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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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Elementals April 13, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews, television.
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If I were a different kind of person, I’d spend the first paragraph of this post justifying its existence. I’d say that I felt a little bit guilty for writing one thousand words about a Nickelodeon animated kids’ TV show, and that I clearly was a 10-year-old at heart, and that, hey, look, I’d written about things that were clearly not highbrow before.

Except I don’t feel guilty, I’m not a 10-year-old at heart and I don’t feel the need to justify writing about Avatar: The Last Airbender at all. I’m of the opinion that if something exercises my mind, it’s worthy of discussion. That being said, you’ve been warned. I’m writing about an animated kids’ TV series. Deal with it.

Spoilers ahead.

I first heard about Avatar via snarking communities on Livejournal and places like Fandom Secrets and Fandom Wank, and what I heard – mainly about vicious shipping wars – encouraged me to steer clear, and I forgot about the whole thing. But recently, a lot of people have been getting justifiably upset about the whitewashing of the cast in the upcoming live action movie supposedly based on the series. And when Hal Duncan talks, I prick up my ears and listen. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about, and in particular, if the TV series itself was the beacon of equality and diversity that everyone was depicting it as.

So I started watching. And was pleasantly surprised. In particular, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Avatar is a series that draws heavily on various Asian and Pacific Rim indigenous cultures and religions, and is set in a fantasy world where the different peoples have the ability to manipulate (‘bend’) each of the four elements. The different cultures in the world – the Water Tribes, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads – have developed different bending styles that bear strong resemblance to different real-world martial arts. Within this world, the Avatar, a person with the power to control all four elements, is constantly reincarnated in order to maintain balance. However, 100 years before the series’ story begins, the Avatar goes missing and the Fire Nation begins a quest for world domination, wiping out the Air Nomads and progressively advancing on the other regions. 100 years later, two young Water Tribe children – wannabe warrior Sokka and his waterbender sister Katara, stumble upon the Avatar, who has been sealed up in a block of ice. He breaks free and is revealed to be a young airbender called Aang (the ‘last airbender’ of the title). The rest of the series deals with Aang’s journey to learn the other types of bending and restore balance to the world by defeating the Fire Lord. As the series progresses, the core trio of Sokka, Katara and Aang expands to accommodate a rag-tag, multi-ethnic group of resistance fighters, none of whom (wise mentors aside) appear to be over the age of 16.

The Gaang's all here.


(Image by SteamBoat-Ghost on DeviantArt.)

I’m not really able to do enough justice to the complexity of the series plot in the above summary, but what I want to convey is that the series can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its heart, it’s your basic coming-of-age adventure quest, all about idealistic young people with great responsibility and the power to save the world. At the same time, it explores notions of family and history and the importance of taking responsibility for that history. (Pretty much every main male character has daddy issues, to put it simply.) And the writers manage to throw in a nice little exploration of the ethics of power and the difficulties in maintaining moral clarity in an immoral world. It’s politically correct without ever being overtly preachy, and is remarkable as a children’s program that trusts in its audience’s intelligence by showing, not telling us its characters’ traits and development.

Just that would be enough, but it’s also visually beautiful. The detail and research that went into the landscapes and architecture for each culture is incredible. (I leave you with links to the Southern Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom wiki pages at the Avatar wiki, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, it’s probably best to just look at the pictures.)

But what really drew me into the series was the characters, and in particular that favourite trope of mine: you find and make your own family. It’s one of the reasons why Joss Whedon’s work resonates so strongly with me; it, like Avatar, is all about groups of misfits who stumble upon one another during times of great crisis and who, because of said crises, change one another’s lives for the better. I was watching the show with half my mind trying to determine what it would’ve been like to do so as a child, and I realised that I would have found it really empowering. The main characters in this series are all children or young teenagers, and they do incredibly courageous things. They’re always outnumbered, always outgunned and always thrown into situations of incredible danger – and there’s the added pressure of the survival of the whole world being dependent on their victory. As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that was seriously brave’. And it was the bravery of one character in particular that convinced me that this show was something special.

This surprised me somewhat. I went into the show expecting to be most interested in the Zuko (morally grey, disgraced son of the Fire Lord on a quest to regain his honour by capturing the Avatar) storyline (because I’m normally a fan of angsty morally ambiguous characters on a quest for redemption) and found myself a full-blown Sokka fangirl. But when I thought about it for a bit, I realised why.

I’ve never been able to decide which is my favourite Buffyverse character, but Xander is pretty high on the list. And Sokka is the Xander of the group. He’s the only one without special abilities. He’s got no bending power, he’s had no military or martial arts training, he’s frequently terrified. And yet he leaps into the fray behind Avatar Aang, earthbender Toph, his martial arts whiz girlfriend Suki and his waterbending sister Katara (among others) wielding nothing more than a boomerang and a club without a moment’s hesitation. Because he can’t rely on his strength or agility of body, he relies on his strength and agility of mind, coming up with most of the group’s plans and adapting quickly to any changes (while complaining sarcastically the whole way). Apart from one episode, not once does he express resentment that he doesn’t have the powers his friends have, and he lives in his ordinariness with the grace that Xander does in Buffy. I haven’t been in the best of moods recently, and I found Sokka’s brand of stoic, pessimistic bravery really inspiring.

Sokka working on a design for a hot air balloon.

What Avatar has shown me is that despite my own beliefs, I don’t always need dark, gritty stories about the morally ambiguous side of human nature. Sometimes, it’s enough to follow the adventures of a group of plucky, resourceful and courageous children and watch them save the world.