All right everyone. I know what you’re thinking: Alex is weird.
But you have to believe me on this one. If you’re a longtime reader of my little bloggy blog, you remember when I hailed Avatar: The Last Airbender as a rare show that did Star Wars better than Star Wars. Now the sequel is out, and it’s doing superheroes better than superheroes. The Legend of Korra is set in a few generations beyond the original series. It’s set in a steampunk-esque city where benders are on the verge of being outlawed and the world is no longer as simple as it was when Aang was the Avatar.
Here’s what I mean by ‘better than any superhero movie.’ It’s a clearer vision of what superhero stories set out to do in the first place: tell an inspiring story about the trials and tribulations of an exceptional individual tasked with using his (her!) gifts to do good in the world. I loved The Dark Knight as much as the next fool, but since when did superheroes need to be tortured? Since when did it become necessary to plumb the psychological obsessions of those who are gifted? Superheroes don’t need to be interpreted into reality, they need to exist in a world unto themselves.
The Legend of Korra does what superhero movies in the postmodern world can’t: it takes the traditional superhero story for granted. Of course heroes are good and villains are bad. Sometimes it takes children’s stories to reteach us what had become murky by ‘mature’ entertainment. The Legend of Korra is just that: an antidote for the gray we’ve outlined our heroes in. You root for Korra because she’s a hero. You want her to beat Amon because he’s bad. There’s not much more that needs to be read into the situation. As long as it’s well dramatized (it is), then it ends up being the sort of stand-up-and-cheer entertainment that you want from a summer blockbuster. It’s taking epic back to the Saturday morning serials where it began, and belongs.
First, to clear up some misconceptions:
1. It’s not Japanese: It’s animated by a Korean team that definitely capitalizes on the popularity anime currently enjoys in our nation’s youth, but the rest of the production is American: most importantly, American writers: most notably a couple of Family Guy and King of the Hill veterans. Unlike most poorly translated anime that defies logic, this show is clear and concise, excellently paced and the animation boasts top-notch choreography.
2. It’s for kids, but that doesn’t make it lame: Good kids’ entertainment is hard to come by, and when it’s done right, it’s good for the soul. Legend of Korra is a little more teen-focused but that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned the purity of the original or darkened its themes.
3. It’s not Yu Gi Oh or Pokemon or all those other weird concepts that get popular via toy/trading card sales and somehow appeal to kids’ desire for utter bizarro-worlds. The commonest shortcoming of most high-concept movies and TV shows is that they sell their premise over their story. Star Wars eventually fell prey to this unfortunate tendency in its prequels, abandoning themes and situations that naturally appeal to people in favor of hyper-popular fantasy tropes that become pervasive simply through a steady flow of marketing dollars and fan enthusiasm. Legend of Korra never overextends its premise (people who can psychically control the four elements) and sets it in a vibrant and well-realized Asian fantasy world that’s easy to comprehend and fun to explore.
The themes are currently running parallel to movies like The Incredibles. Turns out progress comes at a cost, and petty people can get the better of the gifted ones by organizing against the exceptional ones. The enemy is a city of faceless citizens who value equality over goodness. Beauty is exceptional and the struggle between the Benders and the Equalists is surprisingly well-crafted and profound. It’s a bold-lined cartoon interpretation of the problems of modernity and the curious condition of sacrificing a few good people for the comfort of the many. There are many parallels. My favorite interpretation comes in a line from the masked, despotic leader of the anti-Beinding Equalists, pointing out that Bending was the cause of all wars, a typical false apologetic among anti-religious fear-mongers.
Also fun are the fairly conservative and traditional (for the hybrid Buddhist/Shinto mythology they inhabit) airbending family the new Avatar comes to live with. Their austerity provides a great counterpoint to the city’s decadence. They even pray before dinner.
The Legend of Korra continues Avatar’s tradition of good dialogue, interesting mythology and top-notch animation. It’s in the top 5 best shows on TV. Good, clean, simple fun that will surprise you with its artistry, characterization and engaging plot. Don’t count it out. You’re going to love it.