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Avatar: the Legend of Korra – “Welcome to Republic City” Reviewed

It’s basically some kind of amazing.

So the first episode of The Legend of Korra has been “leaked” online. On an official website. Guarded by a username and password that are identical to each other. I get the feeling this wasn’t a leak and just an early way to drum up press. Well it worked!
A nice little show by the name of Avatar: the Last Airbender began way back in 2005. The show focused on the journey of Avatar Aang, the latest in the long line of Avatars, great spiritual leaders who can “bend” the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air to their will while the other benders in the world have the ability to bend one element, if that. The Avatar Cycle is the continuous reincarnation of the spirit of the Avatar to lead the world through troubling times. When the show first premiered, we followed Aang and little did we know that what we had on our hands was the potential for a great franchise. The first episode has leaked and we’ve now got our first view into the world of Avatar 70 years after the final episode of The Last Airbender.

And what a view it is. The world presented in the first series was an old world one with villages spread all over the world and a few large cities, but all that has changed. The Legend of Korra presents a world growing and entering an early 1920s era, this is most visible in Republic City, the capital of the new country formed by Aang and Zuko in the previous series. There is definitely some steampunk inspiration going on in the modeling of the city and it is beautiful. The original series gave us a world that seemed ripped from a Chinese fantasy and now we have that fantasy world colliding headfirst with the early industrial era.

There are police officers and gangsters all over the place, new technology like the phonograph of all things. This isn’t the kind of world one would expect to get out of the series after what The Last Airbender gave us…and yet it fits so well. Everything blends together nicely, these characters, even when they’re bending elements to their will, feel as if they belong here. There’s an air of mysteriousness here that goes beyond this being the first episode of a long awaited series. The viewer is seeing this new city for the first time as is the main character, so we’re going into this with just as much knowledge as Korra and expect a lot of her own reactions to things to be the same as the ones we have.

View of Republic City -

We’ve been given production stills and art in the recent months to whet our appetite and I know it might not be a lot to some people, but beautiful imagery like this does just as much to make me fall in love with a show and anticipate it as a new clip does. Avatar is without a doubt one of the greatest cartoons to come out of America ever, to be frank, and the behind the scenes work shows this off in style. The transition from production art to animation is always going to be an issue, especially on a TV budget, but what made The Last Airbender so amazing to look at was the detail that went into it and fans and new viewers alike are in for a treat with this episode as much of the same animation and storyboard team have made their way back to the franchise.

Fans of the intricate martial arts work won’t be disappointed at all. The fluid and unique movements that do an amazing job of mimicing real live martial artists have returned and in greater strides. The original series had fight animation that at times felt a little choppy, but those problems seem to be gone here and the fights we’re given are amazing in the first episode. While Aang was a passive hero, Korra is on the other end of the spectrum, she’s a go-getter and won’t let people walk all over her, so naturally this is represented in her fighting style. Movements are faster and more fluid, there’s a fierceness to her strikes and a playfulness as well. We’re definitely seeing the signs of an Avatar not yet an adult.

Alright, so the series looks pretty, but is it good? In a word (or two) hell yes.

The series moves the world along by 70 years and much has changed. Katara, Aang’s love interest and eventual wife, is the only one of the original main characters still living in this era. Before I move on to the new stuff, I’ve got to say that this show does an amazing job of passing the torch to the new generation. Katara gives her approval to Korra, allowing her to sneak out of her training grounds and head to Republic City to follow her own path. (hey, the series title makes sense!) We get a nice moment with Katara in where she says that Aang’s time has passed and while it might seem small, it felt quite incredible to me. You get the sense that time really has passed, you get the sense that the characters all lived a full life after the original series ended, but now it’s time to hang up and let the new generation have their time of development.

I also think this does a nice job of perhaps sending a message to viewers in that you can’t always hold on to the past. The Last Airbender aired from 2005 to 2008, it has been seven full years since the show began, four since it ended, and it’s time to grow up and face the world. The Legend of Korra takes that path with the viewer as it grows up with them, presenting us with what the production crew has called a more mature story. There’s still plenty for the new generation of viewers to love. One of the original show’s strengths was the comedy and it shines through brilliantly here, just as smart and amusing as when the franchise first began.

Now, to the new! Korra? Amazing character right off the bat. The first scene in the episode after the new opening credits introduces us to a young Korra being scouted out by the mysterious White Lotus organization, who are hesitant to believe that she might be the new Avatar. Much like her older self, young Korra is confident in herself as she proudly proclaims “I’m the Avatar now and you gotta deal with it!” and the ripe old age of…well we don’t know how old she is but she looks like a toddler in this scene.

Skip ahead quite some time and we see a teenage Korra taking her fire bending test and passing it with flying colors. Though, there is one problem that her master notice: she lacks restraint and proper thought. Korra is a head first type of girl who wants things to go her way and if they’re not going her way, she’ll make them go her way. Despite these grievances, she passes her test and now has but one element left to master…air bending.

We’re introduced to Tenzin, who is Aang and Katara’s son, as well as his wife and their three air bending kids. (Tenzin’s wife is also pregnant, so there’s another one on the way the wife hopes isn’t a bender) The three kids are pretty cute and hilarious and the creators of the show do a nice job of poking fun at the fans. “Whatever happened to Zuko’s mom?” asks Jinora, one of Tenzin’s daughters. Fans of the original show will know that never finding out what the heck actually happened to Zuko’s mom and why she went missing before the series began has been a lingering question since the series ended.

Tenzin is voiced by J. K. Simmons, a veteran actor many might know as Jameson from the original Spider-Man trilogy. And that’s just wonderful. He does an amazing job of playing the stern yet loving son of Aang and is going to be a very welcome addition to an already amazing cast. Plagued by three rambunctious air bending kids, Tenzin pleads for his mother’s help in dealing with them at times. (which naturally leads to some amusing situations as the youngest demands “Unhand me, strange woman!”)

Not too many of the main cast of characters are introduced in this first episode, but we still get to see Lin Bei Fong, daughter of Toph, the blind earth bender from the original series. Lin has no tolerance for Korra’s foolishness in dealing with gangsters and helping people, she somehow seems very bitter towards the Avatar. I can’t help but wonder whether this is bitterness is because Korra is still so young or whether or not there’s a deeper underlying reason. Either way, the two are not off to a good start. Their initial meeting has a lot of tension and condescension going around on both sides, but at the same time Korra seems to want Lin to respect her, her heart’s in the right place, but it seems being the Avatar isn’t going to her Lin’s respect and the two might be forced to work with each other against their own will later on in the series.

Going back to Korra, can I just say how groundbreaking it feels that the main character in a boy’s action TV series is a girl? No, seriously, it’s amazing and I applaud them for it. Korra’s a strong and quirk main character, someone I’m going to have a ton of fun watching. She has an amazing voice behind her, comedian Janet Varney, not someone known for voice acting. There’s a raw, untempered quality to Korra’s voice and I think this was maybe what the production was going for in getting a relative newbie to voice her. Korra feels like a real girl, not like a stereotype or someone who isn’t deeper than the few words you can use to describe her at first glance. Ostensibly she isn’t Aang in any sense, but there’s a part of her that feels so much like Aang and maybe this is because she’s his reincarnation. Korra feels like someone who wants to fit in and wants people to like her. She’s going to be a great hero, it’s just going to take some time.

Every good series needs an antagonist and we’ve got the mysterious Amon to fill this role out quite nicely here. While the streets of Republic City seem to be run by gangs (and how nice is it that tolerance between races has grown so much that different benders can be in the same gang?) Amon is the definite threat here. We don’t see much of him in the first episode, but he still has a presence and I can’t help wonder who he is behind the mask. He’s heading up an anti-bender rebellion, a group championing the rights of the common man who believes the benders have taken advantage of them and are treating them like second class citizens and if the first episode is any indication, people are going to be swayed to their cause.

I can only hope the series grows even stronger than what the first episode gave us. There is so much promise all over the place that I’ve got incredibly high hopes for it. There is so much untested water here that we’re really going to be able to experiment with so much new ground. The series is only set for 26 episodes at this point, but given how popular Avatar has been in the past, I get the feeling this might change. After all, originally we were only getting 12 episodes before it was given a second season order. Either way, the future looks very bright for the Avatar world and this seems to be the first step into the future for both the series and the franchise.

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