Welcome to Republic City
What is the Legend of Korra? It’s a question that has confounded fans ever since the sequel series to Avatar started in 2012. A piece of the puzzle that has mostly driven the divided response to the newer show, how as an audience, are we supposed to react to a piece of art that is more ambitious, more uneven, and more daring. Upon reflection it was a bit like having The Last Jedi air for four consecutive seasons. Bewildering many, but enthralling others to the extant in which Korra truly altered the world we had come to know and love through Avatar.
There are many frames with which to view Korra, and I think a bit of context is always important. One is as a piece of franchise redemption, when Korra was announced in 2010 it was mere months after the reviled film adaptation. With a single piece of art and a promise from the creators this show was seen as a piece of entertainment to restore the now tattered legacy of the franchise. This pressure ultimately damaged Korra’s reception, as it put undue stress on tv series that had different goals.
And those goals were to etch out a unique position in the world of kids’ television. If Avatar was unique in its dedication to complex worldbuilding and long form story arcs, Korra was going to a be a different beast. As first proposed Korra was going to be a one-off miniseries, twelve tightly packed episodes each written by Mike and Bryan, and directed by Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu. In a way it’s the first example of the prestigious miniseries for kids. Years before True Detective, Fargo, and Watchmen became the standard bearers of excellent television. Unfortunately the production of Korra evolved into something bigger and messier, a show with three series finales, and no clear through-line until the third season. It irritates to see what could have been consistently amazing brought down by consistent network meddling.
Korra’s other big distinction is its tone. Where Avatar sought to be the thoughtful child friendly version of Lord of the Rings, the world of Korra is much different. It’s easy to get lost in the haze of time, but the show was announced at the height of YA dominating the culture. In the swirl of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games it makes sense that Korra is distinct in it’s style and tone from Avatar, especially in the first season. Gone is the majestic sweep of epic fantasy, and in come the impressionistic hues and romanticism of urban modernity. This is a show of the world in flux, even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface.
All these factors also collate to what I think the eventual main theme of Korra ends up being. If Avatar is the story of Aang becoming the Avatar, than Korra is the story of the Avatar becoming Korra.
This thematic hook is reflected in the show’s very first moments, before we even know Korra’s name she blows in on screen, bending multiple elements and boldly proclaims that, “I’m the Avatar, and you gotta deal with it.” It’s a meta bit of winking, highlighting to the audience that this is a different story with different priorities than Avatar, but the brashness, to many, turned out to be a turnoff.
The world Korra comes into is one shaped by Aang, but looks completely different. Where previously we saw The Four Nations in the grand brush of epic fantasy, here it’s presented as a jazz age, steampunk, noir dream. Swirling and inky colors highlighting a world that now lives with technology and the fantastic. For all of the issues Korra as a show has, it’s design and world are always lush and beguiling.
Indeed the bulk of “Welcome to Republic City” is demonstrating how the world is different after seventy years of nominal peace and progress. Like many a cliched story about a large metropolis, the show paints Republic City in loving and contrasting hues, a place where everyone can live, or struggle, equally.
Korra’s rush to the city is built on her need to master airbending. Proficient at all the other elements since a young age, she has yet to produce a puff of air to save her life. Her bullish personality clashing with the needed spiritual peace to achieve the ability of the element of freedom. Tenzin, Aang’s youngest and only airbending child, comes to visit Korra at the South Pole, but the visit is short and contrite. He’s a politician in Republic City and he can’t leave the city to teach the Avatar, a problem considering he’s the only airbending master in the world.
This problem is compounded by Korra’s compound. The White Lotus has shed their identity as a secret organization and looks now to protect Korra at all costs, a reversal to prevent something like Aang’s disappearance. It has allowed Korra to gain prodigious talent as a physical fighter, but has held her in ignorance about the world at large, the population she must eventually serve,
So with older Katara’s council she busts out of her home and heads up north to Republic City to find her way to Tenzin and begin her studies. Upon entrance to the grandeur of the urban environment Korra is immediately thrown off her goals. The bulk of the episode dedicated to a simple idea, a person of power entering into a local with already established systems can’t just bust everything up.
She can’t buy food because she has no money, which why would she have fungibles on hand, she’s the messiah. She’s chased out of the park by a beat cop for fishing. She gets in an argument with a spokesperson for the anti-bending Equalists, a group who rails against her ability. She has some hot words for the protestor, but can’t actually facilitate any resolution.
Even when a group of gangsters attack a shop, and she responds in kind, it’s not so simple as she caught the crooks and wins the day. Indeed Korra is a source of a lot of wreckage in the city, tearing up roads, smashing windows, and dealing out a bit of extrajudicial attacks because she is the most important person of the world. But that’s not how modernity works, there’s a process to life in Republic City, and her shenanigans lead her to the hands of Lin Beifong. Toph’s daughter and top cop in the metropolis.
Lin’s exasperated by Korra’s actions. Lin already has to deal with the day-to-day tumult of city living, and adding a super powered person to the churn of daily life doesn’t inspire confidence in Lin. Luckily Tenzin comes in to break up the confrontation. The air master is understandably pissed at Korra, but eventually cools to her thinking. Korra needs to be a part of the world, and that means being in Republic City to learn airbending. It’s going to be tough, but it has to be done.
With all these pieces arranged we get one final drop, Amon. The mysterious masked leader of the Equalists seems quite enthused about Korra’s appearance, motivating a quickening progress to his established plans.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Korra undoubtably has one of the craziest stacked casts in the history of television aimed at kids. In the first episode alone we have two Academy Award winners with J. K. Simmons (Tenzin) and Eva Marie Saint (Katara). What’s wild is that there are even more as the series progresses.
- Tenzin’s kids question Katara about what happened to Zuko’s mom, but she gets quickly interrupted.
- There are many production upgrades in the move from Avatar to Korra, but my favorite is the inclusion of a live instrument score. Which now swings wildly from heroic sweep, to thrilling and cacophonous jazz.
- Korra is named after Dee Bradley Baker’s daughter Cora, who indeed voices baby Korra.
- The extended opening sequence of the premiere includes an image of OG Team Avatar. Amusingly its an upgraded version of the painting Sokka makes in the series finale.
A Leaf in The Wind
The second episode of Korra is more or less a thematic extension of the first one. The two together don’t exactly form a singular narrative, but they serve a singular purpose. Reorient the viewer to the new modernized world of Republic City, and what that means for our characters and world building.
Here we hone in on Korra’s struggles with airbending, and compares that with how changes in societies relationship with bending change. You see even though Korra’s is now in Tenzin’s care, she’s still enamored with world outside the confines of her new home on Air Temple Island. She giddily reads the newspaper and listens to the radio about the hot new sport Pro-bending. A sensation swept aside by Tenzin’s insistence on peace and quiet to focus Korra’s thoughts.
Here we run into a bit of problem. You see Korra and Tenzin are both trying to force the issue of airbending. Because Tenzin has only had to teach his children (Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo), he’s kind of out of his depths when connecting with Korra. Relying on practices that might have worked for him and Aang, but not on others. Thus we get multiple examples of Korra literally slamming her head into a wall while trying to airbend. First she clatters through the spinning gates meant to reinforce the movements of airbending, and then we see her unable to meditate. It’s the pigheaded response of someone who has had everything else come easily to her, and it highlights one Korra’s greatest weaknesses: act first talk later.
As such she decides to rebel in a very teenage way, and sneak out in the dead of night to catch a few rounds of Pro-bending. Once in the arena she gets front row seats from the amenable earthbender from the Fire Ferrets: Bolin. Bolin’s a bit of a well meaning klutz, and his outgoing personality clashes with the more coolheaded and resigned brother and teammate Mako. Together they form striking duo that tears asunder previous conceptions of the world. Here are siblings with different bending abilities, a greater reinforcement of the melting pot nature of republic.
The Fire Ferrets take the stage with the tempestuous teammate Hasook, and Korra gets a front row view for her first Pro-bending match. Now Pro-bending might be another entry in what I like to call “The Quiddicth Conundrum,” or why focus on a seemingly inconsequential piece of world building (here a sport) while the real plot churns in the background. It’s a reasonable question to ask, but I think Pro-bending works for a few reasons.
One is that it pulls Korra and the viewers into the world of Republic City and considers what the populace might enjoy as a pass time. Outside of the Earth Rumble in Avatar we never saw what a normalized professional sport would look like, and Pro-bending provides a clean and clear way of demonstrating that. It also allows for us to investigate how Korra views her position in the world. When she is pulled into the Fire Ferrets as a ringer, she immediately runs into the problems of rules and regulations. It’s similar to what happened in the premiere: Republic City is a place that already has systems in place and Korra cannot come in and punch her way through those.
That’s why the culmination in the end makes sense, even if comes on a tad quick (a common refrain you’ll hear in this first season). Korra has not been taught about the variance and possibility of bending in the modern world. To whit when Bolin teach Korra some new earthbending techniques they emphasize a light and gymnastic approach, counter to the grounded world of the traditional style. So from Pro-bending Korra makes a connection to airbending. This is a world where one has to be light on their feet to maneuver in the field, and such movements reflect the ins and outs of the training gates.
This conclusion demonstrates how both Korra and Tenzin accidentally forced an issue that could have come naturally. They are decent people by nature, but the unbearable weight but on them by the legacy of Aang can sometimes crush their good intentions, both have tempers, and realize a balance of forthright action and reflection is needed to make progress.
And in the final moments we get to once again see the sweep of the city, glowing in gold brown hues, plunging us into a world of the future and possibility.
Odds and Ends
- This episode introduces one of my favorite things from the show: the episode recap. Here presented as an old timey newsreel with original dialog written for the narrator to recite. It’s such a creative way to work in something that might be considered extraneous.
- Coming right off Avatar, it’s still so novel to watch characters in this world read newspapers and listen to radios.
- The announcer for the Pro-bending matches does a great job replicating the fast talk response from period boxing matches.
- All the teams having amusing animal titles is a great touch. Tough night for the Platypus Bears.
- The filmmaking has been vastly upgraded with stylistic camera moves and techniques like splitscreen.
- A few tidbits here and there. We see the newspaper Korra is reading has articles on Beifong, Amon, and upcoming players Tarrlok and Tahno. Always fun to see stuff seeded early on.