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Goodness in the Media: Avatar: The Legend of Korra

July 7, AD 2012 10 Comments

As Catholics, we live in the world but are not of it; we must dialogue with the culture but not fall prey to the worship of it.  And, in some cases, we must be able to cite common cultural references of our generations and be able to discuss them with our peers and friends.  After all, what is friendship but shared interests?  (Aristotle would suggest this is merely one kind of friendship, but that is a post in and of itself.)  For many years now, television has been a part of entertainment.  From “I Love Lucy” to “The Brady Bunch” to “Pokémon,” each generation has something they remember in particular.

One of the latest crazes which has been sweeping the generation who affectionately call themselves “90’s kids” is a callback to a show which ran on Nickelodeon as part of Nicktoons.  The first show, which started running when many 90’s kids were within the targeted age demographic (those born from 1990 to 1993, however, were just older than the target audience), was Avatar: The Last Airbender (or in Europe, The Legend of Aang, according to Wikipedia).  The three seasons of this show were so well-received that the writers promised a sequel, which was released this year.  Avatar: The Legend of Korra just finished with its first season finale (and ridiculously epic story arc) a couple weeks ago.  It was the talk of Facebook and much of the internet (right after Avengers) and rightly so–the writing was top-notch, the characters were lovable (or hateable), and the plot had matured since the first series.  The conflicts were believable and the action scenes so well-choreographed and well-drawn that both of us regularly found ourselves rooting for the good guys out loud.  And best of all?  It was, and is, a kid’s show.  So there is nothing excessive which frequently inhibits the near-nonexistent plotline of “adult” shows such as How I Met Your Mother (which really needs to end [1]).  Since the writers are writing for children, it has to be engaging, clever, fun, and–above all–age-appropriate.  Not to mention that a large amount of college students were watching the show as it came out because they watched Airbender as children.

A little backstory: The Last Airbender was a lighthearted adventure story, describing the path of the Avatar (Aang, who was the last airbender) as he mastered the art of “bending” all four elements [2].  It had a lovable cast of characters and just the right amount of drama to accompany the story.  As a more-grown-up  sequel, Legend of Korra takes place 80 years after The Last Airbender in a city known as Republic City, in an era very reminiscent of the 1920s.  Its primary conflict is a political one: a powerful speaker, Amon, calls for non-benders to rise against the benders and make them all “equal,” citing bending as an “impurity” and declaring a sort of class warfare on the benders, claiming that non-benders are “oppressed” by the benders.  Korra, the current Avatar [3], is in Republic City so she can learn airbending, the last element she must master.  However, she is rash and hotheaded and often allows her impulsiveness to heavily cloud her judgment.  Shortly upon her arrival in Republic City, she finds herself involved in pro-bending, a new sport developed in Republic City, and the affairs of the City Council–after all, she is a public figure.  Oh, and the scariest part about this whole situation?  Amon has the remarkable ability to take away bending, an ability only known by viewers as held by Aang, the most recent Avatar (and the star of the first series).  And he is hell-bent on taking away Korra’s, in order to make an example of her.  Belligerent and independent Korra finds herself heavily relying on her city friends (who she met through pro-bending) to help bring down Amon.

And now for the good talking points! (Oh, you thought it would be over at the plot summary?  Oops.)  The Equalists, with their communist-style propaganda and secret gatherings, could be any number of anti-establishment regimes.  Visually, the movement calls back heavily to the rise of Soviet Russia or Communist China–an anti-religion, forced-atheism, forced-socialism regime.  Much like the rise of communism in these countries, there were some legitimate complaints with the system: some repression, corruption, incompetent leadership, etc; however, the response to these complaints were the absolute wrong path.  Instead of seeking to change the leadership,  alter the police system, or finally crack down on the organized-crime underground, total revolution and extermination of benders is the path chosen.  Obviously, since this is a kid’s show, the good guys win in the end and Amon is vanquished (after his dramatic and astonishing backstory is revealed, of course)–but the leadup to this ultimate victory is compelling, fascinating, frustrating, and, above all, intense.

The Legend of Korra has been the talk of the internet since it was announced.  It was much-anticipated as it was released, one episode at a time, on Saturday Morning Cartoons.  Each new character and plot twist became ongoing discussions (Tenzin and Tenzin’s beard, anyone?).  And this is because, quite frankly, it is a Good Show.  The plot is good, the morals of the story are hidden enough that they’re believable (friendship, teamwork, and The Right Thing will always win) and there is no smut to be found anywhere. (In fact, it’s so good that I’m considering getting my mom into the Avatar series once we’re done with Firefly. ~Ink)  Stories which have the Good Guys winning in the end will ultimately be more satisfying than “He loved Big Brother” because we as fallen humans crave Goodness and union with that Goodness.  Even by rooting for the Good Guys and watching them win, we feel as though we have shared in some small part in their victory.  A truly good story allows us to share the joys and sorrows of the heroes.  The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra do just that.[4]


[1] For my rant on why How I Met Your Mother needs to end, drop me an e-mail. ~Ink

[2] These are the four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water.  To be able to bend them is a sort of psychokinetic martial art, and having that ability in the first place is something with which you are born.  We are not quite sure as to whether or not it is genetic (Punnett square-able or maybe a “carrier” situation) or works the same way as magical ability does in Harry Potter (tends to run in families but occasionally you get a wild card where a person from a Muggle family can use magic or a person from a magical family cannot).

[3] The Avatar follows the same rules as the Dalai Lama.  If they exhibit certain abilities which seem Avatar-like, they are offered a selection of toys and told to choose three.  If they choose the three which were chosen by the former Avatar (and therefore all former Avatars), then they must be the Avatar.  It also has a cycle where each new Avatar is incarnated into one of the four tribes.  The cycle as of Korra goes “earth, fire, air, water,” with Korra being a waterbender and Aang, the Avatar before her, an airbender.  Before Aang was Avatar Roku, a firebender, and before Roku was Avatar Kiyoshi, an earthbender.  But this is extra.  Basically, the writers did some serious research.

[4] We are considering expanding this post into a series of posts which go through both Avatar series individually (and probably story-arc-by-story-arc), laying out the good things.  We also have post-fodder in many other kinds of media.

About the Author:

Ink and Quill are Roman Catholic college students studying architecture and philosophy (respectively). Long-time friends and co-writers, they enjoy studying Ancient Greek and attempting to re-create the 1920s (or sometimes the 1220s). Ink rarely sleeps. Quill rarely posts. Both love what they do. They post together at With Eager Feet.