Let go your earthly tether. Enter the void. Empty, and become wind.
Despite much critical acclaim and fan adoration, ratings dwindled considerably for the third season (or “book”) of The Legend of Korra, so the network pulled the show from TV and put the remaining episodes online. There, the episodes got millions of views, allegedly in higher numbers than the televised airings. Does that mean the show is a failure, or does it represent what the creators call a “sea change” in the way people find and watch their favorite shows?
Now there’s this two-disc Blu-ray containing the entire season, for yet another alternative to enjoy this show. Because enjoyable it is.
In a fantasy land in which some people are able to bend the elements of fire, water, earth, and, in rare cases, air. Korra (Janet Varney, Burning Love) is the avatar, able to bend all four elements at once. She has a sacred responsibility to bring balance to all things.
Following the events of book two, the world is changed. After generations of no to very few airbenders, there are now people all over the globe now manifesting airbending powers. Korra and her friends embark on a round-the-world quest to find the new airbenders and rebuild the long-lost airbending nation.
What Korra doesn’t yet know is that four incredibly powerful criminals have escaped from prison and are hunting for her.
Although titled The Legend of Korra, the show by this point has become The Legend of Korra and Korra’s ensemble. The cast has grown to include a wide variety of folks surrounding the avatar, with more new ones added this season, that it’s really more about the team dynamic than about one hero’s journey. Throughout the season, I was reminded over and over of various X-Men comics I’d read over the years. The X-Men are a team of varied personalities and power sets, whose adventures often have to do with visiting exotic locales in search of people who have emerged with similar super-powers. This season of The Legend of Korra is focused mostly on Korra and her friends traveling around the world in search of people born with airbending powers. Both the “team” dynamic and the “travelogue” dynamic is what keeps this season different from the others.
In one episode, there’s an extended comic scene in which Bolin (P.J. Byrne, Horrible Bosses) and Asami (Seychelle Gabrielle, Fallings Skies) play a board game, debating whether it is a game of chance or a game of strategy. Why spend so much time on this scene? It’s a metaphor for the entire season. There are a ton of characters running around, all in different parts of the world with their own plots going on, but, like pieces on a board, they all come together in the end, with all the many plot threads and character subplots playing a role in the big finale. It’s a busy thirteen episodes, but the writers and animators do a superb job of keeping all the balls in the air.
Korra faces the dual challenge of finding and teaching new airbenders while also constantly having to look over her shoulder as the supercriminals pursue her. Bolin and his brother Mako (David Faustino, Married with Children) discover family they never knew they had. Asami transitions from a rival to Korra to a trusted confidant. Tenzin (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man) struggles to convince the new airbenders the value of the new life they’ve been born into. Tenzin’s daughter Jinora (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) gets in on the action a lot more, developing her own airbending powers in a big way. The new airbenders are an influx of new characters, each with his or her own mini-arc that gets played out bit by bit every time we see them.
If we’re to keep the four-part avatar cycle going, then that means this season is “earth.” As such, the show goes back to its roots, revisiting locales not seen since the original Avatar: The Last Airbender. The earthbending kingdom of Ba Sing Se plays a big role, as does the mountainous Northern Air Temple. Offshoots of earthbending such as metalbending and the new lavabending are big plot points. Because air and earth are opposites in the avatar cycle, this season has air and earth in conflict, with the Earth Queen trapping airbenders, and with the final battle, which is all about one character escaping into the sky and another fighting to bring him back down to the earth. I love this stuff.
The villains are led by Zaheer, played with intensity by rocker-turned-actor-turned-media-personality Henry Rollins (Sons of Anarchy). When we first meet him and his fellow criminals, they’re merely scary monsters, lurking in darkness and attacking their enemies with fierce brutality. It’s not until around the halfway point that Zaheer gets to explain himself, and we learn that his goals are not entirely different from Korra’s. It’s just that his ways of achieving those goals are a bit more on the extreme side. This franchise has always been about humanizing its villains, with them never being pure evil, but existing in a moral grey area, and that continues with Zaheer and his friends.
Fan-favorite character Lin Beifong (Mindy Sterling, Austin Powers in Goldmember) gets a two-part episode with her in the spotlight, where we meet members of her family and explore her troubled past. Not only is this deep, rich character development, but it introduces a spiritual component as well, using acupuncture–with a metalbending twist for Lin–to delve deep into her memories and come to terms with the years of anger she had bottled up. Not every show can get away with taking two episodes to explore the psychology of a supporting character, to it’s to The Legend of Korra‘s credit that it generates to much interest in these characters and their world that the audience can so easily invest in these side stories.
Three seasons into Korra following the three exemplary seasons of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender, the creators are not content to merely repeat what went on before. It’s impressive how everyone involved can come up with new ways for characters to use the bending powers. As before, the animators use reference of real-life martial arts for the fight scenes, and that added bit of realism enriches the action in a big way. This is especially true when the villains show up on the scene. Each of the supercriminals has some quirk to the bending, which not only makes for some powerful visuals and keeps the many, many fight scenes varied and interesting.
The animation continues to be among the best ever created for television, influenced not just by anime but by a variety of cultures and art styles from throughout history, mixing and matching it all for a style all its own. The visuals truly shine on the Blu-rays, with eye-popping colors and rich, deep blacks. Audio is similarly clean and clear, especially when the booming, high-fantasy score kicks in. Each episode gets its own mini-featurette, in which directors and assistant directors discuss their favorite scenes and particular challenges in every one. The real meat of the extras, though, come in the commentaries, again on every episode, in which creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko discuss the ins and outs of the entire season, including the writing process, the complicated animation, and even the sound design.
The season begins by establishing that, following the events of the previous season, the human world and the spirit world have converged, and that Republic City is overrun with mischievous spirits. This also has the city under attack by giant vines. This really isn’t mentioned again, except for glimpses of the spirits flittering around here and there. It felt odd to establish this as a crisis in Republic City, only to then leave the city for the rest of the season and not get back to the crisis.
ALSO, WHY ARE THE SUBTITLES IN ALL CAPS? THAT’S REALLY ANNOYING.
Once more, The Legend of Korra is more akin to reading an epic fantasy novel (one of the good epic fantasy novels, that is) rather than just another TV cartoon. This is obviously not the place for first-timers, but fans will have a lot to enjoy here. Whether on the airwaves or online, this is standout animated storytelling, and deserves to be celebrated.