There are a few rules-of-thumb in the popular entertainment world that pundits like to throw around in all their wisdom. These rules always seem to become cast-iron laws of the earth when it comes to sequels or spin-offs. You know them – "it's always worse than the original", "they just recycle the plot", or the classic "it's too different".
After watching the premiere of this particular sequel, though, I think it's fair to say that none of those labels apply here. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that if the whole series lives up to the standard of its first two episodes, then those pundits will be in the uncomfortable position of admitting that their supposed laws of the earth have a glaring exception. Reserve your forever pessimistic commentary for Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean, ye of little of faith – here, we have something special.
In the two episodes that make up this premiere – "Welcome to Republic City" and "A Leaf in the Wind" – we're thrust into the same Avatar world that fans of the original series have come to love. But it's been seventy years, and the citizens of the Earth have wasted no time in bringing on their own little Industrial Revolution. At the centre of these times a-changing is the sophisticated steampunk metropolis of Republic City. The new Avatar, Korra, leaves the safety of her home in the Southern Water Tribe and travels here to begin her airbending training... only to find that the city where she thought everyone was "living it up" isn't as it seems. Poverty and impending anti-bending revolution cast a sinister shadow on the steampunk paradise.
Republic City and culture
I'm going to waste no time in saying that Republic City is amazing. It's especially good because it's really easy to see where this could have gone all wrong. How do you put motor vehicles (or "Satomobiles") in the same world as the Order of the White Lotus? The ambitious recipe Bryke concocted was so delicate that the slightest mistake could have rendered the entire setting a disjointed mess. It had the fans biting their nails. Some had even dismissed the whole thing as unworkable months beforehand.
But their brave move has paid off. The original series drew from Asian culture on just as broad a scale as Korra, but while sometimes the original got a bit clunky on this stuff (there were lots of eyebrow-raising Earth Kingdom settlements out there), the new series is remarkable coherent and consistent about its influences. What the show has essentially done, if you ignore the fact that every second person can throw elements at you, is recreate the urban society of early 20th century China. Their fashion and their currency. The streetscape and the poverty. The style of their newspapers. The triads and the inability of official authority to beat them off. And oh yes – the impending smell of revolution based on a novel definition of equality.
Themes: they don't treat us like idiots
The comparison between the Community Party of China and the Equalists is fascinating, and I think the idea of equality that the Equalists espouse will make for the most intelligent theme brought up in the franchise yet. The real and fictional movements both involve a personality cult around their leaders, and a stirring up of dissent from the classes who perceive themselves as oppressed. The theme has such great potential because if it's done right (fingers crossed there), it should ask viewers one of the central philosophical questions of our world: What is equality? In Korra, it'll be about whether the institution of bending is inherently unequal, but there are parallels to be found in our society.
It's true – the best shows are those that not only entertain, but also teach us something important, make an important universal point, and teach us to go out and think for ourselves. That was the magic of the original series with episodes like "City of Walls and Secrets", and here, an issue of considerable complexity has even been elevated to become one of the dominant themes of the series. The creators could have been real lazy and made up some dull rebellion against the victorious Team Avatar, and it still would have sold like flaming fire flakes. Thank goodness they decided not to treat us like idiots. Of course, it's entirely possible that they squander their themes, but for now, it's impressive enough that they even put it in.
It's still lots of fun
Of course, a show that isn't entertaining isn't going to go anywhere, and thankfully, Korra is still lots of fun. Particularly in "A Leaf in the Wind" (and providing a convenient balance to the generally content-heavy first episode), there are some great comedic touches. Tenzin and his family get special mentions here. Jinora apparently can't promise that she won't be like Korra as a teenager (shame we don't get to see her father's reaction to that), and Meelo agrees with Korra that Tenzin is a bad teacher out of the blue, going on to kick with reckless abandon the remains of a training tool Korra had destroyed. And it's pure gold when our very serious friend himself goes red. ("Don't bring my mother into this!")
And what's an Avatar series without more action? Korra certainly doesn't hold back here. Aside from getting to see our new and feisty Avatar take it out on some gangsters (and what a great refinement of animation it is compared to the original, by the way), it turns out Bryke wasn't even done with the boundaries of bending. The bending styles have modern forms now too, forms suitable for the popular sport of pro-bending. Our classically trained Korra has a thing or two to learn too, and as we see her take to the arena, it's hard not to feel a fine sense of wonderment. What else do the creators have up their sleeve?
Loved the tension between Korra and Mako, by the way. How subtle.
What went wrong
At this point, I can hear you begin to say, "Wait, hold the phone... if you liked the premiere so much, what's that eight out of ten doing at the top?" As much as it pains me to say it, the premiere wasn't perfect. For me, it comes back down to one word: dialogue. Dialogue can make or break a show. We saw just how devastating bad dialogue could be in The Last Airbender – the digital bending effects could have been twice as good and still no-one would have cared. Clunky lines sink otherwise sound productions.
While the dialogue in Korra is certainly much better, there were still cringe-worthy moments. For example, I'm not sure whether it was intended to be funny or not, but the young Korra's line, "I'm the Avatar! You gotta deal with it!" is just such a poor effort next to the intelligence that went into the design of pro-bending. And those lines between Korra and Katara – I mean, have you ever had a conversation with someone you know well and been that awkward? ("I need to find my own path as the Avatar"... gah.)
In a decade where television was often reduced to cheap laughs and ridiculously clichéd super-villains, the original series was decidedly refreshing. Those of us who've been fans for a while will remember what really made Avatar so good: its surprisingly detailed and accurate references to Asian culture, and its refusal to shy away from meaningful themes and real issues. We're not left disappointed on either count in Korra, and I'd go so far as to say that it deals, and will continue to deal, with the deep and meaningful on a much broader scale than the original ever did. That's no small feat considering the "drivel" (to borrow from Tenzin) that we're often subjected to from Nickelodeon.
Could The Legend of Korra turn out to be even better than its predecessor? It's too soon to tell. But the fact that we need to even ask that question is a testament to the quality of this series opener.
Now it's your turn – what did you think of the first two episodes?
Loved them or hated them? And why?
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