Korra matures, revolutionizes Avatar universe

Seven years ago, a boy named Aang blasted out of an iceberg and into the hearts of audiences and critics well outside of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s 6-11-year -old demographic. Over its three-season run viewers followed the characters as they fought, learned and grew together. Now the franchise continues with a new series: The Legend of Korra. While The Last Airbender created a world for its characters to live in and fight for, The Legend of Korra expands this world, delving deep into the social and moral issues of the world they created.

Set more than 70 years after the defeat of the Fire Nation, the world of “bending” (the supernatural  ability to manipulate the four cardinal elements) has blossomed into a golden age of industrialization under the guidance of Avatar Aang, the only one capable of mastering all four elements and the one prescribed to maintain the world’s balance. The new series follows the reincarnation of the avatar: Korra.

Korra has already mastered water, earth and firebending, and the series begins with Korra traveling to Republic City to study airbending under the tutelage of  Aang’s son, Tenzin.

The first two episodes premiere tomorrow morning on Nickelodeon. While these episodes still maintain the kiddy humor of the first series, Korra shows promise of surpassing its already-great predecessor as its themes become even more adult and harrowing than ever before.

The Last Airbender was great largely due to the character growth and conflict that occurred over its three seasons, mostly within its side cast. The Legend of Korra changes this, with protagonist Korra obviously in need of the most growth: She must discover the new role of the avatar in a modern world. Her hot-headedness and chutzpah may have helped in the backwater tribe she came from, but after a run-in with the police in the big city, it is made clear she is not wanted and her vigilantism will not be tolerated, although she might be needed.

The conflicts introduced in the premiere go far beyond Korra just finding her role, though. The biggest looming problem is an “anti-bender” revolution hoping to overthrow the tyranny and oppression caused by benders. This is reflected through the very fabric of the city—from the thugs who use their powers to steal, to even the sons and daughters of the heroes from the original series. They may have set up a society aimed at peace and prosperity, but it is they who sit at its top as councilmen and police chiefs. It will be interesting to see how Korra faces this class stratification, resolving and fighting what may be a justified revolution.

Gone are the days of a four-nation world and here are the times of cultures coming together and clashing. The first series was a fascinating study of Asian culture as the imperialistic Fire Nation (Japan) overtook the crowded Earth Kingdom (China and Korea), with sparks flying and nations never truly working together. But the world of Korra is modern, where benders work together in teams of three both in sport and in crime (the Air Nomads have not been sufficiently repopulated after their genocide by the Fire Nation). A pair of the main characters are even brothers from a mixed family—one is a firebender and the other is an earthbender.

The world of Korra has seen unprecedented growth in 70 years, as Republic City teeters between tradition and modernization. Bending has become most popular as a sport, “pro-bending,” as people move towards equalization. The show seems to move on to another age of history when Japan was opened and China was westernized. It was during this time that the samurai and kung-fu masters were forced to change, or pay the consequences. Korra seems ready to address this transition and more.

With so many potential avenues to explore, and the loose end from the original already being tugged, Korra promises to be a show filled not with just dazzling animation and thrilling action, but, like its predecessor, one with a heart and a purpose. Fans grew to adore the characters of the first series and were devastated by the far-from-great live-action movie released a few years ago.

All this aside, Korra is more than strong enough to stand on its own as an independent show, though watching the first series is highly recommended simply for its brilliant excellence.

Although billed as a kids’ show with an anime style, neither of these labels is fit for a show that is as smart in its handling of adult themes and as charming in the childlike wonder it induces as The Legend of Korra promises in its first episodes.