As a sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend Of Korra had some sizable shoes to fill. Its predecessor achieved a level of maturity and accessibility that few series billed as “children’s programming” (whatever that term means) have, and helped to launch a successful franchise of video games, comic books, and toys. (Repeat after me: There was no movie.)
It also created—thanks its captivating storytelling, well-choreographed action, stellar acting, and engaging (and diverse) characters—a passionate and devoted fandom that was completely geared up for a story that continued in that same universe. It’s a fandom that, like any fandom, will compare the two series and debate over which one is “best.”
I’m not going to do that as I discuss Korra’s first season. First, it’s not fair to do so, since Korra’s not even done yet (we still have another 14-episode season to go). Second, Korra and A:TLA have different structures, tones, and thematic concerns that making declaring “best” a tricky thing. Certainly you can prefer one to the other, but they’re different series, at least so far.
So when I sat down to collect my thoughts on Korra's first season, I decided to look at some of the less-than-enthuastic fan reviews that have been posted to the TV.com page for Korra to get a sense of how those who didn’t love the series were seeing and experiencing, and where their frustrations were centered. I’m not looking to change anyone’s mind, but I do want to put those frustrations in a dialogue with my own enjoyment of the series in an effort to not only refine my own perceptions, but hopefully to refine some viewers' frustrations as well.
Korra is really plot-driven, as opposed to character-driven (and the short season hasn’t helped)
If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, likers and dislikers alike, it’s that Korra is very focused on its narrative about the Equalist revolution within Republic City, and how it threatens the very existence of benders everywhere. This has led to a number of gripes that the series’ characters aren't as well-defined or unique as those of A:TLA. And I think it is a legitimate critique.
Korra’s characters are all fairly flat (Korra is hot-tempered and rebellious; Bolin is goofy; Mako is...aloof?) and none of have been given a real chance to develop beyond their initial traits. Certainly the shorter season is partially responsible. A:TLA used its episodic, "adventure roadshow" format to allow its characters space to breathe and develop, but it had more space to tell those stories. By the time you reach the final push of episodes in any given season of A:TLA (and certainly by the end of Season 3), there’s a real sense of attachment to the characters that Korra just hasn’t made the time for.
Yes, the time spent with pro-bending stuff was largely to help establish the New Team Avatar dynamics, and sports are a good way to develop the sense that characters know each other, like each other, and can work together, but apart from little tidbits about their pasts (Mako, Bolin, and Asami’s parents) the room to stretch the characters was never really there.
I feel like this need for plot was made even more obvious by the finale itself. With most of her bending removed, the series’ second season would benefit from a chance for Korra to explore her identity and what happens when that most identifiable trait—being the Avatar—is stripped away. But again the series backed away from that opportunity, restored her bending, and nullified the chance for sustained character development.
Elsewhere, characters moved around and responded as needed to developments to keep things going or the character development came a bit too late, so while some things worked better than others (Tenzin and Lin’s history was a particular highlight for me), Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko didn’t do much to create a sense of investment in the show's characters. And without much investment, it can make caring about both of those things rather difficult...
But what a what an engaging and thoughtful plot!
I’m willing to excuse some of the lackluster character work because I found the Equalist revolution and its politics to be well-executed and discussion-generating. The notion of bender-led oppression was something that the show never sold me on until we actually started seeing it happen in “When Extremes Meet,” but it still encouraged us to think about things critically.
Is it okay that the ruling council is currently comprised entirely of benders? And what about the police force that is entire made up of metalbenders (in a city that seems designed to make use of both their metal and earthbending abilities)? While it’s not oppression per se, it’s certainly not “equal”-seeming either.
While those seeds took root in our minds, thanks to Amon’s penchant for speechifying, when Tarrlok began to mobilize the police force against non-benders (how wonderfully clever was the use of the police barricades as both a way to keep people contained and then using them to people people truly contained?) we started to see how the series is carefully challenging those preconceived notions that we may have come into the series with.
And seeing as it is a “kids’ show,” Korra deserves credit for (hopefully) encouraging its intended audience to think critically about what it means to have power, who should have power, and what the justification for that power is. If the intended audience isn’t, I certainly hope thoughtful parents are maybe nudging their kids to do so.
Republic City, modernization, and the loss of fantasy
If there is one other major complaint about Korra, it's the series’ “steampunk-lite” setting. The use of cars, electricity, and mecha suits coupled with the de-emphasis on the mysticism of A:TLA all contributed to a notion that Korra is a bit more generic feeling, and ultimately a betrayal of its predecessor’s fantasy roots.
I’m not exactly in that camp. Korra is still, in my mind, a fantasy series even with its use of modern technology. Part of this is based on the fact that bending continues to be a force in the world, but the other part is that it seems like a natural evolution of the series’ universe—in which submarines, tanks, giant drills, and airships were all developed. Yes, some of those particular instances of technology did rely on benders, but they couldn’t forever, not without creating an odd caste system of benders as workers (and Korra hints at this, as lightning bending seems to be the source of Republic City’s power... or at least it's a green, renewable resource).
But also consider the larger thrust of the show in relation to these technological developments. What does bending (the fantastic element of the show) mean in this world with these technologies? For that matter, what does the Avatar mean now? A shift toward a more industrious society, one that is less impressed and/or concerned with the spiritual aspect of the four elements calls into question all these things.
While the series reaffirmed the need for this spiritual aspect in Season 1's painfully deus ex machina-y final moments, it did shift away from those questions at the same time. A more interesting avenue for exploring these questions would have been Korra having to figure out how to harness the Avatar state after having most of her bending removed, and whether or not the world even needed that to happen, whether or not the world still needed an Avatar.
Those are the big, macro-level ideas I had about the first season of Korra. On a less overarching view, I found the season to be a delight to watch. The animation from Studio Mir is crisp, clean, and has a wonderful atmosphere (I loved that much of the series occurred at night). Jeremy Zuckerman’s score, a mix of 1920s jazz and ragtime with more Asian-influenced orchestral pieces, did a nice job of enhancing the series' on-screen aesthetics.
And of course there’s Joaquim Dos Santos (a.k.a. Dr. Fight) and Ki Hyun Ryu and their teams of storyboard artists (led by Ian Graham), who put together a well-directed and dynamic season, with most of the big action sequences feeling reminiscent of, but also surpassing the action sequences of A:TLA Season 2, in their wall-to-wall insanity. I’m thinking, of course of the stellar action sequences in “And The Winner Is...” and “When Extremes Meet.”
What about you? What are your thoughts on what I’ve laid out here, as well as other aspects of the show I didn’t mention, like the romance subplot (which was by far the weakest aspect of the season for me) or the important role that family ended up playing? How did you feel about the finale? What do you think Season 2 will be about, and what do you hope to see?