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Failed analogies, weak narrative, wasted opportunities: Season 1 of The Legend of Korra June 21, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, meta, reviews.
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[Note: this review is sprinkled with spoilers for both The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender.]

When I think of all the good things The Legend of Korra had going for it (a pre-existing world with lots of potential for further storytelling, a creative team who’d achieved something miraculous with their previous work, an active, engaged, enthusiastic and appreciative fandom) and how it failed to make use of those things in any substantial way, I feel a profound sense of disappointment. In some ways, perhaps, the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender (hereafter ATLA) could have been more of a hindrance than a help to the team behind Korra, since they apparently went out of their way to avoid everything that was characteristic of ATLA in the spin-off series. There are many grounds for criticising Korra; I’ve seen some excellent posts taking the show to task for sexism, for Mako’s characterisation, for the reduction of Lin Beifong to Tenzin’s ex-girlfriend. It would be worth poking around on the ‘korra’ tag on Tumblr as there’s a lot of excellent meta along those lines there. What I want to focus on here, however, is what I see as a broader failure on the part of the writers to create a rich, engaging or meaningful narrative. The characterisation issues I mentioned can be included under this larger umbrella problem of narrative failure.

I really didn’t want to be that fan. You know, the one taking creators of a spin-off to task because the spin-off is nothing like its parent text. But the problem is not so much that Korra isn’t ATLA but rather that Korra lacks the ingredients that made ATLA so successful. As I see it, ATLA’s quality rested on the interplay of four elements (see what I did there?). These were:
1. A cast of rounded, complex, human characters whose actions made sense in relation to their characterisation, who changed over the course of the series and who drew us into their world;
2. A completely three-dimensional, endlessly fascinating setting that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the people who lived in it;
3. An engaging narrative which kept you watching and kept surprising you; and
4. Themes and real-world analogies that resonated but could be interpreted in multiple ways and on multiple levels.

Korra lacks all of these things.

Let’s start with characterisation. One of the things that drew me into ATLA was its fascinating array of diverse, fully-rounded characters who each had their own struggles, desires and arcs that were resolved over the course of the series. Thus, Aang, struggling to balance his playful and compassionate personality with his duty as Avatar and his responsibility towards the entire planet. Katara, filled with rage at her mother’s death, a burning desire to succeed as a waterbender and a tendency to mother everyone around her. Sokka, a skeptic in a world of mystics, labouring under a false belief in a certain kind of masculinity and desperate to prove himself to his absent father. Toph, filled with confidence but treated like an invalid. Zuko, unable to live up to his father’s expectations. Azula, the product of a terrible upbringing. Ty Lee, always overlooked. Mai, forced by her parents to repress all emotions. Even secondary characters like Suki and Jet, or those who appear in only several episodes, have comprehensible motivations, distinct personalities and complete character arcs. And the major characters learn from their experiences and change, but they don’t have personality transplants. The beauty of ATLA was that characters grew by recognising the essential aspects of their personalities and channeling them in a productive way. (Hence, Katara’s motherliness becomes a source of strength as she’s able to support Zuko in his fight with Azula and know when to step in and save the day, Aang faces his fears and confronts Ozai, but without neglecting his cherished beliefs, and my beloved Sokka realises that there are many different ways to perform masculinity, and the way where you share your strengths with awesome women and let them make up for your weaknesses is the best. And so on.) And the narrative gave them time to transform. Season One Zuko is very different to Season Two Zuko, who is different again from mid-Season Three Zuko, for example.

But in Korra, the characters start out fairly roughly drawn, and then don’t change. Korra is still headstrong and unfocused. Asami is still a characterless cipher. Lin gains no depth upon the discover that she and Tenzin used to be a couple. Mako seems simply a prize to be fought over by Korra and Asami, while Bolin has no discernible personality beyond being funny and friendly. What is frustrating is that each character had potential. There was a story in how Mako felt responsible for his brother Bolin and how he learnt to recognise Bolin’s competence. There should have been a story about the deaths of Bolin and Mako’s parents. The fact that one was a firebender and one was an earthbender in a world still reeling from Fire Nation aggression should have been brought to the fore. But instead they’re merely killed by Republic City criminals in order to get them out of the way so that Mako and Bolin can be standard fantasy adventure story orphans. There was a story in Asami’s relationship with her father. And above all, there should have been a story in Korra’s journey towards becoming the kind of Avatar her era needed. But none of this has happened. All we’re left with is a series of events in which one character or another does something awesome and brave. That’s all very well, but when the end result is merely that every character can be described as ‘badass’, we have a problem.

And that problem lies in the narrative. Quite simply, not enough happens. In a twenty-two-episode show, slow pacing is understandable. In a shorter season, it’s unforgivable. Way too much time was wasted on the pro-bending. It should have been a small background detail, but instead it tied up the narrative for the first half of the series. More emphasis should have been given to the fact that Korra – like every Avatar before her, it seems – is stuck dealing with problems caused by the previous Avatar. Above all, the narrative should give her reasons to grow and change. The problem is, the writers were backed into a corner by the fact that Korra (along with all the other characters) lacked much of a personality to begin with. And if you’re going to set your entire series in one location, you’d better make sure that this is supplemented with bucketloads of character growth.

This brings me to my third point. One of the best things about ATLA was the mobility of the central characters. They were constantly travelling, and this meant that the viewers managed to see and experience the myriad cultures that made up this richly-imagined world. We saw how the whole world fit together, how different places affected each other, and how the characters were transformed by the places they visited. Who can forget Sokka donning Kyoshi warrior makeup and learning not to be such a sexist idiot? Or Zuko going on a date in Ba Sing Se and realising that the Fire Nation was just one part of a rich and wonderful world? Or Mai in the Boiling Rock, discovering the strength within herself to stand up to Azula?

The problem with setting an entire show in Republic City is not the static location per se, but rather the fact that the writers aren’t doing enough to make the city interesting. They seem more concerned with saturating us with what they think is cool about the world 70 years post-ATLA (metalbending police force! pro bending! predatory criminal gangs! technology!) rather than showing how all those things evolved out ATLA society and fit together, and how these things shape the characters.

Which brings me to my next point: the massive analogy fail which is the Equalists. Like many things in Korra, the idea behind the Equalists is interesting and good, but poorly executed. It makes sense that people without bending power would be resentful of those who had – we saw it with Sokka, after all. Except ATLA was full of examples of people who had worked out ways to get the best of those with bending abilities. Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors, Ty Lee, Mai, Jet and his rebels, the Machinist and even Sokka himself by the end of the series are more than a match for even the most talented of benders. Even the Fire Nation colonial forces were an example of benders and non-benders working together towards a common goal. Yes, Amon is annoyed at benders on a personal level because they took his bending away, and people are resentful because benders have formed criminal gangs, but it’s never portrayed as being reasonable anger.

This is where the analogy failure comes in. It’s pretty clear that Republic City is meant to be an analogue to a cosmopolitan Chinese city in the ’20s – Shanghai, probably. Which gives the Equalists the unfortunate implication of being an analogue to the Chinese communist movement. Which, well, no. Leaving aside the later horrors committed by the Communist regime when it was in power, the movement – like most left-wing movements of the time – arose out of a genuine sense of anger at the inequalities and injustices of society at the time. Right-wing critics of Evil Socialism™ always portray it as a movement of bitter people who resent the abilities and possessions of others and want to take those abilities and possessions away in order to reduce everyone to the same level. As a social democrat, I say ‘huh’? What most people to the left of the political spectrum want is to create a system where everyone starts on an equal footing. Not by taking things away from those with power, but by enabling those without power to have those things too. The Equalist analogy doesn’t work. (For it to work, they’d have to be giving bending to everyone, not taking it away.)

From this rather ranty post, you’d think I hate Korra. If I hated it, I would have stopped watching. What I feel, overwhelmingly, is disappointment. ATLA was so good, so rich and rewarding. I fell in love with its world and its characters, I cried at their pain and rejoiced in their hard-earned victories. I feel completely detached from the characters of Korra. I think the Airbabies are adorable, and I find the fight scenes breathtaking and the artwork pretty. But I don’t appreciate anything on a deeper level. My overall impression of Korra that it is a rushed, circumscribed and superficial series. I wouldn’t mind so much, but compared to ATLA, which was well-paced, boundless and full of depth, it feels like such a waste.

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1. anonymous - June 21, 2012

I really like this blog post, and it’s interesting to see different perspectives. But as someone who really enjoys Korra, I’d like to counter some of your points and explain why I like the show so much.

Most of your criticisms stem from the fact that Korra is a mini-series. You say Korra has failed to have “A cast of rounded, complex, human characters whose actions made sense in relation to their characterisation, who change over the course of the series and who draw us into their world.” This is because the show doesn’t have time to go off into personal tangents. It just doesn’t have time to have separate coming of age stories like Zuko’s, Azula’s, and Katarra’s.

As for characterization, here’s what I see: Korra IS still headstrong and rather unfocused (and that’s just how she is—it’s like complaining at the end of ATLA that Aang is still a vegetarian pacifist). But as Tenzin said in the last episode, she’s learning. She’s no longer the rash pro-bender we saw in the first few episodes. She used to fear being an inadequate avatar, and keep that fear locked inside (much like Aang), but releases to Tenzin in the episode where she challenges Amon and first sees the flashback of Aang. She has gone from being unspiritual to meditating and getting in contact with her former lives, and this is where I really feel the development in this series is (more on that later).

You gloss over two characters whom I’ve come to love, Lin and Asami. First, the characterization of Lin that you’ve missed. I’m not sure what “Lin gains no depth upon the discover that she and Tenzin used to be a couple,” means, but Lin is by far the most developed, complex character in the series. First we saw her as chief of police, adhering to order, and hating the avatar. She barely spoke to Korra out of misguided hatred for Tenzin, her former mate. When her police force failed (in the episode where Equalists attack the pro-bending arena), Lin is forced to make a difficult decision—she resigns from her position. After enforcing law for so long, she’s suddenly rejected it. We see Lin go from composed police chief to full-blown vigilante. In the most recent episode, we see Lin sacrifice herself for Tenzin and his family. You’ve got several layers of Lin there: love of Tenzin, protection of the last airbenders in existence, acceptance of the family that will never be hers. It’s an amazing, emotional scene and it wouldn’t be if Lin weren’t as complex a character.

For Asami, you say that there was a story in her relationship with her father. I think this story is ongoing, but I will say that it’s more complex than you think. For Asami’s character, it’s the little things we miss, like her noting that “nothing here reminds me of my father” or her washing dishes, even though she comes from an environment where it’s unlikely she’s ever done any domestic labor.

For the mobility point—again, that’s just how the show is. Korra is not supposed to be exactly like Avatar. It is set in a more modern time period where cultures are mixed and shared, eliminating the need to have characters travel the world and experience different things. Korra, to me, is about two things: the struggle of spirituality in the modern age and the mixing of cultures that used to be separate. I think LOK is still in the midst of exploring these themes, but I’ll explain why I love Republic City. It’s the perfect location for that second point. In Republic City, you’ve got criminals of different bending styles coming together. You’ve got a Southern Water Tribe restaurant in the city. You’ve got a council struggling to remain fair to the people (arguably, they’re not doing a very good job). Sure, Republic City isn’t a world with separate cultures that teach the characters different things, like how to not be sexist. But with that, you’ve got a whole new slew of problems, making Korra a different show than ATLA. We get to see the four nations coexist, and the problems that arise in a modern, united world. This is what Korra is about.

The things that you mentioned were cool about Republic City (metalbending police force, pro bending, predatory criminal gangs, technology) are not just there to be “cool,” in my opinion. You said that the show should focus more on Korra dealing with the problems Aang left behind—and I think it does. These are some of the problems Aang left behind: a lack of spirituality caused by modern inventions the triviality of pro-bending. A society that, arguably, DOES marginalize non-benders (excuse my Equalist bias), driving benders to become petty criminals.

As for the analogy, I agree that if they are trying to emulate the rise of Chinese communists, they’re failing miserably. I take a different analogy from Korra, however. Tarrlock’s task force, his rounding up of innocent non-benders, his arrests without due process, are all analogous to the US’s War on Terror and perhaps alluding a bit to Guantanamo Bay. This is just what I get out of it personally but I do think it fits well.

One more reason I like LOK that you didn’t address is that it’s a mystery. ATLA didn’t have nearly as much suspense or as many conspiracy theories as Korra has. And perhaps that’s why I’m lenient about the less-developed characters, like Mako. Every episode, I’m left wondering what he’s going to do.

I think that there’s a lot left to Korra and you shouldn’t give up on it so quickly. Characters like Bolin are promised to have more development in the second season, and I can’t wait. I think LOK deals with the struggle to remain spiritual in a modern world and the trials that come with forming a united, democratic society. I’ll be judging the show on these points, rather than ones set by ATLA, as it is simply a different show.

dolorosa12 - June 22, 2012

Thanks for your lengthy reply – it’s good to know that people are having opinions about the series, even if they’re very different to my own. Am I right in thinking you found your way to this blog via Tumblr?

I’ll try to address each of your points individually, the way you did with mine.

Firstly, you are right in saying that a lot of my complaints stem from the fact that Korra is a miniseries. I prefer longer narratives to shorter ones, because what draws me into stories is the characters and it’s easier to develop characters when you have more time to do so. That being said, the fact that your show is a miniseries shouldn’t be an excuse for poor (or lack of) characterisation. The British version of Being Human, for example, managed to do amazing things with regard to characterisation in just six- or eight-episode series. It is also a good example of a show that wasn’t hampered by the fact that its action took place in one setting (in this case, Bristol, and often only in a single house in Bristol). It’s harder to make your characters develop in shorter series or shows that have only one setting, but these things should not be allowed to be excuses for not doing so. Even taking ATLA, think how much was said in each five-minute story in ‘Tales of Ba Sing Se’.

You say you see depth in Asami and Lin, and maybe it *is* there and I’m just not looking hard enough, but I think again the problem is that everything is developed on such a superficial level. In ATLA, each character had multiple important relationships that gave their personalities a multifaceted character (eg, Zuko’s relationship to Iroh, Ozai, Azula, Mai and Aang are all equally important and give him a lot of different kinds of depth, and the same could be said for, say, Toph’s relationship to Aang, Katara, Sokka and her parents). In Korra, that is not the case. Almost all the relationships can be reduced to love triangle shipping-type relationships. You say that Asami’s relationship with her father is important – it should be, but it isn’t given the prominence it deserves.

Moving on to Republic City. I never said I was criticising the show for not being as mobile as ATLA. But so far, I’ve seen nothing to justify setting the show in one location. I would actually have been really interested to see how the world had developed into something approaching multiculturalism, but as it is, I don’t see it. I see the writers getting overly enthusiastic about things they thought were cool (the things I mentioned as being cool I meant in terms of the writers, not myself) and just flinging them at random into Republic City. That’s the problem: the world of ATLA felt fully-formed and three-dimensional. Republic City feels cardboard-cutoutish.

The War on Terror analogy you mention fits well. I have no disagreement with you on that score.

Most of your points are correct, but what you seem to be saying is that I should excuse the things I’ve pointed out because a) Korra is a miniseries and b) things will get developed further at some unspecified later point. That’s all well and good, but what is the point in having a character like Bolin around unless he is going to develop organically over the course of the series? It’s okay if it’s a character like Suki (who was around for only several early episodes, dropped out of the picture and returned at a later date), but if it’s one of your main characters, it’s unforgivable.

I really didn’t want to criticise Korra for not being ATLA. I really wanted to like it (a female-led show set in a city inspired by Shanghai in the early 20th century? what’s not to love?). And my problem is not that it’s not ATLA, but that it lacks the ingredients that made ATLA such a good show (ingredients that you can find in most good tv shows). What I loved about ATLA was how real it felt. Korra feels flat and superficial. What it lacks, in short, is ATLA’s heart.

2. Please Tell Me This is All Just a Bad Dream: Further Disappointment with “Korra” « Marshall Turner's Avatar: the Last Airbender Reviews - July 20, 2012

[…] so numerous that my own essay on the matter—the longest on this blog—was barely even the tip of the iceberg). One of the problems was that creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko […]


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