Avatar: The Last Airbender was an enormously popular show, but its sequel The Legend of Korra has been a bag of mixed opinions among fans. Although there are many reasons for this discontent towards the new Avatar, including the writing, characterization, and the different format (seasons are shorter), the one that I find most intriguing is the general complaint that the quality of the fighting went downhill in the transition. I find that it speaks a lot to the difficulties of creating a sequel which is trying to progress the world of its story, to change its status quo, but also maintain the status quo which brought fans to it in the first place.
The Last Airbender exhibits Wuxia-esque action scenes, informed by many classic Chinese martial arts styles (waterbending is tai chi for instance), which gives the fights in the first series an overall grandiose quality. Movements are elaborate, meant to evoke a sense that the very motions benders take are part of what give them such mystical strength.
The Legend of Korra, however, involves much more straightforward uses of bending. Here, amidst the large population of Republic City and the popularity of pro-bending, the manipulation of the elements comes across more as a sport, a structured system within the bounds of the law (though still easily abusable in its own way), much like what judo is to jujitsu. Gone are the classical gestures and poses, replaced by simple and direct actions.
Given that the new series is meant to take place 70 years after the original and highlights how a number of social and technological developments have impacted everyday life, it’s clear that the less majestic qualities of “modern” bending are meant to also be a sign of this change. Even when I mentioned that on Twitter, however, one of the responses I received basically said that it didn’t matter if there was a story reason for the change, if it’s less fun to watch then that’s the end of it.
Certainly the guy had a point, and the new type of fighting could be seen as a kind of downgrade, but of course this depends on your definition of what a good fantasy martial arts fight scene should be like. Contemplating this aspect of individual perception, I’ve come to realize that perhaps part of the difficulty The Legend of Korra faced in its bending was that it had established a way of visual presentation which captured the hearts of fans in the previous series, but then tried to fight against the very entrenchment of accepted visual style they created. The wuxia style in The Last Airbender is one of the many reasons the series garnered fans, defining for many what “cool fight scenes” are meant to be, and to remove that aspect is to undo in their eyes the very identity of Avatar‘s combat.
Essentially, if fighting in The Last Airbender is classic Chinese martial arts, then fighting in The Legend of Korra is modern mixed martial arts. Though I can’t say to what extent the fanbases between Avatar and MMA overlap, the disagreements over the style in Korra remind me a lot of the arguments I’ve seen concerning MMA as an optimized style ideal for the very sport it created and fostered, a scientific approach to what has for a long time carried an almost metaphysical connotation. Though effective, neither modern bending nor standard MMA look “pretty” by the standards of fans of the more classical styles. Consider that good old question of MMA: “why are those fighters humping each other on the ground?” Probably if The Legend of Korra were less modern Ultimate Fighting Championship and were more like the first UFC, which was meant to be a clash of various martial arts styles from Karate to Greco-Roman Wrestling, then perhaps it would have found greater appeal.