Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra


I’ve heard some people denounce Avatar: The Last Airbender as nothing but a feeble attempt by American cartoonists to create an anime series.  To these people, I would defend the show as one of the best original series that Nickelodeon has aired in quite some time, and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, is looking to be the best show currently airing on the network.  This, of course, is ignoring the live-action M. Night Shyamalan movie adaptation that I’m sure many people would like to forget. 

For those of us who grew up in Nickelodeon’s heyday, the changes that the network has taken over the past decade or so have been painful to watch.  Unless you get up early in the morning, Spongebob is going to be one of the only cartoons you’ll actually see on the channel anymore, and even that is just aired in segments between live-action shows of the same recycled characters siphoning the style of humor that was done so well by Drake and Josh, and completely wasting it on terrible versions of what’s really just the same show. 

Now that I got that rant out of the way, let’s move on to Avatar (the element benders, not the blue Native Americans in space).  First, let me get this out of the way by saying I love the hell out of The Last Airbender, and I have also been thoroughly enjoying the sequel.  I want to focus on The Legend of Korra in this review, so I’ll only say a few things about its predecessor.  Mainly, I’d like to say that it is not just an American rip-off of the anime genre.  The show was much more than its visual style, and that’s saying a lot considering how beautiful the show was.  It also had a cultural and historical depth that is unmatched by probably any series Nickelodeon has ever aired.  Borrowing heavily from East Asian (especially Chinese) cultural aesthetics, as well as Buddhist and martial arts philosophies that lend a tremendous amount of, for lack of a better word, accuracy to this fantasy world, The Last Airbender was surprisingly deep considering the age of the target audience.

The Legend of Korra keeps up this strength of historical atmosphere building, but this time with a twist.  Instead of the classic Asian-inspired environments, the sequel, set 70 years after the original, takes place in the 1920s steam-punk Republic City, designs for which are reminiscent of real-life 1920s Shanghai, Manhattan, Hong Kong, and Vancouver.  Except for a brief period at the Southern Water Tribe in the first episode, the show has taken place solely in Republic City.  This new location is just one of the ways that The Legend of Korra distinguishes itself as its own entity.  Other than a much older Katara, there have been no returning characters.  Considering the time lapse between the two series, this is to be expected.  The lack of returning characters allows The Legend of Korra to work on its own merits, but there are inevitable references to characters from The Last Airbender that returning fans will recognize, as well as other elements (pun intended) from Aang’s adventures that provide plenty of fan service.  There are flying bison, metal and lightning benders, chi-blocking, air ships, members of the White Lotus Society, references to older characters such as Toph, Sokka, and of course, Aang.  Also, there are rumors of returning references to the Cabbage Merchant, which I am very much looking forward to.

What the show also has are cars, professional bending tournaments, bending triads, and a society that is still recovering from the emotional damages of the 100 year war.  In Republic City, these emotional scars have boiled over into the Equalist Movement whose goal is to end the supposed discrimination and suppression of non-benders by the “bending elite.”  This is a very interesting route to go for the main conflict in The Legend of Korra, as the relationship between benders and non-benders is something that was barely addressed, if at all, in The Last Airbender.  It’s also a good conflict for the changing environment of the Avatar universe.  Much like the modern United Nations, the four nations of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water have come together in post-war peace, which means that another conflict between different kinds of benders wouldn’t make much sense.  In this new world, the very act of element bending is becoming obsolete with advances in technology.  With the ability to bend no longer being as influential of a power as it once was, this premise for the new conflict was a smart move.

If there was one thing that I could complain about, it would be the pacing of each episode.  The plot of each episode so far has started off steady enough, but it seems like by the end, they’re rushing to get in everything that they wanted to cover.  It doesn’t help that the first season is only slated to be 12 episodes, while the first season of The Last Airbender had the luxury of stretching over a span of 20 episodes.  While the endings for The Legend of Korra can feel a little rushed at times, everything else is solid enough that I’m willing to overlook this. 

There’s a lot more I could say about this show, but this post is already getting pretty long.  So far, my impression of the series is that it’s going to be a good one.  Because of restrictions in length, I don’t think that Korra will reach the same level of depth that made The Last Airbender such a great show.  However, nothing is stopping it from becoming a very worthy addition to the world of Avatar.     

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