I am so over the moon excited about The Legend of Korra that I think I might burst. I want to let you know, without any hyperbole, that I think Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the five greatest shows ever made. The other four are Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, Gilmore Girls and Firefly, I think—that last one might be Buffy or Angel or even Battlestar Galactica depending on the weather, but Avatar: the Last Airbender ain’t budging off the list no way, no how. I think the only reasonable comparison to Avatar: the Last Airbender are the Studio Ghibli films, and I think the parallels are flattering to both.
Complicated storytelling using the strengths of the animated medium? Yes please. You saw the Faith Erin Hicks comic, right? I’m basically like that. You probably are to, so you know what I mean. I’m going to be your friendly neighborhood The Legend of Korra for the next glorious few months, so I thought it might be a good idea to start of playing catch up, since I’m already three episodes behind! Yes, I watched “Welcome to Republic City” and “A Leaf in the Wind,” when they were first released online, of course I did, did I mention my crazy obsessive passion? I think I did.
I don’t think it hit me just how displaced from the first series The Legend of Korra was until I saw “Gran Gran” Katara’s lingering looks at Korra at the start of “Welcome to Republic City,” and until she casually mentioned Sokka being dead. Sokka? Is dead? That that it didn’t occur to me that could even happen. I will say this: they better find Sokka’s meteoric iron “space sword” stuck in a rock like Excalibur over the course of series. When it fell during the last episode that was all I could think—oh, random treasure for some later adventurers! and the first episode—from the incredible “I’m the Avatar! You gotta deal with it!” baby to the epic hug Korra gives Tenzin and his children—is about establishing Korra, how she is different from Aang and how she isn’t. The art direction really shines on the latter point; Korra is radically different from Aang except in her body language. Every so often she slips into the same poses we’d expect from the impish Airbending Avatar who preceded her. It is a brilliant visual shorthand for a complicated concept—using Korra’s posture to telegraph reincarnation on a subtle intuitive level? Wow.
“A Leaf in the Wind” (is that a Firefly reference?) establishes the supporting cast in much the same way that the first episode established Korra and her polar bear dog Naga. Remember how Harry Potter dragged out Snape’s storyline over the course of seven books? Oh, he’s a strict teacher, but he has a good heart! Well, Aang’s son Tenzin wraps that story up in the first couple of episodes. The Legend of Korra doesn’t patronize the viewer; of course the stern Airbending Master has depths and a complex psychology, doesn’t every one? We also get the bending brothers Mako—named in honor of Uncle Iroh’s voice actor— and Bolin.
I can only assume the two of them come from a multicultural family, since Bolin bends earth and Mako is a firebender; they’re the legacy of the Fire Nation Colonies. It shows the degree of thought that goes into the cosmology and mechanics of bending Avatar: the Last Airbender answered a lot of questions about the hows of bending, and Korra continues that tradition. Aang and Katara’s children reflect their heritage as well—Kya the waterbender, Bumi the non-bender and Tenzin the airbender. Can I say, as a side note, that I was puzzled as to who Tenzin was named after for a bit? Kya is obviously after Katara’s mother, Bumi after Aang’s friend, but I thought they’d name their airbending kid after Monk Gyatso. Then I figured it out—the Dalai Lama is named “Tenzin Gyatso.” Ah ha!
Lastly, since I stirred up a minor kerfuffle with my Modest Proposal For Increased Diversity in DandD and the M. Night Shyamalan The Last Airbender movie created a lot of legitimate controversy with its white-washing of the cartoon—leading to the creation of the term “racebending” as popularized by Racebending.com—I think it bears mention that the diversity of the Four Nations is just astounding. I am hard pressed to think of a television show that rivals it. Skin tones run the gamut from pale to dark and the cultural references are pulled from a wide variety of non-Western sources. Pacific Islanders, Inuit, Feudal and Imperial Japan, Australian aborigines, a smorgasbord of Chinese dynasties, Tibetan Buddhism well, I could be here all day listing the complex and layered universe built in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The Legend of Korra takes that well-realized setting and then evolves it, following the trends of the first series and taking cultural developments to their logical conclusion, again widening the circle of potential influences to include turn of the century America. Republic City is Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, New Orleans—it is every great metropolis, and ever city’s underbelly, run through a steampunk filter. The giant Aang statue echoes the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Liberty—the Statue of Liberty being the same height as that ancient wonder was reputed to be—and the park is a mash-up of Central Park and London’s Hyde Park. The aerial warships and tanks of the first series have given way to dirigibles and automobiles—sorry, satomobiles—in Republic City, and the cutting edge techniques of metalbending and lightningbending are part and parcel of how the world works, now. Pro-bending is the sport of choice—the mysticism of the first series given way to pragmatism and perhaps cynicism—and the driving force lurking in the background is the class warfare between the bending “haves” and mundane “have-nots.” I have to say, I’m curious to see where the show takes it.