The Legend Of Korra debuts Saturday at 11 a.m. Eastern on Nickelodeon.
As a sequel to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the rabidly loved Nickelodeon show whose memory has already been desecrated by the M. Night Shyamalan film adaptation, The Legend of Korra has a nasty tightrope to walk. And it has to do it while giving a piggyback ride to a two-headed monster bellowing “IT’S TOO SIMILAR! NO, IT’S TOO DIFFERENT!”
The team behind the original series has a track record of keeping its balance in such tricky situations. They managed to make a show with goofy jokes, a fantasy premise, and few adult characters that was wildly popular with kids, but along the way roped in a dedicated adult following that loved A:TLA’s nuanced, sympathetic characters on both sides of a war, as well as its firm ethical foothold in the area between good and evil. (Much of one episode pondered if it’s ever acceptable to compromise your ethics and kill a human being, for God’s sake.)
Happily, the initial episodes of Korra suggest that creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and their creative team, most of whom are veterans of the original show, haven’t lost their sense of balance in the five years since A:TLA ended. (The first two episodes have been out for a while, and there aren’t a lot of half-measures fans of this show; after this, the assumption is that the reader is familiar with the original series. Be warned!) The biggest differences so far are the setting, which switches from rural villages of the week to a single semi-modern city; the new Avatar, who’s female, a teenager instead of a 12-year-old, and much more gung-ho than Aang was; and the main conflict, which changes from “superheroes vs. supervillains” to the murkier, X-Men-ish “normals vs. the superpowered.” But though story elements and their background have changed, Korra still feels reassuringly similar to the original show in the ways fans hoped for: The animation remains beautiful, the martial-arts choreography remains exciting, and the characters still feel true, consistent, and human, even when they’re throwing fire or rocks around with kung fu.
The Legend Of Korra has a worrisome lack of title continuity, since “Avatar” got hijacked by blue cat-people and “The Last Airbender” isn’t technically accurate anymore. The opening seems to try to counter this by using elements drawn from the original. This is done in a way that makes it clear that The Legend Of Korra is its own show, though: The familiar map of nations turns up, but a quick zoom takes us to the very new-looking urban skyline of Republic City, as the son of the original hero, Avatar Aang, conjures a storm of exposition about what happened in the 70 years since the first series ended.
This is all happening to a familiar soundtrack, too, but Jeremy Zuckerman’s themes from A:TLA are quarantined there. His new jazz-inflected themes for the city put an aural exclamation point on how radically the world has changed, while new melodies using familiar orchestration (a lone flute, taiko drums in fight scenes, gamelans tinkling, etc.) are a reminder that we’re still in the same world.
The opening and much of the first episode are full of callbacks that border on fan service: 85-year-old Master Katara (who hasn’t changed her hairdo or jewelry preferences in 70 years), a sweet statue of Toph, a “gotcha” moment about Zuko’s mom. But there is a distinct feeling akin to the first day of preschool, of the teacher distracting kids with shiny toys while their parents slip out the back. Sure enough, by the second episode the writers seem to have gotten servicing and trolling fans out of their system, and get on with the new story.
The most obvious bridge to the original is Aang, who shows up three times before we even meet the new Avatar: as a grown-up spinning himself around like a Harlem Globetrotter to represent “air” in the opening element count-off (a bit of a thrill); then with the other heroes of the first series in brief, sepia-toned exposition; then again in the form of a huge statue astride the bay of Republic City. A Spirit Aang cameo is pretty much guaranteed, as are flashbacks, but those seem unlikely to happen anytime soon, given how much the show seems to want to assert its independence.
And The Legend Of Korra does want to be independent, just as the character of Korra does. The new Avatar is very different from Aang, and not just in that she’s drawn like a brick house and can throw full-grown men through windows. She’s known she was special from the time she was a pot-bellied 5- or 6-year-old prodigy already able to wreck her house (and her mother’s nerves) with earth-, fire-, and waterbending. She’s been aware of her status most of her life, and, unlike her predecessor, she thinks it is awesome. We’re introduced to teenage Korra in the middle of a fight scene, and the differences in attitude are clear before she says a word—can anyone imagine the previous Avatar grinning with glee in the middle of a fight?
Early descriptions of Korra were worrying—“headstrong,” “stubborn,” “rebellious,” and “impulsive” often translate to “rude,” “irrational,” “whiny,” and “prone to acting out of character” in the context of teenage protagonists. Happily, none of the writers seems to have gotten concussed in the past five years, and their knack for writing understandable, human characters is as evident as it was in the original. Korra’s not rude or unreasonable; she’s a good person at heart, but she sometimes loses her temper and does thoughtless things that cause trouble for others. This less-than-admirable behavior is rooted in her character’s history—naïveté from a sheltered upbringing, arrogance from being told she was special since she was 5, a prodigy’s frustration with things that don’t come easy. Definitely not some writer shrugging, all, “Teenagers, amirite?”
The design of the series has shifted, too. The first 10 minutes could easily be mistaken for the A:TLA era, but the rest of the episode offers up a ’20s-Shanghai-meets-steampunk-technology design that creates another major difference between the shows, from the way it looks to the way society works. Korra herself functions partly as an audience surrogate in Republic City, as she’s “fresh off the boat,” as someone sneers. On her stowaway trip to the city, she sleeps near a crated “satomobile,” the first big sign that things have changed; when she reaches Republic City, she’s the only person riding a giant polar bear-dog down busy modern streets (recklessly, and in the wrong lane of traffic—one of many examples of her innocent-but-ignorant havoc-wreaking).
The first episode, “Welcome To Republic City,” efficiently ticks off setups of the big city-oriented arcs, all touching on the idea of inequality: There’s the homeless guy (and his adorable sparkling bush) who explains, by way of the episode’s titular line, that not everyone in the city is doing so great, what with bender gangs extorting non-benders and the Equalists. The anti-bender movement looks the most interesting so far; Korra’s puzzled, “But bending is the coolest thing in the world!” response to the anti-bender tirade is so head-slappingly, cluelessly privileged that it leaves viewers nearly on the side of the weaselly guy with the megaphone (especially given that from what we’ve seen, non-benders are excluded from the police force, organized crime, and professional sports). It’s a sign of huge room for growth in Korra’s character that she doesn’t understand that the people she’s talking to won’t be as psyched about the coolest thing in the world if they weren’t born able to do it, and if there’s anything to take away from A:TLA, it’s that growing characters is what DiMartino and Konietzko do best.
The second half-hour, “A Leaf In The Wind,” sets up the series’ personal arcs: Korra’s linked difficulties with airbending and her spiritual side, the sport of pro-bending, and the Fire Ferret brothers. What complaints anyone might have about the first two episodes center around the possibility of a Mako-Bolin-Korra love triangle, even though they just met, like, a day ago. (Anyone else find it irritating that the Twilight backlash has progressed so far that klaxons all over the internet sound anytime two single straight guys and a single straight girl get within a foot of each other onscreen?) But the A:TLA guys already made some of the most satisfying, unexpected few seasons of TV of the last decade. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt about senselessly jumping on board the Stephenie Meyer train until proven wrong.
Stray observations (including more detailed spoilers):
- Love how Korra’s frazzled mom is echoed in Pema, clearly feeling the pressure to single-handedly repopulate the Air Nation. (I was surprised when I found out Maria Bamford voices Tenzin’s wife; when I heard she was part of the cast, I just assumed she would be the hyper middle daughter.)
- The animation of the looks exchanged between Chief Beifong and Korra on the way out of the interrogation room is hilarious. I kind of expected to hear a whispered “water tribe.”
- Also liked how Naga the polar-bear-dog howled in response to the police siren. She seems way less anthropomorphic than Appa.
- God, Milo’s eyebrows are great.
- It’s a double bummer that Sokka is no longer around given how great he would have been as a crotchety old man. (We got a clear preview in Wang Fire.) Still no definite word on whether Toph’s still around, though you don’t generally build big metal statues of people who are alive. (It’s awkward.)
- After less than an hour with the new characters, I’m at least as curious about how Lin Beifong got that scar as I am about Zuko’s mom.
- The “Zuko’s mom” interruption is punctuated with a record-scratch noise; at first it seemed anachronistic, but the Triad gang later smashes a phonograph. Quasi-cars in the Avatar universe seem fairly obvious; vinyl records, for some reason, are far weirder.
- The Blue Spirit wore a mask in part so we couldn’t tell it was someone we already knew. Wonder if the writers will play that trick twice?
- This season being named Air completes the elemental cycle started in A:TLA, but there’s still one more season planned after this—wonder what it’ll be titled? Not a repeat element, I’d bet.