I like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones as much as anyone, but in 2012, one TV show was better than all the rest: The Legend of Korra: Book One: Air.
In a world in which some people have the ability to bend the elements, Korra (Janet Varney, Burning Love) is the avatar, able to bend all four elements. She has a sacred responsibility to speak for all people and fight for peace. Korra has mastered bending and martial arts, but she hasn’t yet mastered the spiritual side of what it truly means to be the avatar. This is what takes her away from her small village to the bustling metropolis of Republic City, and the tutelage of the wise Tenzin (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man).
In the big city, Korra experiences some celebrity, joining a pro-bending team with the handsome, brooding Mako (David Faustino, Married With Children) and his wisecracking brother Bolin (P.J. Byrne, Horrible Bosses). Korra also gets involved in local politics, as she joins the city’s task force charged with finding and capturing Amon (Steve Blum, Cowboy Bebop), a dangerous criminal. Amon, who keeps his face hidden behind a mask, is leader of an anti-bending movement, claiming to speak for ordinary humans. Korra discovers, though, Amon is hiding a lot more than just his face.
As you probably already know by now, The Legend of Korra is the follow-up to the exemplary three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender, from the same producers, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino. That series told a complete tale, so that it was more like reading a really good epic fantasy novel than watching a TV cartoon. It had deep world-building, rich characterization, and huge action. Much the same can be said for Korra. This is a shorter, twelve-episode season, and is mainly a standalone tale, but it manages to incorporate all the things we enjoyed from the previous show while still staking out its own identity.
The biggest difference between the two shows is that The Legend of Korra takes place eighty or so years after the previous series. During those eighty or so years, this fantasy world has undergone an industrial revolution. Where there were once wagons, swords, and scrolls, there are now automobiles, rifles, and telephones. The animators have borrowed tech, clothing and architecture from anywhere between the turn of the century to the 1930s, all to capture the feeling of a world rapidly evolving. If Korra ever has children, they’ll probably use their iPads to bend the elements. All this change means we get a distinct “old world versus new world” feeling to the show. Korra dresses in her Eskimo-style water tribe clothes, and she gets around riding on the back of her polar bear dog, Naga. She looks like someone from the original series, only now she’s in this modern environment, where cars have replaced mounted steeds. The world has changed, and now the avatar, who has been educated in the old ways, has to change right along with it.
Tenzin represents the old ways, in his traditional airbending garb and his home on Air Temple Island, just outside the city, where Korra also resides. Throughout all the craziness that goes on this season, Tenzin remains the voice of reason, as he takes a calm, mannered approach to it all. He’s the one who encourages Korra to meditate, to look within herself for the solutions to her problems, rather than merely punch and kick them. It’s not until later in the season that Tenzin joins the action, and it’s great fun when he gets to cut loose with his airbending, demonstrating why everyone else in Republic City is so in awe of him.
Then along comes Mako and Bolin, representing the new world. Thanks to them, we get pro-bending. This is, as you guess from the name, a professional sport based on the characters’ bending the elements. A lot of screentime gets devoted to pro-bending, a sort of supernatural combination of dodgeball and Powerball from American Gladiators. The creators are smart in that they do a lot to keep the many pro-bending matches varied, and right when the audience is thinking “Really? Another pro-bending game?” that’s when there’s a huge twist that sends the plot off in a whole new direction. Mako and Bolin also provide the romantic aspects of the tale. Bolin is attracted to Korra, Korra is attracted to Mako, while Mako only has eyes for sultry rich girl Asami (Seychelle Gabriel, Falling Skies). Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be familiar with this stuff, flashing back to the good ol’ days of the Angel-Buffy-Xander-Willow quadrangle. Nonetheless, the flirtations and/or heartbreak feels genuine, and add to the characters’ overall development.
For a while, the show ping-pongs back and forth from pro-bending episodes and episodes dealing with Amon and his followers. Korra is tough and brave, with superpowers and tons of cool moves, so when she is forced to admit that Amon scares her, then we know just how intimidating and threatening this Amon guy is. Amon is leader of the equalists, and he says he speaks for the ordinary humans, demanding they be treated with as much respect as those with magic powers. Some of the best villains are the ones who believe they are right, and who, with just a few tweaks to the script, could be the hero of the story. That’s the case with Amon. Despite his scary appearance, it’s easy to see how he’s gaining followers among the rapidly-progressing streets and alleys of Republic City. From a character point of view, it’s a big deal for Korra, she who always jumps right into the fray, to admit that Amon terrifies her. This also means that whenever Korra and Amon face off, it’s electric, and you’re on the edge of your seat to see who will get the better of the other.
I’m a thousand words already into this review, and I’ve barely scratched the surface as to all this season has to offer. There’s Asami, who keeps defying expectation; once you think you know who this character is, she surprises you. There’s Lin Beifong (Mindy Sterling, Austin Powers in Goldmember), the city’s chief of police, who has ties both to Tenzin’s past and the characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s not often you see a middle-aged woman cracking skulls in an action epic, but Lin will make you hoping to see it more often. There’s Councilor Tarrlok (Dee Bradley Baker, Ben 10 Alien Force), a politician who first sides with Korra in the fight against Amon, but who has a lot of not-so-nice secrets that are revealed as time goes on. Tenzin has a wife three kids, who fill comic relief duties nicely. Similarly, Pabu is Bolin’s pet ferret, who does the “cartoon animal sidekick” thing without ever once being annoying.
A ton of characters, and also a ton of world-building. The creators have put a lot of thought into how new technology has changed this fantasy world. Cars are prevalent, new enough to still be a novelty, but common enough to be everywhere—especially convenient for action chase scenes. The radio introduces mass media into this world, and makes for a nice shortcut when exposition is needed. Plus, it allows communication to spread rapidly throughout the city, which the villains use to their advantage. We see humans crafting technology that can combat the powers of the benders, and, as things progress, the technology gets pushed even farther, into pseudo-steampunk territory. This creates enormous challenges for Korra. She can fight knife-wielding thugs without breaking a sweat, but how does a magical fantasy hero fight progress?
With that progress comes some visuals and action sequences that will take your breath away. This meager-budgeted cult-following kids’ show has more stunning visuals and more adrenaline-pumping action than most $200 million Hollywood blockbusters. The producers practice martial arts and the animators consult with martial arts experts, so the fight scenes and training scenes include a lot of little details, such as the right way to breathe, the placement of the feet for optimum balance, etc. These little realistic touches make the fights that much more exciting. It’s true that the martial arts also include things like moving water through the air with the mind, but the bending is staged in such a way that we never really question the hows or whys of such awesome supernatural power, but instead we just go along with it. Beyond the fights, there are car chases, and, as tensions mount throughout the city, full-blown battles in the streets, out on the water, and even way up in the sky. With so many different characters running around with so many different skills, the action never feels repetitive, and you look forward to the next slugfest, just to see all the crazy ways everyone will use their powers, abilities, or tech next.
There are tons of characters, an immersive world, and a complex plot, but it’s never confusing or overwhelming. Why? Because at the center of it all is our hero, Korra. First of all, props to the creators for upping the stakes with diversity. It’s not that often we get to see a brown-skinned female action hero, and, fortunately, Korra’s gender or ethnicity is never once an issue. The fish-out-of-water “young girl in the big city” vibe is enough to make her instantly relatable. While Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender was often portrayed as a reluctant hero, one who’d rather go penguin sledding with his friends than fight evil, Korra is instead all about jumping right into the action. The problem is, she often does this without thinking first. The drive to do good makes her likable, her youthful impetuousness is a flaw for her to overcome, and her neglected yet slowly growing spiritual side is a chance for us to see her development and her first steps toward maturity. Plus, she gets all the cool moves and some of the funniest lines. She’s a positive character, even when taking a beating. By the time the season finale comes to a wrap, Korra has been driven down to her lowest point and built back up again. Fortunately, it feels earned, and her big hero moments are a reward for both her, for all she’s been through, and for the viewers, for investing so much into this character.
For such a visually rich, beautifully animated show, it’s a no-brainer that The Legend of Korra (Blu-ray) would look stellar. The high-def picture nicely captures the fluid action fighting, and the sweeping shots of the cityscape shine with color and detail. The DTS audio is good as well, with the action scenes again being a highlight. Roaring engines, smashing machinery, and exploding flames all fill the room with the immersive sound.
The commentary tracks, one for every episode, are the highlights of the bonus features. Konietzko and DiMartino are joined by actors, animators, and others, to go over the creation of the show. Everyone’s love and enthusiasm for the series is infectious. From there, we get a series of animatics, in which we get a look at several key scenes in their rough, penciled forms. Finally, there’s “The Legend of Puppetbender,” a comedy sketch using puppets as the Korra characters. It’s a little amusing, but goes on too long. Note that the commentaries and animatics are exclusives to this Blu-ray set.
Do you have to watch all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender before watching The Legend of Korra: Book One: Air? I’m afraid I’m going to have to say “Yes” to that one. The original series laid all the groundwork, very carefully establishing the culture, history, and magic system of this fantasy world. The Legend of Korra then just dives right in to its plot without having to reestablish everything. Knowing Aang’s story is essential background info for Korra’s story, and newcomers will be confused without it.
One thing you should never do is watch the live-action version directed by M. Night Shyamalan, simply because it was never made and it does not exist! Right? Right?!
This is what fantasy escapism is all about. Big action, vast world-building, genuine characterization, and big big ideas are all explored in The Legend of Korra. It’s a legend, indeed.