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The Legend of Korra: Depth in Disguise

The fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s wait has been long, but finally the next Avatar series, The Legend of Korra, was delivered to us this past April. The first season (Book One: Air) seemed too short at only twelve episodes, but Nickelodeon already approved another three seasons, which will hopefully deliver more high-quality animation and storylines. To those of you who may question my taste in television: Please understand, despite this show’s ultra-nerd factor, it’s actually quite good for a children’s television show. Its fairly large adult fan base testifies to this. Granted, flying bison and fire shooting from fingertips do appear silly, but underlying these features is an unexpected sophistication. To those of you who are fans of The Last Airbender, you know (as well as I) that The Legend of Korra offers much promise to be as captivating as the original.

Now, let’s get our geek on. The Legend of Korra is set a number of years after the death of avatar Aang, the protagonist in the previous series. He is reincarnated into Korra, a tough-as-nails Southern Water Tribe girl, who, after learning the bending styles of the other elements, (bending being a martial art involving manipulation of one of the four classical elements) travels to Republic city in order to learn airbending from Tenzin, one of the few remaining airbenders (only the avatar can learn the bending styles of all four elements). Here she finds a world unbalanced. Mafias (run by bending triads) rule the city’s underground, threatening peaceful storeowners, and so a newer movement, The Equalists, is created as a violent response to all benders, lawful or unlawful. Throughout the season, Amon, the main antagonist and leader of the Equalists, attempts, in a very Marxian way, to usurp what he sees as the bending establishment.

The creators of the series are definitely catering to an older audience this time around. The main characters Korra, Bolin, and Mako are late teenagers, older than the protagonists of the last season. Despite their age, these characters still retain the tasteful innocence of the original series’ younger characters without damaging their credibility. The show still doesn’t engage adult content, foul language, or sexual activity, but their dialogue still feels very natural. The fantasy culture in which these characters are situated is somewhat idealized, but somehow believably created without displaying debauchery.

Book One: Air also commands a sophisticated central conflict between benders and the Equalists. Amon mobilizes the non-bending community of Republic City and uses advanced military technology to compensate for the benders’ supposed inborn advantage. However, as past Avatar devotees know, benders don’t always have the advantage. Their martial strategies (which are usually determined by the philosophies surrounding the specific element they bend) can be predictable, making them easy targets. In The Last Airbender we see many non-benders triumph over benders; the most effective of whom use projectile weapons and “Chi” blocking techniques (a martial technique which uses knowledge of the body’s pressure points to temporarily paralyze a foe and briefly remove their bending ability). However, with the additional technology designed by the Equalists, we see the benders having a much more difficult time holding their own. The Equalist lieutenants’ most memorable line, “You benders need to understand; there's no place in the world for you anymore,” rings true throughout this season. After earthbending him to a pulp, Korra’s reply, “I wouldn’t count us out just yet” rings a little stronger. Despite her plucky resolve, the Equalists’ advantage grows far too great for even the avatar to easily rectify.

Thankfully, The Legend of Korra also attributes more prevalent and more credible rhetoric to the Equalists. In the previous series, the Fire Nation’s bombast justifying their war wasn’t really convincing. We briefly hear that the Fire Nation believes fire to be the superior element, and that they are trying to spread the Fire Nation’s economic success to other nations through war. The Equalists have a far more compelling agenda. We hear them condemn bending as primarily used to coerce non-benders creating a power imbalance, a very Marxian argument. Benders are born benders; they do not merit this power. Using modern technology (and some “chi” blocking), the Equalists bridge this power gap in order to rid the world of benders and to supposedly create a more just society. Ironically, their use of highly advanced military technology to dominate benders undermines this rhetoric. With the advent of this new weaponry, the power gap has already been bridged; therefore there should be no philosophical need to exterminate benders.

The lack of spirituality in Korra’s character is another thought-provoking addition to the seasons’ success. From the beginning of the very first episode we hear that Korra has always excelled in the physical side of bending, but neglects the spiritual side. The avatar’s job is to maintain balance between the physical and spirit worlds, but throughout the season the spiritual facets of her duties remain absent. Throughout the conflict between the Equalists and the benders, we see nothing of the spirit world, or Korra’s “avatar state” (a fear-triggered condition in which the avatar channels its past incarnations, and metes some serious justice). These absences are subtle at first, but throughout the season it becomes a more central issue, as Korra is required to call on her past incarnations for advice.

To those jocks and would-be intellectuals who still wish to foray into geekdom, The Last Airbender is a good place to start. It is not only an excellent series of its own accord, but it will also provide important context for The Legend of Korra. And to the old-timer fans, this season had many good qualities, most notably a strong plot and setting, but (as you probably know) due to its brevity some of the side characters were a little flat and the humor, well, let’s just say I miss Sokka’s sharp wit. I hope the subsequent seasons learn to compensate for characterization and humor, but even if not, I still look forward to seeing where the rest of the series takes us.