Threepenny Thursday – The Legend of Korra

19 Jul

Here it is: the natural progression; the logical next step; the inevitable sequel. It’s been a week, and I’m sure you’ve spent that time wisely. You have? Oh good. Now that you’ve seen Avatar: The Last Airbender (I know, awesome, right??), there’s a question that’s burning in your heart. Should you watch the highly-anticipated follow-up series, The Legend of Korra? Will your fandom be vindicated? Can it really rise to the incredible standard set by the adventures of Aang and his pals?

(Author’s note: I realize that the only person who’s asking these questions is me, and that it’s myself who’s answering them in some twisted schizophrenic two-sided Gollum conversation, and that you’re really not even part of the process, but hey, nice of you to drop by! There’s some scones on the table there, help yourself. They’re not very good scones, honestly, I just picked them up at Loblaws in a moment of weakness. I regret the decision deeply and I’m trying to assuage my guilt by watching you swallow it into your stomach. You don’t even like scones, do you. Seriously, what are you even doing here?)

Listen, it’s pretty awesome. You should watch it.

The Legend of Korra is set seventy years after the story of Aang, and follows the rise of the next Avatar: a seventeen year old Waterbender named Korra. By the time the series begins, she has already mastered Waterbending, Earthbending, and Firebending – but, as every Avatar knows, the element which represents the opposite of the one native to you is the most difficult to grasp, and for Korra that’s Airbending. When we meet her, she is tough and talented and eager, but she can’t muster even a puff of air. That’s okay because, just like her predecessor, she still has much to learn.

Avatar Aang brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the Four Nations during his life, and the shining beacon of this newly united world was a place called Republic City. This is where the lion’s share of action happens in The Legend of Korra, and I have to say it’s one of the best things about the show. Republic City is an enthralling steampunk metropolis, described by the show’s creators as “what if Manhattan had happened in Asia”; a retro-futuristic world of zeppelins and motorcars humming alongside oil-burning lamps and steam-powered trains. I thought it was a really creative stroke to evolve the mystical Asian culture of Avatar into a new setting, and I’m happy to say that the sight of monocled top-hatted Chinese gentlemen shooting flames from their hands feels perfectly natural.

Okay, so we’ve established the setting is good – what about the characters? Well, Korra is perhaps not quite as endearing as the breezy and irrepressible Aang, but her voice acting is great and she’s undeniably easy on the eyes. You can shove that impending jibe right back in your throat, by the way, I know each and every single one of you has thought a cartoon character was hot at one point in your life, get the fuck over it already. Korra’s sexy, moving on.

Aang’s spirit animal was the absolutely pimptastic flying bison Appa, and Korra’s is a polar bear-dog named Naga. She’s all right; but comparing anything to Appa is like comparing a pile of shit to the best steak dinner you’ve ever had. Sorry, but it doesn’t matter how impressively large your pile of shit is, it’s still a pile of shit. Naga does fine, is the point, and can handle herself nicely in a scrap, but we aren’t given time to grow to love her.

Korra‘s antagonist was a pleasant surprise, managing to be intimidating and scary and also presenting a very real threat for our heroes to forestall. He’s a non-bender named Amon who hides behind a menacing mask and leads an anti-bending revolution. He’s voiced by Steve Blum, whom I knew from Cowboy Bebop, which is awesome; and I won’t say any more about any of that at risk of spoiling something.

Other major supporting characters include Korra’s Airbending teacher Tenzin, played by the ever-agreeable J. K. Simmons, who is Aang’s youngest son. He’s stern but kind, and offers wisdom and amusing exasperation at Korra’s wilfulness in equal measure. There’s also Bolin and Mako, an Earthbender and a Firebender respectively. They’re brothers who make a living as professional “pro benders”, participating as bending athletes in Republic City’s national stadium sport. Bolin fills Sokka’s shoes as the bumbling comic relief, and Mako (named for the untouchable Mako Iwamatsu, who provided the voice of Iroh in Avatar, and who died during the production of that series) provides the smouldering popped-collar love interest. They’re all capable fighters and reasonably likeable, and if I’m honest it’s nice to see some central characters who are a little older. The trio have a solid chemistry which helps buoy up the show’s messier spots.

Speaking of which – we arrive at probably the only gripe I have: pacing. It’s pretty clear to me that when they were making Korra they weren’t sure they would survive into a second season, so they tried to cram as much as possible into twelve episodes, to my chagrin and to the detriment of the story. The whole pro-bending thing is great, but I think it would fit much more naturally as a second-season sideplot, helping to flesh Bolin and Mako out into real characters. As it stands, it takes up valuable time which would be better used to focus on Korra. There are also secondary and tertiary characters who provide subplots of their own, and eventually it all gets a bit muddled. If the season had lasted for around twenty episodes like Avatar (whose pacing is second to none), then that may have even fixed the problem. As it stands, they’ve been signed on for three more seasons, so I have no doubt we’ll get the chance to see things properly supplemented with background and development. I have high hopes.

The Legend of Korra presented us with a darker and more inventive world, more complex and mature themes, some truly kick-ass action, and a hint of awe-inspiring things to come. Once the time is taken to build some characters that are as strong as the show’s other elements, I think Korra has the potential to someday match its predecessor. And that’s something that Korra herself strives for – I hope she gets a chance to do it.

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