For legions of Avatar fans in Fresno and all over the world, today is an exciting day. After a rather surprising announcement less than a week ago, the third season The Legend of Korra, the highly successful sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, has debuted the first three episodes of it's third season.
Those who have read my column will know that this examiner has made no secret of his love for the Avatar franchise, for it's brilliant writing, inventive world and mythology, likable characters, beautiful animation, and overall being one of the the most quality animated franchises to be created in recent years. When the original series ended in 2008 it was a nearly flawless and truly epic conclusion to one of the greatest television series, animated or otherwise, that I had ever seen. So when it was announced in 2010 that the franchise was going to continue in the form of a new series about the next Avatar after beloved character Avatar Aang, I for one was excited.
The Legend of Korra finally debuted in April 2012 to high rating s and rave reviews, the two-episode premiere being an excellent way to set up the show's new dynamic and set it apart from the original series. Book One: Air lasted for twelve episodes that told an epic story appropriate for kids yet perfectly suitable for adults, dealing with such themes as growing up, good vs. evil, spiritual enlightenment, oppression, terrorism, political corruption, and legacy. However, the first season was also criticized by some for uneven pacing, weaker characterization when viewed in comparison to the original series (mainly due to the limited number of episodes and no room for filler), a weak romantic story and love triangle, and ending the season on a blatant deus ex machina. But despite these complaints, Book One: Air was still well above average for most children's television and was a terrific success.
In September 2013, after months of waiting and relative silence, Book Two: Spirits premiered with it's first two episodes. The premiere for this season was a solid opener, but as the season progressed some flaws started to rear their heads including a underwhelming villain in comparison to Book One's Amon, the main character Korra seemingly taking a step back from her arc in the first season, and a slower pace than first expected. However, the animation was praised (save for a few episodes done by a different studio), the acting was strong, and after an utterly fantastic mid-season two-parted called "Beginnings," the season picked up remarkably, leading up to a finale that wrapped up the season on a high note and ended things with Korra making a decision that will have a profound effect on the fate of both our world and the spirit world.
And it is the aftermath of that decision that we see ourselves faced with at the beginning of Book Three: Change.
Book Three: Change, Chapter One: A Breath of Fresh Air
Two weeks after the events of Harmonic Convergence, Avatar Korra discovers that her decision to leave the spirit portals open has unexpected consequences. Wild spirit vines have overgrown Republic City, frustrating the city's citizens and politicians and dropping Korra's approval rating to a whopping 8 percent. But things get even more bizarre as Tenzin's brother, Bumi suddenly starts displaying airbender abilities, but Bumi is only one of a new population of airbenders that are suddenly popping up across the four nations. With the prospect of an entire culture reemerging, it falls upon Team Avatar to come together once again to bring these new airbenders together to rebuild the former Air Nomad culture.
This was a very natural and intriguing way to kick off the season, not wasting time and getting right to the point. Despite the second season being called Spirits, the Spirit World aspect really didn't kick in all the way until halfway through the season. Here, the season is called Change, and right away we get a clear sense of have much change has really happened in this universe. Sadly, you cannot just decide to leave the gateways between the mortal and spirit worlds, thereby inviting the spirits to come and go and do as they please within a metropolis like Republic City, and not expect some backlash. It is a fun and perhaps realistic commentary that Korra can literally save the entire world from an embodiment of pure evil (in the style of a spiritual kaiju battle by the way), but all that can be totally overlooked because of the unfortunate outcomes of one decision.
Of course the real crux of this episode is the reveal of the growing population of airbenders. This was a wonderful idea that sends the rest of the world into confusion and certainly fits into the theme of change this season. Let us not forget, the Air Nomads were essentially wiped out when the Fire Nation started the Hundred Year War, with only Aang surviving. When the series ended, it was Aang's responsibility to keep the airbender's traditions alive by founding the Air Acolytes, as seen in the comic book series The Promise. Together with his wife Katara, Aang has three kids during his life and of them only Tenzin was born an airbender, and Tenzin himself would have three airbender children. So with this new development it appears that balance may be returning to the world as the airbenders have the potential to become their own nation once again instead of just Tenzin's and his family. Plus, revealing that this is going on by showing Bumi airbending first, since we know he always felt like he was disappointment to his father because of that, was a perfect way to start.
But while Bumi had reason to be excited by his new gifts (and his friends shocked), others were not so enthusiastic, including one civilian who is so terrified by his new powers that he climbs out onto the ledge of a bridge to commit suicide. This leads to probably the best scene of the episode as Korra flies to the ledge of the bridge (using her new glider) to talk him out of it, and then saves his life when he accidentally slips. This was a very big Avatar-moment for Korra, seeming very much like how Aang would handle this situation during the original series. It also kind of reminded me of the scene in The Amazing Spider-Man when Peter Parker save the boy from the flaming car dangling off the bridge, probably one of the best scenes from that film.
I would also like to take a moment to address the natural character interactions in this episode, namely between the former lovers. Mako is established as sleeping at the police station and devoting more and more of his time to his job, which is clearly a means for him to avoid spending too much time with either Korra or Asami, perfectly understandable given their awkward love triangle in both of the previous seasons. But in speaking of the two girls, I really did like how they bonded in this episode, addressing the problem up front and despite some initial discomfort and mock jealousy, are both able to put it aside and grow as friends. I wonder is this was the creators making a commentary about women being more mature about this sort of thing than men are.
The last thing I'll say about this episode is how it introduces another new airbender named Zaheer, a dangerous criminal who will apparently serve as the leader of the villains this season. While we do not know much of anything about this character right now, but the show does a great job putting this guy over with his prison escape scene; plus, after seeing the Fire Nation as the villains throughout the original series, the Earth Kingdom's shady underbelly in season two of that show, and two waterbender villains in the previous seasons, I have to agree with IGN that to finally have an evil airbender introduced is a welcome change.
Book Three: Change, Chapter Two: Rebirth
With a new population of airbenders emerging around the world, Korra, Tenzin, Bumi, Jinora and Team Avatar (including a reluctant Mako) search for new airbenders in an effort to recruit them and rebuild the Air Nation, a task that proves to be far more difficult than they had anticipated, and their first recruit may not be quite what they imagined. Meanwhile, a band of sinister criminals are organizing to hunt down the Avatar themselves, which raises concern from a familiar face from the past.
This one was a natural continuation from the first one, with Asami once again showing off how much she really has to contribute to Team Avatar by lending them a brand new airship for them to travel the world in. Sure seeing them riding Tenzin's sly bison Oogi would have brought back nostalgic memories of Appa and the original cast, but this was still a cool idea. In speaking of Oogi, there is a very funny shot where he stands behind Naga with his tongue hanging out and I swear it looks like he is going to eat her! It ws also natural how Mako initially refused to go on this mission to avoid discomfort from being around Korra, but he got talked into it because Bolin wanted them to see Ba Sing Se, the city their father was from.
I liked how this episode carries on from the previous one about how unusual being an airbender really is in the modern world. Let's be honest, if you suddenly gained some superpower and a strange old man with arrows tattooed on his head told you that in order to learn more about how to use your powers you had to leave your life and family behind to become a nomadic monk, you'd probably throw them out of your house too. This leads to a funny montage of Tenzin getting rejected by everyone he approached about becoming an airbender, complete with chibi-head versions of the cast floating across a map frowning more and more each time they get turned down (that image cracked me up). It gets to the point that they have to resort to putting on a show to impress a crowd of potential airbenders; the theatrics here are all funny, but Mako takes the cake with his very unenthusiastic acting and Korra and Asami's "getting even" with him.
And that brings me to their first recruit, a boy named Kai. This kid introduces himself as an ophan who's family was killed, thus winning him the group's acceptance, but soon his ulterior motives are revealed when the local police show up and we learn that this kid run away from home after stealing his foster parents' live savings. I was willing to buy him winning over Korra and the other's sympathy to take him in anyway, as well as Bolin's instant surrogate sibling relationship with him, but I was very grateful that Mako, being a former street rat himself and a police officer now, told Kai to his face that he's going to be watching him.. Like IGN, I look forward to seeing how well Kai fits in with the main cast, and yes, seeing Jinora crushing on him was really cute (and for the record, I called in the second I saw them both in the same shot, before we got her blushing scene).
The subplot with the team of villains continues as well, but once again, while they are being put over well, we do not know any definitive information about Zaheer and his crew yet except that they are apparently a group of benders so powerful that they could take over the whole world...and they want the Avatar dead.
I guess there is not much else to say about this episode...Oh wait, yes there is! ZUKO! Yes, at long last fans of the original series get to see their favorite scarred fire prince return as an old man, and from the looks of things it appears he is going to play a major part in the events of this season.
Book Three: Change, Chapter Three: The Earth Queen
With their first recruit into the new Air Nation under their wing, Tea Avatar travels to the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se to seek the help of the Earth Queen to locate the airbenders that have emerged within the city, but she will only do so in exchange for Korra's help with a little favor. Meanwhile, while searching for their young airbending recruit in the big city, bother Mako and Bolin meet up with their long lost family. Also, Fire Lord Zuko united the chief of the the Northern and Southern Water Tribes to oppose the band of escaped criminals, seeking the aid of another dangerous threat to do so.
It was great to visit Ba Sing Se again; sadly it doesn't to have changed that much since Aang's time. Sure, Long Feng and his Dai Li conspiracy may be gone, but the poor and wealthy classes are still separated from one another by the internal walls of the city, and there is clearly a degree of corruption at the heart of all of this. However, unlike the original series where the Earth King was a naive ruler kept totally in the dark to the corruption and suffering around him, his daughter, the Earth Queen, is presented here as a demanding, belittling ruler who demands favors of those who seek her help, then casts them out when she is done with them. We learn by the end of the episode that the queen is heart of this corruption (or so it appears as of now), and lets just say that soon after we've met him, the story leaves young Kai in a very dark place.
The queen has Korra complete a favor for her before she will even consider giving her her help finding the airbenders within the city, namely, Korra needs to stop a group of barbarians from stealing a royal tax shipment. This allows for the good, though brief, action set piece in the episode as we get more bonding between Korra and Asami. But the barbarian's comments make Korra suspect that she may have been fighting on the wrong side, and wouldn't you know it, the Earth Queen refuses to give Korra any help in locating the airbenders...Again, this all leads to a foreboding reveal at the ending.
The B-story of the episode involves Mako and Bolin meeting their family within the city, including their grandmother. This plot may not have covered a whole lot o new ground, but it was still a very touching story that by the end allowed up to see Mako in a more vulnerable light. The final scene between the two brothers and their grandmother, complete with a final payoff of Mako's trademark scarf, was an emotional highlight of the episode.
Finally, we got to see a bit more of Zuko's preparations to confront Zaheer and his gang, which includes getting aid from Korra's father Chief Tonraq and her cousins Eska and Desna. Together, they go visit a convict that was a firebender of the "combustion" variety (yes, like Combustioin Man from season three of Avatar, there is even a hilariously awkward elevator scene referencing this).
Theses episodes are benefit from top quality animation, which was among some of the criticisms laid against the second season but will likely not be repeated here with Studio Mir handling all thirteen episodes this season.
The last thing that needs to be acknowledged is the voice cast. All of the actors continue to play their roles excellently and give it their best, including Janet Varney as Korra, David Faustino as Mako, P. J. Byrne as Bolin, Seychelle Gabriel as Asami, J. K. Simmons as Tenzin, Mindy sterling as Lin Bei Fong, Lisa Edelstein as Kya, Richard Riehe as Bumi, Maria Bamford as Pema, Kiernan Shipka as Jinora, Darcy Rose Byrnes as Ikki, Logan Wells as MeeloJames Remar as Tonraq, Aaron Himelstein as Desna, Aubrey Plaza as Eska, and Dee Bradley Baker as Naga and numerous other voices. New voice actors this season include Skyler Brigmann as Kai, Henry Rollins as Zaheer, Peter Giles as Ghazan, Grey DeLisle Griffin as Ming-Hua, Susan Silo as Yin, Greg Cipes as Tu, Jayne Taini as the Earth Queen, and Bruce Davison as Zuko.
Overall, The Legend of Korra--Book Three: Change is getting off to a very promising start, picking up where the previous season left off in a very natural way and introducing from interesting ideas that are worth exploring. The premiere holds back a bit on the big action set pieces, but it makes up for it with the solid writing and acting, interesting plot and delightful humor that the franchise is known for. Despite receiving relatively little buildup to it's premiere, this season looks to be another great installment in the Avatar franchise that has a lot of surprises awaiting us in the future.