Oct 03 2013
Two weeks ago was the premiere of the long-awaited second season of the sequel to Nickelodeon’s epic animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Forgive the tardiness, but it kind of snuck up on me. Avatar was and is arguably the best thing that Nickelodeon has ever produced and stands out like a sore thumb on a network whose usual goal is making the stupidest cartoons possible for children and then sneaking inappropriate adult humor into them. But this one was uniformly well-written, gorgeously animated, and featured an unforgettable cast, exceptional philosophical themes, and a creativity and attention to detail that made it a perfect show for both younger and older audiences without pandering to either.
Fans were naturally excited when a sequel miniseries was announced. Instead of taking the easy way and coasting on previous success, the creative team made a bold move, setting the show two generations after the events of the original series. In the meantime, the classic feudal-era fantasy setting of The Last Airbender had evolved into a modern society resembling early 20th century culture with a steampunk twist. The episode intros were shown as old-timey moving picture news clips and even the show’s music incorporated early jazz and swing to supplement the classical Asian themes. To say I was impressed with this move would be an understatement.
As strong a concept as The Legend of Korra was, it had a lot to live up to, and a lot of fans don’t think it did. Even with the exceptional visual style, a more adult protagonist who was already a badass, and a socially relevant, sophisticated plot something was missing. So while watching the two-episode season premiere, I think I finally put my finger on why Korra isn’t quite sitting right in spite of doing everything right.
It’s the characters, plain and simple. Korra has a pretty good cast overall. But The Last Airbender had an amazing one. There’s nobody on the villains’ side you kind of love like Iroh or Ty Lee, and there’s nobody as delightfully psychotic as Azula. The first season’s big bad, Amon, was a sympathetic villain in that he was a mission of equality for all people so you could respect him even though his methods went too far. But did you love him? Hell no; he was cold as ice.
The heroes have a similar problem. Mako as the firebending love interest is just plan dull, and his brother Bolin is a decent comic relief, but isn’t nearly as memorable as his predecessor Sokka in that capacity. Korra herself is…well….she’s kind of an unlikable brat. Great for a character arc and a coming of age story, but her headstrong naiveté is often abrasive which makes her unable to sell the show’s charms by herself. My favorite member of “Team Avatar” is Korra’s romantic rival Asami, who excels in spite of being a non-bender and coming from a pampered upbringing. And she got done dirty by the inescapably hackneyed cliché of the “hero” always getting the girl/boy. Weak.
The supporting cast certainly has its moments, but I can’t help but notice that my interest level rises during the show’s frequent trips down memory lane where they fill in pieces of backstory from past decades featuring the cast of The Last Airbender as adults. I don’t think I’m the only one, either. A large portion of the adult cast in present day is filled with the children of the original cast as well, and even Katara is still kicking around as a Water Tribe village elder so Korra is making an almost constant effort to remind you of how cool The Last Airbender was.
The Legend of Korra was originally meant as a mini-series, but was extended to four seasons by Nickelodeon in spite of the show’s creators’ desire to go back to the original series to make feature length films -which have since been released in comic form instead. This doesn’t really bode well for future seasons, but they are talented enough to pull it off. The first episodes of the new season have convinced me of that much.
The crux of the first season was a tale of grey morality. In Republic City, elemental benders run the show and non-benders are second hand citizens. Naturally, the non-benders aren’t down with this and are fixing to fight for their rights in revolt, led by the terrorist Amon. Everybody loves equality, but our heroes in this show happen to be benders, which is awesome because it shows that not all (or even most) of the perceived oppressors are actually oppressors and that the oppressed are just as capable of bigotry from their end. One of my favorite sayings is that if you can’t see both sides of an issue, you don’t understand the issue, and Korra embodied that there is good and bad on both sides of the fence very well. They also avoided repeating themselves by having Korra already a master of most elements at the seasons’ start so they could really focus on the philosophical evolution of the Avatar series as a whole.
Rather than repeat the cycle of the first season again, the premiere right off the bat showed that they were going in a whole different direction with a whole new worldview. Instead of learning about elements, Korra is on the path to spirituality. In the first episode, that comes about with the arrival of corrupted spirits in the form of monsters. If you know anything at all about me, know that I love monsters more than almost anything else.
Pretty much my reaction.
In addition to the creature aspect, there’s a new moral dilemma for the new Avatar to face as well as she has to choose between her old airbending teacher and an uncle from the Northern Water Tribe who appears to be able to control these spirits and desires to teach Korra about the ways of the spirit realm. It seems obvious to Korra what she needs to do, but there is a note of religious fanaticism in the newcomer’s mannerisms that put me ill at ease.
From the look of it, war is going to bare its ugly head for the first time in decades and Korra appears ill-prepared to do anything about it. Sure, she has mastered the Avatar state, but she is still immature enough to use it primarily to cheat while competing with children. Korra was always a beast when it came to bending…
…but it takes more than combat capabilities to bring peace. A lot more. But being able to blast fire out of your hands while riding a friggin’ tornado is a handy skill too, so let’s not scoff at Korra’s peacemaking abilities just yet. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of cause for that later. The fact that Korra’s own family is at the center of the conflict adds to the mounting tension as well so get ready for some drama.
One thing I’ve noticed in the first few episodes of the new season is that the writing has improved and the adult characters are really coming into their own; a really good sign. The new characters are meshing well with the existing cast, so it really feels like an already killer show is hitting its stride.
I think I may be looking forward to the rest of season 2 more than I did season 1 at this point, so let’s hope Legend of Korra continues to improve and evolve so that it can stand proudly beside its parent show at the pinnacle of American animated television.
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