Tag: avatar

Wordbending: On Korra and the Avatar State

Courtesy Nickelodeon

I think I can safely say I was not the only one who went into Avatar: The Legend of Korra with high expectations. Given the rather vehement reaction in the wake of the first season’s conclusion, many people not only shared those expectations but felt the show failed to deliver.

Let me be clear about something before I get into the nitty-gritty of this: I liked The Legend of Korra. The art direction is top-notch, the voice acting is great, the music is very well done, Republic City felt well-realized, pro-bending is a neat innovation – there’s a lot to like, here. The first season was good. It isn’t fantastic. It isn’t Last Airbender, and I think that’s why so many people are upset.

I can see why. The biggest problem Legend of Korra has is in its writing. And the biggest problem the writing has is in its characters. Don’t get me wrong: some characters are flat-out great, and others show great potential. But the show seems to have trouble bringing that out, because the plot keeps getting in the way of the characters’ development. With only twelve episodes in a single season to tell a ‘legendary’ story, things are rushed or overlooked in favor of moving the plot forward.

The problem with this is similar to driving a car with engine problems. You can get from point A to point B, sure, but if your transmission slips, your cylinders are misfiring, your spark plugs are dirty, and your oil filter’s clogged, it’s going to be a bumpy ride at best. The plot of Legend of Korra is fine, on a basic level. But without well-defined motivation and growth and arcs, the characters are just cogs in the plot’s machine. They don’t define the plot by their actions, their actions are defined by the plot. As much as I admire the attention to detail in the art design of the series, some equal amount of detail in the plot and characters would have gone a long way.

For most of the season, Korra is blocked from both airbending and the spiritual side of being the Avatar, due to her stubborn, belligerent, hot-headed, and short-sighted nature. For the record, I’m perfectly okay with our girl being stubborn, belligerent, hot-headed, and short-sighted. I thought it was a great starting place for the new Avatar, a great contrast to the free-wheeling, happy-go-lucky, and friend to all living things Aang. Over the course of his story, Aang becomes more mature in his outlook on the world, more sensitive to the needs and desires of his friends, more in control of his emotions, and capable of facing conflict rather than avoiding it. Korra, on the other hand, remains stubborn, belligerent, hot-headed, and short-sighted. The biggest example of this would be in how these two come to understand and control the Avatar State.

When his story begins, Aang has access to the Avatar State, essentially a divine form in which he has access to all the knowledge, experiences, and power of the previous Avatars, only when he’s under extreme emotional duress. He must struggle to control himself in it, at first, and it takes a great deal of meditation and growth for him to master it before his final fight with Ozai. He learns a lot about himself in the process, and by extension, the audience learns more about him. Korra, on the other hand, is blocked from both airbending and the Avatar State because of her grounding in the physical world and her focus on the martial-arts aspect of bending. The events of the finale leave Korra without much of what has defined her entire life. It is at this moment that she experiences an epiphany. It was, in my opinion, how the season should have ended. The two or three minutes that follow were rushed, unnecessary, and far too pat. They undermined the truly powerful moments that came before. I mean, I was very moved by two events in the finale, but seeing what came after the second one completely defused any emotional charge I was feeling.

I don’t know why they felt this ending worked. I don’t know why some events occurred that completely contradicted what we saw the immediately previous episode. I don’t know why the Equalist movement was so demonized after establishing a very clear situation within Republic City that made the Equalist point of view make sense. It’s things like this that keep Legend of Korra from being a fantastic show, instead of just a good one.

And it is good. Don’t take any of the above criticism to mean I don’t like the show. I do, and part of the reason these things bother me is that they undercut the show’s massive potential. I think that as long as the second season actually develops its characters, doesn’t sweep the politically volatile environment under the rug, and keeps Korra from using the Avatar State to solve everybody’s problems, it will more than make up for this season’s problems.

After all, both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had rocky starts, but grew into fantastic shows. Legend of Korra has that same potential. I just hope Bryan and Mike, the shows creators and head writers, don’t blow it.

Wordbending: On Zuko and the Fire Nation

Courtesy Nickelodeon

One thing that Avatar: The Last Airbender demonstrates along with good character development and a fully-realized world is momentum. After Book 2‘s climax, Aang and his friends find themselves in enemy territory. The Fire Nation is stronger than ever, and poised to bring the war to a victorious end when the comet arrives. Most interesting of all, however, is where this journey has taken the character of Prince Zuko.

Zuko spent the lion’s share of the first two seasons chasing Aang. The young Avatar represented his only hope of returning home and regaining his honor. Banished from the Fire Nation and scarred for his perceived weakness, his own tenacity and his uncle’s unwavering support were all that propelled him forward in his quest. And in the end, he was able to achieve his goals.

Yet, as Book 3 begins, Zuko seems more unhappy than ever. Despite the rewards, the accolades, and even the approval of his father, Zuko is troubled and conflicted. The opportunity the return home came with a high price. He had to turn on his uncle, trust his scheming sister, and go against his instincts when it came to Aang. It weighs heavily on the prince, and it is clear that he has chosen the wrong path. His struggle to find the right one is something to which many can relate, and one of the most compelling reasons to keep watching.

Zuko is also a microcosm for the Fire Nation itself. It would be easy to paint them as a monolithic, evil force. However, The Last Airbender‘s scribes are smarter than that. It’s ludicrous to believe that every member of a particular section of the world’s population all subscribe to the same ideology. While there is a certain amount of pride, loyalty, and tradition that goes with being a native of the Fire Nation, most of the people in it are just people. Even those who have or do serve in the war have families, people who love them, and things they fear.

Aang recognizes this. His own conflict comes with the notion of doing what must be done in order to end the war. Unlike Katara and Sokka, he sees the people and not its deeds, and even knows that Fire Lord Ozai, his ultimate foe, is a human being, and that taking the man’s life would diminish the world and lessen his own soul. He has just as much reason to hate the Fire Nation as anyone, considering their genocide of the Air Nomads, but Aang believes in going beyond that. He believes that the Avatar, and people in general, can and should be better than that.

After the somewhat slow and spotty start from Book 1 and the accelerating tension of Book 2, Book 3 only breaks pace once to my knowledge, and even then it gives us insight on the Fire Nation, underscores Aang’s inner conflict, and allows a brief breather before the breathtaking finale of the series. I picked up the graphic novels in “The Promise” storyline immediately after we finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, and spirits as my witness, we will find a way to watch Legend of Korra without paying through the nose.

We have no cable TV, you see. Merely the Internets.

Wordbender: On Toph and the Earth Kingdom

Courtesy Nickelodeon

Book 2 of Avatar: the Last Airbender is even more tightly constructed than Book 1. As Team Avatar depart the North Pole to make contact with the vast but troubled Earth Kingdom, each member has individual goals and conflicts as well as the overall “saving the world” thing. Sokka continues to feel overshadowed by the two benders, Katara worries about the well-being of her brother and the Avatar as she struggles to master her arts, and Aang needs to find an earthbending teacher, trusting Katara’s natural ability and obvious passion to show him the ways of waterbending.

Earthbending will not come easy to Aang. Earth is air’s opposite, and proves just as stubborn as air is fluid and formless. With the world established in Book 1, Book 2 takes more time to flesh out our heroes as well as the villains and those in the middle, which I really appreciate. Aang’s fear of his own potential in the form of the Avatar State contrasts very nicely with the inner conflict of Prince Zuko, who continues to search for his own identity. Making characters continue to feel new, interesting, and compelling after almost 50 episodes is no mean feat, and The Last Airbender makes it look easy.

It’s not all old business, however, as Book 2 not only sees many returning characters but also introduces us to new ones. Perhaps the most prominent of them is Toph.

I love Toph. She’s Aang’s earthbending teacher, a straight-shooting cynic with an adoration for brawling and a tomboyish streak that neatly contrasts Katara’s more feminine aspects. She’s also called ‘the Blind Bandit’ because, without sight, she ‘sees’ through the earth, sensing vibrations in rock and everything from the tiniest pebble to the mightiest boulder. Even in situations where she’s not in contact with solid ground (flying on Appa, for example), she never expects special treatment for her handicap. Indeed, Sokka often forgets she’s blind. Rather than be restricted, she turns a weakness into a strength, at the very least playing it for laughs instead of drawing attention to it for extra sympathy or other advantages.

And the strong females don’t stop with Team Avatar. The big threat of Book 2, Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, is a conniving critical thinker, a master of manipulation and deceit, and a deadly opponent with mastery of firebending so potent she can focus it into lightning. She is often accompanied by Ty Lee, a gymnast with an encyclopedic knowledge of pressure points which deprives opponents of movement or bending, and Mai, a noble-born young woman with a penchant for thrown weapons that allows her to best multiple opponents even if they’re benders. Not only do they present an amplified threat to Team Avatar, Azula further complicates Zuko’s deepening conflict, often appearing when he is at his weakest with honeyed words that have caused him, in the past, to repeat to himself the words “Azula always lies”.

Needless to say, I cannot wait for Book 3.

Wordbender: On Aang and the Water Tribe

Courtesy Nickelodeon

My wife and I have finally gotten around to watching Avatar: the Last Airbender. I put myself through watching the film adaptation and saw lots of potential for storytelling underneath the surface. I was a bit thrown by the odd juxtaposition of breathtaking martial arts augmented with special effects and some dreadfully bland exposition crammed into stilted dialog. I knew hand-drawn animation could still look impressive, and with more breathing room, I hoped the characters would develop more naturally as the story grew through their actions.

Having seen the first ‘book’ of the series, I can see why it has so many fans.

For a show on a children’s network, Avatar deals with some pretty heavy themes. It begins with a world that’s been at war for 100 years, not a light and rosy prospect on its own. Then, before you know it, the show’s writers are bringing up things like genocide, sexism, and parenting bordering on abusive. With so many heavy themes weaving into and out of the ongoing narrative, your central characters need to be natural and dynamic, people to whom the audience can relate and as human as possible.

Thankfully, for Book 1 at least, this is the case. Aang, despite being a youngster, is a very solid lead for this show. While precocious and not always focused on the task at hand, his natural abilities and easy-going charm smooth over a lot of his rough patches. When things become serious, he never goes too over the top with his reactions. Indeed, more than once he’s shown to possess a rather quiet fury, the mark of a mature warrior-monk with true goodness in his heart and a willingness to fight for his friends and what he believes in.

His friends, at least the two other children that discover him, balance his personality well. Kitara is supportive while Sokka is critical; the sister concerns herself with spiritual matters, and the brother is more of a tactile, even scientific sort. Together they introduce Aang (and us) to their world as it is now, and ensure that the young Avatar has companions other than his small lemur and titanic flying bison.

While Team Avatar is well-balanced and well-presented, it can be difficult to really feel deep empathy or connections to them. Their stories, while well-told, are not terribly complex. Perhaps this is due to the characters of the Fire Nation, specifically Zuko and Iroh, having much more checkered pasts that are mostly hinted at over the course of the Book. Iroh in particular is something a jovial mystery, and when we see some of the decisions Zuko makes as the series continues, he reveals more and more layers that indicate he’s far more than a typical villain with a grudge.

The use of real martial arts in the animations for bending not only make the actions stand out but also underscore the essence of each element. For water, Tai Chi was used as a pattern. The graceful, largely peaceful motions lend themselves naturally to the flow and ebb of the water Kitara, Aang, and others manipulate, and are a stark contrast to the aggressive motions of Northern Shaolin used by firebenders.

More to come, as Book 1 is now closed and Book 2 awaits…

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