I’m a fan of Nickolodeon’s show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Indeed, it was my favorite example of western animation until a certain candy-coloured show arrived. But for whatever reason I never got around to watching its recently concluded sequel until, uh, now.
For those not in the know, Avatar is set in a fantasy world that is nationally carved up according to the four classical elements – so we have the water nation, earth nation, etc. And in each of these nations are benders, people who can manipulate their respective elements. Of particular note is the Avatar, who can master all four elements, and who perpetually reincarnates in order to bring balance and harmony to the continuing generations.
The Last Airbender focused on a war of aggression caused by the Fire Nation, and hewed pretty closely to the template laid down by the Star Wars trilogy. What was exciting about it was both its epic scope, which hadn’t been seen much before in western animation, and in its willingness to get morally complex.
If there’s one thing the first four episodes of Legend of Korra have shown, it would be that the show really doesn’t want to be The Last Airbender 2. The closest pop cultural analogue I can think of for what it wants to be isn’t Star Wars – it’s Batman.
The titular character, the new Avatar, is a hot-headed teenage girl who relocates to Republic City in order to begin her airbending training. There she quickly locks horns with the Equalist movement, a group of nonbending radicals who are orchestrating a social revolution with the intent of violently wresting away the power that has been held by benders. There’s also municipal politics to deal with, organized crime (the humorously named Triple Threat Triads gang), etc. Sound familiar?
The visuals are also different. While The Last Airbender took its cues from East Asia, Republic City is 1930s New York with a sprinkling of Asian influences.
So far I like what I’m seeing; my biggest gripe is with the pacing, which often feels a bit rushed. I like the turn towards some of the tropes of crime and superhero fiction, and how they’re already willing to start a story arc grappling with the sociopolitical implications of the setting. But it’s also possible that they may be biting off more than they can chew. This could easily trip over itself and become a pretentious mess.
I also faintly detect an almost Burkean line of thought about the role of traditional institutions in legitimate social reform running underneath all of this. I wonder if anything interesting will become of it.