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Reviewer’s note: I am mostly going to avoid spoilers during this review, but I found it too difficult to discuss the ins and outs of the series without revealing some plot points. I have redacted the couple of pieces I think more sensitive readers might consider spoilers. Hopefully, I’ve guessed correctly.

Series


I have written a lot about Michael DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender here on DVDActive.com. There are eight reviews of the various season DVD releases on the site and most of them are hopelessly overlong. I’m occasionally shamed by my affection for the series and assume I’m taking it all too seriously. But that affection still hasn’t waned over the years. I don’t necessarily stand by the garbled wording of those old reviews, but I stand by their message – Avatar: The Last Airbender was something special and will likely always stand as a high watermark for the television animation format. Unfortunately, two years after the Avatar series ended, Paramount and Nickelodeon premiered the first live-action Last Airbender film of a proposed trilogy. It was a travesty for just about everyone involved. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan actively sought a role in making the film, profusely swearing to fans that he understood the series, but quickly proved he had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered a dour, lifeless version of Avatar, devoid of any of the essential ingredients. The film, which made just enough money for Paramount to realistically contemplate a sequel for a while there -(thank God After Earth flopped entirely, because now no self-respecting studio would dare extend funds for another Shyamalan blockbuster), was openly mocked by critics and audiences, failed to find the franchise a new audience, and even ended up alienating some of the original fanbase.

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While Shyamalan was dragging their franchise through the mud (someday they’ll be brave enough to step forward and tell us exactly what they thought of his adaptation), DiMartino & Konietzko were hard at work creating a follow-up show under the title The Legend of Korra. This sequel series is set 70 years after the events of the original series – Aang has died and the new Order of the White Lotus has found the new Avatar, a Southern Water Tribe native named Korra (voiced by former Dinner and a Movie hostess Janet Varney). Korra learns to master water, earth, and fire off-screen, but is told she cannot learn airbending just yet, because airbending master Tenzin (J.K. Simmons) – son of Aang and the only adult airbender still living – is busy with political strife back in Republic City. The ever tenacious Korra won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and sneaks off to Republic City anyway, where she learns of the anti-bender movement headed by a masked extremist named Amon (Steven Blum, the current cross-platform voice of Wolverine). Korra’s run-ins with a local gang of benders, where she brags opening about her bending status, brings her to the attention of metal-bending police chief Lin Beifong (Mindy Sterling). Tenzin agrees to teach Korra, but, afraid that Amon poses too great a threat, imposes strict rules – which, of course, Korra breaks almost immediately when she runs off to join a ‘pro-bending’ sports team consisting of brothers Mako (former Married with Children star David Faustino) and Bolin (P.J. Byrne). Meanwhile, Amon’s power and influence grow.

The Legend of Korra was originally only going to be a standalone mini-series. It was scaled down in length to twelve total episodes, the writing staff was limited to only DiMartino & Konietzko (who co-wrote all 12 episodes), and only Joaquim Dos Santos (who worked on the original series) and Ki Hyun Ryu (fresh off of The Boondocks) worked as directors. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon also handed them a bigger budget, allowing them to match and even exceed the animation quality standards of the modern Japanese shows they stylistically mimicked. The creators also recognized that the youngest members of their fanbase were approaching their teens and responded by ‘aging up’ the new show. There’s no mistaking that Legend of Korra is a more ‘adult-aimed’ series in terms of actual on-screen violence and thematic gloominess. Avatar explored some very dark material and had complex political themes, but it always had the best interests of a sensitive, child-age audience in mind. The creepiest episode established the possibility of ‘bloodbending’ – the process by which waterbenders could control the liquid in a victim’s body, turning them into flesh marionettes. But this episode was aired during the week of Halloween, a context that was further softened by scenes of the characters telling scary stories around a campfire. The technique is outwardly rejected later, when Katara learns a lesson in tolerance by not bloodbending her mother’s abductor to death.

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Spoiler In contrast, bloodbending plays an important role in The Legend of Korra and the grotesqueries of the process are not softened with wacky sound effects or characters acknowledging that they aren’t being physically hurt (to the contrary, the sound effects are nasty and the characters moan in pain). In the less physical sense, Korra is forced to deal with some really hard sociopolitical truths during the second half of the season. There are good guys and bad guys, but the character motivations are almost entirely grey, forcing the lead cast to evolve their beliefs and the audience to understand the different perspectives of the pro-bender/anti-bender argument. DiMartino & Konietzko also exploit the previous series’ big deus ex machina – the concept of ‘spiritbending’ a bender so that he or she can no longer use their supernatural ability. This gives the writers a chance to effectively ‘kill’ secondary characters without overstepping into realms that would probably draw complaints from parent groups.

However, The Legend of Korra’s is not defined by these more thematically challenging elements – they’ve just been heightened compared to the original, more kid-friendly series. Shyamalan clearly misunderstood that the drama of Avatar worked because the complex and serious material was a part of a bigger whole and proceeded to entirely neglect the series’ expert use of levity. His film version fails for many reasons (the major cast is racially profiled as white, the action sequences are static, the special effects look cheap, the characters are thinly-drawn…), but no failure is as potent as his refusal to allow comedy to creep into his utterly dreary, child-unfriendly tone. DiMartino & Konietzko must have noticed this, because, despite aiming at a slightly older audience, The Legend of Korra is very funny. There’s not as much ‘slide-whistle’ manga symbolia (wavy tears, sweat drops, ‘chibi’ deformations) this time, but the writers aren’t afraid to embrace silliness, absurdity, slapstick, and good, old-fashioned fart jokes (toddler airbender, Meelo, fartbends during the finale). The biggest laughs often go to spectators reacting to the madcap antics of the major cast. It’s as if Republic City is occupied entirely by flustered straight men/women. The Legend of Korra also embraces the cute animal sidekick thing that worked so well for the original series, despite Shyamalan’s vocal disapproval of such things in his version (he thought Momo was dumb and that the composite animals were too silly, as opposed to, you know, people who telekinetically control the elements with kung-fu).

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It’s no secret that Avatar’s popularity was well-fueled by its appeal to female viewers of all ages. Comparatively well-written action/adventure series, specifically the extended DC animated universe ( Batman, Superman, Justice League, et cetera), did not interest female audiences in the same numbers. This crossover appeal was hard-earned and made all the difference for the show’s long-term financial success. Still, when the time came for a sequel series, Nickelodeon originally objected to a teenage girl as the lead. This wasn’t a total surprise, I suppose, considering that it took the studio forever to make original series toys of two of the four Avatar leads, because they were girls, but it doesn’t make the objections any less sad. DiMartino & Konietzko did get their way and have done a fine job bringing their new female Avatar to life. Korra isn’t Aang 2.0 – she has already more or less mastered three of the four elements, she’s several years older that Aang during the events of the story, and her ultimate lesson/arc revolves largely around overcoming hubris, whereas Aang overcame doubt in himself as a savior. Both characters are powerful children than need to find their place as leaders, but they’ve taken different routes and are relatable for different reasons. Korra’s bratty behavior, which risks flooding over into being annoying, ends up being another means to an end for her overall arc and she finishes the season as a hero I’m willing to follow into future seasons.

Korra is a fine place to anchor a series with arguably even more of a central lead than Aang was, but the coolest character is probably Chief Lin Beifong, the adult daughter of the original series’ tomboy extraordinaire, Toph. What’s especially unique here is that Lin, who has easily the season’s two most rousing heroic moments, is not only a woman, but also an older woman. Asami Sato (Seychelle Gabriel, who played Princess Yue in Shyamalan’s crappy movie) is the token non-bender, the secondary feminine lead, and least developed of the major female characters, but only because she’s forced into a reactive role throughout the season. It does appear that the writers are grooming her to be kind of the Iron Man of the team based on her wealth and ability with machinery (and daddy issues). The creators could be accused of going too far out of their way to combat feminine clichés, but it’s not as if they’re stifling the elements that define the three female leads, either – they aren’t interchangeable with the male characters or boys with long hair, as was so common in cartoons throughout the ‘80s.

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The best of the male leads is Tenzin. He’s amusingly written as something of an anti-Aang, as if the only way to rebel against his famous father was to become a fastidious bore that refuses to crack jokes or have any fun. Of course, his temperament constantly backfires, making him the most consistently funny of the major characters. A whole lot of credit goes to J.K. Simmons, though, who has spent the last decade-plus voicing cranky bad guys and fasting-talking variations on J. Jonah Jameson, who he made famous in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. The creators cast him against type so successfully as the usually soft-spoken, eternally gentle Tenzin that it’s easy to forget any of the baggage Simmons usually brings to a cartoon role. This is a measured, subtle, and very warm performance. The other male leads appear to have been lost in the effort to tell a good story, especially Mako and Bolin. Mako is basically defined as handsome, loyal, and good at sports – all good qualities, but not exactly the multi-layered human being we’ve come to expect from the Avatar franchise. He’s not a tactician, he doesn’t bring people together (quite the opposite, actually), and isn’t particularly charming, either. In fact, DiMartino & Konietzko even introduce a new character, General Iroh (voiced by Zuko actor Dante Basco), to assist Korra in battle and convince the other characters to believe in her, which would have been a perfect way to force Mako to rise to the occasion. Bolin is the obvious Sokka stand-in, but only really fulfills the fool side of that character’s dual intent. Bolin is likable and funny enough that I hope they find a way to build Sokka’s tactical leadership into him in future seasons, though I kind of assume that distinction will go to Mako.

There is room for improvement when it comes to the love triangle struck between Korra, Asami, and Mako (or, I suppose, love rectangle, if we’re counting Bolin’s initial crush on Korra). This divergence is relatively well-handled on a story level (major emotional breakdowns rarely last more than a couple of episodes), but it just isn’t the best thing for the characters. Everyone seems to learn the appropriate lessons from their romantic entanglement – Korra quickly recognizes that Asami is too good a person to strike up a rivalry with and Spoiler Asami sticks with ‘Team Avatar,’ despite hints that she’ll turn evil out of frustration towards Mako and Korra’s feelings for each other) – but there’s really no compelling reason for anyone to be romantically interested in Mako, except for the fact that he’s a mysterious and tortured prettyboy. Ironically, he ends up serving the kind of fetishistically vapid love interest role usually reserved for underdressed female characters. But the characters’ ages do dictate a certain degree of romantic angst and grown men, like myself (theoretically speaking), need to remember that the show is aimed at a rather broad audience, many of which frantically argued whether Katara should be Aang or Zuko’s girlfriend (do yourself a favour, though, and don’t look into Legend of Korra fan-fiction). In the end, it’s less an issue for Korra or Asami, who never outwardly fight over a boy – it’s more an extension of Mako being an underwritten character.

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The original series’ most consistently well-written character was always Prince Zuko, who took a journey from villain, to anti-villain, to outcast, to full-blown hero. Zuko’s climax, where he and Katara defeat Azula, was more satisfying than Aang’s action-packed final battle with Fire Lord Ozai. Azula herself also proved to be a more interesting and terrifying character than Ozai, though he still occupied the important place of a more mythical-level of pure evil. With Korra, the creators had their work cut out for them in terms of characterizing their villains. There wasn’t enough time to set up three distinct levels of villainy (like Zuko, Azula, and Ozai), so Amon needed to be a credible threat to an already proficient Avatar with an efficiently tragic back-story that would ensure his sympathetic villain status. His villainous duties are somewhat divided a bit between his mostly characterless enforcer (Lance Henriksen) and councilman Tarrlok (Dee Bradley Baker, the man behind all the creature sounds in the original series), who acts as a more subtly sinister political element throughout the series (there’s also a third major villain who I’ll keep secret for the sake of spoilers), but Amon’s still an incredibly complex character that fulfills multiple narrative roles. His place in the final two episodes is something genuinely harrowing.

Some fans were disappointed when they learned that The Legend of Korra was going to take place 70 years after the events of the original series (a lot of people thought the search for Zuko’s mother would be the focus of a sequel series, but that is currently being told via comic book mini-series). Fandoms often share the same knee-jerk impulse to want more of the same from their favourite franchise, but genre television, especially Star Trek, has proven that fans will happily follow a revamp, assuming it challenges the audience without rejecting the original themes. The Avatar series arguably dictates the need for a generational gap between series. The first show told one long story that reached a logical conclusion – the good guys win and live happily ever after. There are all sorts of logistical tales to tell about the decommissioning of the evil Empire, but why would anyone want to watch something so dry? DiMartino & Konietzko knew that basing an extended narrative on the technical aspects of decommissioning a totalitarian government would be a disaster, no matter how beloved the original characters were. This leaves them with the option of telling a story that takes place a generation before or after the events of the 100 Year War. Two narrative devices built into the franchise’s universe mark the former as the better option – an Avatar has to die before the next Avatar is born and said new Avatar can access all the memories of former Avatars. This means the creators can sort of have their cake and eat it, too, by never entirely neglecting the tales of past generations of Avatars while telling the new story of the latest incarnation.

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It’s also worth noting that DiMartino & Konietzko weren’t really interested in making more Avatar in the first place and who can blame them? Very few creative people set out to tell stories about the exact same characters for the rest of their lives (George Lucas aside, I guess). By shuttling the action of their new story into the future, they can avoid repeating themselves without alienating the more obsessive fanbase that would rather they didn’t move on to something not Avatar-related. The original series was also, arguably, too attached to the Hero’s Journey/monomyth. DiMartino & Konietzko did their best to throw monkey wrenches into the mix by attempting to break apart some of the tropes, but, in the end, there were still a relatively strict set of rules they were forced to stick to. Even with the abridged, half-season structure, The Legend of Korra gives the writers a chance to stretch their legs and even avoid tropes altogether. Still, even with the opportunity for more complex storytelling, I have to admit that they sort of drop the ball when they start pulling plot events out of thin air to complete their ‘perfect little bow’ of a resolution, though, these little deys ex machinas are minimal compared to the huge one at the end of the original series. And, again, it’s easier to forgive when one considers that this was conceived as the absolute end of the series.

The 70-year period shift also allows the writers to explore the technological advances within the Avatar universe between the two series. For the most part, the worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings stay based in the same technological state, even when they take place centuries apart. There are minor advancements between generations (for example, if you go back far enough you can read about lightsabers being invented), but nothing particularly revolutionary is achieved within the universes presented (most major species have space travel capabilities despite the absence of lightsabers). During the events of the first Avatar series it is established that Sokka and The Mechanist made huge leaps in weapons technology over a relatively brief time period. If the world in that series was a magically-endowed version of feudal Japan/imperialist China, it makes sense that, based on Sokka and The Mechanist’s efforts (not to mention decades of peace), that the world of Korra would be a magically-endowed version of pre-WWII Asia. It was originally teased that Korra would feature a steampunk inspired universe, but, thankfully, DiMartino, Konietzko, and the series’ production designers chose a 1910s/1920s aesthetic over the all to common Victorian era look. Republic City is, generally speaking, the Avatar equivalent to period Shanghai, including all the Western influences. These futurist and Western influences do not overwhelm the basic styles that define the franchise, though.

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The Legend of Korra’s most enduring problem is that it was conceived as a miniseries. DiMartino & Konietzko did not give themselves the room to breathe they did with their first show, where characters could be slowly developed over a series of episodes that were set apart from the greater narrative. In fact, aside from the journey north and the initiation of Zuko’s greater character arc, the first season of Avatar was mostly made up of stand-alone episodes. It wasn’t really until season two that the mega-plot really kicked into overdrive. The Legend of Korra’s intended ‘one and done’ story all but requires the writers to wrap everything up neatly, which they do, and the effect is a bit disappointing. It feels like there’s a lot more story to tell, even within the patently more limited narrative structure. The time spent on Korra’s adventures in competitive bending does feel a bit wasteful, because it leaves less time to tell the more intriguing side of the story. But even this weakness is made a strength, as the results of the bending tournament are Spoiler rendered entirely moot when the Equalists burst in and destroy everything. In essence, the more interesting part of the plot kills the part that’s bringing everything down. It’s a good shock (excuse the pun) and a clever way of introducing the more mature elements in a relatively brief timeline. The pro-bending games are also well utilized as a means to introduce the characters to each other and build up Korra as being rebellious without appearing petulant or obnoxious. Still, the time spent watching the Fire Ferrets ferret around with something as unimportant as a bending tournament is a bit boring when anti-bending terrorists are threatening to tear down the entire social structure of Republic City.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was always a beautifully designed series, but its animation was often limited by its television budget. The quality of the animation increased as the show progressed, due both in part to Nickelodeon’s willingness to extend more money and the Korean animators’ affection for the project (DiMartino and Konietzko broke the ‘rules’ and visited the Korean animators to personally explain the project and thank them for their efforts), but it was still a step down from the high bar of theatrical animation. Shortcuts, like shooting on twos/fours, elongating still frames, and limiting background animation, had to be taken. The Legend of Korra kicks things up a notch and is possibly the most impressive animation I’ve ever seen from a weekly series. There is still some jitter and other obvious signs of minor corner-cutting when it comes to in-betweens, but the scope and clarity of the animation has improved exponentially. The animators have also matured the look to make the character designs more ‘lifelike’ without losing their more expressive movements. The action choreography is also a bit of a step up from the original series or at least the cinematic style used to capture the battles have markedly improved (including computer-assisted camera movements). The creators also resisted what I assume was a powerful impulse to use their bigger budget to fill the screen with massive elemental battles, like the one that closed out Avatar, and continue to depend on choreographer Sifu Kisu’s real-life-based martial arts moves. The big addition this time, besides more money to animated more characters, is the inclusion of mechanical and electrical weapons, giving some of the action a decidedly more sci-fi feel (from what I understand, the next seasons will go the opposite direction and embrace the more fantastical elements).

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Video


The original Avatar: The Last Airbender was made just before Nickelodeon started prepping their shows for HD broadcasts. It was produced for standard definition and framed in a tube TV-friendly 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The Legend of Korra, on the other hand, was produced with HD television in mind. This Blu-ray features a full 1080p image, framed at 1.78:1. Unlike WB & Cartoon Network’s recent Adventure Time release, which crammed 286 minutes of material onto a single 50GB disc, Paramount & Nick have spread the twelve, 22-minute episodes over two 50GB discs (seven on disc one, five on disc two), minimizing compression. This series isn’t a massive departure from the original, stylistically speaking, so comparing the upgraded HD image to those old DVDs seems fair. The first major advantages are found in detail increases and edge sharpness. The foreground cell frames are relatively simple, but tend to feature more intricate patterns and colour contrasts than those of the original series. Meanwhile, the textures of backgrounds are crisp and complex (though I’m pretty sure most of them were painted with computers, rather than traditional paint and paper). The images occasionally utilize a vaguely frosted look. I’ve noticed this has become more prevalent in modern Japanese animation (seemingly in an effort to make the image look more realistic or perhaps to disguise rougher animation in HD) and I’m usually not a fan, but, in this case, I have to admit that the applied softness works – mostly because it’s used more sparingly. The overall line-art presentation is mostly made up of hard, black lines and contrast levels are set high enough to create effective dynamic ranges.

The palette is vibrant, though somewhat muted compared to other HD-endowed animated series. The hue choices mostly match the palette already established during the original series – earthy tones, watery blues, leafy greens, and deep, ruby reds – but feature more diversity in these tones. That frosted look applies mostly to the lighter hues in the largely warm environments (both dark and brightly lit). At best, these yellows and orange glows create incredibly smooth gradations, similar to the ones used by live-action filmmakers when they shoot using digital HD cameras. At worst, some of the darker sequences look a bit muddy in terms of shadows – though I believe this is because of the choice in shadow hues (lots of browns and blue/greys, instead of blacks), not so much an issue with the transfer’s image quality. Pure blacks are mostly reserved for the outlines and inky fills, rather than the more contrasting shadows. The mostly lucid hues are damaged on occasion with some minor blocking and banding effects. Other forms of compression noise aren’t a notable issue and edge haloes only appear along a couple of the most complex wide-shots, specifically those that seem to have been artificially blurred via computer to create the illusion of recessed space (these blurry background images also demonstrate slightly jagged edges at times, making me think that perhaps the digital augmentation was not done with high enough resolution images).

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Audio


Avatar: The Last Airbender was limited by a stereo-surround soundtrack that sounded fine on TV, but was always a little disappointing on DVD. The Legend of Korra, on the other hand, was conceived and mixed in 5.1 and is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The sound designer Benjamin Wynn has a lot of fun with crisp, dynamic ranges, ensuring that the action sequences don’t ever turn into big, flat walls of noise. Silence plays an important role in the mix and helps the effects to make a stronger impact. The directional enhancements are at their wildest during the big battle sequences, where fists, feet, fire, air, earth, and water all zip and shiver throughout the various channels. The battle at the end of episode six, the following episode’s car racing scene, and the massive season finale battle are likely the mix’s most aggressively outstanding moments. The subtlety of the ambient noise is very impressive when presented in an uncompressed format like this. I of course noticed the more obvious ambient layers, like crowd noise, the buzz of nature, and the whoosh of various bending techniques, but I hadn’t noticed the most understated additions, such as a bassy vibration whenever characters are situated in sterile metallic environments, specifically prisons.

Wynn returns as composer as well, along with fellow Avatar: The Last Airbender composer Jeremy Zuckerman. For The Legend of Korra, they’ve mixed the original series’ traditional Asian-inspired themes with a myriad of period jazz influences (Dixieland, big band, swing…). The music is settled back into the stereo and surround channels pretty far, creating a very rounded aural experience. I’m guessing that some of this is done in an effort to disguise the fact that so much of the music is produced with synthesizers instead of physical instruments, but even if it is, the effect is impressive, minus the slightly warbly reverb. Occasionally, the more subtle musical elaborations are a bit lost, but are just as often brought into the center channel for additional texture.

Note: My check disc did have a single audio drop-out during Amon’s episode three Equalist rant.

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Extras


The extras begin (and mostly end) with a series of Blu-ray exclusive commentary tracks, one for each episode. The co-creators appear on every track alongside various guests, including actors Janet Varney, David Faustino, Steve Blum, Seychelle Gabriel, co-director Joaquim Dos Santos, co-composer/sound-designer Benjamin Wynn, and co-composer Jeremy Zuckerman. Between bits of amusing banter (and occasional chipmunk voice effects), the commentaries (which, I admit, I didn’t listen to every single minute of) cover the a lot of the production process, including Nickelodeon’s objections to Korra being a girl, casting, developing the Avatar universe, developing the rules of professional bending, the fanbase, the storyboard and animating process, music and sound design, dialing back on some of the darker elements. They also drop a few hints about the events of future seasons. Unlike so many season long commentary sessions (including past Avatar DVD releases), the discussion is relatively fresh from track to track.

Disc two also features The Legend of Puppetbender Presents – The Making of a Legend: The Untold Story (6:00, HD, also available on the DVD collection), a super weird, faux-behind-the-scenes featurette made up of interviews with felt puppet versions of the characters (the bit making fun of their adult fans and fan-fiction is pretty funny), and eight animatic to final animation comparisons.

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Overall


The Legend of Korra is definitely limited by its shorter, mini-series structure, which doesn’t allow the characters to grow as much as those of Avatar: The Last Airbender and makes for a rather abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. But it’s also a marked improvement in terms of visual complexity and is a very well told, unpredictable story, unhindered by the restraints of Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey. I’m thinking that the final product is a more than worthy follow-up to one of my favourite animated shows and I cannot wait to see what DiMartino & Konietzko have in store now that they’ve committed to a multi-series continuation. This Blu-ray collection features a strong, but imperfect 1080p transfer, an outstanding DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a series of Blu-ray exclusive cast and crew commentary tracks.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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