Saturday, April 18, 2015

the reader's bias, or the protagonist bias, in genre work--some rambling thoughts on Legend of Korra, Batman, and ideals about power and wealth

Wenatchee has vented a few times about the problematic things in the now-over Legend of Korra
While Avatar: The Last Airbender, remains an amazing series, it's sequel was a disappointing incoherent mess with a few promising elements.  That Korra was basically a Tom Cruise character, think Maverick with ovaries, was difficult to miss.  She could have been likable if she had some character growth but most of her "growth" was handed to her by scripts that more often than not essentially rewarded her for her vices and punished or humiliated those who confronted her about them.

And for some strata of viewers of the show Korra was loved, while some of those folks hated Toph from the original series.  But Toph could be said to have been Korra if Korra wasn't the avatar, couldn't she?  What made Toph annoying that didn't make Korra even more annoying?  Not being the avatar? 

Sometimes it seems there's this bias in which the protagonist is viewed as the hero regardless of the character defects of the protagonist. We've had anti-heroes around for quite some time now, but the idea that Korra could be admired while Toph disdained when the two women could be described as having similar character defects is something I'm not sure I'm going to belabor here.

Instead I'm going to pivot a bit, there are many folks who didn't like Christopher Nolan's Batman films and who wanted Batman to do more detective work.  I've cooled in my enthusiasm for Batman comics for financial reasons but also because lately it seems that in contrast to Paul Dini's take on Batman or Nolan's take on Batman there's this propensity in genre writing to compose a character who is, by default, interpreted as a reader surrogate.  Batman isn't expected to truly be a character who would say or do things (or not say and not do things) that you or I wouldn't think of doing--Batman is expected to reward the reader for being the reader.  Jeph Loeb went the other way in Dark Victory of trying to be smarter than to have an obvious puzzle solution but it came at the expense of the ludicrous point that Sophia Falcone wasn't dead from her fall in the previous story arc.  Sometimes the dumbest thing you can do in genre is try to prove you're smarter than your audience.  Jeph Loeb's been faltering at that for a while now. :(  More and more Wenatchee believes that The Long Halloween was only as fun as it was because Archie Goodwin was a truly amazing editor, not because Jeph Loeb wrote a particularly brilliant story.

The expectation that we must root for the protagonist simply because gets at part of what made Marc Webb's rebooted Spider-Man franchise so exasperating by film 2.  All the good-will generated in that reboot was squandered and generally in the most idiotic ways possible, no huge surprise considering the second film was scripted by the guys who gave us Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  We're supposed to root for Shia just because he's the protagonist?  Not happening.  By extension, I'm not going to root for Korra simply because she's the avatar if the writers concoct a needless origin myth for the avatar cycle that shows the first avatar to have been a somewhat dim-witted sometime con artist punk whose reckless action separates Vaatu and Raava and necessitates the avatar cycle as an endless compensating effort toward an apparently irreversible idiotic mistake.  It turns out the first avatar was the one who UN-balanced the world. 

This sort of boring origin myth introduced a problem that has never been resolved in the series and won't be.  The imbalance created by Avatar Wan didn't get resolved by way of an avatar refining the discipline and skill and power to re-unite the facets of light and dark, which is what would have happened in an actually Eastern film (like the gloriously weird and brilliant Satoshi Kon film Paprika).  We didn't see Korra using the spirit-controlling tools Unalaq taught her to, say, subdue the spirit of darkness and then reconnect it to the spirit of light.  Nope, this was Maverick with ovaries.   Instead of retaining the delicate balance of Eastern and Western sensibilities and aesthetics that made Avatar: The Last Airbender so brilliant, the Legend of Korra devolved swiftly into the stockest characters, the most clich√© turns of plot, and a pedestrian outworking of a badly conceived though competently executed origin myth.  The stage by the end of Book 2 was set for Zaheer to correctly point out that killing the avatar in the avatar state and ending the avatar cycle would be what would RESTORE balance to the world.  But because Korra's the protagonist ... Korra's insisted upon as the hero.  Korra doesn't win by restoring balance through much of the series, she wins by relying on the nearly limitless brute force she has at her disposal.  In the end of Book 3 this doesn't quite work out and it is left to the new air nomads, inspired by Tenzin's daughter, to defeat the new rogue airbender Zaheer. 

Something seemed to happen between Book 1 and Book 2, which "seems" to have been that Korra went from being the daughter of some schlubby couple in the Southern water tribe to being a daughter of a tribal chieftain.  Thanks Disney princess syndrome?  There's an additional problem to that sort of element, it's that when you stop and think about it it makes Korra's sense of entitlement even more damning and unsympathetic. When Korra vents to Asami early in Book 3 about how she SHOULD be able to fix things because she's the avatar what's she appealing to?  Her status and power.  Sure, she feels responsible for having introduced problems she doesn't know how to fix but she caused those problems by making a gut decision on the basis of powers she was born with. 

This wouldn't be the first time somebody has brought up the matter of power as a divine right to rule

Korra's propensity to see her role as a divinely granted mandate seems to echo Azula's declaration that "real power, the divine right to rule, that's something you're born with."  Korra's practical ethos on the purpose and use of power had more in common with Princess Azula than with Aang.  If the writers of Korra attempted to soften this by "teaching" Korra through suffering the problem is that in the earlier series we were treated to this wonderful little horror story called "The Puppet Master", which showed that some people become hardened and more sadistic in the face of suffering, and learn new ways to manipulate and attack.  This was a compelling episode from the original series because it forced Katara to recognize that a capacity for evil and manipulation and blunt aggression was not simply the domain of the Fire Nation.  Worse yet, this kind of capacity for manipulation and outright control was latent inside of her water-bending skill.

The continual appeal of a character like, say, Batman or the appeal of a General Iroh within The Last Airbender could be this--we know perfectly well there will always be those with vast amounts of power and resources at their disposal.  The question is not WHETHER there will be powerful people but what ethos they will have about the use of that power.  In American pop mythology we could suggest that we know there's always going to be a "one percent" but that as a culture at least some of us would like that one percenter to be like Batman.  This is more notable in the last twenty and thirty years through Batman: the animated series and to a lesser extent in Nolan's Batman where the billionaire is not just fighting crazy criminals but also doing things in his "normal" business life to restore the financial infrastructure and labor market within Gotham. It's one of those things in the classic cartoon where if you blink you miss it but we're not going to get episodes where the business tycoons Bruce Wayne's looking to work with AREN'T ultimately financing criminal operations.  This IS a Batman cartoon, right?  :)  All the strictly above-board and legal things wouldn't make for a kids' show, after all. 

There were nods near the end of Korra that Korra's attitude toward her own power was abusive and controlling but even to the extent that these nods could be construed as a "success" it would be a concession that in terms of attitudes about power and the use of power that the real villain in the series was, to go by the ideals and statements of the original series, that the biggest antagonist in Legend of Korra was ultimately Korra.  Korra could not defeat the adversaries in the end of the series without realizing that in the long-run the greatest villainy she had to contend with was her own self-justifying and often unthinking use of power to get what she wanted for the world rather than working toward the world's benefit.

That doesn't make her a hero in any traditional sense, it makes her a Darth Vader figure who at the last minute decides the Dark Side's not the way.  Only with Korra she gets the trophy girlfriend at the end, it seems.

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