Whenever a revival or legacy sequel to a popular piece of media springs up, one of the first real questions is which veteran actors will return. These days, actors going back to the iconic roles that helped make them famous is practically a job unto itself, if not the point of these revivals from the jump. Either in real life or on a meta level, characters being confronted with their legacy and getting forced back into the spotlight is often one of the big talking points around these revivals.
As a result, the nostalgia grabs have become incredibly blatant, and increasingly safe with how and why they bring back these now older characters. While these characters may be allowed to age, in terms of characterization, they have to be preserved in amber so that their return presents them to us exactly as we remembered once upon a time.
The revival boom has really taken off in the last handful of years, but one can argue that it really started off with The Legend of Korra back in 2012, which broadcast its first episode on TV 10 years ago today (it actually debuted a couple of weeks earlier online, but details, schmetails). Now a full decade old, the sequel series to Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender feels like it came out at just the right time. Having debuted at a time where it was relatively safe to be unshaped by massive expectations set upon it by fans — although that’s not to say there wasn’t any grumbles — Korra was free to explore the legacy of its original series in a more nuanced way than an attempt these days would’ve allowed. Rather than simply continuing the adventures of Aang and the original Team Avatar — instead casting them as the elders to a new Avatar and a new generation of younger heroes — creators Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko decided to not just coast on the goodwill that the original Last Airbender series earned them after its end in 2008.
Much of Korra is about exploring if its titular hero and her friends can live up to the legacy of Aang and the original Team Avatar that millions of fans grew up with. If it wasn’t being asked directly of Korra herself, it was being asked of Team Avatar’s now adult children. It’s here where Korra shows a surprising amount of nuance with which it paints the adult versions of these beloved characters, and the ways in which they helped or failed their offspring. Much of it, naturally, centres around Aang and the eventual family he started with Katara.
As the only airbender in the family, the couple’s youngest son Tenzin considered it his duty to keep the traditions of his father’s people alive through his four children, who would hopefully go to repopulate the air nomads and bring their culture back from the brink of extinction. Much of Tenzin’s baggage with his father is some of the show at its both its strongest and weakest, emotionally. Seeing Tenzin confront a vision of his father in season two’s end and learn to be his own man felt like the right arc for that character, as it did for him to eventually cede the task of continuing the airbender legacy to his oldest daughter, Jinora. Much of that, honestly, can be owed to JK Simmons’ lived in, “experienced father” performance as Tenzin, particularly when he gets wistful about the future of his people that his father will never be able to truly see with his own eyes.
But the path to getting there was… rough, especially when we meet his siblings in season two, waterbender Kya and nonbender (but eventually, an airbender) Bumi. The duo brought with them the revelation that Aang would spend more time with Tenzin over them during the kids’ youth, and this plot point rubbed fans the wrong way at the time. Logically, it makes sense for Aang to foist all his hopes and dreams for his people on the shoulders of his only kid to exhibit airbending abilities. But their dynamic in that second season feels less like a group of adults having to confront their father’s complicated feelings on their family and more like three grown children bickering back and forth. It’s later seasons that do right by Kya and Bumi, allowing them to feel like actual people rather than remixes of Katara and Sokka.
It’s also in the third and fourth seasons where Korra examines the idea of legacy through the Beifong family. Toph is one of the original Airbender’s best characters, and her daughters are equally great in their own right. Her eldest, Lin, served as a fun supporting character for the first two seasons, and with the introduction of Lin’s sister Suyin in season three, we see how much both women have taken after their mother, both in demeanour and in bending prowess. Because Toph gave both her girls relative freedom while raising them, Lin became a metalbender cop with her, while Suyin rebelled, eventually forced to skip town after Lin arrested her and Toph wanted to avoid a scandal.
Surprisingly, much of the strife around the three Beifong women largely rests on Lin’s shoulders; after founding the metal city of Zaofu and starting her own family, Suyin reveals she and Toph patched things up some time ago. It’s Lin who needs to learn to forgive her family; both her sister, and by extension Suyin’s daughter Opal, who wants to connect with her aunt, and later Toph, whose approval she wanted so much that she let it dictate her entire life. Having spent decades in a swamp and mellowed out, Toph is content with letting her daughter be upset with her, but is also willing to offer to help as best she can. The Beifong family throughout Korra is just continuously satisfying, both because they’re an awesome family of powerhouses, and because the show has learned to not overburden this family with too much going on like they previously did with Aang and Katara’s bloodline.
At times, the question of what the characters owe to the past is even asked of Korra’s villains. Season one’s dual antagonists, Amon and Tarrlok, were the sons of a gangster whose bending was taken by Aang and who taught his sons how to bloodbend so he could have his revenge. Kuvira, the villain of season four, was abandoned by her parents as a child and grew up as Suyin’s surrogate daughter, only to leave the Metal Clan and create an Earth Empire after the the assassination of the Earth Queen a season prior. Kuvira gets a chance to repay the Beifongs for taking her in as a child by living with them under house arrest at the end of the Ruins of the Empire comic trilogy. Tarrlok, meanwhile, understands that he and Amon are doomed to repeat their father’s cycle of vengeance, and opts to blow the pair up in a murder-suicide. It remains one of the show’s more surprisingly dark moments, and proof that sometimes, you have to kill the past yourself.
One of the things that makes Korra as a show so interesting is how it asks the question of legacy almost entirely through the viewpoint of the characters in the present. That doesn’t sound impressive, but it’s easy to imagine how in another world, the show could’ve contrived a way to feature more of the original Team Avatar members who are still alive, or done dual timeline shenanigans so as to show Aang’s group as adults and compare them with Korra’s crew. But the wisest thing the show does is let them be supporting players; as Toph said back in season four, she, Katara, and Zuko are old as hell, and they had their time.
It’s up to the new generation to stand on their own, and that’s eventually what Legend of Korra does. While it’s a messier show than its predecessor, the fact that it was able to embrace that mess and make it into the overall point of the show is why it’s one of the stronger legacy revivals we’ve gotten.
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