When done well–rarely–the results can be impressive (The Dark Knight, Two Towers, Empire Strikes Back).
But more often than not, they flop (The Matrix Reloaded, Speed 2, Ocean’s 12, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Joey, Prison Break 2, and sooo many more).
So when I first found out that the makers of Avatar had a spin-off series in the works, I had it in my head to stay away. Far, far awaaaaay.
I mean, Avatar: The Last Airbender was this joyride of complicated world-building inspired by Oriental and Aztec themes, with beautiful artwork, brilliant character development, puns, creative fight scenes, gripping plot arcs and slapstick humour…and it’s a children’s cartoon. I started watching ATLA thanks to my habit of peering over my little brother’s shoulder (thanks lad for having cool taste). Like countless others, I quickly became totally immersed in its rich universe and the pilgrimage of Aang and his merry band to master all four elements and defeat the Fire Nation!
…I’ve only grown exponentially more impressed by how much work went into the show. It’s an unpretentious masterpiece of storytelling, and it’s created a narrative in my head that I dread to spoil, eg. by an inadequate sequel.
But I knew I didn’t have the willpower to hold out forever. Especially not when Victor downloaded Season One of The Legend of Korra. And watched it. And started raving to me about how I HAD TO WATCH IT COZ IT WAS SUPER EXCITING!
So I did, and I loved it. It’s great fun. There are a bunch of fantastic things about TLOK, but also a lot of things that could have been done better. (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!)
1. Korra’s character. I think Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko made a great call here in terms of character qualities. Korra, a 17-year-old girl from the Water Tribe, is a very different Avatar from Aang. She’s an absolute gun at bending, mastering 3 of the 4 elements as a tot. She’s impulsive, brash, brave and emotional, but what’s lacking is her connection to the spiritual aspects of being Avatar. Her character works well within this new world, where she has to push the boundaries, and is a refreshing change.
2. The United Republic of Nations. Mike and Bryan didn’t try to recreate the universe of ATLA, and I’m thankful for that. Instead, they used this opportunity to build a whole new world with a different feel–a steampunk feel. How awesome!!! In the 70 years (an incredibly short period, but forgivable) since the war ended, it seems a technological revolution has swept over the Avatar world. There are cars, electricity, radios, TV, stadiums, cities, lamp-posts. And there’s a mega huge statue of Aang standing over it all. This modern spin is a fabulous opportunity to show off the world-building skills of the creative team in a new and exciting way, and yet maintains enough links with the world of ATLA to keep long-term fans happy. I’m glad that they chose a very different atmosphere: it separates Korra’s story from Aang’s story in a definitive, elegant way.
3. The benders v non-benders plot. When this plotline was introduced early on in the season, I got excited. A compelling and creative idea. It seems a natural sequence of events, almost a century after the war, when the world is peaceful and prosperous, to have the non-benders generate murmurs of discontent. I was initially thrilled at the possibilities of this narrative arc.
4. The animation. Season 3 of ATLA was a wonderful aesthetic experience, but in TLOK you really feel all the visual effects coming together in a very streamlined, enjoyable way.
5. Pro-bending. A bit like Quidditch. A distraction from the main plot, but a very enjoyable sport to watch.
And one final item that I couldn’t leave off the good list…6. Commander Iroh.
The Not So Good
1. The shallow handling of the benders v non-benders conflict. To be honest, I was disappointed with how this major plot device panned out. There was the potential to have a mature consideration of Amon’s motives and the uprising of the non-benders. Throughout the season, we see civilians flock to the Equalist rallies in hordes. That at the very least must be an indicator that something is not right in the governance of the Republic. But the Council’s response to the Equalists was simplistic in the extreme: use bending, use violence, use power to subdue them. There was no examination of why the people were discontented; of whether the non-benders did have any power in the Republic; of whether the law was fair to both benders and non-benders. Because to me it certainly didn’t look fair–there didn’t seem to be anything stopping benders from trampling on non-benders if they wished, and the message of the benders’ response (that is, to automatically regard the benders as ‘rebels’ and discharge forces to squash them) seemed stupid. Of course, the Equalists did take their rebellion a bit too far, but at in the end the conflict came down to who could punch the other up. Also, I was a little deflated by how easily the Equalist members were turned against their leader–a pretty paltry plot device there, in my opinion.
2. Everything resolves way too easily in the Season One finale. Not much to say here (I don’t want to spoil anything for people who’ve read this far and haven’t watched the series, even though I explicitly warned about SPOILERSSS!). Just…too much happens. Too fast. With not enough time to explain, absorb, resolve. I’m not sure if they had to cram everything into one season in case they didn’t get signed for Season 2, but they really didn’t leave anything for next season.
3. Too much crammed into 12 short episodes. This is sort of related to #2. There are only 12 eps in Season One, and each is only 23 minutes. It is really not enough time to fit in so many intertwining narratives: Korra’s development as a person, the treachery of Amon and Sato, the story of Tarrlok, pro-bending, and the romance. And speaking of romance…
4. The love square. Oh so cheesy, but not completely terrible in its own way. But still so cheesy.
5. Bolin, the new Sokka. Clearly, Bolin is meant to be the funny guy with the puns and the quips and the goofiness. He’s no Sokka. Victor disagrees with me–he thinks Bolin is hilarious–but then he thinks most things are hilarious. But in my eyes, no one will ever, EVER REPLACE SOKKA. EVARRRR! Sad face.
The Legend of Korra certainly has a different feel to The Last Airbender. We won’t really enter Aang’s world again, which is probably a good thing. TLOK is trying to be a more adult show: the kids are older, there’s a ‘darker’ plot, and there’s more romance. I didn’t really feel the adult-ness, and I don’t think it should aim for an older age group. ATLA was aimed at children but it had enough layers to entertain older audiences.
One thing I really enjoyed was the flashbacks where we got to see the old characters–Toph, Sokka, Aang–as grown-up members of society. It offered a sense of continuity and a rush of nostalgia. So my final consensus is this: if you were fan of ATLA, go and watch Korra. It’s a great series with the same talented creators. You’ll really enjoy it. And if you’ve never watched anything Avatar, give Korra a go. I mean, can you get any better than a 9.2 on IMDB? :-P
Random trivia: Dee Bradley Baker, the voice of Appa and Momo, also voices Tarrlok. He’s worked in a gazillion other voice acting roles, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Gears of War, Halo, SpongeBob SquarePants, Ben10 and American Dad.