Avatar is kind of a perfect series. Not every episode is great, and not every character moment works, but once you roll credits on the final episode it feels like a fully completed, well structured epic. It didn’t need any additional seasons or episodes (just a slew of graphic novels) to tell the story and explore the themes they wanted to explore. That makes it an impossible task to try and head any continuation, spiritual or otherwise, and there have been many attempts. The first was a direct sequel, The Legend of Korra.
In the wake of it all coming out it is easy to forgot it was just going to be a 12 episode mini-series that was pushed into being a full series later in development. That will cause interesting complications as we’ll get to later on, but we’re not there yet. No, we are at the very first attempt to succeed Avatar with Book One: Air for The Legend of Korra.
The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, if you need a refresher or just didn’t know, follows the next Avatar after Aang, Korra, a hyper-talented bender who must travel to Republic City to master air bending from Tenzin, Aang’s son. Unfortunately a movement against benders is building and lead by Amon, someone who can remove bending. In order to stop him Korra must team up with siblings, and pro-bending players, Mako and Bolin to help save the city and restore peace.
The element that makes Avatar something impossible to follow up is how complete of an epic it is. This season, and all of to a degree or another, tries to do something different. However this is the most different, a crime thriller set in a booming metropolis and dealing with on the ground problems that city faces. As a way to go in it’s own direction, it’s the best possible option it could have chosen, unfortunately the details of the season do end up weakening the whole.
It’s hard to peg down all that does not work because overall it is a lot of fun. There is just so much energy poured into every beautiful frame of the season that it makes it a great experience to just watch gorgeous action and character models do stuff. There is some hit-or-miss CG that brings the whole experience down. Also, the more slick anime style, though expressive as hell, is often off putting when the team tries the over exaggerated expressions. Asami getting sick when she finds out a soup is made from dumpster food being the easiest example to point out.
The voice cast is also amazingly robust. Janet Varney and JK Simmons being absolute standouts, but everyone gives a very well fleshed out performance. Avatar did as well, but it felt like it took those actors longer to get into character than these actors did. Unfortunately no one comes quite to the level of Mako the actor in terms of wholey embodying someone so well. Steve Blum and JK Simmons get close, but hold no candle.
The characters, on balance, are also really fun and don’t feel like direct analogs to the previous series. Korra is no where close to Aang in personality. She’s closest to Toph, but that’s a stretch. Tenzin is a type-a neurotic who really internalized his father’s ideas to a fault. Bolin, often and easily seen as a Sokka-lite (same taste, only 90 calories), is doughier than he was (despite being ripped). He is more emotional, empathetic, and simple compared to Sokka’s over-confident bravado and obsession with facts. And Asami and Mako have no character (que rim-job, no not that one). Okay, that’s not fair. Asami has the arc of going from pampered father’s girl to a jaded realist. She’s spunky but enjoys feminine things, and probably the most technically minded. Mako is cool. I mean that’s the one character trait he has… be cool. He’s kind of dull, but is earnest and means well. Unfortunately him being dull makes it hard when the show does romance (we’ll get to it). Then there is Amon.
Amon, the leader of the Equalist party, was designed to be the coolest, most intimidating villain possible. He has a great look, amazing voice done by Steve Blum, and great idea for a villain. It sucks that the details are where he goes off the rails. See, Amon’s equalist ideas center around seeing Benders as evil tyrants controlling the lay person and decides to make everyone the same. It’s a compelling thought. But a thought none the less. In practice his idealogy doesn’t work, and was disproven since the previous series. Amon sees the Benders as having a measurable advantage over people, but history doesn’t support that. The best characters of the previous season were not Bender. Sokka, Suki, Mei, and Tai Lee where all great and proved how Bending did not equal strength. Amon even proves this by teaching his followers the same chi-block skills Tai Lee (I know I’m spelling that wrong) used. On top of that, aside from some gangsters, none of the Benders lord their power over regular people. Sure, some are idealized thanks to Pro-Bending, but then it would be like hating basketball players cause they’re tall.
But wait, there’s more. To make it all more complicated we find out that Amon lied about his backstory. He is, in fact, a blood bender who can use that power to remove others Bending. He does hate bending, but for ironically the right and wrong reasons. He sees bending as a scourge that needs to be wiped out because it made his father a criminal, but he doesn’t see how hypocritical that is. That would be and interesting idea to explore if the series didn’t stop at a dictionary readings of communism and how governments misused it to institute dictatorships.
It’s disappoint really considering he is right, not about benders vs non-benders, but that there is a disparity going on in Republic City. Unfortunately it’s the disparity and abuse of power we see in our world. It’s that the rich control everything. It’s that political power and governmental authority can manipulate people’s lives. There are terrible people on both sides of the benders and non-benders, but that’s not who is really keeping them down. No, it’s the landlord/pro bending mafia don who controlled Mako and Bolin’s life. Its in the bender gangs fighting for territory and money and using the citizens as chips in that game. It’s Tarrlok and his sense of abusing power for his own gain (same as his father before him), and it’s Sato with his quest for revenge and doing anythung, even plant evidence to get the law on his side and take financial control and team up with someone dangerous to help. That’s the real disparity Amon would fight if he believed what he said.
Maybe the creators didn’t realize this true disparity or maybe they did but did not know how to tap into that, but I can tell you that what they did was not the solution. Not to say everything was bad, but the team did not allocate their time wisely. For one, the focus on a love triangle, something everyone loves and is always received well, of all things was not the way to go. I don’t comment much when I watch things, but I did exclaim my utter boredom of it by saying how I wanted to kill myself. There is just nothing to the romances, and none of the characters have chemistry… scratch that, Bolin and Korra do. They have a real honest bond over being straightforward people. That’s fun, and the fact their feelings grow into a platonic affection is nice.
The other reason what the team did wasn’t the best solution was to focus on pro-bending. Pro-bending, a 3v3 combat sport, is a fun idea. It makes sense in the way boxing and MMA makes sense (I also can’t wait for the second sequel series where we find out it gives people CTE). It also works in its debut to give Korra quick access to a team, and learn to open her mind to new ways of fighting and moving, but aside from that it feels like quidditch, something to pad the story with low stakes tension as we wait for the plot to show up. That’s not to say the episodes with it aren’t fun, but it it feels like that time could have been spent with Korra actually training and reaching her spiritual side naturally instead of artificially saying that she reached it once she hit her lowest point, or maybe flesh out the world and show how Amon was right and that there are systemic ways benders rule over people, or show how he is obviously wrong. Bolin tries to say Pro-Bending is that, a melting pot for everyone to enjoy, but that feels like the writers coming up with a reason to keep doing it over moving on.
All I’ll say is that when we meet Toph she’s a wrestler in a whole wrestling program. After that’s introduced we don’t spend another episode and a half watching Aang compete in the competition. They move on to have him face new challenges and learn about the world.
Korra season one is the season with the most unused potential. The fact it is a pet project all written by the same two creators help boost that, and show how much of a passion project it is. It has great ideas and built in a reason to explore them, but chooses to use its time unwisely. What set Aang apart from his friends was his open mindedness and ability to look at situations from multiple angles. As he learns when working with Toph, that makes him an air bender. If Korra was really working on being an air bender then she should have been working on that skill. They explore that some, as stated above, with her going into pro-bending and learning how to be flexible. But it’s not fleshed out enough. Korra is not given the arc she really deserves and there clearly is one. She’s set up as someone with a weak spiritual connection, and when she first meets Amon he says he does have that connection. If they did not want to rewrite the whole series, just focusing on how Amon, though terribly wrong, fights for a cuse while Korra does not would be good enough to show a sign of spirituality she could learn. Instead she starts as a hard-headed, very direct person, and ends kind of the same way.
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