Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Legend of Korra," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far.

"The Legend of Korra" has always struck me as being a little too concerned about being distinctive. It spent the first two seasons exploring corners of the "Avatar" universe that we hadn't seen before - Republic City and the Spirit World. While this was all fine and good, I always thought that it was a shame that "Korra" didn't make more use of the places and characters we'd gotten to know in "Avatar: The Last Airbender." Sure, too much of these elements would have been a terrible distraction, but they still held so much potential. The third season finally gave me what I wanted, sending Korra, Tenzin, and the rest on an eventful journey through some familiar territory, and encountering old friends from the previous series. And I'm glad that they waited until now to do it, after the characters and their relationships have all been pretty well established, and the writers understand how they work.

Because even better than opening up the rest of the "Avatar" world for adventuring, I'm happy to report that "Korra" finally has all the little issues with its core cast ironed out. Take Mako and Bolin for example. They spend a significant chunk of the year off on their own, but the two of them have each other to play off of. After getting tepid romance storylines and a mediocre investigation subplot, Mako finally feels like a well-rounded, consistent, and likeable human being. He's firmly established as the straight-arrow straight-shooter who serves as the straight man to goofy Bolin, and the brothers have never been better onscreen. Then there's Asami, who was sadly wasted too often the Other Woman during the first season, and mostly sidelined for the second. She and Korra get paired up this year, becoming a formidable action duo and kickass besties. Korra herself has worked through a lot of her adolescent growing pains, though not all of them, and is more competent, more levelheaded, and living up to her Avatar press more than ever. She's also much easier to root for than she has been in the past, not being saddled with wonky characterization and messy personal arcs. This is also the best season for Tenzin and Jinora, who get to grow so much by being placed in very different situations than we've seen them in before.

The stronger characterization reflects a big improvement in the show's writing. "Korra" has been at a comparative disadvantage to the original "Avatar" series for many reasons, the biggest being that it doesn't have that one, epic, overarching storyline building up through multiple seasons. There hasn't been anything nearly as compelling as Aang's fight against the Firelord, but the third season of "Korra" offers a narrative that puts it in the same ballpark. This year we learn that the opening of the Spirit Portals at the end of the last season unexpectedly gives many non-benders the ability to airbend. So Korra and Tenzin set out to rebuild the Air Nation, journeying through the Earth Kingdom to recruit new airbending students. However, one of the new airbenders is a villain named Zaheer, whose new powers allow him to escape from prison, free his associates - three of the most powerful benders in the world - and rally their forces to come after Korra and her friends. Zaheer isn't particularly more evil or interesting than past baddies like Amon, but he's ruthlessly effective, and willing to take extreme measures.

And four new high-powered bender villains means spectacular bending battles in abundance. The action scenes this year are so much fun, more intense and more dramatic than ever. Studio Mir's animation is great stuff, and the designs are fantastic. I especially like the new waterbender Ming-Hua, who has no arms but can make herself water tentacles to compensate. We're also introduced to other characters like a street kid, Kai, who is one of the new airbenders, and the Metal Clan, a group of metalbenders who have created their own city. Not everyone gets as much screentime as I'd have liked, but it's all well balanced and everyone is thoughtfully used. Tenzin's siblings, for example, really only feature in three or four episodes, but the show gets a lot of mileage out of their appearances. Kya's not particularly important to the season, for instance, but she's one half of one of the best action sequences of the entire series.

I'm glad that there's still one season left of "Korra" to go, because it's finally the series that I was hoping for, and I'm very excited about where it's going. Year Three ends on a semi-cliffhanger, and there has been a lot of groundwork laid for a truly exceptional finale. I doubt we'll be getting another sequel series, considering Nickelodeon's puzzling handling of the distribution this year, so Year Four will most likely be our goodbye to the entire "Avatar" franchise. It's a bittersweet eventuality, but I can't wait to see more of "Korra."

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