Having just marathoned the last three seasons of the Legend of Korra and I thought I might at least give some talking points about the series as a whole (rather than review extensively all of it, or to not cover it at all).
So to start let’s talk about bending. I don’t think it’s an overstatement that the avatar series would be completely different if you took away the bending, that without the bending the show would have lost one of it’s most remarkable features. Bending is both a marvelously simple and effective addition to the show. Being able to manipulate the four elements of fire, water, earth and air is something that anyone should find incredibly intuitive. For all my love of the Digimon series, most of their core mechanics (like the Digidestined) required explanations that were filled with a fair amount of technobabble. For the avatar series, someone just needs to gesture at some water and hey presto, when the water then follows their movements, it’s pretty clear what is going on. Bending seems like such a core component of the series that they named and defined the four nations of the universe using those elements and the eponymous “Avatar” is most strongly defined by their ability to quickly and powerfully use & learn the four elements.
Going down to brass tacks though, the avatar series (much like Digimon & many others) is build upon a fairly hefty amount of combat and this is where bending sees its most use. The show really does thrive on bender vs bender action, which I generally describe as ‘elemental boxing’. Just like in boxing, both sides are throwing punches at each other, dodging, blocking and landing blows on one another, in ‘elemental boxing’ however we are trading rocks and blasts of fire rather than just close range punches. There’s a lot of spectacle and possible depth that can be created out of such simple mechanics, because there is so much variety in technique and power balance that can be put into throwing elements at one another. Much like the thrill in watching many fighting sports, Avatar delivers many athletes with radically different builds, techniques and personal stories duking it out in much more various environments/situations than just the boxing ring.
It’s this bender on bender elemental boxing matches that held together the first series with Aang all the way to the final showdown. It’s this bender on bender action that I felt really worked during book 3 of Korra. It’s this bender on bender action that I felt was mostly missing during the other series of Korra. Take book 1; the Equalists (the main foe) use mostly 1 hit knock out, taser-like weapons; it’s like a boxing match where one side as a instant win gun. There’s not as much drama (or sportsmanship) in the fighters trading blows anymore because either the random, faceless guy with a gun hits and wins, or he doesn’t. There’s plenty of other problems with that book but one of them to me was how comparatively disinteresting the combat with the prime antagonists was. Books 2 and 4 of Korra, generally didn't have enough fighting in them in my opinion. I’d need to look back through them again, but I felt like comparatively large swathes of time was spent talking about the ‘rebellion’ or the ‘Earth Empire’ over and over again (with little fighting or things being done proactively in-between)... The original series did repeat a lot about ‘defeating the Firelord’ and such but that was either used as a reason to fight, or was interrupted by a plan of Prince Zuko’s (aka probably a fight).
So let’s see. I’m about 600 words in and I’ve only really covered “bending”. I think I’ll leave that here for now. If people are interested or have any ideas I might discuss other angles of the avatar series at a later point..