It is a mistake to judge an artistic production by the target audience. The past decade or so has seen an accelerated erosion of the Western perception of cartoons as something meant only for kids. I suspect that this is partly driven by the fact that it’s the people of my generation in early adulthood at this time. We grew up at a time when several memorable animated productions were on the air. Gargoyles, Beast Wars and the animated series of Batman, Spiderman and X-Men represented stories targeted to the 10-12 demographic but also accessible to older audiences with universal themes, characters of depth and some fairly edgy subject matter.
A new generation of viewers in the 00s have had the chance to enjoy a wave of cartoons that have a similar calibre. Noted among them are X-Men: Evolution, Transformers Animated, and Avatar: the Last Airbender, about which more anon.
This past week Nickelodeon premiered their new series, the Legend of Korra, which takes place in the same universe as the abovementioned Avatar. Taking place 70 years after the events of that series, we meet Korra of the Southern Water Tribe, an element-bending prodigy and the new Avatar – the sole master of all four elements, charged to keep peace and maintain balance in the world. As opposed to her predecessor, Aang, the upbeat, carefree and playful child of The Last Airbender, Korra is a hot-tempered, headstrong and bold teenager, eager to fulfill her duty as Avatar. She’s also built like a feminine adolescent tank.
In the decades between the original series and Legend of Korra, the world of Avatar has blossomed into its own version of the Industrial Revolution, the early stirrings of which we saw in the Fire Nation in the first series. The setting is Republic City, founded as a capital/United Nations HQ for the united world that Aang and company forged in the wake of events in the first series. Far from the mostly rural, semi-medieval character of the first series, here is a city with early cars, ocean liners, zeppelins, mechanical clocks and radio broadcasting reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s more urban films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle.
As of the start of the series, Korra has handily mastered the bending (telekinetic martial art) of Water (her native element) Fire and Earth, and has only to master Air. Her Airbending teacher is none other than one Tenzin, son of Aang. However his attentions are divided between the young Avatar and the political situation in Republic City, where a movement against all bending artists is brewing, branding them as enemies who use their powers to oppress non-benders.
Korra follows Tenzin to Republic City to pursue her training. Being very much a country kid in the big city, Korra has some trouble adjusting, including riding through the streets on her giant polar bear-dog, wrecking a street in a fight with gangsters and fishing illegally in a park. She finally connects with Tenzin and begins her Airbending training. Tenzin proves to be a too strict and dry for her temperament, and she seeks out her own, as it were, extracurricular training, entering the competitive bending circuit alongside a star team on their way to the championships. Korra reconciles with Tenzin after a breakthrough in her Airbending technique, and begins on the road to being a fully realized Avatar.
I was nervous at the idea of a sequel series to Avatar. The story was so solid and well-told that it was hard at first to imagine anything additional not being a dangerous amount of fluff.
However, two episodes in to the new series, I think we’re off to a good start. Tenzin’s cartoonishly stiff demeanour juxtaposed against his rowdy children seemed like a bit of a dumb gag at first but one can see the continuity of character from happy-go-lucky Aang to his contrary son. The test will be in seeing him move above and beyond being a simple straight man.
I was also worried that the benders vs. anti-benders conflict could easily be mishandled and become too black-and-white. Given what bender characters in the first series achieved, there was a risk of their opponents look like ingrates and jerks, a la the Friends of Humanity in X-Men. Again, this is dealt with in that you can genuinely see where the anti-bending lobby is coming from: the police (elite metalbenders led by the daughter of a certain Toph Bei Fong) are virtually unassailable on the one hand, and benders seem to run the organized crime scene in the city on the other. The ideals of the mystical past clashing with the new order of an industrial society looks set up to be a theme that works well at different age levels.
On a related note, one of the things that always gave the Avatar-verse a lot of its veracity for me was its sense of history. If you know anything about Asian history, then the clash of industrial and agrarian cultures in warfare you saw in the war with the Fire Nation will look an awful lot like the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars in the early 20th Century. Likewise, a rapidly modernised society threatened with revolution against the ‘old guard’ reminds one of the fall of the Imperial family in China and the eventual rise of Communism.
In short, the world of the Avatar feels that much more real because there are forces at work that could, and have, really work in real history.
On the character front, there just enough nods to the old series to tickle the affections of fans without confusing newcomers. Although the part where Katara’s granddaughter asks her to tell the story of Zuko’s mother only to be interrupted by her chatty little sister was just cruel in my opinion. Seeing Katara as grandmother and then Aang and Toph immortalized as statues tugs at the heartstrings.
On to our leading lady. The writers of Avatar have rightly been widely praised for their deep, believable heroines and villainesses. Legend of Korra is in a good place to ride the wave started by the Hunger Games in promoting a heroine front-and-centre. More interesting still is the fact that, as an adolescent tomboy (versus Toph who was still prepubescent) Korra is drawn as having a relatively masculine figure (hence the feminine adolescent tank remark above) breaking interesting ground in terms of body types for protagonist women and girls being something other than waifish or stereotypically sexy (which would be a little weird anyway, seeing as she’s a teen, but Avatar’s smut followers, bless ‘em, seldom let that stand in the way).
So after a certain amount of nail-biting on the part of this Avatar: the Last Airbender fan, Legend of Korra seems to be well underway to upholding the high standards of storytelling, world-building and characterization set by the original. Its upcoming challenges will be mainly in the vein of keeping continuity with the themes and history of its predecessor balanced with telling its own story. Still, Team Avatar haven’t failed us yet, so I’m looking forward to following this new adventure.