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"The Legend of Korra" Recaptures the Avatar Spirit

Nickelodeon has another hit on its hands. The wait was worth it; The Legend of Korra has all the makings of a pitch-perfect sequel to the wildly successful Avatar: The Last Airbender. Avatar was blessed with a variety of memorable characters and it was grand in scale, yet it also had a strong element of fun and humor woven into its DNA. The first two episodes of Korra offer the same appeal, though they also accomplish the critical task of establishing the show’s own unique identity. This is not the story of Avatar in a different place with different actors, nor should it have been.

ImageSeventy years have passed since the end of Avatar, when Avatar Aang has finally mastered the four elements of air, water, earth and fire and ended the century-long war waged by the Fire Nation. Now their exploits are the stuff of legend and there is peace among the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes, and the revival of Airbending culture is underway through Aang’s descendants. Symbolic of this hard-won peace and the world’s return to balance is the “Republic of Nations”, formally a collection of Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom, a place where people from all nations dwell. Its capital, Republic City, is a bustling metropolis purportedly taking inspiration from cities of the 1920s. It’s a tribute to the legacy of Avatar Aang, who has passed away. Now his successor, Korra, a teenage girl from the Southern Water Tribe, must be raised and guided to realize her own destiny as the Avatar.

Under the tutelage of the Order of the White Lotus and a now-elderly Katara from Avatar, Korra has mastered the elements of fire, earth and water but is completely inept at the art of airbending. She greatly anticipates the arrival of Tenzin, Aang’s youngest son and the world’s only airbending master, expecting that he will stay for good at the south pole to complete her training. But contrary to plan, Tenzin and his family come only to pay a visit. There has been growing instability in Republic City in the years since Aang’s death, so as a key leader there Tenzin feels he can’t afford to leave. Though she has been ordered to remain and wait rather than leave the protection of her home, Korra ultimately strikes out to follow Tenzin to Republic City with Katara’s blessing. But she’s a young woman leaving home for the first time, and she finds that life and rules in the city are different from what she’s used to. To realize her destiny, Korra will have to understand her new surroundings and work to learn the discipline she currently lacks. Meanwhile, the peace of the city is threatened by an anti-bending movement lurking in the shadows.

ImageKorra is an appealing character whose hero’s journey should be fascinating to watch. In so many ways, she’s a foil to Aang from Avatar. Aang was a twelve-year-old boy with no small amount of immaturity at first, while at the age of seventeen Korra is growing into a young woman of sharp wits. Aang internalized the teachings of the Air Nomad monks and disliked violence, but Korra cockily provokes a fight with a small group of mobsters. Aang was a very spiritual person; Korra starts out proficient in bending and has an aggressive fighting style that’s thrilling to watch, but she’s profoundly lacking in that aspect of the Avatar’s identity. In truth, she’s best suited for Aang’s challenge of winning a war, but instead her task is preserving peace and balance. She has a good heart and she cares about her role as the Avatar, but those who have seen Avatar will agree that she has a lot of learning and growing to do.

Korra’s demeanor puts her at odds with Tenzin, who could prove to be an interesting character in his own right. He struggles to teach Korra discipline and fears she doesn’t understand that being the Avatar is about more than fighting, but we see him compromise to let Korra stay in the city and open his mind to her participation in the “pro-bending” sport when he sees how it motivates her to put his teachings into practice. It may be that both master and student will have much to learn from one another over the course of the series.

ImageOther critical characters have been set up for further exploration. Korra’s impulsive attempt at vigilante justice gets her on the bad side of Lin Beifong, the daughter of Toph from Avatar and the head of the city’s police force of metalbenders. Though on the side of the angels, she’s a strict law-and-order type and not likely to be a fan of the Avatar’s heroics. Korra makes friends with the portly and outgoing Bolin and the brooding Mako, two brothers trying to make it as professional pro-benders at Republic City’s bending arena. She ends up joining their team, doubtlessly setting the stage for the two of them to get mixed up in Korra’s adventures. Though barely seen, the masked man Amon leads the anti-bending movement and comes off as a menacing and dangerous foe. What’s more, the supposed motive of Amon’s movement may well have a few grains of truth; Korra herself sees signs of economic inequality that the anti-benders are blaming on the “bending establishment.”

Whether that key conflict amounts to anything compelling remains to be seen, and, honestly, by the end of this premiere it feels like the adventure has just barely gotten started. Aang’s quest to save the world from a tyrant is also a big act to follow. But if that storyline is handled as well as these two episodes introduce both Korra and viewers to her world, the future of The Legend of Korra looks bright. The creators of Avatar have once again crafted an action-adventure fantasy tale that can engage and entertain viewers of all ages. The action is dynamic, the Avatar humor is back, and the quality of the art and animation make it an easy contender for the most polished and best-looking cartoon on U.S. television. Republic City and its troubles have only begun to be explored, and the potential is there for yet another sweeping, exciting and meaningful story to be told. Now it just has to be realized.

Related: The Legend of Korra: The Legend Continues to Impress

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