Fans of the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, clear your calendars.
On April 14, Nickelodeon will premiere the new series The Legend of Korra. This sequel begins seventy years after the end of The Last Airbender, and stars Korra, the Avatar who follows Aang.
I became a fan of The Last Airbender along with my son, who loved the show and even dressed as Aang for Halloween one year. To this day I regret not discovering the series before the Lego sets were discontinued and became absurdly expensive. (What I wouldn’t give for some Legend of Korra Lego sets!)
Over the weekend of March 24-25, Korra Nation offered an advance online preview of the first two episodes. They were a promised reward from Nickelodeon to fans once Korra Nation topped “100,000 new likes, shares and tweets.”
Sadly the episodes were removed after the weekend, but I got the chance to watch them with my family, and we were all left with a lot of excitement over what we saw.
Below are some observations, concerns, and fan-squeeing about the first two episodes. I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but there are some behind the cut. Read at your own risk!
Other than one brief scene of Korra as a child right at the beginning (which is very cute and embedded below), the series begins with Korra at seventeen and already the master of three elements, water, earth and fire. When the beginning of her Airbender training is almost postponed, Korra – chafing at the isolation the Order of the White Lotus has forced on her – travels to Republic City, where Aang’s son Tenzin lives, so he can teach her.
Legend of Korra: “Welcome to Republic City: The Next Avatar”
The Legend of Korra makes no bones about being a sequel. Even without the voiceover during the opening credits, there were numerous references to people and events from The Last Airbender. While most of them made sense in context, there were a few things that won’t make any sense to those who haven’t watched the first show – for example, when we’re introduced to Lin Beifong, Chief of Police in Republic City, Korra hears her name and says “You’re Toph’s daughter!” and a moment later adds “Avatar Aang and your mother were friends. They saved the world together.” This is the only time Toph is mentioned in the first two episodes, and the only explanation for the significant role Lin is clearly being primed to play in the series. The moment gives almost no explanation of the past while simultaneously creating a bridge from it.
For the most part, though, the references to The Last Airbender were small and made in passing, so the viewers could focus on the current story. That was probably a smart decision in the long run, as was the decision to begin the series later in Korra’s Avatar training. Aang’s story was almost entirely centered around his need to learn three elements (Water, Earth and Fire) as quickly as possible – each of the show’s three seasons was dedicated to one of those elements. Because of this, fans will already be familiar with seeing an Avatar train with those elements, and don’t need to see it again. Conveniently the only element Korra doesn’t know, Air, is the one in which Aang was already proficient by the time The Last Airbender started. That difference will help Korra’s story avoid being a rehash of Aang’s.
Another important difference is that Korra is already seventeen. While much of The Last Airbender was spent with Aang being a kid – and sometimes paying the price, and learning to grow up as a result – Korra is already a young woman. From the beginning she’s portrayed as intelligent, competent and confident, if too impetuous. It appears that the focus of the series will be on Korra learning to control her emotions and think things through before acting – her lack of those things got her into trouble several times in just the first two episodes.
Part of Korra’s trouble with impulsiveness is due to the fact that she seems to really enjoy being the Avatar. Even from the time she was a child she reveled in it. By contrast, Aang stated very early that he never wanted to be the Avatar, and in fact we learned later that he ran away when faced with Avatar training. It’s clear that a major plot point of Korra’s story will involve her running headlong into the responsibilities of the Avatar, and discovering it’s more dangerous and challenging than she ever imagined. Her enthusiasm will be tempered by reality.
I think a lot of the differences are primarily because the show is aimed at a different demographic. A show starring a seventeen-year-old girl will definitely be aimed at a different viewership. That’s not a bad thing by any means – shows aimed at girls and young women that have strong, positive female leads are too rare, and what I’ve seen of Korra so far gives me a lot of hope that that’s exactly what she’ll be. Too, the track record from The Last Airbender is a pretty good one for portrayals of young women. But this does mean we can expect a dramatically different series.
One thing I’m concerned about is the romantic foreshadowing. In just two episodes, there are already hints that not one, but two young men – the only ones who’ve already gotten names in the series – have at least some romantic interest in Korra.
When Korra goes into the city to see a pro-bending match (a sport where teams of three benders try to knock each other out), she meets two brothers, Bolin and Mako, who are on a bending team together. Bolin – whose personality and portrayal are clearly cut from the Sokka mold – helps Korra get in, and when Mako sees Korra he says “I told you, you have to stop bringing your crazy fangirls in here before the matches.” Bolin clearly sees himself as a ladies’ man, a vision supported when he’s in a match and a woman in the audience screams “I love you, Bolin!”
Mako’s initial annoyance at Korra thaws after he discovers that she’s the Avatar (and gets to know her a little). Later, after Korra pushes her way onto their bending team and proves her skill, Mako’s respect is clear. In the last scene of the episode, Mako is seen gazing at the island where Korra is staying, with a lost puppy expression.
To be fair: Korra displays no interest in Mako and Bolin beyond their friendship and partnership in bending competition. At the end, Korra is shown gazing from her island to the city in a mirror of Mako’s position. But Korra’s eyes are on the arena which houses the bending competitions – she’s fallen in love with the game, not the young men.
Despite that, the rather obvious foreshadowing of the romantic storyline(s) makes me worried that it will quickly become a large focus in the series. I think this would be a mistake: while romance and hormones are certainly a part of any teenager’s life, it would be a discredit to Korra’s impressive character to have her bogged down in such a stereotypical storyline. The other aspects of the plot which are being built have immense promise for originality and to enable Korra to shine as a young woman. It’s my fervent hope that they don’t stifle that too much with something far more mundane.
Another aspect which I have concerns about is the main villain. At the end of the first episode, after Korra has been publicly introduced as the Avatar in Republic City, there is a brief scene in which the villain speaks with one of his lieutenants. After listening to Korra on the radio, the lieutenant asks “Amon, how do you wanna handle this?” We then see Amon, wearing a hooded cape and a mask over his face: while the ominous music plays, Amon says in a very calm, cold voice, “So, the Avatar has arrived early. It looks like we’ll have to accelerate our plans.”
After this scene establishes that Amon is 1) the main Bad Guy, and 2) Really Evil, In Case You Couldn’t Tell, he isn’t seen again through the end of episode two.
This one appearance of the bad guy offered exactly zero clues to him. We don’t know who he is, what his plans are, why he’s doing bad-guy things… nothing. Just that he’s Evil. I’m sure that this was intended to create suspense and mystery, but all it did was leave me unmoved.
It may be unfair to constantly compare a new series with its predecessor, but there was no way it wasn’t going to happen here. And Avatar: the Last Airbender did a much better job with their villain right off the bat.
Although he developed into far more than a villain over the course of the series, the beginning of Avatar: the Last Airbender established Zuko as the bad guy. And in the first two episodes, we learned about Zuko:
- He’s sixteen years old.
- He’s a prince of the Fire Nation, the most powerful nation in the world.
- He’s been hunting the Avatar for three years.
- He’s had absolutely no luck finding the Avatar.
- No one believed for a second that he would have any luck.
- Despite these detriments, Zuko is just as driven as ever on a quest he started when he was thirteen.
- Based on all this, plus his dramatic facial scar, he most likely endured some violent childhood trauma.
We still didn’t know what was driving Zuko, but we knew some powerful event had created an obsession in him. That’s suspense and mystery, and it made us wonder what on earth could have traumatized a thirteen-year-old kid. It made Zuko a much more interesting and sympathetic character, despite being placed in opposition to the story’s hero.
We have nothing like that for Amon. There’s no reason to feel anything for him – not even anger, since we don’t even know what he’s doing yet. There are more than a few hints in the various teaser trailers available, but even those only offer hints of what Amon will do, not why. Thus far he seems like a very stereotypical villain, and I’m hoping that the writers can pull him up and make him interesting fast. A compelling villain is key to the success of a good show.
There were also some odd discrepancies that I noticed. Republic City has shown great advancement in the seventy years since the end of the war, apparently having reached an industrial revolution; there’s evidence of far more sophisticated technology, often bearing a steampunk appearance. Yet at the beginning when Korra is at home in the Southern Water Tribe, it appears completely unchanged from how it was at the time of Avatar: the Last Airbender. While it’s possible for some cultures to advance faster than others, it struck me as unusual that the home of Katara, partner and wife of the previous Avatar, would be almost untouched by the advances that transformed the city he helped found. (Korra does say something in episode two about having listened to pro-bending matches on the radio since she was little; we didn’t see any evidence of it, but apparently some small changes did reach them.)
Also, Aang was The Last Airbender, and similarly, Appa was the last sky bison. Yet in the first episode of The Legend of Korra, Aang’s son Tenzin flies with his family to the Southern Water Tribe on Oogi… another sky bison. There is no explanation given for this, nor do any of the characters think it’s strange. (Note: There is an explanation of Oogi’s origin which was originally revealed at San Diego Comic-Con 2011 and is part of a series of graphic novels called The Promise, the first of which is available. But most people watching the shows won’t have seen this explanation, and it’s really nothing more than a convenient device to enable fast travel between continents anyway.)
If these criticisms sound like I was dissatisfied with The Legend of Korra, that’s absolutely not the case. My reservations could very well be resolved by the end of the third episode, and there’s so very much of the series that’s already hooked me.
One thing that immediately leapt out at me was the animation. While the first series’ animation was pretty good, what I’ve seen so far from The Legend of Korra blew me away. I don’t know if it’s because these were the first episodes and they were trying to impress, but they seem to have stepped up their game.
And what I wrote above about Korra is true: she is an amazing character. Her strength, intelligence, self-respect and confidence are palpable. She has a very strong sense of right and wrong, displays unreserved compassion, and acts to help those in need. This does get her into trouble, since she’s also not the patient type.
Her impatience, and some overconfidence, are Korra’s only apparent flaws, and they’ve caused several predicaments already. Within a day of arriving in Republic City, she got on the wrong side of the police – admittedly she was defending a shopkeeper from racketeering benders, but she caused damage to a number of other buildings and then ran from the police rather than sorting things out rationally. On the other hand, the same traits got her to Republic City, convinced Tenzin to let her stay and begin her training, got her onto a pro-bending team, and more. She’ll have her ups and downs, certainly, but she’s already a character it’s easy to root for.
Most of the supporting characters have a lot going for them, too. Tenzin is a bit stodgy, but loosened up a bit by the end up episode two; he obviously feels he has to “be the adult” as an example to the young people around him, even though a part of him clearly wants to bust loose. He’s also a perfect uptight foil to his wife Pema, their two young daughters Jinora and Ikki, and their son Meelo. The children, all already skilled airbenders, are at once adorable, amusing and infuriating. Chief Beifong, who only appeared briefly, is like Long Feng without the manipulative corruption; her desire for order will butt heads with Korra’s desire for freedom, but she promises to be a firm if determinedly reserved ally (though as she’s Toph’s daughter, she might have a hidden rebellious streak). Even Mako and Bolin are very passionate about their pro-bending competition, and seem to have some motivation to excel we simply haven’t had revealed yet.
One thing that has definitely carried over from Avatar: the Last Airbender is the excellent and often silly sense of humor, which perfectly tempers the more serious story:
TENZIN (frustrated by Korra’s behavior, to Jinora and Ikki): You must promise me that your teenage years won’t be like this!
JINORA (deadpan): I will make no such promises.
When episode two of The Legend of Korra was over, my son begged us to put on the next episode, and was horribly disappointed when we told him it wasn’t yet available. I was pleased to discover that I felt the same way. It’s a show that, so far, I’m not only happy to show to my son but am excited to watch with him.
If you just can’t wait for the series premiere on April 14 – Just as I was finishing up this article, I discovered that both full episodes one and two are now available to watch on the Nickelodeon website!
Legend of Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” S1
Legend of Korra: “A leaf in the Wind” S1
Enjoy! I’m going to go watch them again!