Sunday, January 11, 2015

a few preliminary thoughts on the end of The Legend of Korra--continuing the saga at the expense of all the narrative rules that defined the world to begin with, and giving the hero the trophy at the end

Still working through the series, still finding it frustrating.  Haven't discussed Avatar: The Last Airbender in any direct way but only got to watching the series in the last year and a half.

Haven't caught everything in Book 4 yet but if the end is what I'm hearing it is that's disappointing.

It doesn't matter if Korra and Asami become a couple at the end of the series if you have to clarify that in a tweet after the airdate of the final episode.  There's nothing inherently unique about a lesbian couple in a children's show.  Superman: The Animated Series had Maggie Sawyer and her partner back in 1997, for those who were noticing those kinds of details.  In itself having a lesbian couple in a cartoon even in American contexts might only be revolutionary if there were any compelling reason for the pairing to be believable.

The problem is that it's not that believable.  In season 1 Asami dated Mako and Korra, who was crushing on Mako, seemed insecure and resentful at not being able to compete with Asami for Mako's attention.  Korra got around to expressing interest to Mako by kissing him, which Mako returned for no clear reason other than that in scripting clichés the protagonist is supposed to be rewarded with a love interest for saving the day.  So far that was so predictable.

Making Asami the lesbian trophy rather than the heteronormative trophy is still making her the hot wealthy tech-dispensing trophy girlfriend.  That's progress?  And if Asami was on Team Avatar what was she there for?  She was less a character of any distinction in the Team Avatar sense from season 2 on than a kind of biped Appa by proxy, dispensing the gear necessary for Korra and the brothers to travel the world.  Korra managed to snag Mako from Asami two seasons in a row and in Book 3 Asami just decides all is forgiven?  It's not that there aren't such women in the whole wide world, mind you, it's that the way Asami lets Korra get away with doing whatever she wants with Asami's love life without any complaint to Korra seems ...

It's like Asami Sato was even more of a doormat than Harley Quinn and because Korra was the avatar and not the Joker Asami was just supposed to take it with gratitude since, you know, the avatar is supposed to bring balance to the world and all.


But Amon escalated his plan to eliminate bending because Korra showed up in Republic City.  Setting aside that there's no clear reason why anyone would be anti-bending in this universe given all the hints at how foundational bending was to the respective economic systems of the four nations, it's still arguable that Amon's master plan of destroying bending was catalyzed and escalated by Korra presuming to arrive at Republic City against the advice of all her mentors.  In other words, Korra seemed to start off and end Book 1 having done more to bring chaos and imbalance to the world than balance or order.  Worse yet, she approached being the avatar from a sense of entitlement telegraphed inauspiciously in the first forty seconds of the series pilot.  And because she's the avatar, the audience is functionally ordered to comply.

By season 2 it wasn't clear what was going to be the new direction.  The avatar is a character and a role that by nature lends itself better to the point of arriving at full mastery than exploring the consequences of having arrived there.  Aang needing to master all the elements too early and too soon for the historically prescribed ideal just added dramatic energy to the expectation.  If the creators of the series had wanted to do a sequel series you'd think that having established a narrative precedent that "here's how this would normally be done but for the problem of Sozin's comet" that this could become the basis of the sequel series. Nope, Korra doesn't just want to master air-bending, she wants to master it on her terms and goes to Republic City.  Tenzin manages to be the Sokka of the new series, emasculated in a few ways and yet unlike Sokka, Tenzin doesn't get to come up with a plan so compelling that a villain felt obliged to thwart it.  After being set up a spiritual and sensitive in Book 1 in Book 2 Tenzin gets chumped to his daughters as spiritually out of touch. 

Book 2 had a central plot that hinged on a 180 turn for a supporting character that STILL doesn't make sense.  If Wong Shi Tong loathed humanity's incessant quest for using knowledge to wield power in the original series Avatar: The Last Airbender why would he have had any reason to work with Unalaaq at all? If he detested humanity why would agreeing to a plan that would obliterate the barriers between the spirit world and the physical world even make sense?  It's as though having carefully established a whole series of internally consistent rules about how their narrative world worked in the original series the sequel series jettisoned nearly everything that showed how and why the rules made sense.  Did lightning use require mastery of one's emotions and refined technique and the use of physical forms?  Mako could be wishy-washy, inconsistent, disloyal and yet still point-and-shoot lightning like he's Chancelor Palpatine or the Green Goblin in comics. 

And the proposed founding myth for the avatar reveals the whole thing gets predicated on imbalance.  Wan caused an imbalance and the avatar's role is to correct the imbalance.  This is actually a disastrous narrative gambit because there simply didn't need to be an explanation for how or why the avatar existed because the avatar was not defined by how he/she/they came into existence so much as what they were expected to do.  Legend of Korra made the same mistake the Star Wars prequels made, which was giving us midichlorians.  In the case of Korra Book 2 this culminated in what came across as nothing more than an incoherent and incompetent knock-off of the end of Satoshi Kon's gloriously weird Paprika.

The problem with the avatar founding myth is it's predicated on some idiot trickster human destabilizing what was apparently a moderately stable world.  The avatar cycle began because some Disney style Alladin knock-off unbalanced the world toward chaos and evil and the solution ... ?  Bond with the good spirit in the good/evil dyad and work to correct the imbalance.  But that just introduces a dualism that an avatar doesn't need to be the avatar and this is where the end of Book 2 seemed like an incompetent and incoherent knock off on the end of Paprika. In Kon's film the realm of dream erupts into the real world at the risk of obliterating the distinction between dream and reality and the world is set to be engulfed in darkness. 

In a sneeze and you miss it bit of dialogue that's important to understanding the resolution Paprika (the alter-ego of Atsuko) observes that there is a balance of light with darkness, of dream with reality, of good and evil and then rhetorically lets a couple of men note male and female.  Having not realized the level of her affection for and trust in the scientist who devised the DC mini, Atsuko (and by extension Paprika) join up to combat the old bad guy (literally) whose use of the dream world to revitalize his physical form threatens to tear the fabric of dream and reality apart.  The DC mini being developed by a man and a woman interested in using the exploration of dreams and brain chemistry to heal people, it took the properly balanced elements to absorb the encroaching darkness and destruction of the old man who was manipulating the dream warping technology for his own ends.
In other words a fully integrated and balanced collaborative being was what was necessary to take down the lord of darkness. 

If Avatar managed to delicately balance ideas and ideals from the east and west Legend of Korra tilts everything firmly toward a modern liberal Western state and vision. Chief among these problems is that the way the original series rose above the restrictions of being a kids' show and an animated one was the balancing of sensibilities and ideas.  The series finale in which Aang figured out how to serve his role as the avatar while also not doing what everyone was telling him was the only way to defeat the villain was a brilliant way to end the series because Aang was not the most conventional action/adventure hero.  He was a vegetarian, a pacifist, a joker, a kid who didn't really want to have to grow up so fast and who tried to avoid fighting. 

And that gets us to Korra, who is sort of like Captain Kirk with ovaries but without having even the sense to listen to a Spock or McCoy.  Now we could say that "eventually" she heeds the advice of people like Aang (spirit world), Iroh (ditto), Tenzin, and Zuko ... but

Let's take some time to look back on Korra now that it's wrapped up.  What's one of the hoariest clichés in the action adventure/superhero genre?  The protagonist gets the hottest woman in the entire narrative universe as a love interest.  What seems revolutionary to those who would like to propose that the Korra/Asami pairing makes sense is that, yes, okay, it makes sense but only if you accept as given the necessity of shoe-horning the end of a series into the most vapid and cliché genre requirements for how the hero is supposed to prevail and, more critically, what the reward for surviving or prevailing traditionally would be. 

Turn Korra into a teenage boy and leave all her other traits as they were and what we get is a standard 1980s era Tom Cruise character.  In fact there was never much of anything in the entirety of Legend of Korra to even give me a reason to believe this was necessarily a female character. And that Asami just settles into being best buds with Korra from Book Three on in spite of Korra having taken her guy from her two seasons in a row just defies any rational explanation unless Asami's only purpose was ultimately to be the trophy who was the Q of the Korra-verse.  And what was done with her?  You have someone with access to technology that could temporarily eliminate bending abilities and has an understanding at some level of tech but also the role of bending in the global economy (which would "probably" be why she refused to eliminate bending) and Asami does ... what?  She was written out of having any truly significant role other than prop reserve after season 1 just when she was getting interesting.

And because Korra was billed as the protagonist then if she acts sort of like Regina George in just grabbing the guy she doesn't want the other girl to have we're just supposed to root for her?  Korra's whole approach was so predicated on a sense of entitlement and status and use of the avatar's power that she brought imbalance and chaos to the world.  Part of the reason the end of Book 2 of Legend of Korra seemed so incoherent is that there wasn't any need for there to be a "bad" avatar to bring chaos and disorder into the world because all the major decisions and reactions Korra had had up through the end of the second season made a "bad" avatar redundant.  She was already fulfilling that role.

Which gets us to Book 3. Zaheer was an interesting bad guy in theory, if not in actual practice, because he was the character who observed that the founding event of the avatar cycle beginning was one of unbalancing the world.  The only real way to bring balance back to the world would, obviously, be killing the avatar in the avatar state and thus ending the cycle. 

Zaheer's plan is explained to us as the villainous plan but the problem is that thanks the superfluous and actually damaging backstory for how and why and who started the avatar cycle to begin with, Zaheer should be considered the hero of the world for planning to do away with the avatar cycle and ushering in a new era in which avatars can't be the ones who functionally rule the globe with their own wishes in mind.  Zaheer never indicates that Aang or the White Lotus society were wrong for resolving the war the way they did in the earlier series, his objection was to what the society and the avatar had become afterward, a group of power-mongers whose agendas defined and shaped the world in ways that promoted class inequalities rather than the general welfare.

And the problem is that if you watch the whole series for how Korra treats her friends and family and the people around her, Zaheer kinda seemed to have a point.

And if Zaheer had always been an idea hatched from the start of the series he would have been the suitable "big bad" to have foregrounding tension throughout the series.  But it seems that the creators of Korra thought Asami might be a femme fatale and then made her a simple supporting hero.  Okay ... but "if" the ideas in Book Three had even existed as far back as Book One building up to a larger idea that bending itself is what has imbalanced the world could have gotten more traction.  Amon's reasons for not liking bending had an emotional/personal appeal but don't make sense in any kind of political or social understanding ... whereas Zaheer's objection to the avatar as a concept make sense.  If the avatar caused imbalance in the world of Avatar to begin with then, yeah, kill the avatar in the avatar state and end the cycle.  Only then would balance arrive.

So for a sequel series the creators have given us a central character who, based on all the philosophical and ethical arguments made by, through, for, and with the characters of the original series, has more in common with Firelord Ozai than she does with her predecessor Aang.  As for how Korra treats her friends Mako, Bolin, Asami and others throughout the series ...  she's not as vindictive or manipulative in terms of venom like Azula but it's as though the creators conceded by the end of season two that Korra was the kind of avatar you'd expect if the avatar was a short-tempered and entitled toddler with superpowers. 

Would Korra be revolutionary for being a strong female character in an action/adventure series?  Well, no, not really.

It's not like we didn't have The Powerpuff Girls more than a decade ago.  It's not like we didn't get a Supergirl in the DCAU who could have easily carried her own series.  It's not like the same couldn't have been said about the DCAU for Wonder Woman or Hawkgirl.  Recently it was announced there's an animated series for Vixen on the way.

Vixen was a fun character in Justice League and could carry an animated franchise. 

It's not that Legend of Korra is exactly a bad show. The trouble is the very title suggests a creative team who has bought into its own hype when many of the most wonderful elements and characters in the original Avatar cartoon were not the ideas of the creative core.  When you find out that Zuko and Iroh and Azula were never originally conceived for the show and that Toph was going to be a boy those are all remarkably huge things for the core duo to have not even thought of.  We're talking about the four characters in the series that raised the stakes of the show and shifted from a fun season 1 to an amazing season 2 through 3 arc. 

A persuasive villain in a genre setting will tend to embody a contrasting value system or methodology to the hero or heroine and the sum problem of Legend of Korra is that this contrast was never convincingly developed.  It's not like Ozai and Aang where the contrast was clear.  In fact it was so clear that the great ending for "The Southern Raiders" depended on the contrast.  Aang needed a friend like Zuko to hear his platitudes about violence and forgiveness and still say "That's great, but this isn't air temple preschool."  and "Then I have a question for you, what will you do when you face my father?"  Aang was forced to confront the possibility and the reality that his whole preferred way of approaching conflict was not up to what he was about to face. 

The villains that Korra faced down up through Book Three at least (and there's little reason for optimism as I consider Book Four) is that Korra not only never got a villain that contrasts with her ideals and methods ... the villains basically seem to share the same beliefs about ideals and methods.  What I want is right, how I want it is right now and anyone who won't help me get to what I want is my enemy and needs to be shoved out of the way.  Oh, except for Zaheer, whose belief that the avatar cycle needed to be stopped to truly bring a balancing order to the world was confirmed correct by the needless and kind of annoying Wan origin myth. 

So even though Legend of Korra isn't quite the trainwreck the Star Wars prequels were it's still a comparable failure of artistic vision and maintaining a coherent narrative world.  In genre fiction you can anchor your story to characters or you can also anchor your story to a world.  Anchoring a story to a narrative world may be more difficult to do and more difficult for non-genre fans to appreciate or like.  It'd be easy to just imagine that the four elements of water, air, fire and earth would be like rock, paper and scissors.  What set apart the Avatar series from being "just" that was that it fiddled around with the resentments and biases of groups for one another.  Many of the heroes are so set on hating the Fire Nation and the firebenders they don't realize until it's nearly too late for them that there are good and bad people in each bending tradition. 

One of the finest stories in season 3 of Avatar was when Katara discovered her ability to manipulate water meant she could manipulate people by controlling the water in their bodies in its various forms (i.e. bloodbending).  We could be convinced easily why Katara would be horrified to discover she has this power and resolve never to use it.  By contrast, Korra never displayed anything other than a plot-required aversion to blood bending even if all of her demonstrated disposition about the use of power would suggest that she'd be fine with using bloodbending.  In fact coming from the water tribes there's kind of no clear reason why she wouldn't have heard this was possible. There's a lot about Korra's character we're expected to find sympathetic because we've been told in advance she's the next avatar.

The trouble is that I found it difficult to actually like Korra or, even when I liked her, to find her motives and actions justifiable.  If Korra were a guy the sense of bratty entitlement would be even more obvious an annoying than it might be for people who think that because Korra is a young woman that she's therefore an innovation in the adventure/action genre in animation. 

Would that it were so.  Giving a selfish, short-tempered, violent person with a sense of entitlement and a propensity to browbeating people into producing desired results "could" be a heroic character ... or it could get you Azula.  Azula's delightfully creepy speech to Long-feng could have been a couple of lines from Korra if she were to describe her sense of her role in the world.  "But real power, the divine right to rule, that's something you're born with."  Just because Korra's sense of what to do with her sense of entitlement isn't turned toward doing the things Azula did in the first series doesn't make Korra's sense of entitlement and willingness to pull rank and use power to get what she wants any less disturbing.  It makes it more disturbing that Korra is presented not just as the hero but that we were sold this series as Legend of Korra.

Now let's backtrack to the part where Korra couldn't call on the past lives in the avatar cycle for help.  Since she didn't seem inclined to do it anyway she lost an ability she was never using.  There's no dramatic significance to it.  What's more in the earlier series what we discovered along with Aang as the series progressed is that the power of summoning past avatar lives for counsel and help was a double-edged sword.  You might find the previous avatars were too limited in their time and place to give helpful advice or you might find that they're all basically telling you that you have to do something that goes against your code of ethics.  Aang had to find a way to stop the Firelord without resorting to lethal force.  Aang was forced to recognize that the way he had to resolve the conflict would involve the use of force and the challenge for him was to figure out how this could be done without killing. 

If the "legend" of Korra was that she created wave upon wave of chaos and discord and giving violence and even evil moments of triumph before she figured out her job was to actually serve the cause of order and balance then the end of Korra simply landed her at the place Aang was already at at the start of the series.  Ending a century-long war that threatened to literally engulf the world in a sea of fire and restoring peace to the four nations sounds like the stuff of legend.  By contrast, the changes Korra set in motion by choosing to do things her way without heeding the warnings of her family and friends was what forced her to save the day.  How was Korra ultimately the "hero" if her heroics so often ultimately involved either fixing problems she was a catalyst in or in? 

This isn't to say that Legend of Korra wasn't an interesting show while it had its run.  That Korra couldn't defeat Kuvira without recognizing her own flaws and attitude toward power in Kuvira's approach, that's kinda interesting.  But even after all that, Korra's heroic journey was ultimately just getting to the point where Aang began in terms of moral and spiritual development.  How was that progress?  Just because Korra was a woman?  Pairing Korra off with Asami by the end of the series just seems like precisely the kind of fan-shipper pandering that creators were glad to subvert in the original series.  Having made a point of never pairing Zuko off with Katara in the first series having Korra get Asami after all that happened comes off like Cady Herron pairing up with Regina George.  It's just not possible to buy this and it seems as though what was being fulfilled was not an organic and sensible character arc for either Korra or Asami but a hidebound genre obligation that the spoils of winning the war for the fate of the world that the protagonist earned is the hottest, sexiest trophy available.  That's not moving the action genre or animation forward.  It's not even anything new to have a lesbian couple in a kids' show (per Superman: the animated series). 

If The Last Airbender proved to be a fantastic, inventive and groundbreaking show it's a shame that Legend of Korra, for all its fun elements, simply doesn't add up to being part of that earlier legacy.  The series that debuted ten years ago was and is an amazing childrens' cartoon, on par with Batman: the animated series for what it did to revolutionize storytelling in American mainstream kids' animation.  But I suppose it helped that back then Eric Coleman and others were around to help guide the series and nobody had the over-confidence to put "legend" in the title.

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