The prospect of making a sequel for a creator must be equal parts ecstatic and terrifying. People love that first story you told so much that both they and your sponsors have allowed you to have a chance to expand on it, to revisit the world you envisioned and extend it with new ideas. At the same time you’re at risk of soiling your reputation and the audience’s memories if you make a mistake such as taking the story in a direction that’s so different it gets rejected. Worse, play it too safe and you’ll be accused of making a rehash.
With all this potential stress, it’s all the more impressive that Avatar the Last Airbender creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have produced such a fitting sequel in the form of The Legend of Korra.
A generation has passed since the adventures seen in Avatar the Last Airbender, with the trials of Aang and his friends now legends as much as they are history. Working together, Aang and Zuko managed to found Republic City as the centrepiece of a common vision to unite the nations. After Aang’s passing, a new Avatar was born into the world in the form of Korra, a girl from the Southern Water Tribe.
From the opening moments, it’s clear that this isn’t the status quo the previous series ended with, though it certainly feels like a logical advancement for the Avatar world freed from war and steered by the pioneering of Aang and his allies. Although Korra’s Water Tribe village would feel at home in the previous series, the enormity hits home when the location switches to Republic City, with a feel of a steampunk driven 1930’s New York. It’s a bold change, but one that feels consistent both with the technology seen in the previous show and real world advancement (just look at how far things advanced in the last 100 years).
Rather than simply throw viewers into this new standing, there are a few reassuring anchors from the previous show, the biggest of which is an extended cameo from Katara. Now Aang’s widow, she has a hand in Korra’s training that shows she’s not forgotten the trials she went through on her own adventure. It’s a welcome return and hearing her briefly discuss the fates of her friends is sure to get you choked up.
Korra herself is really one of the lynchpins of this project. Aang’s story was about how he rejected the call to be a destined hero, and needed to partially atone for the world that was created in his absence. Korra takes a different path, though one that carries over influence. Whereas Aang effectively had to use guerrilla tactics, Korra is kept under the watchful eye of a network designed to train and support the Avatar. The result is that she finds herself stifling under a group that expects her to embody their vision of the role rather than grant her the freedom to personally discover what it means to be the Avatar and her role in the wider world. As a character, she’s a lot of fun. Being 17 as opposed to Aang’s 12, it’d be easy to write her as a cliché moody teenage girl, but the script is better than that. There’s discontent and rebellion in her heart but it’s borne out of a genuine desire to help people. Not to say she’s perfect, since her first day in Republic City is a comedy of errors. Janet Varney provides Korra with the perfect voice, sounding fresh to the world but not a country hick.
A key inverse of the two characters is that whilst Aang was “The Last Airbender,” Korra has managed to grasp the other three more physical elements of Water, Earth, and Fire, but the spiritual Airbending eludes her. This leads her to train with Tenzin, Aang and Katara’s son who has inherited his father’s role as master of the Air Temple. Tenzin is voiced by J.K. Simmons, who most will recognise as the bombastic J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. His performance as Tenzin is more reserved, helping to paint the character as a wise master who still has his own quirks and challenges. Part of this comes from being a family man with a wife and three children (with a fourth on the way). The actual theme of family is well communicated in the short run time of this premiere. There’s an amusing sequence where Tenzin’s wife Pema wishes she could have one child who didn’t practice airbending, and prior to that a short sequence with Korra’s parents manages to sell them as rich individuals in their own right. It’s pretty impressive that this descendant of Avatar can sell a recognisable heart to a character in seconds, while some series can fail to imbue characterisation after episodes of screen time.
Although the episode is primarily focussed on introducing the cast and the character conflicts, we do get seeds of something bigger. Primarily it seems the utopian vision of benders and non-benders in harmony may have gone off the rails somewhat, with benders using their powers to bully those without. This in turn leads to scattered mentions of revolutionaries opposed to the current system: an angle sure to be explored as the season goes on.
The animation is as full of life as it always has been including a high volume of hilarious facial expressions. A lot of shows today have really stiff animation, but with Avatar you can tell the storyboarders and animators are having a ball. Several moments are beautiful to look at, especially the sweeps of Republic City.
Of course we can’t forget the action which is also well animated and choreographed. The worst thing a fight scene can do is be telegraphed, making the motions so obvious it becomes boring. The action in Korra is much better thought out with a clever and surprising rhythm that is a joy to watch. A bending battle pursuit across the city is the premiere episode’s action highlight.
As the premiere of a new chapter in the saga of Avatar the Last Airbender, ‘Welcome to Republic City’ does a good job of both welcoming back old fans and creating an easy jump on point for new ones. You’ll probably get a bit more out of this episode if you’re a returning fan but everything is communicated well enough for anyone to grasp, with the era of Aang being treated much like the history of Roku was in the previous show. Fans have been waiting patiently for the series to arrive in the UK and at last it’s here.
She’s the Avatar. You gotta deal with it!
The Legend of Korra premieres on Nickelodeon UK 9:00am Sunday 7th July 2013.