A few years ago my roommate at the time introduced me to Nickelodeon Pictures’ animated series Avatar: The Last Air Bender. I was completely floored. What had seemed like a popular children’s story turned out to be a genuinely excellent adventure. The story was compelling without being overly preachy. The martial arts and fight choreography superlative. The story had great character arcs, and while it remained a children’s story there was enough depth and meaning to the tale that adults could enjoy it readily. It wouldn’t be unfair to compare it to a Daoist Chronicles of Narnia. There was demand for more among the fans, and among my friends, but like all truly excellent stories it had a genuine ending. I read or listen to the Narnia books every year or so, and I expect to do the same to Avatar
(I will not dignify M. Night Shyamalan’s movie adaptation, which deserves to join Highlander 2 as one of the most-ignored films of all geekdom.)
So when Nickelodeon returned to the world of Avatar with the next generation’s story, I bought a copy of The Legend of Korra on DVD.
I admit that I had some trepidation when I bought the story as I am whenever I engage a sequel. There’s so much love for the original that could be ruined by the idea of what comes next.
For the first two episodes I still wasn’t sure. Creators and directors Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko stated from the beginning that they were going to age the series to acknowledge their more mature fans of the first series while still producing a quality children’s television. I thought this was doubling down on the sequel danger, but they manage to pull it off.
The difference is clear from the very beginning. The initial episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender introduced the story problems with bold, unsubtle strokes. Korra gives us an episode or two to adapt to the world before introducing the real danger of the story. That was even bolder considering the directors’ decision to tell shorter story arcs instead of one immense tale over three years. Once again the gamble paid off. The late 19th-century steampunk world of Avatar has grown up along with its fans into a pre-World War I twentieth century vision. Every idea from the original series has developed logically into a new modern age.
The characters are strong, and while the voice acting isn’t exceptional, it is solid and respectable. I personally preferred the more traditional fighting styles of the earlier series, but it is both logical and story-appropriate that the blending of cultures in an urban setting would give birth to new hybrid styles, much as the rise of Krav Maga and MCMA took place in the real world.
Older casting provides for more open romance than the early-adolescent half-thrilled half-terrified moments from the original series, which is something of a relief. It’s even more relieving that the character arcs are more nuanced as well. Professional sports bending is an animated treat and a fascinating concept right up there with Square Enix’s blitzball in Final Fantasy X.
I enjoyed a new avatar who is a foil in almost every way to Aang. Aang was barely growing up, and Korra is nearly a woman. Aang had always had the spiritual wisdom of the ages and struggled with the physical side of bending. Korra has had three elements at her command from childhood, but is spiritually myopic. Like all great heroes they have their great flaws. Aang wanted desperately to be able to just be a kid. Korra has the black-and-white brashness of an older teen, so sure they know how to fix the world and so frustrated when the simple answers don’t work out the way they should.
Once again the series returns with a stellar supporting cast of unique characters, sympathetic in their own right. The season one villain turns out to be as damaged and pressured as Zuko from the original, in his own way.
It was rewarding that the story grows largely out of the victories of the first series, and the unexpected consequences of those victories. Korra lets us see that our former friends from the first series defined several generations to come, and that is greatly rewarding. Their children are their own people, not just re-boots of their parents, which was well done.
Book One: Air asks much more modern questions about love, finances, the power of government, and the true meaning of equality. It’s something of a stock conundrum in fantasy story lines. How do you justly rule when a small percentage is born with so much more power than the others? Do you tear them down and destroy them? Do you ignore their power? Do you place them in command? How do you have equality under the law for such differently able people?
Once again the Avatar crew refuses to offer swift and easy answers, just some answers, and some bad ones.
The good themes from Avatar: The Last Airbender continue largely unchanged in The Legend of Korra. Loyalty to friends, hard work and dedication, and even the ability to love and sacrifice for those who cannot give us what we want from them. Plus, it’s elemental magic martial arts steampunk. It’s just freaking cool!
Make no mistake. Both Avatar and Korra are blatantly pagan and oriental. Reincarnation, chi, destinies, and all of the staples of that culture are present. But I enjoy the story anyway.
I am never so grateful for the Lord who made us equal in his sight than after watching a story about people created fundamentally superior and inferior. Presented with the endless cycle of battle for balance from oriental philosophy, where an endless string of messiahs must not fail the world, I am grateful for the Messiah who won the victory once and for all. As the story unfolds and the powers of magic are given and taken away from characters, I am never more grateful for the Spirit of God that dwells in and among us, and the promise of salvation that no one can take away.
So I recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender for those who can embrace a children’s story. I recommend The Legend of Korra for those even slightly young at heart, because there’s enough in there for adults as well. And I recommend the Bible to go for the ultimate answers that these excellent series cannot answer.
The Legend of Korra is strongly recommended.