When I watched the Nickolodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender a few years ago, it was, despite the recommendations of a few rabid fans whose blogs I follow, with no small amount of doubt and trepidation. When I finished the series, having become a rabid fan myself, and tried to pass on that rabid fannishness to some friends, it occurred to me what a tough sell Avatar is. If you're not a fan of animated (and specifically anime or anime-style) shows, or of children's TV, the series could very easily have flown under your radar (in fact it's likely that the title will cause associations with either James Cameron's unrelated movie, or M. Night Shyamalan's by all accounts dreadful live action film adaptation of the show's first season). It certainly doesn't help that the series take a while to get up to speed, and that its first ten episodes are broad and very consciously child-oriented--I wouldn't blame someone from my corner of fandom who watched Avatar's pilot and concluded that the show was Not For Them, not least because I very nearly did the same. Which is a shame, because once you get past the hump of the show's first half season, Avatar develops into a smart, engaging, and most of all fun series that fans of Harry Potter and Farscape will eat up with a spoon. Featuring complex, multifaceted characters and relationships, a deft handling of race and gender, and a riveting adventure plot punctuated by thrilling and stunningly animated action set pieces, it's a series that fans of smart genre fare owe it to themselves to become acquainted with--which is no help, since as we all know, "it's really good" is not a convincing sales pitch. So when Nickolodeon announced that Avatar's creators were returning with a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, I was pleased not just because of the chance to spend more time in the Avatar universe, but because of the opportunity that the show seemed to afford to introduce new fans to that universe on terms they might be more comfortable with. Shorter, better animated, and focusing on older characters than Avatar, The Legend of Korra seemed like the perfect gateway drug for the two shows' universe. I was doubly disappointed, then, by what Korra's first season has delivered--not only a lackluster story that has squandered an intriguing setting and characters, but a tone deaf handling of the show's themes that belies its alleged maturity.
Avatar takes place in a pre-industrial world whose people are divided into four nations according to the four classical elements--earth, fire, air, and water. These elements inform the culture and national character of each of the four nations, and within each nation there are certain individuals, known as "benders," who can manipulate their element--causing fire to shoot from their hands, for example, or forcing the earth to form whatever shape or structure they desire. The spiritual leader of this world, who can control all four elements, is called the Avatar, and they reincarnate into the world again and again, cycling between the four nations. As the series opens, the earth and water nations have for a century been under attack by the fire nation, a war that began with the extermination of the air nation, and with it, it is generally believed, the Avatar. When two water nation children, Katara and Sokka, find the twelve-year-old Avatar, Aang, frozen in a block of ice, they set out together to help Aang master the remaining elements and defeat the fire nation. The Legend of Korra opens 80 years after Aang's victory, and its title character is the Avatar that follows him, a water nation teenager who has already mastered the water, earth, and fire elements, and who in the series premiere sets out to learn airbending from the one remaining master of the form, Aang's son Tenzin. To do this, Korra travels to Tenzin's home of Republic City, established after the war to foster better relations between the four nations.
The Legend of Korra thus, from its outset, sets itself apart from Avatar in several significant ways. Avatar ranged all over its world, and frequently visited urban settings--the fortress of the northern water tribe, the great earth nation cities of Omashu and Ba Sing Se, the fire nation capital. In each of these settings, the color scheme, design sensibility, and functionality were informed by the nation's dominant element. In Republic City, these national boundaries have been dissolved, and the advent of an industrial revolution in the decades separating the two shows means that the bending powers that had ensured the smooth running of cities in Avatar (the public transport system in Omashu is powered by earthbenders, who move stone carriages along tracks that they have carved in the ground) have either been superseded or augmented by technology (one of the characters in Korra, a firebender, gets a job shooting bolts of lightning into the city's power grid). This results in a setting that, though still fantastical in many ways, is mostly reminiscent of a 19th century city--with the same Asian inflections that dominate the design of both series. In Avatar's story, the spirit world played a significant role--through Aang's interactions with his previous incarnations, through his lapses into "the Avatar State," in which the force that runs through the Avatar line manifests through him and performs tremendous feats, and through his forays into the spirit realm, which give the show's animators the opportunity to venture into Miyazaki-esque surrealism. Korra's world and story, on the other hand, are almost purely materialistic. Though Korra is prodigy who has mastered three of the four elements--the ones that Aang struggles with throughout his story--with ease, her skill is purely martial. Throughout most of the first season she has no connection to the spirit realm, her previous incarnations, or the Avatar State.
In other words, with Korra, the two series' creators have switched subgenres, transitioning from epic fantasy to something like steampunk. Along the way, they've also created a story that is more mundane, and less purposeful, than Avatar's. Aang and his cohort were on a quest with a very clearly defined victory condition--defeat the fire nation, end the war, save the world--and intermediate goals--master the remaining three elements (the show's three seasons are titled Water, Earth, and Fire, corresponding to the element that Aang masters in each one). When Korra arrives in Republic City, the stakes of her story are significantly lower--she's eager to learn airbending and frustrated when it doesn't come easily, but it's her own self-image, not the fate of the world, that hangs in the balance. There's so little urgency to her quest, in fact, that she has the time and inclination to join a pro-bending team--Republic City's favorite sport, in which teams of benders use their powers to score points and knock each other off the court--alongside brothers Mako and Bolin. It's only very gradually that the challenges facing her begin to manifest themselves, and only near the end of the season that these challenges take the form of a traditional action-adventure plot.
It should be said that this willingness to change their world and the type of story they tell within it so completely is something that Korra's creators should be lauded for, not least because despite the enormous differences between it and Avatar, there's never any doubt that they take place in the same world, or that the one's setting could, over the course of less than a century, become the other's (this is all the more impressive because Korra avoids leaning on the crutch of the previous series's characters and settings--though one of Avatar's main characters appears as an old woman, and several others appear as forty-year-olds in a flashback, these elements are used minimally, and for the most part it's down to the new characters to establish the show's sense of place and history). In its early episodes, Korra raises several interesting questions about the effect of modernity on the Avatar's place in society: with national identity becoming less important, or even noticeable, in Republic City's melting pot, the Avatar's role as a bridge between the nations appears to have been superseded, and with technology on the ascendant, bending may be losing its importance as well. The season's villain, Amon, adds another wrinkle to this question. The leader of a group calling themselves the Equalists, Amon argues that benders have erected a tyranny over non-benders, and seeks to overturn it through acts of terrorism carried out by an army trained in "chi-blocking"--which temporarily disables bending powers--and through his own ability to permanently remove those powers.
It's in its handling of these questions, and of the stories that emerge from them, that The Legend of Korra falls flat. In its early episodes, the show struggles to integrate the slowly building Equalist menace with the more mundane concerns of Korra's life, and the result is a season that feels alternately fitful and stalled. Though the subplot about the pro-bending tournament ends up feeding into the Equalist story in an interesting way, with a thrilling Equalist attack on the tournament final, it's hard not to feel that earlier episodes focused on Korra's pro-bending training are wasting valuable time. And the equally time-consuming parallel love triangles--between Korra, Mako, and Bolin, and between Mako, Korra, and Mako's girlfriend, the industrialist's daughter Asami--have no such justification for their existence, especially so early in the series's run, when the characters' personalities and relationships are still too faintly drawn to support so much romantic melodrama. Even when the Equalist threat becomes more prominent, however, the story doesn't snap into focus, because Korra herself is so very reactive. Aang defied many of the conventions of child protagonists in fantasy stories--having been raised to the role of Avatar, he had a deep understanding of himself and his responsibilities, but never lost his childish glee and sense of play. Korra is a more familiar, Harry Potter-ish type--affable, thoughtlessly and reflexively heroic whenever she's brought face to face with injustice or suffering, but neither very bright nor terribly inclined to think about the world around her and how she can affect it. She spends too much of the season responding to Amon's obvious taunts and following the lead of the shady Republic City councilman Tarrlok, who uses the Equalist threat to cement his political power, and later as a justification for restricting the rights and movements of non-benders, and even when she takes charge of the fight against Amon, her tactics remain shortsighted and poorly thought out--in the season finale, she decides to seek Amon out despite the fact that he's defeated her in every one of their previous encounters and she has no idea how to turn the tables--and yet rewarded by the narrative--while trying to execute this foolhardy scheme, Korra learns something about Amon that allows her to defeat him.
Korra never manages to integrate its heroine's flaws and strengths into a fully developed character. Whenever it comes close to acknowledging her failings, it falls back on highlighting her heroism, so that Korra's moments of triumph--especially when she finally breaks her spiritual block--feel less like accomplishments and more like writerly fiat. In this, unfortunately, Korra is very much in line with the rest of the series's young cast. Mako is a handsome blank, Bolin never grows beyond the role of comic relief, and only Asami--who is dealt dual blows over the course of the season in the form of the realization that her boyfriend loves someone else and the revelation that her father is in league with Amon, but is able to put her hurt feelings aside in the face of the more urgent threat of the Equalists, becoming the group's best tactician and a formidable fighter despite having no bending powers--is a genuinely interesting character. The adult characters fare somewhat better--Tenzin is a square whose fuddy-duddiness conceals a strong anti-authoritarian streak, which feels entirely right both as a response to Aang's carefree personality and as a reflection of it, and Republic City's police chief, Lin Beifong (daughter of Avatar's Toph) is a tough as nails law and order type whom Korra rubs the wrong way, and whose relationships with Aang and Tenzin are only slowly revealed. This, however, only serves to reinforce the sense that Korra is falling into the same pitfalls as the Harry Potter books, overshadowing its young protagonists with adult supporting characters whose adventures and stories come to seem a great deal more interesting.
Even worse than its problems with pacing and characterization, however, is The Legend of Korra's handling of the Equalist storyline. Simply put, Amon claims that benders are oppressing non-benders, and the show never bothers to tell us whether this is true--doesn't, in fact, seem to think that the answer is very important. When she first arrives in Republic City, Korra encounters a protester decrying bender oppression. "What are you talking about?" she impulsively calls out. "Bending is the coolest thing in the world!" This is such a clueless, privileged bit of point-missing that one can only imagine that an important component of the season will involve showing Korra how the other half lives. For a while, it seems that Mako and Bolin's role will be to do just that--when the brothers, who have been on their own since they were children and even briefly involved with criminal gangs, find themselves short of cash, Korra explains, with mock humility, that she can't help them: "I got nothing. I've never really needed money. I've always had people taking care of me." "Then I wouldn't say you have nothing," is Mako's acidic reply. Very quickly, however, Mako and Bolin's humble origins are forgotten (as is Korra's cluelessness). They become part of Korra's inner circle--which also includes, as befits the Avatar, the movers and shakers of Republic City. Within Korra's limited perspective, non-benders are almost entirely absent, and the ones she encounters are either Amon's henchmen or those who are part of her group and firmly opposed to Amon, such as Asami or Tenzin's wife Pema. In both cases, when these characters address themselves to the issue of tensions between benders and non-benders, it's only to discuss whether they support Amon's tactics--the question of whether his aims or theories are correct is never even raised. Unaffiliated non-benders from outside of Korra's privileged circle are encountered only as undifferentiated masses--the crowds who flock to Amon's rallies, or the protesters rounded up under Tarrlok's reactionary policies.
Even absent the voice of ordinary non-benders, The Legend of Korra paints a disturbing picture of their status in Republic City--a picture that is never fully acknowledged by its characters. Benders seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power and influence in Republic City's government--all of the city's police force are earthbenders, for example, and though it's not clear whether the city's ruling council is also made up solely of benders, when Tarrlok suggests that non-benders be subject to a curfew, only Tenzin objects. In an early episode, Tarrlok sends Korra on a raid on what he terms an Equalist stronghold, but what she finds when she gets there is a dojo in which non-benders are practicing chi-blocking. Given that by this point we've learned that both Mako and Bolin's parents and Asami's mother were killed by firebender criminals, and that when Korra arrives in the city she sees bender gangsters extorting protection money from a shopkeeper, it doesn't seem unreasonable for non-benders to want to learn how to protect themselves, but the possibility that chi-blocking is not an indicator of evil is never entertained by the characters--or indeed the show, which quickly reveals that the people at the dojo are indeed followers of Amon. Most damning is the simple fact that Amon amasses huge numbers of followers--he has hundreds of henchmen to do his bidding, and great crowds cheer for him in the street--a man who has terrorized their city and promised to hunt down and mutilate their fellow citizens. When Korra attacks him, they turn on her, and only reject Amon once they learn that he's lied to them and is, in fact, a bender himself. Unless we assume that the people of Republic City are credulous dupes, we have to choose between two equally unpleasant interpretations: either the city's citizens are evil, eager to turn on those whose powers they resent like a crowd of non-mutants on X-Men, or they have a genuine grievance that only Amon is addressing, and which he has inflamed into hatred and violence. Either way, defeating Amon doesn't even come close to addressing the problem, something that is ignored by the season's triumphant ending.
There's a sense that Korra's writers are aware of the corner they've painted themselves into, because a lot of the season is dedicated to shifting the goalposts of their argument. At the end of the season, Korra is told that Amon "truly believes bending is the source of all evil in the world." This echoes with the fact that, though Amon and his followers frequently use the language of oppression and tyranny when discussing bending, the examples they cite of benders' perfidy are not of prejudice or systemic inequality, but of individual cases of violence. In their final confrontation, Asami's father tells her that she is "aiding the very people who took your mother away," to which she replies "You don't feel love for Mom anymore. You're too full of hatred." In other words, we're in X-Men territory--benders are hated and feared not because of what they've done, but because of what they could do, and resentment of them is a prejudice that blames an entire group for the actions of some of its members. But while the X-Men model works when the superpowered individuals are a beleaguered minority group that has only begun to emerge into the public consciousness, it's less persuasive when they're a well-known phenomenon that has been folded into every aspect of civic and economic life, and whose members hold key positions in society. There needs to be some work explaining how benders, through their own actions or as a result of unrelated social change, have lost the public trust, and this isn't something the show does--the suggestion that technology is edging out the need for bending, for example, is something that is only faintly present in the season's early episodes, and then abandoned entirely, and though instances of bending violence are mentioned repeatedly, at no point do either the show or the characters consider that bending and criminality might have become linked in the public consciousness. Similarly, around the middle of the season the writers try to make up for the absence of any indication that non-benders are oppressed by having Tarrlok initiate his restrictive policies. "You're doing exactly what Amon says is wrong with benders," Korra tells him, implying that until those policies had been enacted, Amon had been wrong. But just as Amon couldn't have done all the damage he did on his own, without supporters and people who believed in what he was preaching, Tarrlok can't criminalize non-benders without at least the acquiescence of the city's power structures and its bender citizens--an acquiescence that, in itself, indicates a problem that the show won't face up to.
It's a sad thing to say, but it feels as if, by aiming at a more mature tone and subject matter than Avatar's, The Legend of Korra throws its inherent immaturity into sharper relief. When it comes down to it, the show isn't willing to say that terrorists are just people like you and me, whose abhorrent actions might be rooted in legitimate grievances, or that large-scale, violent persecution of minority groups can only be achieved through at least the tacit approval of most of the people, not just the ones wearing scary uniforms. You could argue that that's too heavy a moral for a children's show, but another way of looking at it is that for a story aimed at young people to stop short of this moral--to create a world in which people cry persecution merely because they resent the dominant elite, and social unrest is the work of supervillains and their armies of masked henchmen--is to send a very irresponsible message. Supervillains like Amon and Tarrlok would have worked in Avatar (in fact, like Avatar, Korra ends by humanizing both characters and explaining, if not justifying, their choices), which for all its intelligence and complexity never sought to escape the conventions of epic fantasy. Korra's ambitions are higher, but it fails to achieve them and neglects its characters and story to boot. I still recommend Avatar to just about anyone who is looking for a fun, smart, compelling fantasy story they can be sucked into, but if you're looking to get into the Avatar universe, start with the original (and give the first season at least until its midpoint), and leave Korra until you know you've been won over.