Monday, February 16, 2015

Things That I Love: The Legend of Korra, Revisited (Part Two)

Last time, I focused on the ways in which The Legend of Korra was intertwined with its predecessor, The Last Airbender, to the point where it's almost useless to compare them (though many will try).  This time, I want to focus on what made Korra such a great, and at times frustrating, show.  In many respects, it's more difficult than I thought because since the final Korrasami moment, news outlets have tripped over themselves (many of which had previously shown no interest) to glorify every aspect of the series.  Coming up with something unique and non cliched is rather difficult.  Maybe it would be easier if I began with the less impressive aspects of the series...

The Less Good

Some Choppy, Underdeveloped Plot Points.  I am mainly referring to the Season Two arc, but the same is true of the other seasons to an extent.  Season Two suffered from Nickelodeon's sudden reward of three additional Korra seasons, forcing the Korra creators to scramble for a new story line that would force Korra to mature as a character.  Yet even this does not explain the poor pacing and confusion of Season Two.

First, there was the Northern and Southern Water Tribe feud, hastily introduced in the second or third episode.  While in The Last Airbender, the tribes appeared to be disconnected, there was no indication the Northern Water Tribe ruled the South (that I recalled), or if they did, that the South minded.  Yet in Season Two, we're supposed to understand that tensions were there all along and the South wanted independence?  Furthermore, what was the point of the civil war if Unalaq's grand scheme was to destroy the world as they knew it by becoming the Dark Avatar?  The war seemed to exist solely to give the other characters something to do.

And yes, Korra's friends' actions seemed oddly disconnected from the main plot until the last four or five episodes -- Bolin's star turn in propaganda "mover" films especially (though it is the more amusing plot line of the season).        

Seasons Three and Four would handle the tensions within the Earth Kingdom/Empire much better, though even they had weaknesses.  Why would Prince Wu wait three years to be crowned?  Who was ruling the Earth Empire while Kuvira was off reconquering everything?  Why would the other world leaders turn to Suyin Beifong to rule the Earth Kingdom when Lin Beifong had much more experience bringing order to chaotic regions?

Then there is Season One, with the intriguing "benders oppressing non-benders" plot line that was dropped like a hot potato and never picked up again.  Electing a non-bender as president of the United Republic doesn't count as a resolution.

Characters Don't Always Face Consequences for Their Actions.  The prime example of this was Suyin Beifong, who never apologized for scarring her sister Lin's face.  Lin was just supposed to get over Su's youthful "indiscretion" and see that she'd changed.  At least Su got a taste of her own medicine when her son, Baatar Jr., became Kuvira's fiance and a homicidal maniac.  But judging from the last episode, she seemed to think he should avoid punishment as well.

Studio Pierrot.  This one is hardly the Korra creators' fault, but it does stand out as a blemish.  When Nickelodeon green-lit a Season Two, the Korra creators had to act quickly.  Studio Mir, the Korean animation studio behind Season One, declined to animate a second season initially, being too exhausted by the intense level of detail.  Enter Studio Pierrot, a Japanese animation studio behind other series such as Bleach.  Pierrot's animation style was quite different in several ways from Mir's... and not for the better.  Studio Mir eventually reentered the picture to animate half of the season's 14 episodes. <sounds of cheering>

On a rewatch of Season Two, Pierrot's animation really isn't that bad.  If I didn't know Mir's, I'd think it was pretty good.  The problem is that I do know Mir's, with its vivid expressions and dynamic character animation even when the characters were merely talking.  Whereas under Pierrot's guiding hand, the characters remained stone-faced and unblinking.  

That Damn Love Triangle.  The love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Asami never bugged me that much -- and now, it's fun to go back and watch Korra and Asami scenes, knowing what's to come -- but it did rear its ugly head a lot in the first two seasons.  The obsession with Mako never quite worked for me because I thought he was just... okay.  Even at his smoldering sexiest (not counting his incredibly hot hero moment in the final episode), he never had great chemistry with Korra.  I thought she had better chemistry with Bolin.  But no, Bolin was reduced to the "funny man" sidekick until Season Three, when he finally had a serious love interest in Opal.

Still, these are quibbles, overshadowed by the many terrific aspects of Korra.  Without further ado:


The Good

Mind-Numbingly Good Animation.  I can't adequately describe the complexity, the attention to detail, the constant fluid movement, the poses, and the expressions in mere words.  Except for the unfortunate Pierrot lapse, Korra grabs hold of you visually and never lets go.  Highlights include Korra and Zaheer's chase/fight scene in the Season Three finale, Korra's face-off with Tarlock in Season One, Bolin's fight to save President Raiko in Season Two, and Mako's awesome near-sacrifice moment in the Season Four finale, among many, many others.  But I can't emphasize enough that it's not just the character movement, but character still shots that are frequently stunning.  Take, for example, the shots of Korra's face as she tries to avoid the Avatar state in the Season Three finale.

Oh just buy the series and watch already!


Woman Power.  Korra always had strong female characters, from Korra herself to Lin Beifong to Asami, but they took a major step forward in Seasons Three and Season Four, when we met Su Beifong, founder and ruler of Zaofu (and metal-bending bad ass), her daughter Opal, and Kuvira, guard turned military conqueror.  Season Three also saw Jinora become an airbending master in her own right and acquire the famous arrow tattoos that Aang and Tenzin wore.  They weren't just awesome women, but awesome people who happened to be women.  It shouldn't be unusual to see a lot of strong, confident women in positions of power, yet it is.  So while Korra's creators made it organic to the story and characters, everyone still had to comment upon it.  And why not?  How often in television or film do you see a scene where all of the major power players on the battlefield are women?    

At the same time, it was not at the expense of the male characters.  Bolin and Varrick grew more awesome as the series progressed, and Tenzin was always Tenzin.  More on that below.

Great Secondary Characters (Including the Villains).  For a series with such a limited number of episodes (nine fewer that The Last Airbender) Korra really made the most of its characters.  Tenzin and his family are fully formed, as are Lin and Suyin.  Then there's Bolin, who began as more of a comic relief character, but matured throughout Season Four as he understood his role in Kuvira's oppression.  Varrick showed a moral backbone he never knew he had by refusing to build a superweapon, while his long-suffering assistant, Zhu Li, began asserting herself, eventually winning his respect (and his hand in marriage).

Then there are the villains, who are on a level by themselves.  With the exception of dull, muddled Unalaq, all of the villains were compelling in their own way.  There were Zaheer and his possee, a quartet of scarily good benders with the aim of killing -- not merely removing, mind you, but killing -- world leaders to create "chaos" as the natural order.  Part of their plan involved killing the Avatar while in the Avatar state, thus ending the cycle.  (How that would affect Raava or prevent her from joining with the next Avatar is never explained... probably because the Raava/Vaatu backstory did not exist in The Last Airbender.)  Then there was Kuvira, a brilliant metal bender and tactician who took the chaos Zaheer created and turned it into a chilling new order.  Her abandonment issues, regrettably, were introduced too late in the season, but what we saw already hinted at something deeper.

Then there was my favorite villain, Amon.  Not only did Amon possibly have the most relatable gripe (benders oppressing non-benders), but he was also the only Korra villain who was truly scary.  With his Jason-like mask and immunity to others' attacks, he resembled a rapist from a nightmare.  (This was driven home more than once in Season One, such as the episode where he captured Korra on Aang Memorial Island.)  I almost wish we didn't learn Amon's true identity, and he remained this anti-bender boogeyman who would emerge from the darkness.     

Korra Grows and Changes.  On other shows, Korra might have been the focus-grouped-to-death peppy protagonist whose personality was too bland to be off putting.  On Korra, there were times when she was genuinely unlikeable.  Yet you never felt like that's all there was to her.  She was cocky, yes, but also genuinely sweet, honorable, temperamental, and brave.  She also had a defined character arc, beginning as an arrogant, but sheltered, teenager and ending as a humble adult who realizes that the learning never ends.  While Aang on The Last Airbender had many good qualities, his character interested me less than Korra's.  Korra had a messy personality and how you felt about her could change from episode to episode.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

And Finally... Korrasami.  I'm of the opinion that Korrasami was not as well built up as it could have been... but I still love it.  I'll start with the negatives.  Asami Sato has the potential to be a great character, but she's the least developed of the main four, and frequently seemed to exist as an ideal.  While I liked her interaction with Korra in Season Three, it didn't seem to point toward romance, and they interacted even less in Season Four.  During the two-part finale, they barely interacted at all.  Korra did not express any sadness or concern when Asami was nearly crushed by Kuvira's machine.  Because of this, the final moments of the series had an unnecessary sense of randomness.  Even if Nickelodeon restricted the portrayal of a lesbian romance, during certain key moments, Korra could have shown a few close ups of Korra's or Asami's faces to get the point across that they at least cared about one another.

I would have been happy if Korra and Asami had remained good friends.  That is rare enough in television.  But I was thrilled when they ended the series romantically.  It was a groundbreaking moment in Western animation.  Plus, it just works somehow.  Korra and Asami could be really good for one another, in a way that Korra and Mako never were.  Korra needs someone to challenge her, someone not easily pushed around.  Even though Mako got tough with Korra at times, he went into tentative boyfriend mode too frequently.  Asami strikes me as the type who wouldn't take crap.  At the same time, the more emotional Korra might help Asami open up a little more about her own pain and doubt.

Plus, they look pretty darn good together, don't they?

Here is hoping they continue their adventures in the comics.  (Though that said, why on earth did they go to the spirit world for vacation?  Does anything relaxing happen in that place?)

Conclusion

Having grown up with glorified toy commercials, I envy the people who grew up watching The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.  Both are fantastic series with high production values, great characters, and challenging themes.  Korra took what The Last Airbender left and expanded it even further.  I'm sad that this is the end of her journey on television, and can only hope we get to follow it in some other visual form.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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