Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Legend of Korra: A Critique

Warning: If you haven’t seen Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, the following won’t make a lot of sense.

Recently, the hit animated series Legend of Korra drew to a close for season one. And though it was fantastic, I found several key issues due to the writing. As a writer and a literary critic, I decided to write up this critique of this hallmark of American animation.
Let's dig into why Legend of Korra isn't quite as good as it could be.
Firstly, I feel that twelve episodes was not long enough to tell the story. I am not stating that it is rushed. What I am saying is that this forced the creators to squander plot-lines, resolve issues rapidly, put off on character development, and rely on telling-not-showing when it comes to certain things like romance. I know that not everyone out there is a Kataangist, but let's examine that ship for a moment. Whether you like it or not, the three-season, sixty-one-episode build-up was masterfully done, and by the time Katara finally kissed Aang in the finale, you could put your forefinger on the television screen and announce that it was true love. You can say many, many things about Kataang, but one thing that cannot be said is that it was forced in terms of development. Back to my main point: Twelve episodes is not enough to tell the story of a revolution, a corrupt politician, a love triangle, the spirits potentially making war on the human realm [based off of The Revelation], and Korra becoming a fully-realised Avatar, which took Aang sixty-one episodes to accomplish. I know that LoK was intended from the beginning to be a mini-series, but that is not an excuse to squander plot arcs, pigeon-hole characters, and ignore the implications. Frankly, if you can't do it in twelve episodes, make more.
Secondly, there is the entire Equalist revolution. The Revelation hints at a rift between the current Avatar - who is spiritually unconnected - and Amon, the spirits' new mouthpiece. However, this, along with the idea of Amon as the Dark Messiah, has been completely ignored since then. I have not heard it brought up once, but you'd think that the spirits speaking to a mortal man would be pretty significant, especially if said mortal man went on to actually perform the 'miracle' of taking away bending. Beyond that, the idea of a citizens' uprising, seen all the way up to And the Winner Is..., was fantastic; unfortunately, the next time the Equalist revolution comes into play, the uprising has devolved into another army of faceless mooks akin to the masked firebenders making up the Fire Nation army in ATLA. This completely obliterated the point. I had hoped that the revolution would follow a historical, realistic revolutionary ideal, wherein the citizens would up only to be pushed down once more by their glorious leader once the revolution is complete. I was certain that we were going to have a "the revolution ends when it hurts the people it was meant to help" moment. Instead the revolution skipped from citizens' uprising to aforementioned faceless mook army with enough resources to build copious amounts of airships, mecha tanks, et cetera. I understand that Hiroshi Sato is helping them, but no man could have that much money. It's ridiculous. While the idea of hiding out in the sewers is beautiful, the sheer amount of stuff the Equalists possess is ridiculous. The creators quite literally had the opportunity to play out a true revolution made of ordinary citizens and instead portrayed the Equalists as little more than an overcharged terrorist cell. Where are the protests of the commoners? Where are the March on Washingtons? Where are the Gandhis to represent the oppressed? Where are the Moseses trying to liberate their people? For that matter, where are the Lenins organising the peasants or the Hitlers charming their way through Germany? Nope. We don't get any of that. Instead we only see a masked man and his massive artillery with his legions of nameless cardboard cut-outs destined to be thrown at the protagonists for some nice fight scenes or as a plot point of being chi-blocked.
Speaking of the Equalists, whatever happened to the grey morality they were supposed to represent? Nonbennders actually are being oppressed, for one. It's inevitable. We saw the winds of it in ATLA, and we certainly see it in LoK. I could imagine sympathising with them and the Equalists significantly. But the nonbenders, outside of anger at Tarrlok pulling the power, seem to not care whatsoever, while the Equalists have devolved into terrorists, turning the show into White and Black Morality: While the Krew certainly makes mistakes, their actions are most definitely protagonistic, while Amon's bombing of the city and whatnot are portrayed as definitely antagonistic. Urch. It's the same issue I had with Ozai in ATLA: He was shown to be evil. That's it. Certainly he was a civil evil, but at the end of the day, there was no moment of mixed morality. It's for reason that Ozai is not my favourite villain, while Azula and Long Feng are two of my favourites; even Zhao was more chaotic neutral and had his own motivations. I thought that that had changed with Amon, who was even shown rescuing Korra unintentionally in Out of the Past. But no, now the Equalists are the evil army again, boo hoo, and it's up to the Avatar to rid the world of evil.
I'm going to take a quick break to discuss characters like Toza. You'd think that, since he more or less saved Mako and Bolin from the street, after the Pro-bending Arena was bombed, the fabulous bending brothers would at least try to see if he's okay. But they didn't. Instead, they immediately went off to pack for a stay at the Satos'. What? We've been introduced to so many wonderful characters, like Skoochy, only to have them never brought up again. I understand that that's life. But occasionally it's unrealistic, as in the Toza case, unless that happened off-screen. Why even design and bring in Toza as this apparently parental figure for Mako and Bolin only to give him four or five lines of dialogue centred around Korra's bathroom needs? On a note of praise, I'm very glad to see that Gommu, the wise and noble hobo, is back in the finale.
Moving on. Scrapped plot-lines. We continuously see arcs brought up short. The most notable and immediately presentable of these is Tarrlok. After having been introduced initially as a potential ally, albeit one of whom Tenzin did not approve, Tarrlok was transformed into an enemy possibly worse than Amon, since at least Amon's actions are painted with a greyer morality; however, he is abruptly taken down to unimportant status by the next episode. In the same vein, in The Voice in the Night, the flashback arc is introduced - remember that Korra has had issues with her spirituality and meditation since the first episode - and it builds to a climax in Out of the Past, where Korra is stressfully placed into a metal box for hours, if not days, and prohibited access to food or water. Entirely stressed and trembling with anxiety, Korra attempts to meditate . . . and succeeds in the most sudden and anticlimactic way possible. It left me with quite the bitter taste of disappointment in my mouth, as I had expected her to receive more disjointed flashbacks, then figure out the rest for herself . Whatever happened to her issues with meditation, particularly in such a stressful situation? Also, it wasn't very helpful to Korra after she was kidnapped; the new knowledge did absolutely nothing to help her situation beyond using it as an reasoning behind the non-full-moon-powered bloodbending. Another thing that bugs me is that "Tarrlok is Yakone's son" is for some reason considered a valid explanation of his bloodbending powers. How does that explain how Yakone got his powers then? It's treated as though "everything makes sense now". But it doesn't, because the entire bloodbending without a full moon idea is another aborted arc. And this isn't a new occurrence, either. Take Borra. It was first hinted at in A Leaf in the Wind with the line about Bolin believing Korra to be special and tantalisingly pushed in The Voice in the Night. By The Spirit of Competition, Bolin was so in love with Korra that he was able to work up the nerve to ask her out. By the next episode - and confirmed in Out of the Past - Bolin claimed to be over her. What? Love doesn't work like that. It's not about what you ship, it's the simple fact that if Bolin has been crushing on Korra for several episodes, he wouldn't just "get over it" in ten seconds flat. It's an unrealistically aborted arc. On a side note, whatever happened to the turf war brewing in The Revelation? Right, another abandoned arc. If you're going to bring in an arc like Tarrlok or Borra, you have to paint it realistically, and you can't drop it the moment it climaxes. There's always a resolution period, which didn't happen in any of these cases.
I've now covered three major points: The shortening of the story, the Equalist revolution, and the aborted arcs. You're starting to see a pattern here, I'm certain.  Now, the entire love triangle and character development, which must be covered as one. Note: This is a ship-neutral section. Think for a moment of the characters who have received the most character development. Keeping that in mind, think of the characters who have been sidelined. I would guess that many of you instantly jumped to Bolin as a perfect example: In the past few episodes, he has received almost no dialogue beyond telling Asami about the kiss. But I would also say that Mako has not received very much character development either; most of his development is centred about the love triangle. He's alternatively hot and cold to the other characters, he has been characterised quite well, and he has certainly shown off some badass bending, but - and here's the important bit - he hasn't learned anything new. There has been little growth in his character. Even though he is receiving screen time, he is not experiencing an arc of development other than "fall for Asami, then fall for Korra". That there is a perfectly valid story arc; I'm not criticising the very realistic idea that a man could fall in love with two women, nor the fact that Mako is leaving Asami for Korra, nor even the game he's playing between them [again, it's realistic]. What I am criticising boils down to his lack of personal development. Take Asami, who has received the most character development out of the Krew save perhaps for Korra herself, going from a weak Daddy's girl to a kickass warrior goddess, similar to Katara's arc in ATLA. Episode by episode, you can see Asami growing stronger, even through all of the pain she'd had cast on her. Asami's arc is, in my opinion, one of the strongest points in the show, because it has been done masterfully and, I'll stress again, realistically. When Asami first appeared in The Voice in the Night, I disliked her for being little more than an "obstacle" for Korra to overcome in her pursuit of Mako; she did not have very much personality beyond her need for protection, which Mako was more than happy to provide. I actively wished her to drop away from the show. However, after following this arc for this long, I can say that Asami has grown, dumbfoundingly, into one of my favourite characters on the show. This character development has taken place mostly as a result of influences outside the love triangle, such as her father's betrayal, but also came partly because Mako started to protect Korra instead of Asami, and Asami filled in that protection gap.
But why am I going on and on about Asami? Asami is an example of some serious character development occurring in the span of a few episodes without feeling jarring in any way. This lets me know that the wonderful team creating the show can write character arcs in a short period of time. But they're not, which infuriates me. Again, returning to Bolin: There were so many places he could have been taken, but instead he was demoted to comic relief because he is not part of the love triangle. Asami, Korra, and Mako are receiving screen time to expound the love triangle; Bolin's most recent serious appearance was . . . talking to Asami about the love triangle. Er. Okay. Let's take a look-see at Mako and Korra's arcs, then. Korra has most definitely grown from the impulsive, headstrong girl of the earlier episodes and has become more patient and understanding while still being strong in spirit [at least most of the time, but I'll come back to that shortly], as emphasised by her exchange with Tenzin regarding the Equalists in Turning the Tides. No problem. Korra is a fantastic character, and I admire her for many reasons. Mako, too, is fantastic, and it's for this reason that I selected him as the point of view character for a fanon of mine called Scarf. I bring that up because, in writing him outside of a love triangle context, I adore him for his strength, his resilience, his intelligence, his inner flame, and his brotherly love for Bolin. I know that he is a good person at heart, but due to the show's focus on the love triangle, we as the audience are instead seeing the jerky side of his personality caused naturally by the two beautiful women wanting him. I suppose it sickens me to see such a great character devolved into a weak "prize" at the end of Korra's tunnel of tribulations; I feel cheated, as a viewer, to watch him act like this when I know he can do so much better. Like all characters, Mako has flaws, with his white knight syndrome and his struggle to properly express his emotions, but I adore him all the more for it: One's imperfections make one perfect. What I can't stand is this feeling of, well, losing what could have been my favourite character. And there's one more thing about his character I don't like . . . the way wherein he turns Korra into a wet rag. Now wait a moment. Don't click away yet. Let me explain what I mean by that. If you look at Korra's recent moments, when she's by herself, she tends to be a bamf, a strong character, and overall an amazing person up to whom I could even look. But put her in a scene with Mako, and she becomes flustered and raggedy. That makes sense. Think about some of the Kataang scenes from ATLA: Aang was certainly flustered, for instance, in the beginning of The Cave of Two Lovers or The Headband. On the other hand, there were plenty of Kataang scenes not involving fluster. Fine, you say, we have those two, in Out of the Past. At the end of that episode - which has already been analysed multiple times as to why Mako should not have been the one to carry her to the bison - Korra is lying in Mako's arms in one of the sweetest scenes in animation history. Unfortunately, Korra is sporting the most uncharacteristic serene expression on her face, an expression about as appropriate for her as a Meelo expression for Lin Beifong. I was  expecting Korra to break down as she did at the end of The Voice in the Night, considering how weary, defeated, and battered she was, but that serene expression was so out of place that I still cannot quite get over it. That expression did not belong on her face. That expression was . . . submissive. In order to woo Mako, Korra has submitted to him. Where's that fiery, flirty Korra from the first few episodes, the Korra whom I could imagine with Mako, the Korra who kept her flame even when she flustered, like in the scene on Air Temple Island from The Revelation? Gone. Replaced with a submissive, desiring-of-protection Korra, a Korra that of course is more attractive to the protective Mako. It's nearly as though Korra and Asami are switching personalities, as if they are on a inversely sliding scale of bamfness together and cannot both be bamfs at the same time. The base line is this: Korra is amazing. Mako is amazing. Put them together, and they turn into a wet rag and a jerk, respectively. Again, I feel cheated out of the fiery Korra and the serious but intriguing Mako I absolutely loved, and it's why I find it difficult to support Makorra, since it is twisting my two former favourites.
Note: At heart, I'm a canonite, so I'll ship whatever happens in the show. That's not my issue.
Another issue I have is the underbelly of the city. Again, as with the Equalist revolution, the show had so much potential. In the first few episodes, they were fine with showing poverty, discussing triads, and introducing characters who had grown up on the street. Recently, however, that seems to have been ignored. Again, why aren't the Equalists stirring the poor? To paraphrase Emmanuel Goldstein from 1984, the Middle will always entice the Low to revolution, which causes the Middle to become the Top. It's how revolutions work. And the Equalists would no doubt be able to recruit the poor easily, especially considering that most of them are implied to be nonbenders. From where are all these chi-blockers coming? Seemingly nowhere. But I digress again. From the first several episodes, I was certain that we were going to see the seedy, depressing underbelly, particularly with the brewing triad turf war that . . . was never mentioned again. At least in the released clips for the finale, we see Gommu and a bit of poverty, but it seems to be mostly played for laughs in the clip we saw. LoK is dark enough to show poverty, but it refuses to do so. Even Mako and Bolin appeared in the show only after they were rescued from poverty. Such great potential. But nope. Though this is more of a stylistic issue with which I specifically have a problem, so I won't go into this one, even though they hinted at it in the first few episodes.
To take a quick break, I'm going to discuss the comic relief. ATLA was ingenious for the ways in which it meshed serious action and much-needed comic relief. In general, however, it had light-hearted episodes and serious episodes: Though there were usually both funny and serious scenes in each episode, there was an overall feel to each episode as well. Because LoK has only twelve episodes, it had to condense each one, but this also meant cutting out the transitions between funny and serious. It also means that more intelligent humour can't be used, because that takes time, so they've come to rely on my least favourite brand of it. Fart jokes. Every time I see Meelo come on-screen, I quiver with fear that he's going to come out with another fart joke or, worse, a line that befits a three-year-old. Meelo, according to the creators, is five years of age. What five-year-old informs his new caretaker than he has to defecate? Meelo of the never-ending flatulence has managed to ruin the best moments, like the Team Avatar moment in When Extremes Meet, or the completely serious scene of Lin Beifong fighting the Equalists. Both of these were randomly plucked from memory. In the former, just as I thought the Krew was - at last - functioning as a unit, Meelo popped in with a fart. What? In the latter, Meelo not only uses fartbending in the most inappropriate way possible, but we even have the privilege of a slo-mo on his contorted face for a few moments. This destroyed the very serious and very pulse-pounding momentum of the scene. It felt like, I don't know, the famous battle from 300 suddenly being interrupted by Timon and Pumbaa dressing in drag and doing the hula. When the character designs were announced at Comic-Con last year, Meelo was originally my favourite of the airbender kids. He's become my least favourite character of the show. Say what you will about Bolin's style of comic relief, but at least it's somewhat humorous, at least to me. Whenever Bo opens his mouth, I end up smiling. It's definitely not fart jokes.
On an unrelated note, I'm very, very intrigued as to why Mako never had an issue with firebending, particularly after his parents' death at the hands of one. That would most definitely stir up my sympathies for him. Think about the shot in Out of the Past when Mako held the Equalist up to the wall and was quite literally about to burn the Equalist's face off. Why didn't that trigger any bells? Imagine if we had at some point had Mako have a heart-to-heart with Bolin [when's the last brotherly moment we had between them?] or even, in the next episode, with Korra. I wouldn't mind such a wonderful and actually deep Makorra moment. Sadly, Mako carried on as though nothing had happened. If you give your character a traumatic past - remember that Mako watched his parents be cut down right in front of him - then you need to bring that in. Or have Mako mention it as an offhand remark. Something. Even say to Korra, "When I was little, I couldn't firebend for a long time. I kept remembering my parents dying. It took me a long time to forgive myself." Really, anything. Ironically, Asami's mother was burned by a firebender; Asami, too, is burned, albeit in a different way, by another firebenders. Anyway, in ATLA, after Aang went Avatar State in The Desert, he and Katara spoke about it in The Serpent's Pass. They didn't just "drop it". The creators knew they had to bring that back. Nearly burning someone's face off is pretty darn rewarding of such a scene, or even one remark. One. And that brings me to my next point.
For my seventh and final point, here's one thing I truly and sincerely miss about ATLA but that, in my opinion, is vital in any heartfelt show: Conversations between two characters. Toph and Iroh in The Chase. Aang and Katara in The Serpent's Pass. Zuko and Katara in The Crossroads of Destiny. Sokka and Toph in The Runaway. And, of course, the many, many scenes between Iroh and Zuko. There were even entire episodes devoted to them, like The Guru, The Firebending Masters, or The Southern Raiders. Those are simply a few examples plucked from the top of my head. Those are the scenes that provide the most character development, and most of them weren't filler as much as they were explorations of the characters, explorations that them so much more three-dimensional. In Legend of Korra, the ones we saw in the first few episodes - between Tenzin and Korra, Korra and Mako, and even Korra and Bolin in The Spirit of Competition - breathed life in the characters. Unfortunately, recently, the only scenes like that recently have been centred about the love triangle and are not explorations of the characters but of the [quite shallow] romance. Even in the clip, we see Mako and Korra's conversation that adds nothing to either character. We already know that Korra thinks Mako is amazing, and we already know that Mako has feelings for Korra. In fact, the only thing that that scene did was make me remember a very similar scene in The Spirit of Competition, wherein Bolin also spouts off a list of adjectives and makes Korra blush. I also find it ironic that Mako calls Korra loyal when he himself is being disloyal to Asami; say that you will about Makorra or Masami, but I daresay we can all agree that Mako is being disloyal to her [I didn't say cheating on her. I said disloyal]. I suppose that the phase regarding his life without Korra in it appeared a tad out of character for Mako, but that's not my problem with the scene. There have been plenty of opportunities for two-character scenes, as I call them. For instance, in When Extremes Meet, when Pabu found Korra, I was certain we were going to receive, at last, a friendship scene between Bolin and Korra. It could have been thirty seconds long, and then Mako and Asami could have joined them. Or in this past episode, a scene of any two characters - any two - discussing the fact that the city of being destroyed. I think that's a pretty big deal. So why we getting none of it? In fact, Bolin hasn't spoken to Korra at all since The Spirit of Competition, a fact I find . . . disappointing, if not straight-up heart-beaking. You would think that there would at least be a bit of wrap-up other than "I'm friendzoning everyone". I mean, at least there should have been a friendship scene to let us know that they are still friends. Because of this lack of two-character scenes, I don't actually know how the Krew interacts. How does Bolin feel about Mako for taking Korra? Are Asami and Bolin friends? Are Korra and Bolin friends? What about Korra and Asami? Whereas in ATLA, I could quite easily see the strings connecting the members of the Gaang - in other words, I knew how two characters would interact if put in a scene together - I have no idea when it comes to the Krew. For all of these episodes wherein they've been a team, I still don't know their interactions with each other, to the point where I'm not even convinced that Bolin exists in the minds of Korra and Asami. Maybe those "Bolin is secretly a figment of Mako's imagination" theories are true. That was a joke. Don't quote me out of context. Anywho, the shift from Masami to Makorra has also left the romance feeling quite shallow and unstable, the point where even if Makorra happens at the end of season one, I wouldn't put all my eggs in its basket. I don't see any "true" love yet, not in any shipping; I do not count Bolin's "real love" comment to actually mean "real love", as it sounded more like a throwaway line. I understand that they are teenagers, but this means that whatever ship happens in the end might not last. Naturally, we have a season two that may fix all of these issues, but at the moment I see no true love. The closest we have is Korra's infatuation with Mako, and frankly it is my belief that she is infatuated with the idea of him rather than the person. She has cemented him as the perfect man, as the prize on which to keep an eye, as the motivation to save Republic City, and I doubt that she has given very much thought on their relationship in the long run. Korra is so convinced that Mako is the one that she didn't even give Bolin a chance beyond one date that ended on a Makorra kiss. That's not what I'd like to see in a heroine. What that teaches children is that it's okay to pursue and flirt with someone else's girlfriend/boyfriend, as you will be rewarded in the end. Korra's decision at the end of The Aftermath showed her true maturity and her character growth, but abruptly we returned to the "hanging on Mako" side of her. It felt like yet another aborted arc, one jarring enough to make me reconsider what defines Korra as a person.
Are these all of the issues with LoK? Certainly not. I wrote this entire thing in one crazed sitting. Am I saying that LoK is bad? Certainly not. It remains my favourite show out there at the moment, and I am completely in love with it. Yet these issues do remain.
Thank you for sticking with me.
TL;DR: Legend of Korra is an amazing show. But twelve episodes were not enough to tell its story.
Nicole Izmaylov, signing off.