Quick! Make a list of action-packed cartoons for kids that still manage to scratch the spiritual and sociopolitical itches of older viewers caught between perpetual war and Occupy populism.
Now put The Legend of Korra, the stunning sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, at the top of that list.
In the animated show’s fantastic first season, which ends Saturday morning on Nickelodeon with back-to-back episodes “Skeletons in the Closest” and “Endgame,” Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konieztko’s tough new heroine Avatar Korra has navigated a refreshing bildungsroman during a full-blown war between the haves and the have-nots. That is, the Benders who have the elemental power to bend earth, air, fire and water to their will, and the Equalists who have not.
“It’s a really strong series because it presents important messages and lessons that are relevant to personal and social relationships and challenges today,” actor P.J. Byrne, who voices comic-relief earthbender Bolin, told me. “Its core message is not about trying to exploit power differences between the haves and have-nots. It says that real power is what you have between your ears and how you choose to use it, that your life is defined by the richness you create in the world you choose to live in.”
DiMartino and Konietzko‘s acclaimed Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the smartest, sweetest cartoons ever made. And the first season of The Legend of Korra has lived up to its progenitor’s pedigree, taking us on an alternately riveting and hilarious ride packed with fantasy naturalism, steampunk grandeur, kinetic conflicts, sci-fi weaponry and self-aware comedy. The velocity has only increased with each new episode.
But with the determined rise of mysterious supervillain Amon — whose ability to wipe benders of their elemental powers seems just a few inches shy of mind-rape — The Legend of Korra has achieved a powerful technopathic upgrade of The Last Airbender’s rich mythology.
Though she is the most powerful being in DiMartino and Konietzko’s elemental universe, Korra has spent her first season realizing it takes much more than power to achieve a utopia free of charismatic totalitarians like Amon. It takes friendship — watch Korra and the firebender Mako share a quiet moment before the storm in the clip above — and stewardship as well. Especially when it comes to the environment that provides us all with the resources we’re sadly too quick to abuse alongside our power.
“The power of The Legend of Korra‘s natural world is dealt with in a way that demonstrates respect for the enormity of its elements,” said Byrne. “It’s similar to the challenges we face today in managing the resources of our own planet. And just so you know, Bolin intends to run for president in Season 33.”
Now that The Legend of Korra‘s impressive Book One has ended, DiMartino and Konietzko are feverishly at work on preparing the second season for its much-anticipated 2013 return to the airwaves.
All ages are welcome, and all minds will be wiped — thankfully not by Amon.
“The biggest surprise to me has been its appeal to such a hugely diverse demographic,” Byrne said. “The writers have developed at least a dozen intricate characters with broad appeal across multiple ages, allowing fans to dial into the dialog, metaphors and messages at different levels of sophistication.”
The usually energetic Byrne is predictably quiet on the forthcoming Book Two’s finer details, while DiMartino and Konietzko are openly inquisitive about a possible Book Three. “Those aren’t really the decisions that we make,” Konietzko told The Wall Street Journal, passing the buck to Nickelodeon. The network had better not fumble unless it wants to unleash the wrath of a cross-demographic fan base spoiled by that priceless rarity known as intelligent television.
Make their job easier. Drop into the comments section below and let us and them know your thoughts on The Legend of Korra‘s unfurling mythos. Was Book One a worthy successor to the Peabody-winning original series? Can Book Two come fast enough? Is Book Three an absolute necessity? With any luck we’ll bend minds more powerful than those of DiMartino and Konietzko, who could probably run their own network if Nickelodeon decides to pass on renewing their exemplary show.
This article appeared at Wired