The dream of Avatar Aang for peace and harmony among nations has become embodied in Republic City: former Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom where people of all nations can live and work together in a massive metropolis. After Aang’s passing, the mantle of the Avatar passes to Korra, a headstrong waterbender who shows tremendous prowess at the physical aspects of Water, Earth, and Firebending, but whose impulsive, reckless nature and eagerness to fight show she has much to learn before she can truly be the Avatar. She meets disappointment when her Airbending teacher Tenzin arrives only to tell her that he cannot being her Airbending training because of conflicts in his home of Republic City. Rather than waiting for his return, Korra and her companion polar bear dog Naga stow away on a steamship bound for Republic City, discovering on their arrival that the city is wildly out of balance. After mishaps and pleading, Tenzin allows Korra to stay to begin her Airbending training and help stabilize the city. But the arrival of the Avatar may have made things worse, accelerating the sinister plans of the Equalists, an anti-bender faction led by the mysterious masked figure Amon…
Any sequel series automatically invites comparison to the original, and luckily, the premiere episode of The Legend of Korra easily meets or surpasses the levels of quality of the final episodes of Avatar the Last Airbender. The technical improvements are obvious: I’m kind of amazed that you can get animation of the quality shown in The Legend of Korra on a TV budget, and I wonder if this was something special for the premiere episodes or if the show has just sharply raised the bar for animation quality on a TV show. The writing is also at or above the quality seen in the second season of the original show or the back half of the third season, plotting tightly and delivering maximum information in minimum time. The show establishes the new status quo of the Avatar world and the new setting of Republic City, which is different enough from the original show to put newcomers and old time fans on a more equal footing.
However, there are also a lot of tiny, revealing details sprinkled throughout the episode. A lot of them are only on screen for a frame or two, but that’s all the time they need to deliver their payload. During Korra’s Firebending test, Katara is placed a step away from the other White Lotus masters, and she has a faint smile on her face while they are frowning; both underscore that she stands apart from them and foreshadows the way she approves of Korra striking out on her own. I love Korra’s body language at the end of her Firebending test, as her exuberant confidence (“Woo-Hoo!”) turns to affected humility, followed by a bunch of fidgets and nervous tics that reveal her teenage gawkiness and insecurity. The only time you see those fidgets and tics again are when she’s being chastised by authority figures and then during her press conference (look for the subtle slouch in her shoulders that gives her away). For that matter, I love how her brash, in-your-face personality is communicated through her dialogue, her character design (which has much more physical presence than the wispier, shorter Aang ever did), and all her body language. The way she lifts Tenzin and his entire family off the ground in a bear hug at the end of the episode is something we’d have never seen out of Aang, and it’s a visceral demonstration of how physically strong she is.
It’s also interesting to see the subtle but visible changes once Korra hits Republic City. The first half of the show mostly looks and feels a lot like the original show, with the color-coded clothing and Asian-inspired orchestral music. The first signal that Republic City is a new world is actually the music: it changes instantly into funky Asian-inspired jazz that is brilliant and reminds me of the way Yoko Kanno mashed together influences in the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop. Fans of the original series will also be thrown off by the missing color coding that communicated specific information. It seems that nobody in Republic City is wearing pure national colors, which is fitting considering the city’s origins. However, this also serves to set Korra and Tenzin apart from everyone else, emphasizing the way Korra is a bit of a country bumpkin in the city and making Tenzin look impossibly old-fashioned. Even so, color coding isn’t entirely abandoned; with the three Triad thugs, the water bender is wearing trace bits of blue, the firebender is wearing a red scarf, and the earth bender is wearing a green jacket (and, as a side note, I love how Naga imitates the police sirens after Korra’s coup de grace).
Finally, I’m impressed at how quickly the show establishes Korra as a sharply distinct personality, especially compared to Aang. A big part of Aang’s journey was gaining the confidence he needed to fully accept his role as the Avatar. It took until the middle of season 2 for Aang to walk up to someone and say, “I’m the Avatar. How can I help?” instead of being forced to reveal who he was; contrast that with Korra’s first line of “I’m the Avatar! You’ve gotta deal with it!” as a child. Korra has an overabundance of confidence in herself and her abilities, which is partially because she clearly has prodigious natural gifts and partially because she’s a nervy teenager who thinks she knows everything. Like Odysseus, she has the classical character flaw of hubris, so it’s not surprising that most of her major events in this episode happen when her confidence gets her into trouble and she has to learn a lesson the hard way. It’s a setup for a classical character arc as she grows into her role as the Avatar.
Either way, “Welcome to Republic City” is a bold new start for the Avatar franchise. I’ve watched “Welcome to Republic City” three times now, and each time I spot more tidbits and background elements that I had missed earlier. It’s a powerful start to the series, and I can’t wait to see how this story unfolds.