Friday, 1 August 2014

Korra May Not Be the Last Airbender But She's A Steampunk

Avatar: The Legend of Korra is the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show which I've already mentioned is one of my favourite shows of all time in my article discussing Aang's hair issues, namely that he had any. However, despite being made by most of the same people who made Last Airbender, Korra doesn't seem to have captured the popular zeitgeist and widespread fan appreciation that its predecessor did.

Now this may be because of high expectations following The Last Airbender, which is fair enough since it is considered one of the greatest things ever to exists ever, so it's too be expected that people might have set the bar quite high for anything with the word Avatar in the title.
Which is why people were so disappointed in the Dances With Smurfs gritty reboot.

So, there is a sense of people wanting Korra to be the same as Last Airbender, when the two are quite different shows with their focus. For example, although The Last Airbender was a mature and dramatic series, its central characters were still kids, mostly around the 12-16 mark, whereas the main characters in Korra are all in their late teens, verging on adulthood. This adds a lot a teen drama into the story where Korra and company are all trying to negotiate that awkward phase where they're not quite kids anymore but still not yet adults, and they're figuring out who they are while going through a lot of changes.

Which meant quite a bit of the teen romance-y stuff, particularly in the first Book. It is very high school in the, "I like this girl, but she likes this guy, who actually likes this other girl who likes him, and they're dating which upsets the first girl, but he also kinda likes the first girl too, but none of us are mature enough to deal with it in a responsible manner yet, so we don't talk about it and it's, like, super awkward, you guys".
Pictured: Teenage awkwardness.

And that didn't sit well with a number of people. Which is fair enough, especially when it became less of a love quadrilateral and more a love triangle which most people have a serious hatred of. However, there are two aspects to this negative reaction to the seeing the Avatar entangled in a messy teen romance, and the first things is, that it is a messy teen romance. They're not adults navigating an adult relationship. They're teenagers, still very unsure of themselves, and of what/whom they want. Yes, it goes back and forth, at times annoyingly so, but that's the nature of teenage relationships: they are messy and confusing since none of the people involved have enough relationship experience to deal with all the emotions and drama that romance can come hand in hand with, especially when you're not equipped to handle it.

Secondly, I think it was less the fact the characters were in a love quadrilateral/triangle, and more that the love life aspect of the show seemed to have too much focus to the detriment of other plot lines. And that's because the show, again, particularly in its first Book, was trying to juggle a number of various elements and plot lines and unlike, The Last Airbender, it often wasn't able to give these plot lines the time and space to develop.

And that feeling that some aspects of the plot felt rushed is a criticism that has dogged the show for a while now, and it's largely due to the fact the show is not structured like The Last Airbender. Like at all...

Woah, let's just take a moment to breathe here, before someone says something they'll regret.

And that is not a bad thing.

The Last Airbender was structured with a series long arc in mind, telling one major story -of Aang learning to master all the elements so he can defeat Fire Lord Hamill before Haley's Comet arrives and the Fire Nation gets a nitrous boost- like a grand Lord of the Rings-esque epic over the course of three Books consisting of 20 episodes each. The Legend of Korra on the other hand focuses on Book long narrative arcs, each Book telling a self-contained story. Which is different but a good thing since it allows the writers to delve deeper into the various aspects of the fictional world of Avatar.

The problem with this that leads to accusations of being rushed generally have to do with there only being 12 episodes in the first Book, which focused on two plot lines, the main story with the Equalists and the other plot with the pro-bending. This means the show had little time to breathe, or to put it more bluntly, there were no filler episodes in Korra's first Book really since the pro-bending story in the middle of the Book seemed to be given as much weight as the overarching Equalist story.

And because of the fewer number of episodes, plus the emphasis in wrapping up each narrative arc at the end of the Book since they weren't sure if they were going to be renewed for another Book, there was no space to breath as it sprinted to a neatly tied up climax in its final third.
"So, that joke about breathing earlier was a pun or something?"

Just so we're clear on what a filler episode is, a filler episode is not the same as a weak episode. Too many people conflate the two. A filler episode is just an episode which does very little or nothing to develop the overarching plot, focusing instead on character moments or an action sequence that doesn't really move the plot forward in any way but might be important to show to let the show breathe and flesh out the characters. Essentially, if you took out a filler episode from the season, you'd still be able to follow the plot with little problem.

"Tales of Ba Sing Se" is a great example of an amazing filler episode from The Last Airbender. Broken up into 'tales' that focus on individual characters (or in the case of Katara and Toph, two characters bonding), it doesn't add to the overarching defeat Fire Lord Skywalker plot, nor even the immediate plot involving the Big Brother silencing tactics used by the Dai Li to control dissent in the city. Rather it serves as character pieces that highlight the core of the character or serve to develop them further.

It also had this. My, um, my eyes are tearing up... Ah, give me a moment...


Okay, I'm good...

But The Legend of Korra never quite had the time within that first 12 episode Book to have a filler episode to flesh out the characters, instead focused on propelling the various plot lines forward. And because of the desire to showcase pro-bending and the awkwardness of teenage love, meant the 'main' story with the Equalists never quite got the attention it quite deserved until the final third.

However, that did made the dramatic weight of the Equalist story with Amon as the big bad even more stark in comparison to the growing pains of adolescent love and the Mighty Ducks story of whether they'll win the pro-bending tournament when it was finally explored further, and Amon was a pretty awesome big bad.

"Why, yes. Yes, I was."

So, even if the criticism of mixed pacing is justified, this is also because people were expecting a Last Airbender style epic spanning three Books, and kinda didn't get that. But the fact the storytelling in Korra is more breakneck actually reflects the themes of the show, the balance between technology and spirituality, modernity and tradition, being young and brash before maturing.

And being brash is possibly Korra's defining characteristic. Unlike Aang, who was at heart a pacifist and trained as a monk such that he was a calm and intuitive person, Korra is the opposite. Her biggest failing is that she rushes into things head on and fails to read people. And that's not because she's stupid but rather that she is stubborn and rambunctious. She needs to be where the action is and can't sit still or be patient because there are things to do, bad guys to pummel. She is the internet generation, unable to take a moment to be quiet and self-reflect since there are too many things to distract her and her mind can't stop.

This is not a criticism, it ties into the rise of technology and media. With us, it's the internet and social media which means we are always connected and have something to occupy our attention at all times. For Korra it is the rise of media itself, with the explosion of newspapers, radio, and in the second Book, movers.

Starring Bolin as Nuktuk, Hero of the South.

Which reflects the setting too, since Legend of Korra is set 70 years after the events of Last Airbender and the times have change, things have gotten faster as technology makes transportation and communication faster. Republic City is a 1920s metropolis backdrop filled with automobiles and telegrams, loudspeakers and blimps.

Therefore, the feel of the show right from the offset is markedly different from Last Airbender which was set in an oddly per-Industrial age that still somehow had technology like tanks but not cars, where Korra is decidedly set in a jazzy age of modernity.

They are purposefully doing something different with the world of Avatar and that should be applauded. They could have easily have done a show in the same vein of The Last Airbender and it would have been successful, but they intentionally went a different route, like "how about we follow this thread instead of what people expected, this is cool".

And it is cool. There are as many elements of steampunk as there are mystic martial arts, from the aforementioned blimps to cameras, electro-gloves and steam powered man-tanks.
These Big Daddy things.

However, aside from its steampunk influence and kick ass jazzy soundtrack, the themes that Legend of Korra grapples with are much more complex and (this is not a knock against it in any way) mature than Last Airbender which for all the ways in which is was a rich and layered show, it still at its heart was a family show with children as its central characters. Which was great, but Korra is definitely aiming for adults.

And this is evident in the Equalist story from Book 1, it is a political thriller set in the world of Avatar. Non-benders form an anti-bending movement, started nefiriously by Amon, who yes, is himself a bender, but the sentiment behind the movement and why it gets so popular makes sense. The question of whether the people who have these powers have the right to use them on those that don't, or whether the abuse of that power has come at the expense of non-benders who, until the development of recent technology, had no means to respond or resist the might of malevolent benders, such as the Fire Nation or the Dai Li in Last Airbender.

These are valid questions of the use and abuse of power, might is right and so on. And the fact these issues are arising due to the development of new technology makes sense as the development of new technology always brings about change in some form or other. It's just that this technology is a way of leveling the playing field for non-benders.

But the show also has covered things like the pressures of responsibility and not knowing what to do when confronted by it, such as Korra agreeing under duress to join the task force to capture Amon because she is harassed by reporters and doesn't want to appear like she is neglecting her duties as the Avatar.
And like most Saturday morning cartoons it also featured brotherly murder-suicide.

And that's why I think some people had an issue with the balance of comedy and drama in Korra, because it was a more adult space and the comedy at times felt at odds with the serious tone of the show. For where, Last Airbender was a light toned serious with moments of drama and serious pathos, Korra is a "darker show with moments of light humor spread throughout".

Honestly, I thought the humour was great in Korra, just as it had been in Last Airbender but I understand why it would appear a bit off, since it seemed to stick out a bit in the more dramatic setting. But once the second Book came along, people knew what to expect of the show so things like Bolin's adventures acting as Nuktuk in movers were hilarious moments of levity amidst the dramatic tone of the show.

This is while things like the ongoing civil war between the water tribes, the really heavy familial drama with siblings Tenzin, Bumi and Kya, shady criminal dealings and Mako being all detective-y, not to mention the oncoming threat of spirit outbreak with no Ghostbusters to call are all going on.

In that context, people just loved that Korra was trying to out-Batman Batman with the whole vigilante interrogation thing.
I mean, does Batman have a polar bear dog acting like she'll bite a judge's head off? I don't think so.
Comedy gold.

It has to be noted that the second Book was a bit rocky, especially in regards to Korra, since a lot of her emotional development from the first Book didn't seem to be carried over and she seemed to be hitting the same beats again. She's rushing into things head on and is quite rambunctious with none of the patience you thought she learnt at the end of Book 1.

But this is how real people behave. We expect and want our fictional characters to grow and develop, learning from their mistakes and developing, but often people in the real world don't. Not because they don't want to or can't, but because change is hard and habits of behaviour are difficult to break.

However, she's not only being headstrong again but is angry. Like very angry. She is pissed off at her father, rightly so, for lying to her, seems oddly antagonistic towards Tenzin as her teacher and snaps at Mako for trying to be supportive or something. But I think that anger is key to understanding her stagnation as it is as a character.

Because it is frustration at having 'learnt' the lessons about patience and coping with the responsibility of being the Avatar, yet she still is not trusted by her father and Tenzin, who keep trying to protect and shield her, instead of allowing her to be her own person. Which is fair enough.

Where this becomes a problem in Book 2 is that her stubbornness and refusal to grow as a character soon just seems like a retread of her stubbornness and refusal to grow as a character in Book 1. However the difference is, that in Book 3, entitled Change, she actually has changed and become a more patient and intuitive character, having finally learnt the lessons we though she already learnt.

Well, finally. Someone who delivers on their campaign promises (eventually).

So, Korra can ultimately change and grapple with the issues and challenges that change can bring. That means you too change and grow as a person. Even if you have to retread your whole character arc from the first Book to do so.


The Legend of Korra Wikipedia page

The Legend of Korra Avatar wiki page

'Game of Thrones' Withdrawal? Watch Nickelodeon's Fantasy Epic 'The Legend of Korra'

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