Thursday, January 29, 2015

Things That I Love: The Legend of Korra, Revisited (Part One)

Beware of spoilers...

When I did my first review for The Legend of Korra, I had seen only Book One and had no previous exposure to the Avatar universe.  What little I knew about Avatar: The Last Airbender came from the Nostalgia Critic review praising the series while rightfully ripping on the movie adaptation.  Now I come with a richer perspective, having having watched both series in their entirety, and I have one thing to say:


Just kidding.  I do want to talk about that, but it can wait.  First I want to focus on what else made The Legend of Korra such a memorable show.


I already gave basic background about the Avatar universe in my previous review.  Both Avatar series are set in a world parallel to our own, divided into four nations based on the elements: earth, fire, air, and water.  Inhabitants of these nations who can manipulate an element are known as "benders."  The Avatar is the only one who can manipulate all four elements, as well as the only one who gets glow-eyed super strength at pivotal moments.  When the Avatar dies, he or she is reborn in the next nation in the element cycle.  So after Avatar Aang, an Air Nomad, died, he was reborn as Avatar Korra, a member of the Water Tribes.  When Korra dies, she'll be reborn as a member of the Earth Kingdom/Empire/Republic, which, given the state of its politics at the end of the series, should be interesting.

Whereas in his series, Aang was a peaceful individual who dreaded the thought of fighting and killing Fire Lord Ozai, Korra begins her series ready to kick some ass.  She has been sheltered at a compound in the Southern Water Tribe for 17 years, finally leaving for Republic City to train in air bending with Tenzin, Aang's younger son.  In Republic City, The Legend of Korra's version of New York or Tokyo or Some Big City, Korra has her first rude awakening at the hands of Amon, a blood bender determined to achieve equality by eliminating all bending.  Though Korra would eventually regain her bending ability, this was just the first challenge to her existence.  In Season Two, her uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, would try to eclipse her by becoming a dark Avatar.  In Season Three, a gang of anarchic super-benders led by Zaheer would attempt to kill Korra and destroy the Avatar cycle with the goal of restoring the world to its "natural" state.  Finally, in Season Four, Kuvira, ruler of the Earth Empire, would view Korra (by this time nearly destroyed mentally and physically by Zaheer) as no match for her vast military or SWOMD (spirit weapon of mass destruction).

Through it all, Korra would survive and learn, including that her enemies' goals were not always bad.  She would open spirit portals that had been closed for 10,000 years, allowing spirits to move among humans and for air bending powers to make a resurgence.  By the end, she would even freaking create her own spirit portal by energy bending Kuvira's massive spirit ray.  And even as Korra's feats become progressively more amazing, she grows humbler and more circumspect, admitting to Tenzin that she still wants to learn more while gazing across the water at the massive spirit portal she created.  Many fans of both Avatar series view Korra as weaker than Aang, but by the end, I would say it's at least a draw.  

Korra vs. Aang

Technically, there should be no contest between the two Avatars, since they are the same person.  Yet most fans of the series fall into the trap of comparing the series and their characters.  Avatar: The Last Airbender was the "great" series because it was planned over three 20-episode seasons and could progress at a steady pace, while The Legend of Korra failed for being a 12-episode miniseries unexpectedly expanded by three more seasons and then jerked around by its corporate parent, Nickelodeon.  Aang was a better Avatar for being wiser at the age of 12 than Korra was at 17 (even though Aang ran away from his Avatar duties and wound up frozen in an iceberg for 100 years).  Avatar: The Last Airbender was a "simpler" show than The Legend of Korra, with more black and white and less gray.

The shows and characters elude such easy type casting.  For instance, the "simpler" show featured a character who lost his entire culture in a holocaust; an heir to the throne who lost his only son, then his place in the succession, and somehow managed to come out stronger; a character who witnessed her mother's brutal death; and a character whose father burnt off half of his face on purpose.  Any of the backstory moments of Aang, Iroh, Katara, and Zuko trump the love triangle between Korra, Asami, and Mako.  At the same time, you could argue that Korra, on a whole, is the grittier, grayer show.  It's the only show that actually shows people dying on screen.  Its villains often make more sense than the heroes, and are sometimes easier to root for (a sizable contingent prefers Zaheer, Amon, or Kuvira to Korra).  It examines social problems that are only hinted at in Avatar: The Last Airbender, such as tensions between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, or massive inequality in the Earth Kingdom.  Far from suggesting that everything after Aang ended the Hundred Years' War was unparalleled bliss, Korra showed that some of Aang's solutions ended up resulting in more problems.

That said, there are certain things one show does better than the other.  Though Avatar's animation is pretty good, Korra's can be mind-boggling.  Avatar has an arguably stronger core cast in Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph (not to mention Zuko), than Korra does in Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami.  Korra has the arguably stronger supporting cast with Lin Beifong, Tenzin and his family, and Varrick and Zhu Li, than Avatar does even with Iroh and Azula's posse included.  While Korra's villains are generally more complex and interesting than Avatar's one-dimensional Ozai, the villain scale is nearly balanced by the presence of Azula.  With her combination of mental issues, feelings of abandonment, and genius both as a bender and as a tactician, she's the one villain you almost wish would get away with taking over the entire world.  

You can compare these series forever, but ultimately, when makes each series so great is that the other exists.  Would we care as much about the pressures Tenzin faces as Aang's only air bending child if we didn't know about Aang's tragic backstory?  Would Toph's metal bending seem quite as awesome in the original series if we didn't know the heights it would reach in Korra, especially Season Four?  Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra make each other richer.  Thus, though I'm going to talk primarily about Korra, I will inevitably weave in discussion of the previous series.

Next Time: An examination of Korra's awesomeness in Part Two, some areas where it could have been stronger, and oh yes, The Ending... 

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  

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