When the melancholy strings of The Legend of Korra's end credit music began to play at the conclusion of the series' set of back-to-back episodes, "Welcome to Republic City" and "A Leaf in the Wind," I was left stunned, blown away by the sheer amount of drama packed into two half hours of Saturday morning cartoons. I immediately questioned my critical eye, pegging my adoration for the new show as a fanboyish relapse into the world of the show's predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Could a sequel cartoon series really be this powerful or was quintessential devotee projecting?
With last weekend's conclusion of Book One: "Air" (Airbender speak for Season One), I can look back and wake myself up. I wasn't confused at all: The Legend of Korra is really one of television's best shows.
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's Avatar mythology is akin to the Harry Potter series, beginning with Airbender, a kid-friendly hero's journey peppered with action, fleshed out characters, and a heap of emotion, and growing up with the audience into The Legend of Korra. Whereas Airbender felt like a Lord of the Rings for all ages, Korra scales down the scope, while upping the consequences, dropping us into a world seventy years in the future that's on the brink of an Industrial Revolution. Sure, there's magic and meditation and The Avatar (an reincarnated human imbued by spirits with the power to bend all four element types: water, fire, earth, and air), but the world of Korra balances it with technology, political strife, and criminal masterminding. Aang, the hero of Airbender, had a clear mission: defeat the big bad Fire Lord who was bent on controlling the world. In Korra, everything is a little bit hazier, a little more ambiguous, and a hell of a lot more terrifying. Yes, I'm talking about a Nickelodeon show.
With the release of Pixar's Brave this weekend, there's plenty of discussion on animated female characters and their portrayal in TV and movies. Certain characters may tiptoe towards true empowerment, but Korra blows them away. When we pick up with the titular hero (voiced by the lively Janet Varney), she's mastered three of the four elements and his headed to Republic City, the show's 1920s-ish, New York stand in that plays home base to the season's entire arc, to pick up one more skill: the spiritual technique of airbending. The move isn't too different from a teenager's transition to college — at the top of her game, Korra quickly realizes that being the Avatar earns her zero cred with her quiet but powerful airbending master Tenzin (portrayed with fatherly grace by the vet thespian J.K. Simmons), the police force that wishes she'd disappear, or the demanding population of Republic City that is on the brink of war. Besides having her own internal issues to deal with (Korra's a bit of a hot head — and not just when she's firebending), her status as a defender of peace puts her at the center of the city's (and the show's) main conflict.
There's a fissure forming in town, dividing the powerful bending community and the non-benders, who are too-often forced to step aside. Leading the "Equalist" movement from behind-the-scenes is Amon, a masked figure who plays puppetmaster to the non-benders, using propaganda and promises of a bending-free society to amass a militia. Korra's training is quickly interrupted by the reveal of Amon's greatest weapon: the ability to cleanse benders of their powers. In the third episode, "The Revelation," Amon strips a gangster of his firebending abilities with the touch of a finger. Korra's villain may not be murdering people in cold blood, but he might as well be — in the world of Avatar, your bending is your soul. Complicating Korra's balancing act is aggression from the other side of the struggle. Councilman Tarrlok stands alongside Tenzin in governing Republic City, but he's bent on keeping the Equalist forces squashed. He sends out task forces to arrest possible soldiers of the rebellion, attempts to blackmail Korra into aiding and eventually resorts to non-bender internment camps. These are not the sort of issues I had to deal with when I was seventeen.
What could have been political gobbledygook a la the Star Wars prequels is written by DiMartino and Konietzko with consistency, economy and truthfulness. Amon's actions are devastating — but not entirely unwarranted. That's heady material for a "kid's show," but Nickelodeon's faith the in the writing duo is clear with every episode. Anything can happen in Korra's exploration of Republic City and herself. In the fourth episode, Korra challenges Amon to a one-on-one battle to finish things once and for all. In any other show, we know the hero will walk away unscathed, if not successful. In The Legend of Korra, your wrenching gut would only be so lucky.
Korra isn't all about the dramatic shocks, delivering a wealth of comedy and excitement in its short run time (this season came in at a swift twelve episodes). New to the world of Avatar is the sport of Pro-Bending, where element manipulators of all types square off in teams for the amusement of cheering crowds. This is where Korra meets her companions: Mako (David Faustino), the brooding, firebending hero type, and Bolin (the side-splitting P.J. Byrne), his powerful earthbending brother who is never without a quip. The trio, as team Fire Ferrets, rise to the top of the Pro-Bending pack (a sport that has its own bittersweet taste — is this really how the spirits meant for people to be using their powers?) while becoming immersed in the underground workings of the Equalists, and entangling themselves romantic connections that inevitably form around hormonal teenagers. When Asami, the non-bending daughter of Republic City's most valuable innovator, becomes a financial backer for the Fire Ferrets, the core relationships get even messier. It may seem like it on the surface, but don't confuse the bunch for a young adult-lit love triangle. DiMartino and Konietzko craft a disturbingly accurate portrait of teen romance that's messy, confusing and, at times, altogether wonderful. The mushy stuff always plays as undertones — a style I wish some most live-action TV had the gravitas to pull off.
Great storytelling can only get you so far, but series directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu push the series into greatness with action filmmaking that's on par with any of this year's summer blockbusters. Mixing martial arts fights with expertly designed chase sequences and large scale battle scenes, the directing duo leave no opportunity untapped. When you have element-bending at your disposal, the possibilities are endless. Every episode features another ingenious use of adrenaline-infused animation; from police captain Lin Beifong's Spider-man-like attacks on Amon's airship fleet or an intimate battle between Korra and Amon's right-hand man, the electricity-enhanced Lieutenant, no show matches the intensity and grit of a Legend of Korra action sequence. As a cartoon junkie who grew up on X-Men, Batman, and a plethora of anime, Korra sets a new bar.
Nickelodeon does sport a handful of programs aimed directly at the young ones, but underestimating The Legend of Korra would be a mistake. The show is dense storytelling (having a foundation of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender is recommended, as events and characters are built upon in Korra), but an emotional watch, that confidently wrestles with the idea of loss, identity and responsibility. Calling The Legend of Korra a cartoon feels derogatory — the show never panders to any age group. Instead, it presents an adventure that will have a person of any age gasping, laughing and howling at the screen at its most badass of moments. Animation has the unique ability to present whatever the imagination conjures up. Even after one season, The Legend of Korra is inches away from that unreachable threshold.
Now, back to my meditation. Who knows how long it will take for Book Two to begin?
You can find Books One, Two and Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender all on Netflix Watch Instantly. The Legend of Korra is available on iTunes and Nickelodeon streaming. For more detailed recaps of the episodes, check out the Republic City Dispatch podcast.
[Photo Credit: Nickelodeon]