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Monday, February 23, 2015 02:15 PM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Four - Balance
 by Fëanor

I looked back and saw I'd never written up the last season of Korra! Seemed like a terrible oversight, so here I am. I'm going to get a little spoilery here, but this show is pretty old now, so I think I'm allowed.

The show creators start the season off with one of those crazy, gutsy moves they do so often and so well: they jump ahead in time three years from the end of the last season! As the episode goes on, we slowly figure out what all our heroes have been up to. Mako is now the rather unwilling bodyguard of the pampered, self-important Prince Wu, who is about to take the reigns of the Earth Kingdom (or at least, so he believes). We also find out why they made a big show of introducing us to Kuvira at the end of last season (a scene which felt weird to me at the time): she has now become a huge power in the Earth Kingdom and is (not to put too fine a point on it) this season's villain. She calls herself the Great Uniter, and is bringing order to the lawless Earth Kingdom. But it's order without freedom and peace without choice. Like many others, Bolin, Varrick and Zhu Li have been taken in by Kuvira's pretty speeches and are helping her take over - which makes Bolin's relationship Opal complicated, as Opal hates Kuvira.

But of course, the big question is, where's Korra? The answer is revealed in the shocking end to the first episode: she's lied to her friends about where she is and what she's been doing, and she's hidden herself away in a backwater town, telling no one there her true identity. She's spending her time fighting - and losing! - earthbending cage matches.

In episode two, a flashback explains how Korra got here, and again I was impressed with the show's creators for not just pushing on from last season's story like it never happened. In fact, Korra is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally by her battle with Zaheer and her near death at his hands. Physical therapy eventually heals her body (mostly), but she finds it much harder to get over the fear and the block in her mind, and she is haunted by the dark specter of herself as she was when she fought Zaheer - a ghost that actually physically attacks her. The imagery is incredibly powerful: Korra fighting her old self, being pulled inescapably into the past to relive the fight with Zaheer over and over.

Luckily for Korra, she runs into Toph Beifong (yay, Toph!), Aang's old earthbending teacher. She's been hiding out in a swamp, communing with the Earth and avoiding everybody, because she's now a super grouchy old lady. She shows Korra some tough love and helps her to finish her physical healing. But even now, Korra is not magically fixed. There is still a final mental component to her injuries that she has not fully dealt with. It's hard to watch Korra in so much pain for so much of this season, being defeated over and over again, but it's all in service of character and story, and it's a powerful commentary on trauma and healing.

One of my favorite characters, Varrick, gets to shine again this season, and his relationship with Zhu Li finally gets to the next level, which is great to see. The rather infamous clip show episode "Remembrances" (which, as I understand it, the creators were forced to do in order to avoid firing anybody after Nickelodeon cut their budget) is saved only by Varrick's ridiculous action movie retelling of previous events.

Korra's team-up with Zaheer is unexpected and interesting, as is Asami's reconciliation with her father. The final epic battle against Kuvira's forces, led by her incredible, gigantic, spirit-vine-powered mecha battle suit, takes three whole episodes to complete and is exciting and impressive in the extreme. When it's all over, again a tremendous change has come over the world: the explosion of spirit energy has led to the creation of a new spirit portal. This season also reminds us over and over again that the villains Korra fights are never just evil for the sake of evil. Zaheer and Hiroshi both end up helping our heroes. Even Kuvira was trying to do what she thought was right, and in the end is penitent.

But maybe the biggest and most important moment in the entire Legend of Korra series happens at the very end of the last episode, when Korra walks off into the sunset not with Mako or with any other man, but with Asami. They don't quite go so far as to have Asami and Korra kiss onscreen, but that they now have a romantic relationship is strongly implied. In other words, this cartoon has a female bisexual hero. That's amazing! I don't think it's completely unprecedented, but nearly. When I watched that final scene, I felt like I was watching a really important part of television history. Progress!

Book Four is probably the best season of Korra, and really pulls together all the characters and stories from previous seasons in a powerful way. There's also plenty of room for more stories in this world - about Korra and Asami's adventures in the Spirit World, or about the next Avatar, or previous Avatars, or what have you - and I hope we get to see some of those stories eventually.
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015 03:22 PM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Three - Change
 by Fëanor

One of the things I like best about the creative team behind the Avatar shows is their willingness to fundamentally change things about the world they've created. At the end of last season, Korra engineered one of these changes by leaving the spirit portals open, and in this season the world has to deal with the consequences of that decision. One of those consequences is that the spirit world has encroached on the real world in physical ways, enveloping large portions of Republic City in vines and jungle. Needless to say, the citizens and leaders of the city are less than pleased.

Even more astonishing, non-benders all over the world are suddenly developing the ability to airbend. Airbenders, once almost utterly destroyed, are returning. We already knew that air was the element most closely linked with the spiritual side of things, so this makes sense. The problem is, it isn't only good people who are suddenly gaining this ability. The mysterious prisoner Zaheer (voiced by Henry Rollins!!!) has also become an airbender, and he uses his new power to free not only himself from prison, but also a handful of other former compatriots with extraordinary abilities. Their target, as should not be surprising at this point, is the Avatar.

There's nothing like a prison break to start things off in a thrilling way, and a series of prison breaks of incredibly powerful and dangerous criminals from incredibly high security prisons is even better! It is really a great team of bad guys we have this time: an airbender mastermind, a lavabender, an armless waterbender, and a crazy firebender who can make the air explode with her mind (Zuko has an amusing exchange about the time he hired a similar guy to kill Aang).

Meanwhile, Korra, unaware of her danger, is kicked out of Republic City for not being able to clear up those spirit vines and decides to use her new-found nomad status to wander the earth gathering up airbenders in the hopes of rebuilding the long lost Air Nation. Naturally she's joined by the rest of Team Avatar: Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, and so forth. And naturally she starts making new enemies almost right away! A lot of the new airbenders don't want their new abilities and aren't interested in picking up and leaving their whole lives behind to go train. Meanwhile, other people have their own ideas for how to make use of airbenders.

It's great that we get to catch up with Fire Lord Zuko, and to visit with his Uncle Iroh again in the spirit world. And I love that we get to meet Mako and Bolin's huge extended family, especially their little old grandmother, who's a hoot. Speaking of families, there's drama aplenty when Korra visits a metalbending clan to meet a new airbender only to discover that the girl in question is Lin Beifong's niece, the lady in charge of the clan is Lin's sister, and there is a lot of bad blood between them. We finally get to find out how Lin got that scar on her face, and learn a bit more about what happened to Toph. The original Team Avatar from Last Airbender turned out to be a bit uneven as parents!

And of course there's the usual relationship drama. Thankfully the girl Bolin throws himself at this time (Lin's niece, Opal) is a lot less creepy and evil. And although Jinora falls for a little thief and liar named Kai, he ends up being a decent guy in the end.

Book 3 is my favorite season of Korra yet. A really solid, exciting story with the usual clever ideas, wonderful characters, exciting action, hilarious comic relief, and stunning supernatural stuff. I particularly like that our villains this time aren't just pure evil. They love each other, and are passionate about changing the world for what they believe is the better. They want freedom for all people. The only problem is, their way of going about it involves a lot of violence, chaos, destruction, and murder!

The climax of this season is incredibly thrilling, building to such a fever pitch by the end that I was literally gripping my chair and holding my breath with the tension. And at the end, again things have been irrevocably changed. Korra doesn't just spring right back from being attacked and nearly killed. She is traumatized by what's happened and it will take her time to heal and recover. It's hard to look at her in that final shot, the sickness and weariness in her face, the tear rolling down her cheek. I'm probably going to have to start the next season right away so I can see her get better!
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Tuesday, January 6, 2015 10:11 AM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Two - Spirits
 by Fëanor

All the shows I was watching on TV went on winter break, so I took the opportunity to catch up with one I'd left behind: Legend of Korra! The second season delves into Korra's family's recent past, as well as the distant past of the Avatar and of this world.

Korra heads home to visit with her parents and meets her uncle, Unalaq, who has expertise in one of Korra's few remaining weak areas: spirits and the spirit world. There's some bad blood between him and his brother, however, connected to some unpleasant events in the past, which make things a bit complicated. When those events finally come to light, it drives a wedge between Korra and her father, and between Korra and her adopted father, Tenzin, and convinces her to turn to Unalaq for her continuing education.

Unalaq reveals that a once-in-ten-thousand-years event is about to occur: the Harmonic Convergence. Before this happens, Unalaq says, it's essential that Korra open the spirit portals that sit at the North and South Poles. This will bring balance back to the world and stop the invasion of dark spirits that has recently begun. But Unalaq's plan is darker and more far-reaching than he's letting on, and it will lead first to civil war, and then to momentous changes not only in the nature of the Avatar, but also in the structure of the worlds themselves.

Book Two is thrilling and epic, and a lengthy flashback in the middle reveals the identity and origin story of the very first Avatar, which is really cool and interesting. For comic relief this time we have crazy rich guy Varrick, and Bolin's relationship with Unalaq's creepy daughter, Eska. I particularly love Varrick; he's hilarious. I was kind of happy to see Korra and Mako's relationship fall apart, too; I never really liked them together, and their breakup adds some interesting drama. Another fun dramatic relationship is the rocky family dynamic among Tenzin, his waterbender sister Kya, and his goofy, story-telling, ex-soldier, non-bender brother Bumi. They all have very different personalities that don't fit together well, and they all have very different memories of their childhood and of their father who, it comes out, was not always the perfect hero he's been made out to be.

My only real problem with the season is some of the hand-wavy (to borrow a favorite phrase of my friend Peccable) spiritual shenanigans that occur near the end. There's a lot of back-and-forth and up-and-down in terms of who's got the magic powers and what their exact nature is and where the spirits are and what they can do and so on and so forth, and all the sudden Korra is a big glowing giant. There are a lot of rules to all this that the writers seem to be making up as they go along to generate drama, and I always felt a step behind, not quite understanding what was going on or how. It's possible that I just wasn't paying close enough attention, but I don't know.

Still, the big climax is exciting and amazing to look at, and the fundamental change to the world that occurs as a consequence is really interesting, and the writers do so many things right that I'm willing to give them a pass. This is still, unquestionably, a really great show. In fact, I'm nearly done the third book now, and if anything it's the best season of the show yet. Look for the review soon!
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Friday, September 28, 2012 02:11 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, January 6, 2015 09:23 AM)
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book One - Air
 by Fëanor

(Updated to fix an embarrassing mistake; I mixed up Mako and Bolin!)

I suddenly remembered the other day that I'd never actually gotten around to watching the last episode of the first season of Legend of Korra, the sequel to the brilliant animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (see my posts on that series here). I've now remedied this error, and here I am to tell you about it!

The creators of Avatar took some rather courageous risks when creating this sequel. Not only did they set it years after their first series - killing off most of their original characters, growing and changing the world they'd created in fundamental ways, and focusing this story on a completely new set of characters - they made the main character as opposite from their previous main character as they possibly could. When we met the last Avatar, Aang, he was a young boy with a mastery over only one element: air. He was peaceful, fun-loving, spiritual, a bit shy, and against violence in any form. When we meet Korra, the next reincarnation of the Avatar, she's already a teenager, and she's mastered every element but air. This means she's also lacking a connection to her spiritual side. She's anything but shy - one of the great scenes in the series is a flashback to the moment when the White Lotus society arrives at her door to confirm whether she is truly the Avatar. Though still a little child, she bursts into the room screaming, "I'm the Avatar! Deal with it!" and starts shooting rock, water, and fire all over the place. She's got a temper, and is quick to barge into a situation and start busting things up before getting a complete idea of what's going on.

Korra comes from the Southern Water Tribe, so she's received teaching and encouragement from a now very old Katara, one of the few characters from the first series to survive into this one. (Although really there are plenty of connections to the original series here, and flashbacks to the time between the two series, so diehard fans of that show won't be entirely disappointed.) To learn airbending, Korra ends up traveling to the capital of the modern world, Republic City, to study with Tenzin, Aang and Katara's youngest son, who now has many children of his own, all airbenders. And this is another way in which this show goes in the opposite direction of The Last Airbender. Where Aang spent his time constantly on the move, trying to learn how to bend the other elements and keep out of the way of the Firelord's soldiers, Korra quickly settles down in Republic City and stays there for the entire season.

When we get to Republic City, we learn right away how much the world has changed since Aang's time. Republic City is not a village of wooden houses; it's a real city with tall buildings and cars and steam-powered machinery. This is a world vaguely similar to Earth in the early 20th century. And the city is in the midst of a political and social crisis. Besides being plagued by various bender street gangs (one of which Korra clashes with almost immediately, wrecking a street and getting herself in trouble with the city's police chief, Lin Beifong, the bad-ass, hard-as-nails daughter of Toph, Aang's old earthbending teacher), the city is also under a more insidious attack from a mysterious, masked, anti-bending terrorist known only as Amon. His Equalist movement is gathering many followers and is threatening to rise up in revolt and bring down the government. The members of the city council have different ideas about how to handle this; Tenzin wants a patient, democratic approach, but the slimy politician Tarrlok wants to come down on Amon with an iron fist, without bothering about preserving freedom or avoiding collateral damage.

Meanwhile, Korra is distracted from her Avatar duties by the discovery of a professional bending league and a struggling but talented team known as the Fire Ferrets, which is made up of the handsome, brooding firebender Mako and his brother, the goofy, fun-loving earthbender Bolin (who reminds me strongly of Sokka from the original series). Inevitably, Korra ends up joining the team, and getting tangled up with them in a complex love triangle (which becomes a love rectangle when the beautiful, rich non-bender Asami shows up and literally knocks Mako off his feet). The original series played briefly with the idea of bending as a sport, spending an episode or two dealing with an underground, professional wrestling-style league, but here it's become a popular, serious sport, with a rather complex rule set that you have to pick up as you go along. It's fun stuff.

But Korra's relationship problems and struggles in the stadium begin to seem less important when it's revealed that Amon has somehow gained the power to remove people's bending permanently. How can she and her friends fight such a terrible enemy, when he has dangerous new technology and half the population backing him up?

I was really impressed that Legend of Korra decided to focus on the complex relationship between benders and non-benders, and take on the rather difficult social, moral, and ethical questions that would inevitably arise in a society where only select members of the population had superpowers. These are issues the original series never touched on. Unfortunately, Korra ultimately backs away from these issues, in part by making the leader of the Equalists an unmitigated villain.

[WARNING! SPOILERS!]Really, the series disappointed me in a number of ways. I feel like it would have been a lot more interesting if Amon had been a sympathetic character, and Korra and the other benders had really had to change their thinking in response to his movement. I also think it was interesting to create a romance between a bender and a non-bender, and I kind of wish Mako had stayed with Asami, and Korra had had to deal with that. It seemed like cheating to have Korra's unrequited love for Mako suddenly become requited at the end. I also wish Korra had remained without (most of) her bending for longer. An Avatar without bending is a really interesting concept. How would she and her friends have dealt with that? But instead her power is almost instantly restored via a bit of a deus ex machina (although it is a reasonably believable deus ex machina, aligned with what we learned about the Avatar and his powers at the end of the first series). There's also never really a satisfactory explanation for how Amon is able to remove people's bending. In the first series, the strong implication is that this kind of power is reserved for the Avatar only. How did an (admittedly unusually strong) waterbender get it? There are also some moments of pretty poor writing. The low point of the series as far as this goes is probably a pair of back-to-back episodes: "When Extremes Meet" and "Out of the Past." There are a lot of great ideas in these two episodes, but also a lot of really poor ones. Tarrlok has, up until this point, been a fantastic, utterly hateful character who's brilliantly manipulated everyone around him into giving him exactly what he wanted. It's a little hard to understand why he would suddenly decide the solution to his problems would be to forget all of that, get into a physical confrontation with the Avatar, and then lock her up in his basement. Admittedly, she had been getting a bit harder to control, but he still really seemed to have the advantage over her psychologically and politically. He does at least succeed in completely incapacitating her by locking her into a metal box. However, when Amon shows up and finds her in this position, practically gift-wrapped for him, he inexplicably tells his men to take her out of the box. Meanwhile, he stays upstairs twiddling his thumbs, waiting for them. For God's sake, why? She's in a box! She's right where you want her! And knowing how dangerous she is, why would you send your lackeys to take care of her instead of seeing to it personally? And then, when she does inevitably get past his men and slide away, Amon just... lets her go. For no reason that I can see. He and his men could easily have tracked her and chased her down, seeing as how she was weak and alone and the ground was covered in snow. It's just painfully obvious that all this happened because the writers needed her to get away and they couldn't think of a better way to do it, and that's disappointing.[/WARNING! SPOILERS!]

All that being said, I really did enjoy the show. It has the same cleverness, wisdom, humor, warm humanity, and exciting, well-choreographed action scenes of the original show. Korra is a great character, flawed and interesting, and I love Tenzin and his entire family. His kids are hilarious. Also, Lin Beifong, like her mother before her, RULES ALL THE THINGS. She's so ridiculously awesome. And the conclusion of Tarrlok and Amon's stories is surprisingly dark, brutal, and moving.

I understand there is going to be a second season. I'm curious to know where the show can go from here, as everything seems to have been resolved at the end of this season (some of it rather abruptly). Regardless, I'm looking forward to seeing it!
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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