Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Legend of Korra: A Breath of Fresh Air and Rebirth

Korra is back!

In its entirety, The Legend of Korra has “enjoyed” quite a mixed reception. Even before a single episode of the first season had aired, people were antsy about the fact creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were returning to this world, and a little disgruntled about the fact that their new story was going to be set a generation after the conclusion of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I don’t know why exactly this fandom-wide unease existed. I know the embers of the infamous Shipping Wars were raked up when it was confirmed that Aang and Katara married, and that there was a bit of an upset when it became apparent that many of the original characters were now deceased. But perhaps most of it was based on the fact that expectations were so high for Korra to follow in the footsteps of its sublimely good predecessor.

Maybe your experience was different than mine, but from my seat in front of the monitor it felt as though there was a hefty sense of trepidation surrounding the premiere of a brand new chapter in the Avatar saga.

And to say that the first book of The Legend of Korra had a mixed reaction is putting it mildly. Despite the beautiful animation and intriguing characters, much of the story felt slipshod and contrived, with more than a few narrative shortcuts taken before its final episode. For those so interested, my review of Book One: Air is still on my LiveJournal.

But after a rocky start to the second season, I found myself really enjoying what Book Two: Spirits had to offer. Things didn’t come so easily for Korra, with our protagonist forced to deal with the consequences of her impetuous behaviour. The love-triangle shenanigans were significantly toned down, with Mako/Korra calling it quits by the final episode. There was a wider sense of scope in regards to the new characters and the locales in which the story took place.

Best of all, there was an emphasis on the mysterious spirit world (my favourite component of the original series), including a two-parter that explored the origins of the very first Avatar in ways reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki at his very best. Again, my thoughts on the entire season are HERE.

In short, I was pleased with the conclusion of the second season, and eager to see what the third would bring. With the spirit portals open and access between the two worlds available to anyone, there was a great amount of story potential to be mined.

Yet it’s still been a bit of a bumpy ride in getting this far, with Korra episodes leaked some weeks in advance, presumably forcing Nickelodeon to prematurely speed up their premiere date in order to minimize the damage. But here we are at the beginning of a brand new season, and so far things are looking bright. In the first three episodes we’re introduced to a new mission for Team Avatar to complete, and a new set of promising villains to shake things up.

Beginning two weeks after the events of the last season, pockets of the spirit world still maintain a firm presence over parts of Republic City. Huge vines have a stranglehold on a number of buildings, and despite Korra’s best efforts, they won’t be budged.

This premise right here would have been enough to sustain me for an entire season. Not only are the visuals gorgeous, with thick vines creating a strange landscape of wilderness amidst the urban setting of Republic City, but the possibly of what’s inside these “spirit pockets” is tantalizing.

That there is spirit habitation there can be no doubt – but are they friendly? Dangerous? Are they impinging on people’s livelihoods? Their spiritual wellbeing? Their mental health? What effect are they actually having? I can easily imagine a team of spirit liaisons being formed in order to assess the damage, make contact with the spirits, and try to negotiate some sort of boundaries for the co-habitation of spirits and humans.

Damn, I wish I had time to turn that into a fan-fiction.

But Korra is on the job to clean up the mess – after all, these are people’s homes and workplaces. As usual, she’s not doing a very good job of it.

I’ve mentioned in the past how much it bugs me that people insist Korra is never held responsible for her actions when in actuality that’s all that ever happens to her. Having decided to leave the spirit portals open and force integration between the two worlds, she’s now dealing with the backlash of public opinion and the anger of various Republic City inhabitants.

Between the President and the press and the irate spirits, she’s not a very popular figure (remember the kid with the snowball last season: “you’re the worst Avatar ever!”) but you can’t help but feel that her detractors have a point. I know I wouldn’t be happy if a bunch of vines took over my apartment, and I like that the show is acknowledging that the current state of the world is both Korra’s fault and her responsibility (unlike, say, the terminal ostracization/martyrdom of Harry Potter, who controls and chooses nothing over the course of his story).

She may have done what she thought was best for the world, but she didn’t exactly ask the world’s permission before she went ahead and did it. This leads to a nice moment between her and Tenzin, in which we’re given a timely reminder of the Avatar’s responsibilities: to keep the world in balance, not just give people what they want.

I’m glad they’ve re-established the mentor/student rapport between these two, as this dynamic was very much the heart of the original Avatar series, whether it be between Aang and his three teachers (Katara, Toph and Zuko), or between Zuko and his mentor Iroh.

More pertinently, by this point Korra and Tenzin have realized that her actions (or at least the Harmonic Convergence) have had another fairly incredible consequence: more air-benders are emerging all over the world.

In fact, this is the very first thing we learn this season, with the episode’s opening sequence involving Bumi getting into a spot of trouble involving a cliff and a spirit, and saving himself with hitherto-unknown air-bending powers. Meanwhile Mako is called to another location where a terrified man is trying to cope with his new out-of-control air-bending abilities, and soon reports are flowing in from all over the world: from the brink of extinction air-benders are repopulating the earth.

Naturally, it’s a pretty emotional realization for Tenzin, who has spent most of his life shouldering the responsibility for fathering the world’s only known air-bending children.

In a nice bit of juxtaposition, two acts of heroism lead to Korra’s decision to leave Republic City and go out in search of these newly-awakened air-benders. The first involves rescuing a child from a faulty building after her plan to diminish the plant life only results in them growing back even stronger. The second has her talking down a suicidal air-bender from a bridge after he’s overwhelmed by his new abilities.

Both situations are technically her fault, but the dismissal from President Raiko and her decided-upon mission of finding and helping the new air-benders is a fairly neat way of freeing Korra from her responsibilities to Republic City without making her look utterly negligent, or letting her off the hook when it comes to reaping what she’s sown.

For as we soon learn, not everyone who has discovered air-bending powers is going to use them benevolently. In a series of prison breaks that rival Tai Lung’s escape from Chorh-Gom in Kung Fu Panda, a dangerous criminal known as Zaheer uses his newfound air-bending to overthrow his White Lotis guards and go on to free two of his three compatriots in some of the most incredibly beautiful and intricately choreographed fight scenes this show has ever had.


I initially thought that Zaheer was a little too verbose for a villain, what with his rather long-winded opening speech on air-bending poetry, but hey – if a villain can deliver on his big words, then he can talk as much as he likes. Already his motives and relationships are fascinating, what with his assertion that his new abilities are proof that “our path is a righteous one” and the sheer ingenuity with which he springs his compatriots.

From Ghazan and Ming-Hua we get some amazingly inventive displays of water and earth-bending, with the former heating up rocks to magma before using them to slice through his wooden cage, and Ming-Hua (who appears to be armless?) creating elongated limbs from water and using them to swing like a simian from her prison. Yikes.


When Zuko (ZUKO!) turns up in the episode’s final scene, telling the prison guard that these criminals are a threat to the entire world – well, I believe him.

Also: ZUKO! I’m not sure when exactly Bryke confirmed that he was still alive, but for at least two seasons we’ve been waiting to see his reappearance. And it was worth it – he’s taking charge, giving orders and riding a freaking DRAGON off into the sunset! More of this please. Much more.

So if there was a theme to this episode it’s consequences and responsibility. What’s happening here is a direct result of everything that went down in the previous season, and every character to one extent or another choses to take responsibility for something that needs attention. Korra and Tenzin take responsibility for re-establishing the Air Nomads. Bolin (and the rest of the team) take Kai under their wing. Zuko takes steps to prevent the escape of the final criminal in Zaheer’s gang.

This already gives season three a maturity and drive that the previous seasons lacked: Team Avatar have a clear and worthy goal, and there’s a steady accumulation of villains that seem just as passionate and motivated as our heroes. This is gonna be good!

Miscellaneous Observations:

I thought it typical that Bumi would be the one to get air-bending, as he’s the one that absolutely no one would believe. Still, they proved him right pretty quickly, and I guess Aang’s moniker of “the last airbender” is pretty obsolete now. Still, there’s a big difference between finding new air-benders and re-establishing the Air Nomad communities, as Tenzin found out the hard way.

I wonder if perhaps there’s a trigger to unlocking air-bending, as both Bumi and the man on the bridge had their powers activated by heightened emotion (fear and anger, or so it seemed). Likewise, Korra managed to unlock her air-bending way back in season one when she saw that Mako was in danger. Then again, Kai didn’t seem to have much trouble with it.

Watching Korra and Asami spending time together nearly had me in tears. Generally I don’t think it’s a good idea for writers to take cues from fandom, but I’m glad Bryke (apparently) got the memo about how much people wanted to see more of Korra/Asami and realized that after all her boring boy trouble, all she really needed was a girlfriend.

Thing is, I’ve been in fandoms of some fairly male-dominated shows and let me tell you – they can get pretty ugly. The real tragedy is that even when the fandoms are made up of 90% women, the female characters still get treated like crap by the viewers for a variety of reasons (usually for committing the heinous crime of dating the male character fans think should be paired with someone else – we all remember what happened to Mai, right?)

It’s immensely difficult to insist that women don’t fulfil bitchy and catty stereotypes when so much of what is directed at female characters by female viewers is, in fact, immensely bitchy and catty. So to have Korra and Asami remain friends, to have them able to laugh and joke about their entanglements with Mako, to communicate and enjoy each other’s company... it was a wonderful, beautiful, blissful breath of fresh air (hey, maybe that’s where they got the idea for the episode title).


Yes, women CAN be friends. Yes, they CAN get over boy trouble. Yes, they CAN joke together and make each other laugh. It’s a little devastating to me that these basic facts are considered largely fictional. So thank you show, thank you.

I love everything about the spirits, even from way back in the first show and the comics – they’re beautiful and mysterious and imaginative and I can’t get enough of them. The hedgehog spirit in particular was fun, with a twist on the typical “road-kill” expectations (it’s hard to run over a hedgehog that’s bigger than you).

I love the sound effect they use for Lin’s stride; a sort of sharp snap snap with her heels.

Was that a depiction of Pema breastfeeding at the table? Show, let me love you.

So the White Lotis Society are prison guards now? When did that happen? And I notice that their ranks are still strictly male. And still rather useless.

One of the perks of being friends with a rich person is getting to travel in a giant luxurious airship. I guess Future Industries is back on the map.

I’ve always been a little bemused by the Mako hate, especially since he was a) named after the voice actor for Iroh, and b) clearly meant to be a stand-in for Zuko (moody fire-bender) designed to hook up with the Katara stand-in (headstrong water-bender) as a form of “compensation” for the thwarted Zutara shippers, but I think they’re doing a nice enough job with him here – crawlingly awkward around the girls, but savvy enough about how to give Kai a warning about staying in line.

If these new air-benders don’t want to be air-benders, can’t they have their powers removed? I’m pretty sure that the power to remove bending was the whole point of the first season. And even if Korra can only return bending abilities and not remove them, shouldn’t it at least be mentioned?

Wait, is Korra using Aang’s glider? Where did that come from? Did she have it last season?

Given that pretty much all of Kya’s characterization thus far has been about travelling and freedom, it’s a bit baffling that she’s decided to opt out of the search for the lost air-benders.

Whilst swirling Mako around in a wind-funnel of her own making, did Korra really glance behind her to Asami for approval? I didn't just dream it?

In short, The Legend of Korra is back, and so far it’s shaping up to be the best instalment in the Avatar franchise since the conclusion of the original series. I’ll review The Earth Queen within the next few days.

No comments:

Post a Comment