whose father was a horrible abuser, with parallels to previous villain Azula rather clear. Amon chose to blame Bending for his troubles, feeling it was a curse due to his father's Bending-based abuse. Still, Amon definitely knows exactly what point he's making; he believes that Benders are oppressing innocent people, and he's right. The Equalists are violent, but there's inarguably a sort of French revolution, "eat-the-rich" point to their mentality.
Even Korra, who starts the series believing she has some omnipotent license on law and morality because she's Fantasy Jesus, even yelling to protesters things like "You're oppressing yourselves," gets beaten and humiliated repeatedly by Amon, eventually learning her lesson. Like everything Amon does, it's not good, but one could solidly argue that she never would have learned that lesson without someone entirely willing to teach it in a violent manner. In a way, Amon's villainy helps form Korra into more of a hero.
Amon is right that something needs to be done about the Bender oppression of the people, even if he's not entirely motivated by genuine care for the people. In the end, even the heroes accept his point, electing a non-Bender President and helping society work to change. Toph Beifong describes the series' villains as having good causes, but being completely imbalanced, and Amon epitomizes that idea. In the end, the idea of Amon wins out. The world starts being better due to his efforts, whether he was good or not. This leaves him one of animation's most complex villains, and Korra would only go on to continue this with Zaheer and Kuvira, both of whom do genuinely good things for the world despite their evil.
Amon isn't childishly simplistic.
One of the frequent accusations thrown toward Amon was that he was a "childishly simplistic" depiction of a social justice movement, being a vicious and evil figure. That said? Amon doesn't do evil shit for the sake of evil shit. Amon genuinely desires to wipe out all Bending. While the series does have a mis-step in using some... well, Nazi imagery, it frames him with Nazi imagery a few times, Amon is actually pretty damn complex.
A frequent criticism determined toward Amon was that in the end, his motive made no sense and wasn't revealed, with many feeling he was a motivationless evil. While I can stand most criticisms of the character as just being personal opinion, this is one that isn't. Tarrlok, Amon's own brother, the character most familiar with him, states that Amon genuinely believes in his cause. Amon genuinely, legitimately, believes Bending is the root of all evil. Short of having Amon himself say it, which, by the way, he's been doing from the start, the series spells out that Amon is a genuine believer in his cause, which has repeatedly been confirmed by the showrunners.
Amon genuinely sees Bending as the root of his childhood abuse. Some say "That doesn't make sense, he himself is a Bender!" For me, though, that's not where the questions begin, that's where they're answered.
Amon is rather openly creepy for a social justice advocate, ain't he? Of course he is. Amon's motivation isn't solely hatred of Bending-- he's so openly willing to frame himself as a monster because he himself is a Bender. He's using Bending to wipe out Bending, but it's clear to anyone paying attention that Amon hates himself for being a Bender. He's beautiful beneath that mask; Amon could have lived a normal life in a normal society, even as a Bloodbender, but he genuinely saw the cause.
Even his very end supports this. While there's debate about it, it's very heavily implied that Amon's last moments, in which he, having taken Tarrlok to start a new life, knew Tarrlok was about to pull a shocking murder-suicide. Amon knows he's evil, certainly. He simply believes he's a necessary evil; he's willing to do extremely cruel things, to frame himself as villainous because he sees himself that way. Amon's motives completely do make sense-- he wants to use the power he gained from abusive Bending training to bring down all Bending, to tear apart the society that he feels hurt him, and of course it's not made clear what he'll do once he's done that. He doesn't know.
So, I would argue that Amon is not only complex, he is exceptionally and tragically so. While he would set the stage for my personal favorite among the show's villains, Kuvira, who would essentially serve as a return to his form of well-intentioned extremism with her saving of the Earth Kingdom, Amon is an undeniably tragic figure.
Amon's anticlimactic end is perfect.
The other major thing people say about Amon is that he's anticlimactic. Unlike most villains in the show, Amon ultimately has no epic final battle. He has one brawl with Korra in a random building, wins, and is only outed by pure chance when Korra unlocks Airbending in a moment of adrenaline, which, no matter what angry fanboys tell you, is totally possible. (Spirituality and calm masters Airbending, Korra just needed that push to get rid of her mental block.)
The writers would ultimately overcompensate on that-- Book 2's finale is the worst finale in the series, but it contains probably the biggest setpiece in the series, ending with an epic laser kaiju fight. Since Amon got complaints for being anticlimactic, they made Unavaatu big as hell, which... can we get Amon and his anticlimactic death back?
Amon didn't need to be big, because the person Amon wasn't big. He was just a broken, nightmarishly brilliant man who rallied armies. Amon was a great Bender to be sure, but it didn't matter. In the end, Amon wasn't the point of the story, unlike Unalaq. Amon was never the issue. He was, in-universe, just a scary manifestation of a problem that went back throughout a society that has always prided itself on Bending mastery. Amon the person, when exposed, runs away from the crowd that has come to see him as a fraud.
Amon, of course, has a suitably tragic ending. He runs off with Tarrlok, who decides that they don't deserve redemption. The two perish at sea in a fiery death, never to be seen again. In the end, Amon, for all his power and charisma, was nothing but a blip in the world's radar. He was a little explosion at sea, spotted maybe by a passing sailor, and finally gone entirely. For all the heroes know, Amon is alive and waiting, ready to come back. It's a powerful moment, two victims of abuse sailing away to become nothing but dust in the wind.
In the end, Amon was, to some extent, a fraud. He was meaningless. But what he believed in wasn't. Thanks to Amon, society changes for the better. Amon the man died on that boat. Amon the idea lived forever.
Amon remains relevant today.
One of the most divisive things about Amon, years after the show's release, is his placement as a villain. Whether or not it was wrong to place a social justice advocate as a bad guy, whether or not it was right to frame him as they did. There's debate over whether he had a point, whether using violence completely deligitimized his point. This is often cited as why he is "badly written."
I say it's why he's well-written.
Amon is not meant to be someone you can get a completely objective reading on. We face today a societal crisis where the use of violence to prove points is still heavily debated. Where people, even those who do not support the violence, believe it's better that it's there since peace no longer works. There is no necessarily "right" stance in many of these situations. They're ugly, arguable, often violent. Much like the Council, which is composed mostly of the obviously evil Tarrlok and his yes-men, many social conflicts are a battle between revolutionaries who want to dethrone genuinely evil people and evil people who will do anything to keep their power. Sometimes, the more extreme fringes of both sides are willing to hurt the people in between.
Now, it's not perfect to portray Amon as they do. Altogether too often, he stoops to genuine lows that do bring him back into cartoon villain territory, just when the audience thinks he's gone to full realism. In the end, Korra, our hero, faces Amon, our villain, the one who threatens an oppressive society, and chooses to defend that oppressive society. Granted, Amon's super fucking evil, which is the classic of fiction. While it's not perfect, and could have been done better by all accounts, I will argue that its imperfections don't mean it completely lacks power. Amon makes a good point, and he makes it with violence. Whether it's okay to do that or not, whether it could be abided by in exchange for proving something righteous, all of that is muddy territory, and that's the point. We are shown civilians rooting for Amon, civilians who aren't his mask-wearing mooks, who just believe in what he's saying and want to see Bending oppression end. They don't go and fight the heroes, they don't commit evil acts. They simply feel that even the extremes he goes to can be justified by his cause, a sentiment which grows more popular today.
For the record, I still feel Amon handles his themes better than most of his ilk. Very often, series that bring that up just go "Eh, but the leader of the cause is bad, and the violence never did anything good, so they should go back to just asking nicely for perfect equality because the second someone uses violence they're literally a Nazi." (Which is always how that goes.) Korra goes with a more nuanced take: Amon is evil, but his cause wasn't. For all the Equalists did that was legitimately wrong, they also did prove a point that wouldn't have been proven otherwise. While, again, the parallels the series very deliberately makes with the Nazis is a serious flaw, it ultimately just uses the imagery because that's what cartoon villains do. For the record, beyond the Red Lotus, A:TLA and Korra use some level of realistic fascist imagery for all of its villainous factions, so the Equalists having elements of it is in my opinion less "Look, they're actual Nazis" and more "Eh, it's what we do."
And as for him not making a point? The Equalists still have a solid foundation of people who were rooting for them, me included. While I didn't necessarily want Amon to win in de-Bending the world, I genuinely wanted the Equalists to win in starting the resolving of Benders oppressing non-Benders. I feel the series gives him enough sympathy and credit in its story. While it could, of course, have been handled better, and with a lot less Nazi imagery, there are still fans you will see wearing Equalist patches and stating they believed in Amon, whether because they genuinely do or just because he's cool. He was more than just a cartoon villain. He was an idea.
Jesus, this is over 2000 words long. Anyways, yeah. Obviously, I'm a little biased here. I think Amon's fucking cool, I'm a pretty non-oppressed person, and if people who actually suffer from the social problems the show allegorically faces find Amon's portrayal offensive, it's their right to and nobody should dispute it or invalidate it.
Still, to me, Amon and the Equalists are one of the few sets of villains, especially in something supposedly aimed at children, to take a morally gray issue where their motives are objectively right and run with it. Even in entertainment aimed at adults, I find their handling of the issue so often falls into the idea that violence will never bring about any change, and that there should be no threat to society even if it's entirely necessary. Amon's cause, which can be an allegory for all number of real social causes, but especially lower-class rebellion, is a murky one.
Much like Amon himself, the show's handling of the idea is definitely flawed, but it's a worthy cause and a step forward compared to its peers. I hope someday, someone writing a childrens' cartoon decides to truly improve on the path Amon laid out. Till then, I'm your average guy-rooting-for-the-Equalists, Riley1sCool. Have a wonderful day.