The act of combat has been a hobby and interest of mine since I was very young. I was constantly renting martial arts movies from the local video store, and when the theme for The Chinese Connection or Supercop came on, it was a thrill and delight every time. When I was older, I begged to be enrolled in karate classes, but I was so small that my parents were advised against it. Then, when I turned 18, my brother bought me a pass for a boxing gym, and that led to dabbling in kickboxing, jiu jitsu, and western wrestling. While grappling was fun and there were more people to practice with, I loved to work on my striking and my footwork, while constantly trying to figure out how to use my opponent’s weaknesses against them.
I think this is why series like The Legend of Korra appeal to me on a different level. This is the next generation’s martial arts renaissance, ready to DVR for your convenience in viewing on Nickelodeon. Where I had the benefit of the devastating Bruce Lee and hysterical Sammo Hung with his Wing Chun style, children are lucky enough to see Aang and Korra in a surprisingly accurate portrayal of combat and emotions.
The pre-industrial and steampunk backdrop feels authentic and familiar, while making a successful departure from the last series. This shift works well to draw in the previous Avatar: The Last Airbender audience, who are now teenagers and/or young adults, while still having the charm for new audiences (new and old) to jump right into. The tone has a degree of attitude to it, while the artwork is muted and dark alongside a plethora of colorful elements. As a martial arts movie fan, the homages to films like The Legend of Drunken Master add an enjoyable degree of weight and history, meaning that parents can be sucked into the series as well. The mix of complexity and accessibility is almost impossible to hit with any story, much less in animation from Nickelodeon.
Sifu Kisu is the show's consultant for traditional martial arts, having worked on the last incarnation of Avatar and older shows like Big Bad Beetleborgs. Because of this, The Legend of Korra's combat is both fantastic and believable, constantly steeping the moves of bending in real-life fluid motion. The animators hold a certain reverence for these styles as well, painstakingly studying combat movement and translating it to the page. Each strike ferociously resonates with the audiences, while each block feels like the character gains another second of respite. Whether it’s the devastating power of Northern Shaolin, the fluid calm of Tai Chi, the solid base of Hung Gar and Southern Praying Mantis, or the flowing circles of Ba Gua Zhang, children and adults alike can reach out and connect a style with their own way of life. (Writer’s Note: Southern Praying Mantis is the style that Toph and the metalbenders use. Nickelodeon did not make a special to highlight this style, since Sifu Kisu brought in an uncredited consultant, but many videos can be found on YouTube.)
I mentioned the mix of complexity and accessibility before, in regards to the setting and tone. It is no different for the themes and issues at hand; themes like racism, class wars, and the advancement of technology are handled as delicate as possible, while also giving children the chance to pique and extend their moral interests. Take, for example, the idea of the villains in Book 1, the Equalists: comprised of nonbenders, they employ the use of chi blocking and modern technology to compete with the natural ability of any type of benders in order to enact their ideals. While it is made clear to children that the Equalists are the villains, they are also shown that nonbenders do not necessarily mean that they are aligned with the radical thinking of Equalists. Children are shown the opposite as well, making the point that benders aren’t always the heroic beacons of society. Ultimately, this teaches children to never generalize people for their strengths and their weaknesses, since making assumptions can go terribly wrong.
Korra herself is a very interesting Avatar to follow: hailing from the Water Tribe, she is extremely stubborn and passionate, reflected in her preferred use of fire- and earthbending. She is quick to anger, fiercely headstrong, naturally talented; almost a stark opposite from Aang (the previous Avatar), but with important similarities as well. Through the actions of the Avatar, children can learn the importance of familial bonds, while the importance of standing up for what people believe in should be a constant driving force. Also, the idea of having natural ability yet struggling with other aspects in life is something that parents can appreciate from the show. As Korra struggles with her airbending lessons, it affords parents an educational tool for showing children that practice makes perfect. Although I don’t personally connect to her as a character, I think this also has another interesting implication: since there is only ever one Avatar at a time, are we as an audience supposed to connect with Korra on a personal level? There are arguments for both sides, but the complexities create adult fans as well.
With a surprisingly star-studded cast and a refreshing outlook on the martial arts, The Legend of Korra - Book 1: Air is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and in stores. It is an appropriate show for its target audience, and an outstanding benchmark in animation in terms of taking movement and combat to its most accurate extent. I’m sure that this will instill a new generation with a passion and drive to do something physically positive with their lives, while providing forgotten demographics (read: young girls and ethnicities) heroes to look up to and emulate. Personally, I’m just thankful that I’m not the weird uncle anymore, now that I have an outlet to show how beautiful combat can be, without having my nieces watch The Game of Death.