Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

Review: The Legend of Korra

So this week I finally took the chance to catch up on the serial The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, which is the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender and airs on Nickelodeon on Saturday mornings. Originally intended as a mini-series, even before it aired the channel upgraded its status based on just what they’d seen of it, and there’s no question why- it’s probably one of the best animated shows North Americans have ever produced.

The original Avatar: The Last Airbender, was an impressive show, but took a little while to find its footing and was perhaps a little too young-oriented for its own good at first. It wanted to be a show for all ages, but because of the channel I personally found the early episodes hard to watch and a bit too kiddy-oriented for my tastes. I strongly suspect this was the result of Nickelodeon suits screaming “make it funnier” behind the scenes, while the production team was just trying to make a balanced adventure series. My evidence of that is that as soon as the show got popular (and the producers had more power), it slowed down on the humor and became more steady and balanced as it went.(Which made it even more popular.)

The Legend of Korra is a completely different beast (if you’ll pardon the pun), if for no reason than because the producers were more experienced the second time around and they also had more say in things. As a result, they have produced something that is both unique and fascinating on so many levels that I almost don’t know where to begin to describe it. So first, for those who many not know what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at the preview trailer:

Want to know something scary? That trailer doesn’t even do justice to how visually beautiful and well animated the show is. It’s like watching a weekly movie, and one done by experienced hands at an A-List studio who know exactly what they’re doing and what they want to achieve. The life this brings to the characters and the setting is amazing, and when the action kicks it, it becomes pure poetry.

And action there is! But before I go on, I should probably explain the plot.

The story is fairly simple- Korra lives in a fantasy world where people called Benders have the ability to control and shape elements telekinetically. If you’re a Bender and you’re attuned to Water, you can make water fly around and do tricks, the same with Earth, Air and Fire. They can’t create the element, but they can shape what’s there, and there are sub-specialties under the main categories, like Metal-Bending and Blood-Bending.

Each generation, there is a single Bender born called the Avatar, who can control all the different elements, not just a single one like most Benders. The original series was about an Avatar named Ang, who was the last of the Airbenders (duh!) and who helped bring peace to the setting and ended a hundred-year long war.

At the start of this series, Ang has already passed away, and a new Avatar has been born to the Water Tribe named Korra. She’s good with water, but her command of the other elements is spotty at best, and her particular weakness is Airbending, so as a teen she goes to live with Tenzin, Ang’s son, in Republic City. (A city founded by Ang, which is now a roaring metropolis.) Shortly after her arrival, she hooks up with a team of sport-benders called the Fire Ferrets, and ends up joining their team. She also runs afoul of the Equalists, and their leader Amon, who claim to be working to promote rights for non-Benders (most of the population) who live under Bender rule.

And, it’s these last two points that make this show both unique and surprisingly deep at times for what is technically a “kids show”.

Half of the show is a “sports drama”, as Korra becomes involved with the Pro-Bending League and bonds with her teammates Mokko and Bolin. The sport itself is surprisingly well thought-out and presented in a way which is both dramatic and easy to follow for the audience. The rules to the sport are almost intuitive, so even those who missed the episode where it’s explained can understand it.  Also, watching the teenaged Korra learn and develop through sport is fun and a real inspiration for getting youth involved in sports and physical activity. I wish we had more sports shows for kids like this.

It’s caught on to the point where people are actually trying to create real-life versions as well:

The other half of the show, the Equalists, shines just as brightly. They could have been simple bad-guys, but instead they’re presented as real people who live under the yoke of Bender oppression and believe in their fight for freedom. This is surprisingly heavy for a youth-oriented show, and the producers don’t shy away for what this means and the implications involved. Is Korra really working for the good of all people? Or is she the “savior” of an overclass who dominate those who can’t bend?

Fan Made Equalist Video:

The other nice thing is that their leader, the masked and mysterious Amon, is also portrayed as both extremely smart and capable. His plans almost always work, and all the positive thinking and determination of Korra and her allies mean almost nothing against his intelligence and foresight. She’s not even in his league, and the show makes that clear from the start. There will be a long journey before Korra could even hope to face Amon, and Republic City likely doesn’t have that much time left.

Which brings me to the other shining jewel of the show- the setting!

Where the original show existed in a sort of low-tech steampunk Victorian setting, Korra’s setting is an evolved version of that which bears a striking resemblance to the Roaring Twenties. The city is alive with culture and style to the point where you almost believe its a real place, and they draw heavily on that period to give it authenticity. In fact, I would argue that Republic City is basically an idealized Shanghai of the 20’s and early 30’s during its glory period, with Bending thrown into the mix.

Even the “previously on” segment that catches the audience up at the start of each episode is presented as an old black and white newsreel, with an old-style announcer’s rapid play-by-play patter of the events.

The characters themselves are all well thought-out, nuanced, and generally quite likable. Korra herself is a seat-of-the pants headstrong country girl in the big city, and unique in American TV in many ways, for example, from her “date” with Bolin:

How many other shows would let their heroine do that?

The drama in the show isn’t especially deep, but it’s not meant to be, the show is a coming of age show mixed with an action show, and it plays both of those cards quite well. The mix of humor and drama is almost pitch-perfect, and it really lets all the characters have their moments and show their humanity, so that you really feel for them when the bad stuff goes down.

Overall, I give The Legend of Korra an A+, and highly recommend watching it if you get the chance. It really is a premium show, and deserves the accolades it gets.

Stuff I watched this week

Avatar: The Legend of Korra– a friend sent me a link to a slightly grainy copy of the pilot episode of the new Avatar series. I have to confess, I’ve only watched a handful of episodes of the original series. I’ve tried to watch it a couple times, but it always failed to keep my attention despite being very well done. Korra seems a bit more up my alley, and is extremely well all around. I found myself entranced by the pilot and enjoyed it greatly, although I do wonder what exactly it is they’re setting up. It almost seems like Korra is to be Republic City’s resident superhero or something, which could be an interesting twist. I adore the setting they’ve created with it too, an odd mix of 1920’s American culture with a heaping dose of Chinese culture thrown in, a bit like the legendary city Shanghai was during the early part of the 20th century. A+

GoBuster– Each year Toei puts out a new Sentai series, and each year I watch the pilot hoping that it won’t be awful out of a sense of nostalgia for series like Timeranger, Bioman and Jetman. Pretty much every year they disappoint me, especially recently, so I was shocked to discover that this year’s sentai is actually pretty good! It’s a Spy-Themed Sentai this year, and they’re going out of their way to try to be more like a superspy series instead of a generic sentai series. The production values are great, they have a good (if typical) premise as to why the badguys are showing up, and they actually did something different with the badguy giant monsters for once. (The bad guys seem to actually attack in pairs, a human-sized monster of the week backed up by a slightly customized giant robot.) A lot of thought was also put into how (at least the pilot) is filmed as well. I might not watch it for long, but I will definitely give it a couple episodes. You can find it on Youtube subbed in English. B

PRIEST– This is a movie based on a Korean comic of the same name about a post-apocalyptic future where humans fought a great war with vampires and the remaining surviving humans live in giant walled cities. The Priests (read: Jedi) are the supersoldiers who won the war for humanity, and are now treated like crap since the vampries are gone. (or are they….? Dun Dun DUN!) This is an odd movie, which like Korra is a weird fusion of Asian and American aethestics that produce something visually unique in its own way. Of course, the things that aren’t unique are the plot or the writing, which are fair, but neither especially good or bad.  Actually, the writing style did remind me of Korean Manhua (comics) I’ve read, and had all the poor elements I associate with them as well- stilted uneven storytelling, odd dialogue, and weird moments of comedy. (They produce fricken amazing Historical Dramas, why can’t they produce good comics?) The fights were fairly well done, and the odd thing is that the acting wasn’t bad, in fact it was pretty good! The movie’s cast are all A-List and B-List American actors! They just have really mediocre material to work with. It’s showing on the Movie Channels here in Canada right now. C+

Justice League: DOOM– This is such an odd animated movie. It’s based on a comic by Grant Morrison, voiced by the cast of the old Justice League animated series (together one last time!), and produced by the team doing the current Young Justice TV show who even use the Young Justice character designs for the League. Considering all of these elements were A-List, you’d think it would be an amazing film, but the result is a little underwhelming. It’s not a bad story or premise, and the presentation is good, but its a little too action-oriented for its own good and loses most of its depth in favor of- “and they fight!”. The only one who gets any characterization in it is Vandal Savage, who is oddly the main badguy in the Young Justice TV series as well. (I think the current producer guy adores him, which is kinda refreshing in a way since he’s a really underused villain.) It looks great, and if you’re a fan its worth seeing, but I can only give it a B+.