No screencaps, obviously (you can’t screencap a theoretical show, after all). Let’s get a few of the things you might be worried about out of the way first (and yes, there are many spoilers in this post):
- Alive: Katara
- Dead: Aang, Sokka (definitely), everybody else (presumably)
- Zuko’s Mother: Audience severely trolled
I’ll presume for the sake of argument that if you’re reading this you know the basic premise of Avatar: The Last Airbender and watched the first series. I think this one will be somewhat difficult to follow at first if you haven’t, because creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko – known hereafter as “Mike and Brian” – are making that same presumption and not explaining a hell of a lot. A lot of the humor is pretty meta, too, so without a frame of reference for why something is supposed to be funny, I suspect you’ll feel like Picard the first time he heard “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.
As English-language TV cartoons go, the original TLA was one of the best – right there with ReBoot in my view as perhaps the very best – and the influence anime had on Mike and Brian is obvious and acknowledged. It was a three-year series with full continuity, in which the kids grew at a realistic rate and an elaborate, strongly Asian-themed mythology was laid out. The style was strongly Asian-themed, too, with it’s coming-of-age elements and superb soundtrack by The Track Team (who are back for Korra, delightfully). The voice cast was an excellent mix of age-appropriate youngsters and veteran actors who did a beautiful job bringing the characters to life. So what of the sequel? Well, in brief, I would say so far so good – for the most part.
This one is set 70 years after the end of TLA. Aang has passed from the world, and the new Avatar is Korra (Janet Varney) and while Aang was a lovable and gentle tween, Korra is a sharp-tongued, cocky and buff teenaged girl with a chip on her shoulder who’s already superb at bending water, fire and earth when the series finds her living with her Water Tribe family at the North Pole. Katara lives in the same village, and Korra’s main animal buddy is a “polar bear dog” named Naga. The job of teaching her airebending (and handling the narration) falls to Tenzin (the great J.K. Simmons), except that he can’t – his job as a Councilor in Republic City requires him to return there, and he doesn’t think it’s safe for Korra to accompany him. Apparently there’s also only one airbending master in this world as there was in Aang’s, and Tenzin – who happens to be Aang and Katara’s son (sorry, Zutarans) is it. So Tenzin returns to Republic City on his flying bison in the company of his pregnant wife and two daughters, Jinora (Kiernan Shipka) and Ikki (Darcy Rose Byrnes) and hyperactive son Meelo (Logan Wells). But under the encouragement of Katara (now voiced by film legend Eva Marie Saint) Korra and Naga follow a few days later by stowing away on a ship.
Republic City is actually one of the important characters in its own right, and it’s when “Korra” gets there that we truly realize just how different this world is from the one we left. Aang and Zuko founded the city as a beacon of equality and fraternity, but that seems to have gone wrong in recent years as enmity has arisen between the bending and non-bending population. Republic City has very real looking technology, too, and has a rollicking 1930’s look to it – cars with running boards, gangsters, art-deco buildings – perhaps equal parts Chicago and Shanghai – but with some very alien technology too, like metalbending cops who get around in airships. The leader of the cops is Lin Bei Fong (Mindy Sterling) who is, you guessed it, Toph’s daughter (Sokka’s, too?) She seems singularly unimpressed by Korra’s title when the girl arrives in town and stirs up trouble and Tenzin has to bail her out. Eventually the airbender relents and allows Korra to stay and train, but there are enemies awaiting the new Avatar, notably Amon (Steve Blum) the masked man who leads the “Equalists” who cast benders as the source of evil and inequality in Republic City, and Korra as the symbol of all their power.
In general, I think the premiere did a pretty good job of setting the stage, and captures some of the same feel that TLA did. What it hasn’t done yet is give me a good feel for the characters. Korra is a bit of a girl-power cliché at this point (and Varney sounds too old), though she certainly makes a thorough contrast with Aang. Tenzin is obviously also a crucial character, and he’s also a contrast with his father – solemn, serious and stern. Of his kids Meelo is the one cast member who most resembles Aang with his always-on personality and perpetual grin. There are going to be many more cast members introduced, chief among them a group of peers in her own age group for Korra to hang with in Republic City. There’s also the matter of “professional bending” which is apparently a popular sport in this world and certainly should add an interesting new element to the mix.
First episodes are hard, and I certainly didn’t feel an immediate emotional connection to this one, but that really isn’t a fair test as it usually takes time for characters to become more than abstractions. What I can say for sure is that the show looked great, and offered a very interesting twist on the “Avatar” universe we know and love. As to just how effective it is in turning that into a compelling story with engaging characters, we’ll just have to wait and see.