‘The Legend of Korra’ Tackles Class and Urbanization, Is Amazing

“Bending is the coolest thing in the world!” Avatar Korra, a rebellious teenager who’s just arrived in Republic City, the metropolis founded by her predecessor Avatar Aang, declares towards the middle of the premiere episode of The Legend of Korra. Fans of the first show in this series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, about a little boy who can manipulate earth, air, water, and fire in a process called “bending,” might be inclined to agree with her. The concept around which the series was based — that there are people who can manipulate each element, but one person in each generation who can manipulate all four, and gets special responsibilities along with his special powers — set the stage for stories that combined spectacular animated action sequences with intelligent meditations on the proper use of power and our relationship with the natural world. In Avatar: The Legend of Korra, which skips forward two generations to follow Korra, a young Avatar who is training with Aang’s airbending son Tenzin, flips our assumptions upside down, and gives us something very exciting in its place.

When I saw the trailer for this new incarnation of the show, I wondered whether the decision to include steam-punky technology, including airships, crime-fighting equipment, and cars, would pull the series away from its core. Instead, it’s turned out to be a brilliant decision. Aang’s model city, a place he intended “to be the center of peace and balance in this world,” may have advanced technology. But it also has many deeply poor people, something that comes to a shock to Korra who tells a vagrant she shares a meal with that “I thought everyone in the city was living it up.” Triad gangs made up of benders extort protection money from shopkeepers.

And a political movement believes that bending, the very device that made Avatar: The Last Airbender so cool, is responsible for the city’s problems. “Are you tired of living under the tyranny of Benders? Then join the Equalists,” a political speaker tells a crowd, setting off Korra’s initial outburst. “For too long, the bending elite of this city have forced the non-benders of this city to live as lower-class citizens…Together, we will tear down the bending establishment.” Korra’s not wrong that bending’s a cool concept. But the speaker appears to be right about individual benders: he embarrasses Korra by revealing that her first instinct is to shut him down, rather than to work with him. Similarly, Republic City law enforcement may be coming down on Korra pretty hard, but she did act like a vigilante in trying to round up the Triad gang, and caused an enormous amount of damage. Without regulation, bending isn’t exactly producing peace and prosperity in Republic City.

Hopefully, we’ll see more of those themes, particularly bending’s relationship to economic inequality, in future. We’ve heard “with great power comes great responsibility” a million times, but almost always in the context of an individual struggle for self-control. Tackling the role of special powers and special advantages in society on a larger scale is something entirely different, and very interesting.