Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra has been able to live up to the high expectations of children and adults alike with its reimagining of the world we fell in love with back when young Aang was the Avatar and the last airbender standing. The series transports us to a similar world that’s advanced nearly a century into the future, appearing aesthetically alike our world a century ago, at the onset of the industrial revolution in Shanghai or Manhattan. This forward-looking feat gives the new installment its own intrigue and outright coolness — elemental manipulation, martial arts, technology, and metropolitan surroundings coexisting makes for undeniably good animated television.
But the connection that the series tightly grips onto, to the continuity of Avatar: The Last Airbender and its well-deserved place in the hearts of many adoring fans, is what ensures that the new series, barely 4 episodes old, will not disappoint those seeking interesting and compassionate storytelling, playful humor, and fire and water and air and earth swirling about and blowing up and stuff. This is a kids show, after all. A good one but still. The bar may not be set very high to have younger fans to return to a franchise they’ve already been inoculated to love by ads, toys, and the interwebz.
It would seem that us kids (genuine youngsters and those of us who are still kids at heart despite the college loan repayments) have an eerily unmatched loyalty to legacies, even those that predate us. We flock to something like Transformers Animated, recently resurrected on Cartoon Network, for example, like clockwork, as if there was anything qualitatively good in any incarnation of the toy-based franchise since ’96 (a cheap shot but c’mon, Beast Wars FTW.) Marketers and toymakers exploit this brand loyalty every time they recycle and revamp a franchise. Fundamentally, if you re-animate it, they will come, even if they were too young or too fetus-y when it happened the first or even second time around. There was little doubt that The Legend of Korra would be some fraction of the hit that <The Last Airbender was. (And if it wasn’t we’d blame the film and M. Night Shyamalan. I’m from the internet and it’s my right.)
The fact that the series has carefully attempted to balance the established Avatar legacy with potentially potent new themes of social upheaval, class warfare, and anti-establishment sentiments reveals what some of us may have grown too cynical to want to believe as adults. There’s a magic in the familiar. This is not to say that we can ever go back. We can’t. Never. But there’s an interesting thing that occurs when something from our past jumps into our present. The juxtaposition of the times is unavoidable. Impending and catastrophic war between nations in 2005 becomes activism, protest, and revolution in 2012, whether it’s overt or not. The vehicles, when crafted as adeptly as the Avatar series, that delivered insight or perspective or excitement before will perennially deliver, relative to where we stand. In this most recent episode we get a glimpse of our friends Aang, Sokka, and Toph a bit older than we would remember, in a vision Korra had after, despite flame-kicking like crazy, being ambushed by chi-blocking ninjas and their anarchist leader. There’s awesome to be had in the interconnectedness of the past and the present. Smart kids know that. And their loyalty to the past is always uniquely forward facing because they usually have no other way to look at it.
The familiarity, even if it’s not their own (do you really remember how Sokka looks?), seems to be enough; and they may be right. The Legend of Korra certainly has the ability to stand on its own, separate from the Avatar franchise, as a quality show. The animation has already surpassed its predecessor (or maybe my TV wasn’t as good five years ago.) But what it provides for us as a continuation of a story that has already delivered on so many levels is richer and better taps into our rich pop cultural continuity. Whenever we see the statue of Avatar Aang in select shots of Republic City the notion that we’re all connected via electrified boxes in our homes, memories, belly laughs, peculiar vocabularies, and money we mutually and foolishly wasted is reinforced.
It’s a lofty claim, but think about it. If My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic had not the familiarity of Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, bronies would lose their anchor to the culture we share with them. We would all be at a lost.