Legend of Korra.
I probably should have done this series by series, but in defence, this blog is less than a year old, so that - that might have involved time travel. Or a lot of very belated reviews (because I never do that. I don't have a review for the first Fable hanging around somewhere).
Legend of Korra, the sequel to popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, is set in a world of four nations, each of whom can manipulate one of the classical elements, and into which an avatar, who can manipulate (or 'bend') all four is born in a cycle of reincarnation. LoK specifically revolves around Korra, a young Water Tribe woman who is the current Avatar, working out of 1920s metropolis Republic City. Over the course of four series, she is drawn into conflict with a masked revolutionary, her uncle, an evil kite from before the dawn of time, a four man band of anarchists, and a self-styled Earth Empress.
I figure the best way for me to do this review is to run through it series by series, because to say that there is gigantic variation in quality over the course of the four series would be an understatement.
The first series, Air, has a promising start: Korra is a great character, and her supporting cast (stuffy air master Tenzin, cheerful earthbender Bolin and his gruff firebending brother Mako, non-bending tech genius Asami, and grumpy metalbending police chief Lin) is fun and has a lot of potential for development. The villains, Amon and the Equalists, are both intimidating and have the potential for depth and layers.
|Also, Amon has a neat mask.|
Where Air falls flat is in its usage of time. Instead of the twenty episodes a series that The Last Airbender had, Legend of Korra has twelve to thirteen episodes per series. That's potentially not a problem if you use that time wisely - I reviewed Psycho-Pass 2 yesterday, which managed to weave a compelling story with layered villains in eleven episodes - but Air doesn't. Instead, it focuses almost obscene amounts of time on storylines about bending-related sport pro-bending, and worse, terrible love triangles. I have not met a single person with a kind word to say about the love triangle plotline. In fact, it made a lot of people hate Mako. Including me.
The result is painfully little time devoted to the actual plot of the series, making it feel a little shallow and a little rushed in places. Time more judiciously used could have easily solved that problem.
|Well, that's kinda creepy, Korra.|
The second series, Spirits, also has a promising start: We have the love triangle plotline out of the way, and with Korra and Mako now dating, Mako's character starts to morph into something likeable again. Unfortunately, Spirits goes off the rails pretty quickly, introducing a character who is not only so obviously evil that it absolutely boggles the mind that anyone would be able to spend five minutes with him without immediately pegging that he's a wrong'un (seriously, at one point he issues sinister edicts from a shadowy throne), but whose motivations are also startlingly unclear.
As much as the series attempts to provide vague hints at a motive in the form of jealousy or a yearning for a new spiritual age, these all kind of fall flat once a character starts screaming about ten-thousand years of darkness, before merging with a vast, shadowy demon. The result is a series of two villains in which one is boring as beige and the other, being an ancient kite of evil, is just difficult to relate to.
Add to that that the story seems to have no idea where it's going in Spirits, veering off in a dozen of different and ever more bizarre directions (including a return of the love triangle plot, now with added amnesia! Yay), before culminating in two gigantic, glowing giants having a fistfight, in what might be the most bizarre series finale I see for a while.
Spirits does also bring us Beginnings, though, two episodes that are some of the best of the entire show. Telling the story of the first avatar, Wan, Beginnings manages to tell an epic, sweeping, and perfectly pitched story in just forty minutes.
|Wan is too adorable, I can't cope.|
The third series, Change, is where the series really starts to look up. All love triangle plots are gone, thank god, and instead Korra gets to face off against some really interesting villains. While Korra has always been an excellent character, even in less than excellent storylines, Change gives her supporting cast some much needed chances to shine, including an airbending duel between Tenzin and anarchist leader Zaheer; Bolin discovering lavabending (still absolutely nothing to do with one of his parents being a firebender, guys); Asami being tech-y and us getting to see her and Korra forming a deep friendship (eheh); Lin coming into conflict with her world leader sister Su; and Mako being gratifyingly quiet.
The villains are interesting, with their camaraderie and unique personalities much appreciated, and each one comes off as a genuine threat, both individually and as a group. Change also has what might be one of the most brutal series finales I've seen in a while, too, ending with Korra suffering the after-effects of mercury poisoning, along with PTSD and depression.
|Also, here's Korra and Asami.|
Lastly, the fourth series, Balance. If Change was where the series started to improve, Balance was where it hit its peak. While there was definitely a larger, world-ending plot afoot, involving new Earth Empress Kuvira (voiced by Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams) instituting a draconian, fascist rule of the former Earth Kingdom, Korra's own plot was for much of the series very personal. She spends half the series struggling with PTSD and depression, both illnesses you rarely see even touched upon in children's shows, and the show isn't shy about showing their devastating effects, or Korra's frustration at not being able to simply recover.
We also get a some excellent subplots. Bolin gets a subplot about being a soldier in Kuvira's army, and a member of her inner circle (although it becomes very frustrating how many situations he's in that could just be solved by melting the ground beneath the feet of his enemies - an ability that only he possesses in the entire world), while Mako gets a subplot about being the bodyguard for deposed and exiled Earth Prince Wu.
As far as the main plot goes, this was the series where it really struck me how well LoK does for having varied, important and powerful female characters. In the Zaofu arc of the series, every single one of the major players involved is a woman, including three world leaders and one divine entity. This isn't something that should be remarkable, but unfortunately television is gigantically sexist and quite often fails to meet even the bare minimum of passing the Bechdel Test, so I am definitely going to praise that.
Balance is well-paced, bar one clip show episode that was unavoidable due to funding issues, and has a stunning conclusion, culminating in a grand battle involving a gigantic robot, a small army of benders, smaller robots, spirit vines, and a duel between Kuvira and Korra. Balance's finale also has what may be one of the most important moments in children's television for a while: A canonical same-sex relationship between two bisexual women.
(Before anyone tries to tell me that the ending was just being friends, I want you to tell me of a single time when the final scene of any show depicted two people going on a holiday for 'just the two of them', before holding hands and turning to each other, while surrounded by golden light, as romantic music swells. I would also remind you that the The Last Airbender's final scene was a romantic moment as well.)
So that made me enormously happy.
Overall, definitely not a perfect show, but one I've enjoyed a lot, and especially so in the past year. The minds behind it haven't disclosed any plans for another series in the same universe, but I'd like them to come back to it. Maybe with a modern day Earth Kingdom avatar, I don't know.