TV Reviews: Avatar Part 2: The Legend of Korra

I didn’t really have high hopes for The Legend of Korra, since it’s not at all my kind of setting. Too modern, a drastic change from the low-tech world of The Last Airbender. However, I had hopes that like its predecessor it would shine in the humour and character development areas.

Starting out, it had great promise! The characters were very interesting—I especially loved the dynamic between Korra and poor put-upon Tenzin. Conflicts were set up: Korra leaves home to learn airbending in cosmopolitan Republic City where nonbenders led by a mysterious leader clamouring for the end of bending. Nonbenders vs benders is an interesting question that was not brought up in The Last Airbender. I was curious to see how it would be addressed. There was a lot of potential set up.

Legend of Korra, however, did not deliver on any of its promises.

Most egregiously, characters simply don’t change—or if they do, as in the case of Lin Bei Fong, it’s more like a benefit handed to Korra on a platter. Korra’s relationships with the supporting cast are for the most part too stable, even stagnant.

The pacing is terrible. The comedy and drama suffer from it; characters are shakily drawn, certainly not as vibrant or memorable as the characters from The Last Airbender.

Korra spends very, very little time learning to airbend throughout the show, even though airbending is the reason she left home to begin with.

The bender vs nonbender conflict is depicted shallowly: Korra has a stance on the issue and never learns any other point of view; the pacing is so bad that what should be a gradual, tense reveal is info-dumped at the climax; and the ending is too easy.

The show seems to show off how feminist and progressive it is—look at Korra, isn’t she so cool and badass!—but rather fails on that front. Most of the supporting cast is male; the two supporting female characters are initially introduced in conflict with Korra and spend most of the season as demi-antagonists. When they do commit to the side, they just do… and their relationships get no real screentime, overshadowed as they are by the clumsy love triangle plot.

You can read in-depth, spot-on reviews here and here that go into the above with more detail.

The bone I have to pick with the show is something apart from pacing and character concerns: the setting.

If you read part 1, you know I loved the setting in The Last Airbender. It was beautiful, fanciful, whimsical. We got a real sense of the world, and more than that, the characters really inhabited it. You could see how certain bending talents influenced things like the construction of cities: in Omashu, there is the delivery system that operates using earthbending. It felt very organic. Also, the sense of a heterogeneous culture was strong throughout. Not all earthbending cities are similar: Ba Sing Se is not Omashu. Earthbenders could be villainous, such as Jet, while firebenders could be sympathetic, like Iroh. There was a sense of community and shared history. Also, the Asian influence was refreshingly strong.

These strengths disappear entirely in Republic City, which functions as a melting pot for all the bending kingdoms. The huge downside is that it basically feels like turn-of-the-century America, and the story takes place in a (large) Chinatown. The originality of bending-influenced technology becomes more banal and familiar. It leads to a very important question that is never addressed in the show:

Why did the technology even develop the way it did?

The kind of technology developed in the 19th and 20th centuries arose because of the need or demand for labour-saving devices. A lot of it was generated by military concerns—which, in the world of Avatar, ceases to become a driving force after Aang defeats Firelord Ozai. Where was the need for these devices in the first place? Bending is pretty labour saving.

Also, the technology progressed really fast. It’s less than a century since the last one. Why? Why was this necessary? It shouldn’t be. One of the anti-bender terrorist (‘Equalist’) leader Amon’s issues is that benders basically throw their weight around and just use bending to glorify themselves at the expense of the people (such as in pro-bending). In The Last Airbender, bending was clearly used practically to help the community. Asia in general emphasizes community much more than the West; this influence was obvious in The Last Airbender. Where has that gone in Legend of Korra? No one ever makes the argument that bending drives the economy, even though it clearly does: one scene shows the firebender Mako bending lightning in a power plant.

The answer is pretty simple: the creators did not think their worldbuilding through. It’s shoddy thinking, just as the pacing is shoddy. They took a unique show and made it generically American, paying lip service to the Asian cultures that made The Last Airbender so remarkable. They did not allow geography and conflict to arise organically from the world they set up in The Last Airbender. In a sense, they colonized their own show by shoehorning in their Manhattan analogue. (They also seem to think that progress is a linear thing, and that our real-world level of tech is naturally inevitable and desirable, which I disagree with.)

In the world of Avatar, there is no reason a metropolis such as Republic City should have appeared. Now, I believe that Aang may have wished there to be a united city, but it should look different! It would not need to be high-tech, because benders would have adapted their bending to approximate what our technology does—and it should look different! The creators could have let their creativity run riot and extrapolate; instead they took a lazy route.

And what of the Equalist conflict? There could still be Equalists, perhaps, but they should be better integrated into the world. The Equalists in the show are never given much depth; and that’s a problem regardless of worldbuilding.

The spiritual aspect that really delighted me in The Last Airbender is all but entirely gone. At the beginning, Korra is told that her spiritual side is lacking. Airbending and getting in touch with the spirit world are set up as challenges for her. But she never tackles them. Instead, Korra and the audience are pulled away for a filler storyline about pro-bending. There is no mention of the spirit world or religion in Legend of Korra. That entire aspect was just… cut away. There’s a hint of it right at the beginning… and then it is gone.

Basically, bending becomes cheapened. Korra is a kind of freedom-fighter, a comic book superhero; being a spiritual leader to the people is not a priority for anyone—in fact, Legend of Korra never defines for either Korra or the viewers what, exactly, ‘spiritual leader of the people’ means, either for Korra or the people. Bending is no longer a discipline that takes strong effort: firebenders like Mako all seem to able to bend lightning just like that. There’s no evidence of the hard work and discipline it takes, which was a major point in The Last Airbender. It took Zuko a lot of character development and soul-searching to be able to direct lightning, much less control it. Here, everything is easy—and the only fear is that the bending might be permanently removed.

Thankfully (not), that conflict is easily resolved—Korra, who spends no time learning to airbend or understand herself on a spiritual level, is magically granted the ability to restore the bending that Amon removed by Aang, simply by feeling defeated and depressed. This is barely explained and then the series is over.

So frustrating! I’ve rarely been so disappointed by a sequel—usually I expect a sequel to be bad, but Korra has some pretty rave reviews all over the internet. People like the show. And I can see why: it’s got slick animation, it’s similar to The Last Airbender which has a solid fanbase, and it taps into the steampunk zeitgeist. But like much of steampunk, it doesn’t ask a lot of questions of its setting. Like why an entire Asian world with no Western analogue should suddenly develop attitudes and revolutions that specifically emerged from Western culture and Western thought. The show dazzles by animation, setting, ritzy pro-bending and love triangles that clearly must interest some people because apparently that aspect is liked. But it had far too many flaws for me to like it much.

But I loved The Last Airbender, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for the next season. It’s possible they could get their mojo back and start focussing on important things—like pacing and character development.

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