Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Legend of Korra, Season 1

When I watched the Nickolodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender a few years ago, it was, despite the recommendations of a few rabid fans whose blogs I follow, with no small amount of doubt and trepidation.  When I finished the series, having become a rabid fan myself, and tried to pass on that rabid fannishness to some friends, it occurred to me what a tough sell Avatar is.  If you're not a fan of animated (and specifically anime or anime-style) shows, or of children's TV, the series could very easily have flown under your radar (in fact it's likely that the title will cause associations with either James Cameron's unrelated movie, or M. Night Shyamalan's by all accounts dreadful live action film adaptation of the show's first season).  It certainly doesn't help that the series take a while to get up to speed, and that its first ten episodes are broad and very consciously child-oriented--I wouldn't blame someone from my corner of fandom who watched Avatar's pilot and concluded that the show was Not For Them, not least because I very nearly did the same.  Which is a shame, because once you get past the hump of the show's first half season, Avatar develops into a smart, engaging, and most of all fun series that fans of Harry Potter and Farscape will eat up with a spoon.  Featuring complex, multifaceted characters and relationships, a deft handling of race and gender, and a riveting adventure plot punctuated by thrilling and stunningly animated action set pieces, it's a series that fans of smart genre fare owe it to themselves to become acquainted with--which is no help, since as we all know, "it's really good" is not a convincing sales pitch.  So when Nickolodeon announced that Avatar's creators were returning with a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, I was pleased not just because of the chance to spend more time in the Avatar universe, but because of the opportunity that the show seemed to afford to introduce new fans to that universe on terms they might be more comfortable with.  Shorter, better animated, and focusing on older characters than Avatar, The Legend of Korra seemed like the perfect gateway drug for the two shows' universe.  I was doubly disappointed, then, by what Korra's first season has delivered--not only a lackluster story that has squandered an intriguing setting and characters, but a tone deaf handling of the show's themes that belies its alleged maturity.

Avatar takes place in a pre-industrial world whose people are divided into four nations according to the four classical elements--earth, fire, air, and water.  These elements inform the culture and national character of each of the four nations, and within each nation there are certain individuals, known as "benders," who can manipulate their element--causing fire to shoot from their hands, for example, or forcing the earth to form whatever shape or structure they desire.  The spiritual leader of this world, who can control all four elements, is called the Avatar, and they reincarnate into the world again and again, cycling between the four nations.  As the series opens, the earth and water nations have for a century been under attack by the fire nation, a war that began with the extermination of the air nation, and with it, it is generally believed, the Avatar.  When two water nation children, Katara and Sokka, find the twelve-year-old Avatar, Aang, frozen in a block of ice, they set out together to help Aang master the remaining elements and defeat the fire nation.  The Legend of Korra opens 80 years after Aang's victory, and its title character is the Avatar that follows him, a water nation teenager who has already mastered the water, earth, and fire elements, and who in the series premiere sets out to learn airbending from the one remaining master of the form, Aang's son Tenzin.  To do this, Korra travels to Tenzin's home of Republic City, established after the war to foster better relations between the four nations.

The Legend of Korra thus, from its outset, sets itself apart from Avatar in several significant ways.  Avatar ranged all over its world, and frequently visited urban settings--the fortress of the northern water tribe, the great earth nation cities of Omashu and Ba Sing Se, the fire nation capital.  In each of these settings, the color scheme, design sensibility, and functionality were informed by the nation's dominant element.  In Republic City, these national boundaries have been dissolved, and the advent of an industrial revolution in the decades separating the two shows means that the bending powers that had ensured the smooth running of cities in Avatar (the public transport system in Omashu is powered by earthbenders, who move stone carriages along tracks that they have carved in the ground) have either been superseded or augmented by technology (one of the characters in Korra, a firebender, gets a job shooting bolts of lightning into the city's power grid).  This results in a setting that, though still fantastical in many ways, is mostly reminiscent of a 19th century city--with the same Asian inflections that dominate the design of both series.  In Avatar's story, the spirit world played a significant role--through Aang's interactions with his previous incarnations, through his lapses into "the Avatar State," in which the force that runs through the Avatar line manifests through him and performs tremendous feats, and through his forays into the spirit realm, which give the show's animators the opportunity to venture into Miyazaki-esque surrealism.  Korra's world and story, on the other hand, are almost purely materialistic.  Though Korra is prodigy who has mastered three of the four elements--the ones that Aang struggles with throughout his story--with ease, her skill is purely martial.  Throughout most of the first season she has no connection to the spirit realm, her previous incarnations, or the Avatar State.

In other words, with Korra, the two series' creators have switched subgenres, transitioning from epic fantasy to something like steampunk.  Along the way, they've also created a story that is more mundane, and less purposeful, than Avatar's.  Aang and his cohort were on a quest with a very clearly defined victory condition--defeat the fire nation, end the war, save the world--and intermediate goals--master the remaining three elements (the show's three seasons are titled Water, Earth, and Fire, corresponding to the element that Aang masters in each one).  When Korra arrives in Republic City, the stakes of her story are significantly lower--she's eager to learn airbending and frustrated when it doesn't come easily, but it's her own self-image, not the fate of the world, that hangs in the balance.  There's so little urgency to her quest, in fact, that she has the time and inclination to join a pro-bending team--Republic City's favorite sport, in which teams of benders use their powers to score points and knock each other off the court--alongside brothers Mako and Bolin.  It's only very gradually that the challenges facing her begin to manifest themselves, and only near the end of the season that these challenges take the form of a traditional action-adventure plot.

It should be said that this willingness to change their world and the type of story they tell within it so completely is something that Korra's creators should be lauded for, not least because despite the enormous differences between it and Avatar, there's never any doubt that they take place in the same world, or that the one's setting could, over the course of less than a century, become the other's (this is all the more impressive because Korra avoids leaning on the crutch of the previous series's characters and settings--though one of Avatar's main characters appears as an old woman, and several others appear as forty-year-olds in a flashback, these elements are used minimally, and for the most part it's down to the new characters to establish the show's sense of place and history).  In its early episodes, Korra raises several interesting questions about the effect of modernity on the Avatar's place in society: with national identity becoming less important, or even noticeable, in Republic City's melting pot, the Avatar's role as a bridge between the nations appears to have been superseded, and with technology on the ascendant, bending may be losing its importance as well.  The season's villain, Amon, adds another wrinkle to this question.  The leader of a group calling themselves the Equalists, Amon argues that benders have erected a tyranny over non-benders, and seeks to overturn it through acts of terrorism carried out by an army trained in "chi-blocking"--which temporarily disables bending powers--and through his own ability to permanently remove those powers.

It's in its handling of these questions, and of the stories that emerge from them, that The Legend of Korra falls flat.  In its early episodes, the show struggles to integrate the slowly building Equalist menace with the more mundane concerns of Korra's life, and the result is a season that feels alternately fitful and stalled.  Though the subplot about the pro-bending tournament ends up feeding into the Equalist story in an interesting way, with a thrilling Equalist attack on the tournament final, it's hard not to feel that earlier episodes focused on Korra's pro-bending training are wasting valuable time.  And the equally time-consuming parallel love triangles--between Korra, Mako, and Bolin, and between Mako, Korra, and Mako's girlfriend, the industrialist's daughter Asami--have no such justification for their existence, especially so early in the series's run, when the characters' personalities and relationships are still too faintly drawn to support so much romantic melodrama.  Even when the Equalist threat becomes more prominent, however, the story doesn't snap into focus, because Korra herself is so very reactive.  Aang defied many of the conventions of child protagonists in fantasy stories--having been raised to the role of Avatar, he had a deep understanding of himself and his responsibilities, but never lost his childish glee and sense of play.  Korra is a more familiar, Harry Potter-ish type--affable, thoughtlessly and reflexively heroic whenever she's brought face to face with injustice or suffering, but neither very bright nor terribly inclined to think about the world around her and how she can affect it.  She spends too much of the season responding to Amon's obvious taunts and following the lead of the shady Republic City councilman Tarrlok, who uses the Equalist threat to cement his political power, and later as a justification for restricting the rights and movements of non-benders, and even when she takes charge of the fight against Amon, her tactics remain shortsighted and poorly thought out--in the season finale, she decides to seek Amon out despite the fact that he's defeated her in every one of their previous encounters and she has no idea how to turn the tables--and yet rewarded by the narrative--while trying to execute this foolhardy scheme, Korra learns something about Amon that allows her to defeat him.

Korra never manages to integrate its heroine's flaws and strengths into a fully developed character.  Whenever it comes close to acknowledging her failings, it falls back on highlighting her heroism, so that Korra's moments of triumph--especially when she finally breaks her spiritual block--feel less like accomplishments and more like writerly fiat.  In this, unfortunately, Korra is very much in line with the rest of the series's young cast.  Mako is a handsome blank, Bolin never grows beyond the role of comic relief, and only Asami--who is dealt dual blows over the course of the season in the form of the realization that her boyfriend loves someone else and the revelation that her father is in league with Amon, but is able to put her hurt feelings aside in the face of the more urgent threat of the Equalists, becoming the group's best tactician and a formidable fighter despite having no bending powers--is a genuinely interesting character.  The adult characters fare somewhat better--Tenzin is a square whose fuddy-duddiness conceals a strong anti-authoritarian streak, which feels entirely right both as a response to Aang's carefree personality and as a reflection of it, and Republic City's police chief, Lin Beifong (daughter of Avatar's Toph) is a tough as nails law and order type whom Korra rubs the wrong way, and whose relationships with Aang and Tenzin are only slowly revealed.  This, however, only serves to reinforce the sense that Korra is falling into the same pitfalls as the Harry Potter books, overshadowing its young protagonists with adult supporting characters whose adventures and stories come to seem a great deal more interesting.

Even worse than its problems with pacing and characterization, however, is The Legend of Korra's handling of the Equalist storyline.  Simply put, Amon claims that benders are oppressing non-benders, and the show never bothers to tell us whether this is true--doesn't, in fact, seem to think that the answer is very important.  When she first arrives in Republic City, Korra encounters a protester decrying bender oppression.  "What are you talking about?" she impulsively calls out.  "Bending is the coolest thing in the world!"  This is such a clueless, privileged bit of point-missing that one can only imagine that an important component of the season will involve showing Korra how the other half lives.  For a while, it seems that Mako and Bolin's role will be to do just that--when the brothers, who have been on their own since they were children and even briefly involved with criminal gangs, find themselves short of cash, Korra explains, with mock humility, that she can't help them: "I got nothing.  I've never really needed money.  I've always had people taking care of me."  "Then I wouldn't say you have nothing," is Mako's acidic reply.  Very quickly, however, Mako and Bolin's humble origins are forgotten (as is Korra's cluelessness).  They become part of Korra's inner circle--which also includes, as befits the Avatar, the movers and shakers of Republic City.  Within Korra's limited perspective, non-benders are almost entirely absent, and the ones she encounters are either Amon's henchmen or those who are part of her group and firmly opposed to Amon, such as Asami or Tenzin's wife Pema.  In both cases, when these characters address themselves to the issue of tensions between benders and non-benders, it's only to discuss whether they support Amon's tactics--the question of whether his aims or theories are correct is never even raised.  Unaffiliated non-benders from outside of Korra's privileged circle are encountered only as undifferentiated masses--the crowds who flock to Amon's rallies, or the protesters rounded up under Tarrlok's reactionary policies. 

Even absent the voice of ordinary non-benders, The Legend of Korra paints a disturbing picture of their status in Republic City--a picture that is never fully acknowledged by its characters.  Benders seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power and influence in Republic City's government--all of the city's police force are earthbenders, for example, and though it's not clear whether the city's ruling council is also made up solely of benders, when Tarrlok suggests that non-benders be subject to a curfew, only Tenzin objects.  In an early episode, Tarrlok sends Korra on a raid on what he terms an Equalist stronghold, but what she finds when she gets there is a dojo in which non-benders are practicing chi-blocking.  Given that by this point we've learned that both Mako and Bolin's parents and Asami's mother were killed by firebender criminals, and that when Korra arrives in the city she sees bender gangsters extorting protection money from a shopkeeper, it doesn't seem unreasonable for non-benders to want to learn how to protect themselves, but the possibility that chi-blocking is not an indicator of evil is never entertained by the characters--or indeed the show, which quickly reveals that the people at the dojo are indeed followers of Amon.  Most damning is the simple fact that Amon amasses huge numbers of followers--he has hundreds of henchmen to do his bidding, and great crowds cheer for him in the street--a man who has terrorized their city and promised to hunt down and mutilate their fellow citizens.  When Korra attacks him, they turn on her, and only reject Amon once they learn that he's lied to them and is, in fact, a bender himself.  Unless we assume that the people of Republic City are credulous dupes, we have to choose between two equally unpleasant interpretations: either the city's citizens are evil, eager to turn on those whose powers they resent like a crowd of non-mutants on X-Men, or they have a genuine grievance that only Amon is addressing, and which he has inflamed into hatred and violence.  Either way, defeating Amon doesn't even come close to addressing the problem, something that is ignored by the season's triumphant ending.

There's a sense that Korra's writers are aware of the corner they've painted themselves into, because a lot of the season is dedicated to shifting the goalposts of their argument.  At the end of the season, Korra is told that Amon "truly believes bending is the source of all evil in the world."  This echoes with the fact that, though Amon and his followers frequently use the language of oppression and tyranny when discussing bending, the examples they cite of benders' perfidy are not of prejudice or systemic inequality, but of individual cases of violence.  In their final confrontation, Asami's father tells her that she is "aiding the very people who took your mother away," to which she replies "You don't feel love for Mom anymore.  You're too full of hatred."  In other words, we're in X-Men territory--benders are hated and feared not because of what they've done, but because of what they could do, and resentment of them is a prejudice that blames an entire group for the actions of some of its members.  But while the X-Men model works when the superpowered individuals are a beleaguered minority group that has only begun to emerge into the public consciousness, it's less persuasive when they're a well-known phenomenon that has been folded into every aspect of civic and economic life, and whose members hold key positions in society.  There needs to be some work explaining how benders, through their own actions or as a result of unrelated social change, have lost the public trust, and this isn't something the show does--the suggestion that technology is edging out the need for bending, for example, is something that is only faintly present in the season's early episodes, and then abandoned entirely, and though instances of bending violence are mentioned repeatedly, at no point do either the show or the characters consider that bending and criminality might have become linked in the public consciousness.  Similarly, around the middle of the season the writers try to make up for the absence of any indication that non-benders are oppressed by having Tarrlok initiate his restrictive policies.  "You're doing exactly what Amon says is wrong with benders," Korra tells him, implying that until those policies had been enacted, Amon had been wrong.  But just as Amon couldn't have done all the damage he did on his own, without supporters and people who believed in what he was preaching, Tarrlok can't criminalize non-benders without at least the acquiescence of the city's power structures and its bender citizens--an acquiescence that, in itself, indicates a problem that the show won't face up to.

It's a sad thing to say, but it feels as if, by aiming at a more mature tone and subject matter than Avatar's, The Legend of Korra throws its inherent immaturity into sharper relief.  When it comes down to it, the show isn't willing to say that terrorists are just people like you and me, whose abhorrent actions might be rooted in legitimate grievances, or that large-scale, violent persecution of minority groups can only be achieved through at least the tacit approval of most of the people, not just the ones wearing scary uniforms.  You could argue that that's too heavy a moral for a children's show, but another way of looking at it is that for a story aimed at young people to stop short of this moral--to create a world in which people cry persecution merely because they resent the dominant elite, and social unrest is the work of supervillains and their armies of masked henchmen--is to send a very irresponsible message.  Supervillains like Amon and Tarrlok would have worked in Avatar (in fact, like Avatar, Korra ends by humanizing both characters and explaining, if not justifying, their choices), which for all its intelligence and complexity never sought to escape the conventions of epic fantasy.  Korra's ambitions are higher, but it fails to achieve them and neglects its characters and story to boot.  I still recommend Avatar to just about anyone who is looking for a fun, smart, compelling fantasy story they can be sucked into, but if you're looking to get into the Avatar universe, start with the original (and give the first season at least until its midpoint), and leave Korra until you know you've been won over.

22 comments:

Chuk said...

So as someone who liked Korra but turned the first episode of Avatar off halfway through (boring), do you think I should give the first series another chance?

lavanyasix said...

Good essay, and its points are generally in line with the dissatisfied reviews of Korra I've read since the finale.

The show also never makes a case for why the Equalists are a major threat. Even if they sank that second fleet, there's still the whole rest of the world. How can one city withstand that, especially when Amon himself declared that the world would rise up and destroy the Equalists if the Avatar was harmed? What's different in the finale verses the past? They've got a lot of cool tech, but, to quote Uncle Joe, quantity has a quality all its own.

I can't help but be disappointed with the show; not just in comparing it to the original, but in that it squandered the promise of its first three episodes. Plots and character arcs appear and disappear at random, we ended up knowing less about Republic City in twelve episodes then we learned about Ba Sing Se in six, and the last few minutes of the finale just blow me away with how much storytelling potential is wasted.

Alison said...

It breaks my heart to say it, but Legend of Korra ended up being a perfect illustration of why creators shouldn't try to write entire seasons of television by themselves, particularly when writing isn't even their creative specialty. I try not to spend too much time wondering what this season would have been like if they had brought back Aaron Ehasz and his writing team to work with them. Such a shame.

Anspen said...

Presumably the second season could still address the bender/non-bender problem from non-bender non-evil perspective. However since this season was originally slated to be the only one (or at least since they had no way of knowing there would be a second one) the choices made do not create much hope for this.

Similarly they knew how many episodes they had, so pacing problems cannot be blamed on such shenanigans. I find this especially worrisome with regard to the characterizations. The onion’s Emily Guendelsberger (among other) interpreted the final scene before Korra breaks her spirit block as her contemplating suicide. Which would not only fit with an earlier episode where Korra fears she is nothing besides the avatar but would presumably also result in the birth of a new “complete” avatar. Her decision not to take that path and to see herself as more than just a bender would be the choice that breaks her spirit block. While this reading certainly enhances Korra’s characterization and seems quite plausible as the intention of the show’s creators, it also shows the problem the rest of the season has.

While the makers may have been limited in what they could do on what is still officially a cartoon for children, this does not explain the rushed nature of the last part of the season or indeed of lack of emphasis on that part of Korra identity earlier in the show. Not only would that have been far more useful than not one but two teenage romantic triangles, it would also have made quite a lot of sense for a girl who knew since early childhood she was the reincarnation of hundreds of the most powerful personalities in the world.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chuk:

As I say, I think you need to give Avatar at least until the middle of its first season (if for no other reason than that, per Alison's comment, it takes a few episodes for the more important and influential staff writers - who weren't present for Korra - to join up). Still, it's worth remembering that these are two different stories and that what you liked about Korra may not be present in Avatar.

lavanyasix:

we ended up knowing less about Republic City in twelve episodes then we learned about Ba Sing Se in six

That's a very good way of putting it. Really, my complaints about the Equalist storyline boil down to our lack of knowledge about Republic City, how it works and what life is like there. Compare that to the Ba Sing Se episodes in Avatar, which not only emphasize the city's workings, but give us two views on them - Aang and the others get to see the corrupt and restrictive government from a gilded cage, while Zuko and Iroh get to live like the common people.

Anspen:

I've been telling myself all season that surely the writers would address the state of non-benders by the season finale, so hoping that they'll do it next season feels foolish. And, as you say, not only was this story originally envisioned as a miniseries, it is clearly self-contained. The writers might learn from their mistakes next season but that won't retroactively fix those mistakes.

I have heard the suicide theory, and I think the problem with it is not that a children's show can't be explicit about suicide, but that the show isn't sufficiently explicit about Korra deciding not to kill herself, or as you put it, recognizing that she is more than just the Avatar. Before Aang appears to Korra in the final scene there's no sense that she's made a breakthrough or chosen life - she seems just as despondent as when she went up to the cliff (and if we're meant to believe that Korra didn't change her mind, that makes Aang statement that she was open to him because she was at her lowest even more troubling - as if suicidal thoughts were a state of heightened being rather than a dark and limited place).

Gordon B said...

I was filled with trepidation myself when I learned the show involved antagonists called the "Equalists" and concerned benders vs. nonbenders. This was probably because, in my mind, given a world like Avatar's, there are only a few ways of tackling this issue intelligently and responsibly, and many ways of tackling the issue superficially (and irresponsibly). I think this stems from the fact that a world with such heavy genetic determinism like Avatar's makes for a rather poor allegory for the real world, in which people pretty much have the same order of magnitude of innate ability at birth. Issues of inequality and class privilege in the real world are more subtle in comparison, and in modern society we have social mechanisms available to us to alleviate these issues without the need for any violent and traumatic modification of people (e.g. public education and welfare programs paid through taxes -- though I suppose some people find those "traumatic"). I'm a bit at a loss of how any semblance of equality of opportunity can be achieved in a world of benders vs. nonbenders without radical measures, given the tremendous advantages (and lack of disadvantages) benders have. There really isn't any other recourse but to transform one group into the other. I think this leaves three choices:

(1) Maintain the status quo (Equality of opportunity is overrated!)
(2) Make everyone a nonbender.
(3) Make everyone a bender. (Better yet, make everyone have access to all the elements!)

I was afraid, and the first season has thus far not allayed my concerns, that the writers are going to fall into a false choice between (1) and (2). And while one might be the lesser of two evils in the Avatar world, they both have quite terrible messages when applied to the real world.

Personally, I would only be satisfied with outcome (3). What if the Avatar could perform a reverse Amon? Instead of turning benders into non-benders, she could transform all willing non-benders (and who wouldn't be willing?) into benders. That seems like a "feel-good" positive sum outcome to me. Perhaps that's why it's not considered? It's just too "hokey"? It's too radical a change to the world? (And radical is bad!) Ironically though, in a parable about fantasy communists, it is this equalizing outcome that is probably the most liberal/libertarian of all.

Loquat said...

I had great hopes that the show was going to subvert the love triangles entirely, and just have Korra (and Bolin) come to terms with the fact that crushes aren't always reciprocated. Letting Korra end the season without any love interest at all might have been too much to hope for, but she could have at least started showing interest in some other guy, like handsome young General Iroh, who she clearly had some mutual attraction with in the scene where she saves his life.

This, of course, leads to some awkward questions about the degree of nepotism in Republic City's leadership. If Iroh's young enough to date a teenage girl, he's far too young to command even one warship, let alone a whole fleet. So with Zuko's grandson commanding one fleet, Aang & Katara's older son commanding another fleet, Aang & Katara's younger son apparently a permanent member of the 5-person city council, and Toph's daughter leading the police force... one doesn't like to accuse Aang & co. of having turned the city into their own personal fiefdom, but it's hard to deny the conclusion.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Gordon B:

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that the world of Avatar suffers from an inherent inequality of opportunity. After all, genetics determines our opportunities as well, even if it's not to the same degree of obviousness as in the show - not everyone is born with the potential to become a marathon runner, or an opera singer, or a physicist. And I think it's significant that in Avatar, at least, bending ability and social status were not obviously linked. The leaderships of the Earth nation and the Water tribes were made up of non-benders, and both nations' military forces seemed to have a greater non-bender presence. The Fire nation's leadership and military seem to be made up of benders exclusively, but this is held up as a reflection of the Fire nation's excessive militarism and its unhealthy attitude towards firebending.

What is true is that in all three existing nations benders and non-benders seemed to have clearly defined social roles, which offered equal opportunity for advancement and social status along entirely distinct paths. It's easy to imagine how, following the breakdown of national barriers and traditional ways of life in Republic City, those roles would also break down, and profound inequality would result. But again, that's something the show needed to address.

Loquat:

Bear in mind, we're only 80 years removed from a world in which the most common form of government is absolute monarchy, and there's no reason to believe that, even at the time of Korra's story, anything outside of Republic City has changed. The question this raises, of course, is just what that Republic is supposed to be, and not to keep repeating myself, but this is yet another potential source of social strife that should have been addressed by the show.

eneya said...

THANK YOU!
I have been discussing the same issues with my friends and I was really surprised by the massive "omg, the season was great" attitude of most of the reviews and comments about it.

On the topic of age, well, I do want to point out that obviously children are included into the adult life a lot younger than today. Example - Zuko has been 14 when he entered that war room. Aang was 12 when he was told he is the Avatar. Katara and Sokka were 16 when they sailed off to the sunset with Aang.

On the topic of equality... I really hope there will be some real progress presented in season 2. Something has obviously rapidly changed, because I can not explain in any other way the quick closure of the whole situation and the supposed death of the main antagonists.

Characters... it is very weird how under developed almost all the characters were, yes.

nostalgebraist said...

This has nothing to do with the subject of this post, but have you seen Moonrise Kingdom yet? I remember you saying in a post a while back that you were a Wes Anderson fan, and I think Moonrise Kingdom is by far the most successful of the Anderson films I've seen (though I admit I haven't seen all of them).

Isaac said...

As a long time reader, I am delighted to discover that you are also a fan of the original series.

I'm been trying to think about how to summarize my feelings about the show for days, but your essay pretty much mirrors my thoughts.

I've given myself time to digest Korra. I've tried not to let my own expectations of how I expected the show to go to colour my judgement. But the phrase "wasted potential" keeps coming up in my mind. Never have I seen a series so full of initial promise degenerate into such a mess, and from storytellers I thought the world of. These were people who proved in ATLA that they knew pacing, the same people who brought unexpected subtlety and nuance to a kid's show, the people who understood character motivation and development, who took their time to craft an engaging romance right. They copped out in every way possible in Korra. I am still shaking my head in disbelief.

Req said...

You are spot on, Legend of Korra was a disappointment in so many ways. While its creators tried to sell it as a step forward (darker, more mature et al, but only superficially so), it was really two steps back (less wise, less detail oriented, less coherent and less culturally accomplished).

Camille said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Camille said...

Come to think of it, I don't think Aaron Ehasz (who was a producer and, I think, head writer for AtLA) was involved in Korra. This might be the missing link.

At any rate, I saw the first episode of Korra, was very underwhelmed, and haven't caught up with any further episodes -- unfortunately this review, and Strange Horizons, and a couple of others have pretty much confirmed what I feared: 1. Stakes not convincingly high for the protag, especially in comparison with the previous series, 2. A somewhat misguided sports subplot (which, to be fair, would not have been my "thing" even if it had been done quite well), and 3. the love triangles. I was hoping against hope, against all evidence, and against officially stated intent, that the love triangles would be left out. Ah well.

One of the original series' strengths was its level of nuance. For a show clearly labeled"for 7-year-olds," it was incredible about not spoonfeeding information to the audience, letting visuals or truncated (but realistic) dialogue convey things. I didn't sense a great deal of that from the sole episode I saw, but was that quality, at least, a factor in "Korra" at all? I'm trying to decide if I ought to watch it despite misgiving. (Leaning heavily toward "no.")

Brianne K said...

Amazing review. I was hoping to see just a little more about the failings of the romantic plotline (which was one of the worst aspects of the show, in my opinion and others'), but you nailed everything else. I think I'll start reading some of your other posts.

Xiao-Fury said...

Good review...GREAT review. You've tackled the political issues that most of the younger crowd refused to make mention of. Republic City was predominantly bender as you mentioned, and almost every career involved bending as a necessity. Pro-bending would be an example as well as the cops having metal bending abilities. I think the creators created a world with a problem that probably won't be settled fairly. I don't see it happening.

When I first watched LOK, I expected to see a hot-headed young woman who thought she was unstoppable because of her powers and title. I did; however, I was expecting to see Korra's attitude change, especially after her terrifying first encounter with Amon. However, she remained the same throughout the series with the exception of befriending Lin.

The romance was terrible advice for teenage girls and young women, especially since the avatar series has a huge female fan base. Korra knew that Mako was in a relationship, yet she (by Pema's bad advice) pursued after him. This is called infidelity, and it is definitely a practice of adultery.

I was hoping for Korra to dismiss her feelings for Mako on the grounds that he was in a relationship, but she threw herself on him without any regard to Asami. Asami didn't confront Korra about the issue, but in the real world---I'm sure an ugly cat fat would have erupted. Mako was no better. If he respected Asami, he would have stayed true to her and he would have rebuked Korra for trying to ruin his relationship. It didn't work that way though. The authors simply had to match Korra with Mako because 'Makorra' spells into each other perfectly, I guess.

I hear the excuse of 'they were just teenagers'. Nonsense. Aang (mentally) and Katara were much younger than Korra and Mako, yet they handled their romantic interests better than they did. Teenagers are very impressionable---this is exactly why this show should have taught why infidelity is unacceptable, even if it works.

I did enjoy LOK up until the end of the series though. However, these series have huge moral flaws that can get young hot headed teen girls into trouble---among other things. I hear that there will be a second season, but because of all of these moral issues (and the fact that the villains were all killed in the end, and Korra suddenly became a master avatar so suddenly), my interest for the second season has decreased dramatically. Here's hoping that Korra was mature.

Xiao-Fury said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abigail Nussbaum said...

A late reply, Xiao-Fury: while I didn't find either Korra or Mako's behavior very appealing, I certainly wouldn't have liked the show to come down on either of them, and particularly Korra, as strongly as you suggest. There are worse things in life, I think, than teenagers being reckless with each other's hearts, and I'd hate for any TV show to give young girls the impression that the very worst thing you can do is commit (or enable) adultery (we'll leave aside for the moment the question of whether it's even adultery when the people involved are kids who have only been dating a few weeks). I think that Korra and Mako are called out on their bad behavior towards Asami to a degree that I'm comfortable with. What I'm more bothered by is that they both have failings - much more serious ones, to my mind, than cheating on a girlfriend - that the show doesn't acknowledge or address.

Liana said...

Very well said. I had some problems with the humor in Korra, but I couldn't put my finger on it until what you said about maturity contrasting with immaturity.

TBlakely said...

The bender vs non-bender should have never been touched on especially as a major plotline. It was wise for the creators to ignore that issue in the first series since it was indeed a kid's show.

Given how people mistreat each other just with wealth and societal preferences can you imagine what a horror a society with a select few having 'superpowers' would be? Basically, if the number of people with such powers were very, very small they would most likely be celebrated. As the percentage increases they would more and more be viewed as a threat and not without good reason. A goodly percentage of benders would deem themselves superior and should be the ones running the show (basic human nature in action).

Such a society would be very, very ugly with either extermination or slavery being the most likely outcomes (which side would win out would depend on the percentages and other intangibles). Both show's depiction of bender vs non-bender relations is extremely unrealistic due to human nature and should have been ignored at all cost.

Justin Miller said...

I suppose I didn't share the problems you noted with the Equalist plot-line. The society we're introduced to within "Korra" is an experimental melting pot still coming right off the heels of a world where the very concept was an alien one. In the previous era, each nation's benders acted as lords who were tasked with protecting their subjects (non-benders). The natural inclination was to see Nation first, non-benders included. The threat was Nation based.

Now that those lines have blurred, at least within the former Fire nation colonies, friction is most likely to arise between the only difference that really matters any longer (in this universe), bender vs. non-bender. As there are enough historical examples of a particular group being made scapegoats by society, regardless of actual merit, it does not make Republic city's non-benders rubes to be taken in by a silk-tongued demagogue, they just have to be traditionally fallible in the most human of ways. Is it not in the nature of demagogues to be able to be able to make molehills appear like mountains in need of conquering.

While it's debatable whether or not shifting the focus of the narrative more towards either giving Amon more justification for his actions would have benefited the show, I found that what the writers focused on instead ended up providing good fruit in the relationship between Tarrlok and Amon in the final episodes. The narrative does an excellent job of mirroring their familial struggles in the strife the city is plagued with. On that level, I found much enjoyment to be derived, and in line with the complexity of the villains from the earlier series.

On yet another level, doing so provided a contrast/comparison moment between them, and Korra. Both were defined by a role imposed on them from birth. Korra too readily accepted her role as Avatar, and it's the root of her character flaw. Her bending defines her, the loss of it makes her 'nothing' in her own mind, even though this isn't true as evidenced by the non-benders she meets (represented most by Asami). Meanwhile Tarrlok and Amon thought their actions were distancing themselves from their father's assigned role for their lives (as his instruments of revenge), but ironically they ended up fulfilling them. In their failure to escape being defined by their roles, they self-destruct. In Korra's succeeding in superseding her role (to become Korra, not just the Avatar, when she decides her life is more important than her role, by not jumping off that cliff at the end) she proves she has become stronger in spirit, and thus is rewarded.

I also think that the writers avoided the trap of falling into political analogy, and possibly making it a 'message show', which is what I feared was going to happen when Korra confronted the Equalist protester in the park. It was actually a relief when they chose to focus on the villains as individual characters as opposed to figureheads for a political allegory.

The sum total of all this is, what Legend of Korra lacks in political intrigue, it gains in spades by being about something more timeless that speaks to a general human condition.

Justin Miller said...

Reading through more comments...

You really didn't get the suicide cues? The only reason I doubted it in the initial viewing was because I thought that Nickelodeon would never even let them flirt with the concept, even through artistic devices.

But in repeat viewings, the signals are there and very much deliberate. Artistically, the first-person, lingering, 6-second shot of that teardrop falling over the edge of the cliff (meaning in order for it to do so, the person has to be leaning over the edge and looking down over it, as she was), combined with Aang's words about reaching your lowest point, and the fact that in spite of Mako's giving her acknowledgement of his feelings - something she earlier really wanted - being returned with not only words of rejection, but of a person trying to deliberately create that emotional distance that people who are about to make that final step often do between themselves and friends. She didn't just turn him away, her words were unnecessarily hostile, not just the reaction of someone who's 'sad'. She's cutting ties.

Compounded with her fear dream from earlier in the season (and the paralleling contrast drawn with the villains and their suicide as mentioned above) about her being 'nothing' without her bending, it seems clear that she intended to go to that cliff to re-start the Avatar cycle, so that the Avatar can be 'whole' again, according to her flawed understanding of what that meant.

Furthermore, in juxtaposing her moment of self-confrontation on the cliff right after the scene were we see the villains actually commit suicide for failing to overcome a very similar personal struggle, the odds of all these things being written and drawn the way they are, accidentally, become slimmer and slimmer. There is an intent in the design and architecture of the plot here that becomes impossible to ignore when seen in the totality of the piece.

Naturally, just accepting that her life held real importance over her being the Avatar doesn't mean she's suddenly going to be in a better mood. She's willing to face life with or without bending now. She doesn't envy the road ahead, but being willing is something she didn't have going for her up to that point. Sitting down and not jumping is the most she can do, but it is the most significant step forward a character with her flaw can take, and ultimately it's the move that separates her from Tarrlok and Amon.

It's not overtly written, and for a hero of a television show aimed at younger generations to even contemplate such a move, it's probably the only way the network would let it slip by, but it's most definitely there. The scene composition, writing and direction all point in that direction.

Post a Comment