‘Avatar: The Legend of Korra’ is taking the animated world by storm, Sum Sze Tam explores the elements behind the success.
Sequels have a reputation for being miserably awful. Itís hard to build a new storyline that holds itself together for the same characters when you’ve already established an ending. So when Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the genius duo behind Nickelodeon’s popular cartoon series ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, announced that they were developing a sequel in 2010, two years after the old series had ended, you can imagine the fan hype, excitement, and speculation that exploded over the internet.
The world of ‘Avatar’ is one where some humans have the ability to “bend” – manipulate based on martial art and spiritual power – one of the four elements: Water, Earth, Fire and Air. Together, these make up a spiritually-ordered cycle. The Avatar, a reincarnated human, is the only one who can bend all four elements, as well as act as a bridge between the human and spirit worlds.
As for life in this universe, the animals are often chimeras or smushes of two animals in our world (e.g. polar bear dog, otter penguins), society is set in past epochs, and all the cultural tics, clothing, food, and lifestyles are taken from Asian or Inuit culture. As comic book artist Derek Kirk Kim eloquently described, “it’s all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia”. Despite these influences, it’s important to note that Avatar isn’t technically anime – or Japanese animation – which has a distinct style of their own and possess a sizeable cult following in the West.
Set seventy years after ‘The Last Airbender’ ends, ‘Avatar: The Legend of Korra’ follows the adventures of an older, feistier, and female protagonist – Korra, a girl from the Southern Water Tribes. The finale to the second season was aired only last month. Konietzko and DiMartino, or ‘Bryke’, as the fandom affectionately call them, have departed from ‘The Last Airbender’ and made a show that is more mature and three-dimensional than the last, but without losing its goofy humour (Meelo!). The world has progressed since the days of Avatar Aang, the eponymous ‘Last Airbender’: where the old series had animal-drawn carts, the new one features fast cars, motorbikes, “movers” (movies) and geometrically snazzy buildings. There’s undoubtedly a much more badass steam-punk vibe about the new show, which is all embodied in Korra’s appearance: tougher voice, ponytail, toned biceps, boots and baggy pants.
As a story, ‘The Legend of Korra’ has really matured in its themes, and is definitely big sister to ‘The Last Airbender’, to mirror its now older audience; the writers address a previously unnoticed issue that would actually be a really big deal in human society: the inequality between benders and non-benders. In retrospect, it’s a little sad that viewers were never alarmed by this massive power inequality in the old series – we only laughed when the cabbage man had his stall upturned by bending, or if Sokka was dumped on his rear by a bender, because it was set up as a comic situation. However, there’s no denying that a bender could set that stall up again in a matter of seconds, whereas the average non-bender would have to spend hours picking the cabbages up by hand. But I get that it’s meant to be humour, and that if we nitpicked at every slightly politically incorrect situation, the point of the show would pass us by.
‘The Legend of Korra’ has also left ‘The Last Airbender’ in the dust in another aspect – the visual crafting of the scenes have gone far beyond what the old series used to look like. The fight scenes are mind-blowingly epic, but more than that, they manage to retain the emotional side – the sense of danger and risk – throughout the action, so that audiences really feel it in their gut when heroes suffer a loss, or positively euphoric when victories are won. There are also subtler scenes that use symbolism (one of which features cake), which are great at creating tension and adding detail to characters.
Characters in ‘The Legend of Korra’ often break free of stereotypes, something a lot of “family shows” are guilty of, with perhaps the best example being Tenzin, Korra’s spiritual and airbending mentor. Tenzin is not the flawlessly all-knowing wise man just because he is the son of the previous Avatar, and neither is he an exact copy of his bubbly, non-confrontational father – in fact, he’s quite the opposite. It’s revealed that family life wasn’t picture perfect during his childhood, and that despite being a man of great political and bending power, Tenzin has many of his own fears that prove to be a serious barrier – and it’s his ability to overcome them eventually that shows us his inner strength.
Though the show has grown a lot, some of the progression from being a show for pre-teens to teenagers hasn’t been good; perhaps the biggest issue is the excessive amount of teen angst – where ‘The Last Airbender’ gave us just enough of an insight into the characters’ love lives, without having it intrude on the main plot, the endless rally of the Korra-Mako-Asami love triangle is fatiguing from the start, and really detracts from the character development (i.e. it makes Mako look like a tool, which would break my heart if it were true, so I refuse to believe it).
Viewers may have noticed the obvious rush to the finish with the season 1 finale, although this was more because Bryke hadn’t known whether ‘The Legend of Korra’ was going to be allowed to continue after season 1. It’s a good example of where the backstage, political economy side of things had a seriously detrimental effect to what could have been an amazing ending. The season 2 finale didn’t feel like three episodes crammed into one, but where it did let up was the high number of unexplained conclusions, a deus ex machina, and plot loopholes. Sure, it was epic and flashy and some of the action scenes positively lifted me off of the floor, but narratively, they weren’t as well-constructed as what we know Bryke are capable of from ‘The Last Airbender’. It’s a shame that a show that carried a momentum of such great of themes had to leave a final impression as unfulfilling as that.
However, ‘The Legend of Korra’ still remains the undisputed top dog of all animated artwork; check out the elegantly two-dimensional style of the mid-season 2 special, “Beginnings”, and some of the gorgeous landscapes, throughout the series, that pour themselves over and out of the screen. Despite all the shortcomings mentioned above, ‘The Legend of Korra’ is still an exception to the rule that sequels are always worse. There’s still a certain quality about Bryke’s work that makes people come back for more, whether that’s hidden in the magic of the Avatar universe, the compelling characters we’d shed tears for – or maybe it’s in the optimistic vision for mankind that can sometimes feel a little absent in the real world, today.