The Legend of Korra: Book 1 – Air

Where next? A successful fantasy series has built up a substantial following. Both writers and viewers (in this case but the same is true in abstract for readers) have invested time in world building and understanding the lore of the setting. Characters were engaging and the plot reached its necessary conclusion. It’s all done but fans would like more…

The pitfalls of trying to reproduce success are legion and there are dangers in simply producing more of the same and dangers in trying something different that builds on the past success. Personally I prefer bold failures to timid repeats and I think The Legend of Korra managed to surpass ‘bold failure’.

I didn’t watch any episodes properly when the series first aired but after recently watching the whole of Avatar:The Last Airbender, it was the right time to watch the follow up series. As with its predecessor, the show is scattered across streaming services in Australia and Book 2 is only available via iTunes. With some perseverance I managed to see all of the seasons without piracy.

[Spoilers for The Legend of Korra Book 1 follow]

Book 1 was a plethora of interesting decisions. The first being the obvious intent to pitch the show at an older audience – not that the original Avatar was purely for kids. The original Avatar had some episodes concentrated on older teenagers/young adults but these were focused on Prince Zuko and his sister. The new dynamic borrowed from aspects of popular Young Adult genre works, and the growing popularity of genre works that had featured young women in action roles.

The second decision was to move the world on. The world building in Avatar had been cleverly economical – a lot of the necessary info-dump could be done in the opening credits. The Legend of Korra was never going to match that elegance. Sensibly the writers followed through on the logic of the previous world show – a world that was both magical but also industrialising. The downside was that Book 1 enters a more familiar setting. Republic City is an parallel New York with a bit of 1920’s Shanghai thrown in. Where Avatar’s setting largely felt like their own places with inspiration from China and Japan, Republic City is a more overt borrowing.

An older audience also means a more morally complex plot. Instead of an epic fight against a tyrannical nation, Book 1 pitches Korra into a conflict with Amon, the leader of a quasi-left revolutionary organisation called the “Equalists”.

I finished Book 1 feeling not wholly satisfied. Amon is exposed as being not what he seems, the reveal of his backstory (and the backstory of the secondary villain) arrives by somebody simply explaining who Amon actually is (the child of a former gangster with blood bending powers). The love triangle, the threat to Republic City and late-in-the-story loss of Korra’s powers are then quickly wrapped up in the last part of the final episode. These plot choices were clearly made with questions about how many episodes the show would get. So interesting loose ends aren’t left to dangle. Understandable but a shame – Korra starting Book 2 with only her airbending intact would have given her a more pressing need to engage with the spirit world.

Eventually, the Spirit World will become the arc across the seasons but in Book 1 that was not apparent. We’ll get to that but for the moment, Korra’s world is not only more modern in a simple sense but it is also one more focused on modernity. It’s a show set in a city with inventors and industrialists and Korra’s powers, while psychic, are mainly physical.

By the end of Book 1, Korra is a defender of a status quo of technological change and capitalist progress. If the show had stopped there then it would be a nicely produced sequel but not terribly remarkable. The only clue that this was misdirection by the writers was that the shows theme of Korra being somebody who was trying to work out who and what they should be was already established. The end of Book 1 has an answer to that question but it’s not an answer that will stick.

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4 thoughts on “The Legend of Korra: Book 1 – Air

  1. I’ve always felt the Equalists were more fascists with leftists, especially with the revelation that the Avatarverse’s Henry Ford is one of their backers…

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    1. The underlying ideology was only weakly sketched and there was an implication that non-benders had a legit grievance about the political power of benders (remedied by the council disbanding and being replaced by an elected President). I think the movement was intended to be coded as left wing-populist but being cynically manipulated. The hidden support by Future Industries does make it seem more rightist though.

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      1. The people of Republic City have genuine grievances over numerous issues that the Equalists are quick to color as “Benders versus non-Benders” even though a cursory examination suggests their spin’s a fairly gross simplification. Consider Mako and Bolin, two Benders being exploited by the non-Bender owner of the stadium. With their cult of personality around the leader, and armed elite paramilitary, the Equalists always fundamentally struck me as a fascist movement in its early street-fighting days using a lot of “third way” rhetoric.

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      2. Fair point – the equalist exploit economic inequality and redirect it to a different conflict ie a classic fascist move in its populist form but… benders aren’t an ethnic group & do form a kind of caste division in the societies. Benders dominate priesthood’s, aristocracies (at least in fire nation) military and in Republic City metal bending is entry to the police force. There are poor benders but typically bending ability provides some degree of privilege on top of your class

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