Animation Wednesday: The Legend of Korra
This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a regular column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.
As you may recall, I’m a pretty big fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series. So when I heard that Nickelodeon would be airing a sequel series, set 70 years after the original, I was equal parts excited and nervous. There weren’t any glaring problems. The creators who worked on the original series were all coming back, and the integrity of the project hadn’t been affected by the abysmal movie adaptation. But one of the strongest things about the series was the fact that it had a beginning, middle and end, and that the story followed a logical progression dictated by story needs, as opposed to being used to sell things. This new series would need a strong sense of place, interesting, relatable characters, and a compelling conflict to live up to the standard set by A:TLA.
Well, four episodes into The Legend of Korra, and I can pretty confidently state that it doesn’t only live up to the standard, it may actually exceed it. The Legend of Korra is a beautiful, intriguing series which firmly stands on its own while referencing the greater framework of the Avatar universe. There’s plenty in it to reward old fans, but it’s accessible enough for new viewers to jump on.
The Legend of Korra is set three quarters of a century after the events of the original series. Avatar Aang has died, and the current incarnation of the Avatar is a headstrong Water Tribe teenager named Korra. Korra has mastered all forms of bending with the exception of airbending, so she travels to Republic City, a thriving metropolis founded by Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Zuko after the war, to learn from Aang’s son, Tenzin. Once there, she discovers a passion for a combat sport called pro-bending, and runs afoul of a movement called the Equalists, a revolutionary group led by a masked man named Amon which seeks to end “the tyranny of benders.”
There are a number of similarities between the two shows, but The Legend of Korra does a great job of breaking away from its precedent. Republic City is much more advanced than anything before, and technologically and culturally is analogous to the 1920s in America, albeit partially bending-powered. (I’ve seen the term “steampunk” floated around to describe it, but since I think that’s one of the stupidest, most overused and most misused aesthetic descriptions ever, I’m gonna avoid it.) The problems of the war with the Fire Nation, namely imperialism and jingoism, are a thing of the past, but in their place, poverty and class inequality have arisen. This show tells a different kind of story with a different kind of setting.
It also features a different kind of Avatar. Korra is almost the opposite of Aang; headstrong, proactive, and bold, she would’ve been ideally suited to battling against the Fire Nation. Here, however, she’s out of her depth. Korra’s great at going on the offensive, but when she has to deal with the root causes of discontent, she falls flat. Her journey to master airbending, and with it patience and pragmatism, mirrors Aang’s struggle to learn the aggression and decisiveness necessary to master firebending.
The supporting cast is stellar too. Most off the primary characters are teenagers or adults, which lends a greater weight to some of the premise. Korra’s pro-bending teammates, Mako and Bolin, have seen firsthand what it’s like to grow up facing crime and poverty. Tenzin has been a member of the council which governs Republic City for a long time, and he’s watched it fall short of his father’s ambitions. Even Amon faced tragedy at a young age which informs his decisions and drives him to commit the acts he does. (I’m just gonna take a minute to talk about how awesome Amon is. From his mask to Steven Blum’s amazing vocal performance, he is a super compelling character. So far the show has put him front and center, as opposed to using proxy villains like the first two seasons of A:TLA, and I hope they keep it up.) The characters not only bring out different sides to one another, but different views and opinions on the world they live in.
My one minor quarrel is with how the world has developed. Republic City has automobiles, radio, and instant film. It’s not that these couldn’t have developed in the time since the war (the Fire Nation already had antecedents to most of these technologies in the original series, they were just limited to military use), it’s that they developed along overly familiar (and Western) lines. I understand that the show is in part a metaphor for the rise of Communism in the Jazz Age. But in a world where people can shoot fire and make rocks fly around with their minds, I don’t know if they would have developed internal combustion engines, and then put them in cars which look pretty similar to our own.
But that’s kind of splitting hairs. The Legend of Korra is a fantastic show in its own right, and a worthy successor to the greatest animated series of all time. New episodes air on Nickelodeon on Saturdays at 11 a.m., and are posted on the website pretty quickly after that. If you only watch one cartoon on TV right now, you should probably make it this one.