Avatar: The Last Airbender proved itself the most compelling cartoon of the last decade. Now the beloved series’ creators have returned with a sequel, The Legend of Korra, a psychokinetic steampunk upgrade with a fearless female hero leading the charge.
“The main theme is the same with The Legend of Korra as it was with the original series: How does one find balance in themselves and balance in the world?” said Michael Dante DiMartino, who created the original series with Bryan Konietzko. “More specifically with The Legend of Korra, we are looking at the conflict between tradition and modernity.”
Inspired by mythic epics like The Lord of the Rings as much as by Japanese anime, Hong Kong action cinema, and Eastern philosophy, religion and martial arts, Avatar: The Last Airbender stunned viewers from 2005 to 2008 with seamless elemental fantasy based on “benders” who could manipulate water, earth, fire and air. Its precocious hero Aang, a peerless master of the bending arts, set out on a transformative journey to defeat the militarist Fire Nation — with a lot of help from his gifted friends Katara, Sokka, Toph and Zuko — in an animistic pre-industrial environment.
Taking place 70 years later in that same universe, The Legend of Korra, which premieres Saturday on Nickelodeon, thrusts its 17-year-old heroine into a bustling industrial metropolis called Republic City, a composite of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manhattan and Vancouver. As much as the athletic and optimistic Korra (voiced by Janet Varney) is a wide-eyed outsider from an icebound outpost, she’s also the most powerful being on a planet teeming with technology.
Instead of facing a fearsome elemental enemy, she goes up against the mysterious Amon (animation voiceover king Steve Blum), who weaponizes his words to move city-slicker masses no longer enthralled with bucolic benders hurling hurricanes, fireballs, ice sheets and boulders in public —- unless it’s for sport.
“Korra is so in love with her powers and thinks bending is the greatest thing in the world, so we thought the best antagonist to challenge a character like that would be Amon and his anti-bending revolution,” DiMartino said in an e-mail to Wired. “Since Korra isn’t a reluctant hero, like Aang was, the challenge was coming up with a problem that she couldn’t solve just by beating someone up, although she tries! Amon is able to sway people to his side with just his ideas. And the ideas of a world where benders are targeted by the enemy is a shock to this young Avatar, who comes of age in a world where bending skills are traditionally celebrated.”
Although no new bending powers get unearthed in The Legend of Korra‘s 26 episodes — sorry, no quantum benders! — the cool metal-bending discovered by Toph in the original series has come to the fore through an elite cadre of cops, led by her no-nonsense daughter, Chief Lin Beifong (voiced by Mindy Sterling). Her disapproval of Korra’s rough edges is smoothed out by the Avatar’s patient but harried mentor Tenzin (voiced by J.K. Simmons), son of Aang and Katara, whose reappearance establishes continuity between the two series and gives The Legend of Korra a decidedly feminist upgrade.
“Creating Korra was a natural extension of the original series, where there were several strong female characters,” said DiMartino. “So we thought, why not make the lead one of these females? But Korra’s journey is about tapping into more self-awareness, and the emotional and spiritual side of her existence.”
Although DiMartino said he doesn’t consider characters’ gender as important as their strengths and vulnerabilities, it’s hard to find another recent animated series that has provided so many complicated, riveting female characters in an entertainment landscape still populated with powerful males chasing divas in distress or being harassed by played-out harpies. But the solution to that obsolete model is easily within reach, according to DiMartino.
“The way to fix it is for creators and executives of television shows to put forth this kind of heroine more often,” he said.
Another patch is to pit these fearless females against more than dumb meatballs armed with bare-knuckle brawn. Amon — leader of the chi-blocking organization The Equalists, whose resemblance to the anarchist antihero from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s epochal comic V for Vendetta is purely coincidental, according to DiMartino — is a compelling foil for a female near the height of her awesome powers.
“There wasn’t any attempt to reference V for Vendetta,” DiMartino said. “Bryan and I are always interested in mysterious antagonists with masks — like the Blue Spirit in the original series — and masks have traditionally played a role in myths and fairy tales when it comes to antagonists hiding their true selves.
“Amon is meant to be a mysterious dude; no one knows exactly where he came from or what his ultimate goal is,” he added. “The story was designed so that the viewer discovers information about Amon along with Korra. I think the reason he is so fearsome is that Korra, and in turn the audience, doesn’t quite know who she’s dealing with or how she’s going to defeat him. It’s not a simple case of ‘beat up the bad guy and the hero wins.’ It’s much more complex.”
That complexity of character, setting, philosophy, tone and spirit set Avatar: The Last Airbender apart from all the U.S. series that siphoned off the cultural capital of Asian entertainment (and there have been too many to count). Like its decorated forebear, which won multiple Annies, an Emmy and even a Peabody for “unusually complex characters and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare,” The Legend of Korra promises to bend its way past every other animated series on television this year, judging from the first two episodes.
The show’s mythic concerns are timeless, and its creators display a healthy respect for global culture’s limitless storytelling possibilities. They aren’t afraid to employ them in a century more plugged in than ever, but still lacking in the necessarily reflective equilibrium that helps establishes healthy connections.
“We wrote the first season of The Legend of Korra well before the Occupy Wall Street movement, but there you had a large group of people who felt powerless up against a relatively small group of people in power,” DiMartino said.”For me, these ideas resonate with what’s going on in the world today. With technology growing and accelerating at a pace we can barely keep up with, what is the role of tradition? I’d love for kids to see that their lives don’t have to be controlled by technology, that it’s cool for them to go play outside and use their imagination!”
This article appeared at Wired