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Dig Deep : Why “Korra” is a better series than “The Last Airbender”

It has been a tremulous three years, but The Legend of Korra has finally come to its conclusion.  A conclusion that is receiving a big reaction from fans and non fans alike. If you watch enough TV these days, you may be familiar with the notion of a ship.  A ship is the desired romantic relationship between two characters of a show. Some of the more famous ships in TV history are : Racheal and Chandler from friends (Rachandler), Jack and Sam from Stargate SG1 (Jam), Cory and Topanga from Boy Meets World (Copanga). The Legend of Korra ended with the confirmation of a popular ship between Korra and Asami (Korasami).  A relationship that was hinted at many times throughout the show, especially in the final season. It started as a long shot, with many fans being convinced the show would never go there. They weren’t wrong to think that.  Outside of some Japanese anime, there has never been a gay relationship on the main stage of any american cartoon show. The show creators decided to go there, and I think the show is ultimately better for it. For a show that had such a successful predecessor and yet carve its own road in rich and engaging way.

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It’s predecessor “The Last Airbender” is probably one of the most beloved modern-day cartoons. A fictional world where people learned how to manipulate the elements of nature, referred to as bending. Four basic elements can be bent: Water, Earth, Fire and Air. Each element has a respective nation, primarily filled with people who could bend that element.  Every generation, a single person is gifted with the unique ability to control all four elements. This person is refered to as the Avatar, and is tasked with keeping the balance between the nations. In an effort to conquer the world, the fire nation waited for the current Avatar to pass away. Knowing that the next avatar would be born from the Air Nation. The fire nation exterminates the entire air nation.  Hoping to break the cycle, and not have to worry about an Avatar interfering with their plans of world domination. Aang manages to avoid the genocide and is frozen for several years. He awakens to find out the horrible fate of his nation and to not only embrace his destiny as the Avatar, but also as the last known air bender in the world.

Nickelodeon couldn’t have expected it’s over whelming success. It was averaging around 3 million viewers each episodes, with the series finale breaking all type of records. It won a few Annie Awards which is like the Oscars for animation, and some Emmy nominations to boot. The commercial and social success of the avatar series made some kind of sequel a no brainer. Choosing to instead start a new series chronicling the life of a new avatar was a risky bet. The original avatar was a surprise success, it didn’t have many mountains to climb. The Legend of Korra would have to climb the mountain established by its own back story. So how did it do? That is a very complicated answer that I’m gonna hope to clarify for you. The Legend of Korra did not enjoy the same success of its predecessor. In some ways, that’s justly deserved and sometimes it’s not. The Legend of Korra spans four seasons, but it was initially slated for just one. It wasn’t meant to be a full on sequel to The Last Airbender.  It was meant to be a one shot, to give people a perspective on results of everything that happened in the Last Airbender.

A tough act to follow

The Last Airbender only had three seasons: Water, Earth, Fire. Each season being synomous with an element the main character was trying to learn. Many people expected a final chapter entitled Air. How the show writers would have done in this in the current characters would probably been challenging. The Legend of Korra was thier way of giving the fans the Air chapter they wanted. Every avatar is suppose to go on a prigalemage to each nation and learn to master every element. While the previous series saw Aang go through his entire pilgrimage, The legend of Korra begins at the ends of hers. She has already mastered 3 out of the 4 elements. The last element she has to learn is Air Bending. However, much has changed in this new generation. Korra will come across problems her previous Avatars never had to encounter, or at the very least chiefly confront. This is where the show actually begins to carve a section for itself.

This confrontation of issues is why the Legend of Korra will ultimately be remembered as the stronger series. It immediately starts with Korra herself. Cartoons rarely have a female protagonist. We could get into a very social debate about why this is. There is an expression used “Girls will watch shows about Boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls”. This edict changes dramatically as we get older, but there is still strong evidence of it being the case now. However, Nicklodeon choose to take that first step. Making Korra a woman was a statement. The avatar is a symbol of strength in this universe. The strongest living being in the world is a woman. You’d be hard press to find an adult show that will go out on that kind of limb from the begining even today.

Nicklodeon accepted the challenge, but they weren’t 100% in the water. Some concessions were made. Korra has some “TomBoy” features. She is very physical and confrontational, attributes normally associated with a male character. Her attire is mostly masculant unless the occasion was formal enough to require a gown. You gotta take what you can get, if thats the trade off they had to make to make Korra a reality, then it was worth it. Fortunately, the show creators didn’t let that stop them from giving Korra some real issues to work with. She deals with love, insecurities, politics, etc.. and she doesnt confront them all like a “Man” would. Korra is a her own woman and deals with situations in a very believable manner.

One of Korra’s earliest challenges is gaining the confidence of the people with her ability to be the Avatar. The show creators never make a direct connection attributing this lack of confidence to Korra being a woman, but you can read between the lines here. Alot of some of the early complaints you have is that Korra isn’t being decisive enough, will she be strong enough, etc. The people wanted her to prove she can be the Avatar. Aang proved himself by defeating the entire fire nation. Korra is starting from scratch, and the reverence the people had for Aang didn’t carry over one bit for Korra. The show immediately throws Korra and us for that matter in unfamiliar water. Korra learns of the growing concern of non benders in the community. Not everyone can bend, and it’s actually a minority of people who can bend in the first place. To show us this perspective of an oppressed majority? Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be the only one, a lot of people made a connection to how familiar the first season of Korra is to Occupy WallStreet. I’m not here to say there is a direct correlation between the two events, but we can say its a real adult concept. A concept being tackled head on by a cartoon show on Nickelodeon.

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The Avatar series in general has always had some pretty heavy-handed themes going for it. If you take a moment to think about the last airbender, you can almost see how it may not have been a show initially meant for children. Aang is the last of his people, not by some strange happen stance. His people suffered a genocide bought on maliciously by a powerful government. Aang survives this genocide because he ran away from his home shortly before it happened. He ran away because the gravity of the responsibilities of being the avatar effected him. His story therefore begins with him having extreme insecurities , he is nation less, everyone he has every known is gone. You see him struggle with this from time to time, but it never in depth. At the end of the day, it was a cartoon and people treated it as such. M. Night Shamalyan directed a live action version of it. Whether he just interpreted the material more seriously, or fell victim to the “everything must be gritty” motif hollywood loves right now. The movie was much more serious in tone than the cartoon. The movie was not received well by fans, it wasn’t the only thing he got wrong but it may have been the most egregious. Aang is only 12 years old in the original series, his youth may have been the reason some of the more serious tones weren’t perceived as such.  Korra starts the series at a much more mature age of 17.

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Through out the next few seasons we see Korra experience alot of different issues. This includes and is not limited too: Participating the hostile occupation of her own naton, Dealing with segregation issues, Gorilla terrorist organization, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Military unification campaign to over throw it’s current monarchy government. These are very complex issues and are in no way shape or form black and white. They are all various shades of grey, and it’s something the typical cartoon show stays away from. It isn’t a coincidence that most cartoon show antagonist try to take over and/or destroy the world. Thats a very easy issue to comprehend, and even easier to route for the righteous side. Korra’s struggles through out the series constantly ask the question if she is actually right in how she wants to handle it. It’s all a matter of perspective, it makes for some really compelling episodes.

Team Avatar selfie? Why not

So what went wrong? If Korra is as deep as I claim it is. Why isn’t it as popular as the original series. There are two main reasons for this. The first is, that it doesn’t feel fun as the original series. I’m sure this was done on purpose, choosing to go for a more serious tone. The characters are much more jovial, even when in dire situations. The strength of the original series were characters, and that’s what people ultimate keep coming back to a show for. While Korra is a very strong and complex character. The same can’t be said in confidence for her supporting cast. They aren’t bad, they just pale in comparison to the original cast. They literally live in the shadow on Aang’s team avatar. The second reason unfortunately doesn’t have much to do with the quality of the show. Nickelodeon put Korra right in the middle of the TV scheduling gauntlet. The first season of the show aired on the Saturday morning time slot. It was moved to friday evenings for season 2 and its rating dropped. All the while, it was being heavily promoted online. Every episode was available to watch from Nickelodeon.com, sometimes even before it aired on TV. The streaming numbers proved to be strongest, so they took Season 3 off the air and made it online only. Every season seemed to get shorter promo time before airing, with the final season premiering online just a few short months after season 3. The good news is, years from now people won’t remember the schedule fiasco of the series.  Instead it will judge it on its actual content.

What you ultimately have is the show that I think The Last Airbender wanted to be. A cartoon that dealt with some complex issues. Korra was able to build itself on the foundation of the success of Aang literally and figuratively. This doesn’t mean Korra is flawless. It has issues just like any piece of media. I think it will open the door for animation to be taken more seriously in America. Animation is already a well-respected medium in countries like Japan or South Korea. They have animations dealing with a diverse set of issues as wide and engaging as live action television. Cartoons in america have been labeled as “For the Kids” thing for a little too long. Even if cartoons never quite become a medium for adults in america. There is still something to be gained from exposing children to a little bit more than slapstick humor. If we don’t limit the content, and shoot for high quality. We can explore deeper themes while still maintaining a high entertainment value.

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