Surprise Post: Legend of Korra

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So, Legend of Korra is not something I normally talk about.  The primary reason for this is that I feel Korra is accessible enough to an English-speaking audience and mainstream enough that it does not require my promoting it through blogging.

But I would be woefully neglectful to my own personal needs if I did not talk about what is arguably my favorite animated series.

Or, perhaps, “was” is a more accurate term.

There are lots of camps on how Season 2 of Korra went (hell, lots of camps on how Season 1 went). And, in full disclosure, I am of the opinion this was a bad season, something I have never thought of Avatar as a franchise at all (the movie escapes this on a technicality).

It was not ALL bad. It was not the worst thing I have ever seen. It was not as bad as Galilei Donna.

But, by the end of the 14 episode season, I was mostly watching as an obligation to my love of the franchise, not for any true desire to see the season finish on its own merits. I had, by about the ninth or tenth episode, resigned that the story was not going to be the best part of the season. It was the action elements that wowed me more than anything.  And seeing Korra in full badassery mode, well, yes, maybe made me a little flushed, can’t lie about things like that.

So, I will be assuming you have watched the season. If you haven’t, depart now, for I will be spoilering the crap out of this series.

There were several elements that wound together in this season that seemed….out of place to say the least. Let’s break down the season’s failures before I get to the positives.

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Everything You Didn’t Need to Know

Arguably the most distracting thing was the superfluous information we received this season.  The backstory of Unalaq was okay, but it ultimately meant nothing.  It was one thing when he was using spirits for political power. It seemed to imply a thematic bridge between his actions in the past and his actions in the present.  Originally, it seemed like Korra would need to take all season to turn against Unalaq.  But when she switched sides so early, it ultimately felt without flow. And once the Rava/Vatu stuff was revealed, it basically became a whole different show.  It made him a bad villain, and really the best villains in Avatar have always been the ones we can see where they went wrong. Unalaq seemed to be going that direction, until he turned into the harbinger of the apocalypse because…you know…stuff.  Why was his history with Korra’s dad so important? What did he have in his past that Aman’s past, which was shrouded in mystery, didn’t? The answer is nothing, because it is not truly important to the events at hand. And yes, we did see from Tarlok that Aman/Nouatok had a past, but THAT was a scene to establish who he really was, NOT to just show us he was consistently a bad person.  Tarlok tosses in a few last words about Aman’s possible motivations, but that wasn’t the reason we saw his past.  The reason was we didn’t know who Aman was.  Unalaq does not suffer these problems. All of that South Pole political nonsense served no purpose in the story other than kill time until we got to the Vatu arc.

But the cardinal sin of this season, the worst thing it did, was Avatar Wan.

Not poorly executed (though his story also seemed to lack clarity), but the fact that it even existed.  I understand the temptation. I know that fans have been curious for years.  But some things are better left to the realm of fanfiction. By expounding on the origin of your human demigod, you rationalize that demigod, and its power becomes less real.  By grounding the spirit world down into a mortal plane, it took form, and became…boring.  No great mystical connection, no great purpose, really, other than the fact that Wan just happened to be the guy around at the time.  And while that can be inspiring on some levels, how even the lowest of us can rise to be magnificent on the call to arms, ultimately by defining the Avatar, they spoiled the Avatar.

The Avatar has a much clearer purpose.  And while many of the details were quite easy to be inferred (such as, Humans getting Bending from the Lion Turtles. As the Avatar is the bridge between Human and Spirit, it seemed that bending was connected to those spirits in some way), by etching them in stone, by giving them definition, it removes the mysticism from the idea of the Avatar.  And the spirits, too. I have given up my hope to see Koh return again, his actions and exposition dialogue regarding the moon and ocean are so far removed from the current paradigm that his part in Siege of the North may as well not even exist.

It was just as powerful that the Avatar may be a man-made phenomenon.  Not the Avatar itself, but the IDEA of the Avatar. That, maybe, it was the Humans who ultimately, willingly, bowed to the authority of the Avatar out of a need for order. I think that making the Avatar not a god, but a fusion of man and god, may have taken something away, as well.  Because the Avatar was always a deity, it was just a living deity. Because a hoity toity god could cast judgment on Humans.  Could enforce an iron will on the population.  By living Human suffering and joy, the Avatar was above that. It was merely a necessity of its function before.  Perhaps the Avatar had once been evil, dominating the four nations with muscle, but one of its lives had seen light, and began the new order of “Balance”. That could have made an interesting story, far more so than Wan if you ask me.

Not that any of these “old rules” were ever mentioned or set in stone, of course.  But that’s really the point. The Avatar has a defined beginning, and now, a defined end. And simultaneously a new beginning.

And, from the outside perspective, the simple practical view that after seven years of fan theories and speculation, nothing that one came up with could truly match the hype of where the Avatar came from, except with the MOST PRECISE crafting of the story.  The story of Wan was definitely not that meticulously crafted narrative. I guess, as proven by the fact I felt a need to explain all the failings of his tale in detail.

But most of all, by giving the Avatar this defined purpose, it almost diminishes the work of the Avatar in the Human and Spirit worlds. Because, ultimately, it’s just killing time until the next Harmonic Convergence. Wan’s purpose, his true purpose, was to work against Vatu. 1,000 lifetimes later, Korra’s purpose was to work against Vatu.  This basically ruins the message of “The Promise”, and the first season of Legend of Korra.  “The Promise”, if you haven’t read, was the in-between comic about the aftermath of Avatar: TLA. In it, Aang was faced with resistance to his decision to revert the Four Nations to their pre-war states.  Specifically, the oldest of the Fire Nation colonies, which existed even in Roku’s time.  150 years. To sum up: How well would Florida respond to someone just appearing and saying “Alright. We’re giving Florida back to Spain. Those not of Spanish descent pack your bags and go where you came from.”  Not well. Neither would telling black people in America that, hey, you know what, you’re slaves again. Neither would telling Korea “You guys are a Japanese colony again.”

In short, Aang created what political scientists call “a clusterfuck”.

Another obstacle he had was the “Avatar Fan Club”, which were essentially Air Nomad Weeaboo.  He flipped his lid at this. Because in Aang’s heart, he knew one nation would never coexist with another without domination.

He eventually came around when Kotara pointed out that, as a mixed couple, she and Aang would have one of those “domination” relationships, and not in the good way, because she was Water and he was Air. And if he truly felt that way about the Four Nations, not only would they have to break up, but so would Sokka and Suki.  Could he do that?

To be short, Aang went with his hormones, as he always does, and came to see that the world order of 100 years ago just wasn’t practical for this new post-war world. Particularly convincing were the Earthbenders who considered themselves Fire Nation. He eventually adopted the Avatar Fan Club into the Air Nation, as the Air Acolytes, which is why there are now non-benders in the Air Temples who defer to Tenzin as their master.

The point was, that Aang learned not to live in the past. Each Avatar must be their own Avatar, and we certainly saw that in Korra, who would very clearly NEVER “rule” the way Aang did, in a million years.  This is a very eastern philosophy. Sometimes you just burn old wisdom, because it is from a different era, when war was the rule, but in a new world, peace needs new rules. Or vice versa. Korra was the same. She was adapting to the new paradigm in Republic City.  A very Dalai Lama transformation, from a spiritual leader into a more “secular” political figure.

Now? It ultimately matters little, because the Avatar’s ultimate purpose is to be Rava. That message of the series before has diminished. It’s not gone, but it is far less potent a “purpose”.

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Waffling for Direction

While the Wan story may have been the biggest sticking point for many, myself included, it would by no means cripple the season. It wasn’t THAT bad.  No, the most persistent flaw of season 2 was the utter lack of focus for this story. Really, I’m concerned for future seasons, as the water tribe civil war, the expansion of that war and the rallying for support, and the spirit world stuff concerning Vatu all could have been independent seasons of their own.

But Verrick’s plot was basically nothing. It amounted to….getting them a ship back to the South Pole.  Alright. Glad we focused so heavily on that.

The romance stuff was actually working this season…until it froze, reset, and then unfroze.  Well you know what they say, for every three steps forward, you sometimes take seven steps backward. No wait, they don’t say that at all. Again, what was the point of this? Unless it was to jettison to abysmal way this series handles romance, as, at least if I were Asami, I wouldn’t trust Mako with my slippers at this point.

Korra’s gathering of reinforcements was foolishly wasted. it ultimately amounted to…! Nothing. No ships, no help, no cavalry.

Even the civil war nonsense led nowhere, really. Other than getting the spirit portals, but until this season those were completely arbitrary.

I felt like Kaiya was under-served in the sibling rivalry subplot. We came to grips that Tenzin was the favored child, and that Bumi was under-appreciated, but what of the strangely-hot older sister? She seemed very static in a series that is usually really good to its female characters.  She seems mostly like a perfect Korra, with maybe a hint of her Aunty Toph. She seems to lack the rage of her mother, and yet retains her very motherly virtues, without the vices. Tenzin had a pretty good arc this season, but it ultimately played out over only three episodes.

The Dark Spirits were another plot element introduced, and just as quickly left alone until it was convenient.  I think what bugged me was Korra was never really challenged by them.  She fights some, loses at first, but once she learns to copy Unalaq’s trick, she has them handled pretty well.  They served little other purpose except as nameless footsoldiers of Unalaq, who, not being Human, can be abused and lit on fire and damaged in the most cool of ways without offending the children. It feels like there could have been a lot more growth from dealing with these Dark Spirits, but ultimately that was ignored so we could skip ahead to the castle and the princess inside.

“But Anna,” you will say, “What would satisfy you?”  And, well, if I’m going to yell for this I might as well put my money where my mouth is.

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Lost Plot Threads

Tied into the previous two points, I will list out some possible directions this season could have taken, as I saw them from the story presented.  I will just assume that the seasons are, like the original series, just made up they go.  For example, if you listen to commentary, “We always knew Zuko had to turn REALLY bad before he turned good, but we didn’t expect that to drag out until (Crossroads of Destiny)”  So while there may be a vague master plan as to the coming two seasons, there probably is not a blueprint that required events to unfold EXACTLY as they did this season.  So let’s look at lost opportunities.

I’m not even going to count the dropped thread of the Equalists.  While their terrorism had to be crushed, the very valid point remains that there is lots of Bender-conducted oppression to be had. But yeah, best not continue it, it might be messy and expose the children to social issues.

-Korra as Roku

After the first episode I felt this was where Season 2 was headed. Korra was not only witnessing, but unwittingly helping, the next Fire Lord Sozin.  Hell, it could even be themed that all of the villains from Korra have been Water Tribe (Unalaq, Varrick, and Aman last season).  Maybe there was something cultural at work here, that caused all of these water tribesmen to turn evil.  After all, the North Pole is ultimately playing the role of America in the post-war world.  The Air Nomads and South Pole have been rebuilding from their crippling losses, the Earth Kingdom, while stable and wealthy, does have a lot of damage to repair, and the Fire Nation is undoubtedly paying out reparations and dealing with the social upheaval that Zuko’s reforms took on the Fire Nation (he had at least a dozen attempts on his life in the first year).  This basically leaves the North Pole, not only as arguably the most intact kingdom, but the one who could act as the go-between for all the kingdoms.  Perhaps this change in the world’s status quo puts them at the top of the lists of power, diplomatically and militarily.

Korra may not realize until it is too late that Unalaq is the new Sozin, launching an empire building spree across the kingdoms, and unwittingly helping him do it, against her better judgment, and finally until she can no longer tolerate it. This could have been amazing, and indirectly led to her spiritual growth.  She may be connected to the Avatars now, but Aang was always connected to Roku. It’s a different matter to understand and commune with them.  And to have Korra meet Roku and Aang? And have to explain herself? What if the Avatar powers cut off? What if they “rebelled” against her? It could have been really trying for Korra to bring herself back into harmony. Just one idea.

-Korra as the Avatar

Now that Korra is, finally, a fully realized Avatar, we had the chance to see an Avatar at the beginning of their reign.  Still learning the ropes of her responsibility.

At the very least, we had a chance to see Korra mature in her duties as the Avatar.  I actually thought this was an angle they were shooting for.  At first, she merely comes to the President because Unalaq is HER personal enemy.  But, ultimately, the President is correct: The Water Tribe civil war is still technically an internal matter of the Water Tribe.  Though they may not have been administered in such a way, it is not for the Avatar, whose role is to assure the balance OF the nations, not within, to decide which way the conflict goes.  But she doesn’t really seem to learn this lesson, the circumstances merely change around her to make her right.

There could have been a lot of interesting drama about what Korra should do when her loyalty as a Water Tribe girl and her identity as the Avatar clash in such a manner.  We have never seen an Avatar clash with a morally grey area yet in regards to their duty.  Certainly, this season was the season furthest from grey, literally giving us black and white sides.  While Aang saw grey in the Fire Nation, where his journey showed him that not only was he freeing the other three nations from Ozai’s tyranny, he was also freeing the people OF the Fire Nation, FROM the Fire Nation. But none of this changed his perspective on his duty to defeat Ozai.  And the Dai Li in Ba Sing Se was merely an obstacle to his Avatar duties.  The closest we have seen, really, is the minigame between seasons 2 and 3, where Kiyoshi recalls how she created the Dai Li to act in her stead as intermediary between King and kingdom.  Which may not even technically be canon.

Such an attitude may explain why Kiyoshi never directly got involved with Chen the Conqueror, only stepping in to save her own home from being razed and creating Kiyoshi Island.  But otherwise, she remained outside the political mess.  But as I pointed out, Avatar has always been about using your wisdom in the moment, and that could change if Korra thought it necessary.  And ultimately there could have been backlash. But this growth never really happened, she sort of got told by the president that it was internal Water Tribe stuff. Certainly a far cry from when the king of Ba Sing Se demanded Kiyoshi serve in his military, demanding her respect, and she immediately curbstomped his elite guard shouting “How dare YOU defy your Avatar!” Or Roku’s challenging of Sozin and obliterating his palace, or Aang’s defeat of Ozai.  And this modern, “less mystical” attitude towards the Avatar is never explored much, either (even hearkening to Iroh’s opinion, “Only the Avatar has the authority to overthrow Ozai”.)

-Korra’s spiritual journey

Korra really didn’t have to do a lot to get spirit based powers. She just had a guide “lead” her into the spirit world.  Aang we could buy, he was a monk and a major hippy, the fact he could connect to the spirit world relatively easily seemed plausible.  But Korra struggles with the less practical.  She struggled with Airbending, and almost gave up outright on being the Avatar when the chips were down.

Korra is essentially Azula, just not evil. Things come easy to her, and she’s excellent, but she doesn’t often fight for things.  She typically gives up or bypasses resistance.  While this isn’t exactly as potent in her as it was with Azula, it still gives a good baseline on which character from Gen1 to compare her to (with a bit of Toph thrown in the mix).  Struggling to get in touch with her spiritual side should have been a journey, not backstory (Though the argument could be made it was already so what with her instant-mastery of the Avatar State).  Azula was ruined by her father, that much is obvious, she was encouraged to be a bad person, and in her own way a victim.  Korra has the same tendencies, she has hints of not seeing other people as “people”, just underlings that she tolerates, entourage to make the Avatar’s life more fun. And while she may not have the same opinion of them as chess-pieces (pai-sho pieces?) like Azula had, she does seem to be almost humoring people for trying to be moral authority around the Avatar.  And the changes to take Korra further away from that could have made an excellent story.  Or, dare I say, with a possible sociopath as Avatar, perhaps a small fall?

One of my favorite ideas regarding the spirit world was Koh’s return…by taking Bo Lin’s face.  Koh wearing the face of our group clown would be terrifying. And, I am personally in the camp that Korra/Bo Lin would be a far more entertaining romance than Korra/Mako.  But just the image of Korra confronting the FUCKING TERRIFYING spirit centipede wearing the face of her dear friend…Speaking in Koh’s voice, worming his way around with his silly goofy grin…I would suffer any inane backstory about the Avatar’s origin to see that.  There is no way that could not end up badass.

And I focus on Koh because Koh was more than just a test in combat or mediation…Koh was testing Aang’s will. To approach him, or forbid to fight him, required discipline.  Extremely firm presence of mind, that Aang had not truly demonstrated until that moment.  Any spirit who presented such a unique challenge to Korra (or even, a sequence of such spirits with different gimmicks) would have made a great season.  We saw something of this in Korra’s trek through the Sprit World, but it was so quick that it hardly felt like meaningful growth.  After all, lessons in Avatar are like REAL life lessons.  You know it, but it takes practice to change.  Zuko being the prime example of that.  Aang suffered many such setbacks as well, having to learn and relearn the same lesson.

Korra had something of a journey in Air.  She learned, sort of, to be patient, to bide time.  She still had lots of failings, but she is a teenager, and only human to boot.  “Was”…only Human, I should say…sigh. Anyway. Point being, because of the single-season nature of the story of Air, it was forgivable to wrap her up in a bow with a limited lesson learned (after all, they only learned about being greenlit for a season 2 when the production was almost done).

But there’s time now! In Water, Aang’s lesson was to fight. He had run away from his destiny for so long, when he and the gang consider abandoning the North Pole for the greater good, he says “no”.  He stays, unlike how he acted in The Storm, or any of the other times he was forced to flee “for the greater good”, such as Kiyoshi Island.  The lesson he learned was to fight. In Earth, he learned not only how to be direct, taking his fight from his wandering paths of border towns straight to the Earth King, he learned the value of everything in his life. And perhaps most important, he learned his limits.  And in Fire, he learned temperance. He learned that he served the Fire Nation as much as any of the other three nations. He learned how to destroy his enemies, by making them his friends. And he fought to obtain a way to end the conflict without having to go to the extreme of killing anyone. He kept himself in balance.  All of these made Aang a more complete person, and a more complete Avatar.

What did Korra learn? How to dump her boyfriend? I suppose the argument could be made that she learned how to prioritize her duties…but did she really?  She only really learned about Vatu, and thus the Harmonic Convergence, by a forced spiritual meditation by the Fire Sages.  And, let’s not forget, Korra lost a lot of her identity in the process.  She, essentially, became her job, being more Avatar than Korra by design, not by any conscious choice she made.  And, ironically, if she had stayed more secular minded and kept on to the Fire Nation, she wouldn’t have even learned of Vatu and Unalaq would not have been able to open the spirit portal to release Vatu.

If there was any good, noble thing to see, it was how Korra refused to let Vatu win, again and again refusing to surrender.  But, backing away from a fight has never been a problem for Korra, you know?  In fact, it kind of makes her the perfect Avatar for this job, because she’s such a bull-headed brawler.  There wasn’t as much sense that “Korra deserves to be the Avatar” this season.  Which is not a positive thing when you’re coming off the first season, where moral lessons and hero growth was a backburner issue.

-Exploring the Greater World

Korra had a chance to explore the world this season. Air set up  Republic City. It was limited, focused, to avoid overwhelming the viewer.  This season demanded more, I felt. We saw the South Pole…but nothing else, really. Some of the Air Temples, but nothing we didn’t see in the previous seasons.  And really, it just focused on the characters we knew, instead of showing us how the air temples worked in this new world.

I was psyched that we might get to see the Fire Nation again. Show us what the Fire Lord is up to these days, you know?

Give us our own Godwin’s Law where political enemies say “You know who else did _____? Sozin!”

Let us see if technology has diminished the awe people had of the Avatar.  Was Aang’s reception, the positive and negative, just war-related? As the last desperate hope or the one hyped up threat?  This may not have been a compelling journey on its own, but I would have liked to see some of these elements.

The Good

Mostly…the action was the highlight of this season.  The fights were long, Naruto-esque, with flashy explosions and some nice choreography on the Bending styles.  That’s really all I can say in regards to that.  It was flashy. We got to see god-mode Korra (not giant spirit Korra…which was stupid.) Though we are entering that dreaded “eastern hero” stuff I talked about in Unbreakable Machine Doll, at least it was full of ‘splosions and action, kee-yaw!

And comedy. There were a lot of good laughs.  But laughs do not an Avatar make.

And Eska.  Her romance with Bo Lin was…extremely cute, if not random towards the end.  Really, any character that may expose the next gen of dominatrix to their true selves makes the world a better place.  She was also the source of a good portion of that humor I mentioned.

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Ultimately, DiMartino is a Michael Bay alias

You can call these ideas armchair quarterbacking.  But as I said I felt these were directions Korra was going in while I watched, not anything I pulled from my butt.

But all of these ideas rest on the premise that Legend of Korra should have been consistent with earlier works of Avatar franchise material, both in terms of what it delivered and the professional standards the work has maintained over the years.

Does that premise still hold true?

There are rumors that certain suits at Nickelodeon want to hoist a reborn Korra as the flagship of their channel to replace the already-decade-old-Spongebob.  I don’t know if those rumors are true, and it certainly would be out of character for the traditionally comedy-centric Nick, so I guess I don’t place much faith in them.

But…

That certainly would explain the dumbing down of the Last Airbender franchise over the course of the past two seasons.  Can’t be too deep, our stockholders have to be able to grasp the concepts present.  Fighting evil for the sake of killing evil? Go for it.  Someone learning how to be a better person? Sounds boring. Bring back the burger flipping and buttcheeks.

That cynical part of me that tells me “calm down, it’s a kid’s show” creeps in now. Why expect more of this show?

Better question, Anna-brain. Why this show in particular?

Because when I was younger this show endeared itself to me.  And I am not dumb enough to think that television stations will promote old shows, especially when the merchandising for those shows has dried up, to expose them to the new generation.  So thus from that end, we must hold the current generation to those standards of quality. NOT substance, but quality.

Because art is important. Storytelling is important. And a drama that treats its audience like beings with functioning brains is so limited, when it really should be encouraged.  This is a show that, last season, presented our kids with SUICIDE. TWICE (with different degrees of follow-through).  How could a show willing to let its audience grapple with such a complicated subject chicken out so hard for an action romp more suited to the 1980s?

Old stories are not better.  Let’s be frank. Old movies blow.  The ones that survive are the ones with excellent dialogue, with clever plots, with witty jokes, because the actual movie-making or production has evolved.  Korra is woefully out of date for an action toon.  There were seasons of Power Rangers that challenged its viewers intelligence more.

Korra will just fade into the past like any other show at this point.  Unless the quality drastically improves next season, I will willingly dump it to the dustbin of history, and pass it by with the rest of the world.

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