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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Legend of Korra- A Book Two Breakdown

***note: this post assumes you have watched all of Legend of Korra, Book Two, and will spoil everything.  If you have not yet watched the finale, turn back now.  You have been warned.***

            And just like that, Book Two, aka “Spirits,” of Legend of Korra is also over and done with.  With another two seasons already greenlit, we are now about halfway through this much-beleaguered follow-up to Last Airbender.  I won’t draw this post out by recapping my likes and dislikes in regards to Book One, since you can read them yourself at your leisure.  I also won’t do a point-by-point breakdown of the many, many ways in which this season mirrored Book One to an alarming degree- others have done that far better than I can.  Instead, like with my previous analysis of Book One, I will simply go over what I felt worked and didn’t work in this latest season (a video version of my thoughts can be viewed via my Youtube channel). 

            For starters, I think it’s safe to say that, on the whole, this was a pretty broken and scattered season.  It’s not bad- far from it.  In fact, I still defend this show as the best thing American animation has going for it at the moment, with the exception of perhaps ParaNorman from Laika, Disney’s recent Frozen, and the How To Train Your Dragon sequel by Dreamworks.  But the cracks in this show got real, real big this time around, although the mostly-solid finale gives me hope that, with the possibility of no future seasons no longer hanging around their necks like a millstone, Mike and Brian will be able to right this ship in the next Book, which will be called “Change.”  I’ll dispense with the format I used last time (good first, bad second) and run through the more frustrating aspects of Book Two before praising what I liked about it (and there was plenty of stuff I really liked in this season). 

Problem #1: Way, way too many plot threads

            For all its flaws, Book One was exceptionally tightly written, and that was what ultimately made it work so well by the end.  This Book, which had two more episodes to play around with, tried to stuff in so many extra plot threads and character arcs that a great many ended up being dropped altogether, or resolved as bewilderingly fast as Book One was.  Ironic, given that I listed a lack of filler as one of Book One’s flaws.  For example, I said in my first vlog of episodes one and two that I was actually pretty intrigued by the history of Korra’s father and uncle.  Shame that it was then dropped for nearly ten episodes while Korra ran around sticking heads into Nagga’s mouth, and was then hastily tied up with a well-animated but disappointingly brief fistfight. 

            This ties into pretty much every plot thread involving Unaloq, who is easily the weakest Avatar villain we’ve yet seen.  None of the various threads involving him were adequately completed.  Why did he want to be an Anti-Avatar?  How did he manage to get in touch with the dark spirit in the first place?  How long was he planning all this?  We don’t know.  I assume we’ll never know, since he’s dead now.  He has no understandable motivation like Tarrloq or Zuko, and he lacks the pure evil charisma of Zhou, Ozai, Azula, or Amon to make up for it.  Which is a particular shame, given how great all of those characters worked as antagonists.  Hell, even Verrick was a bad guy for a mere two episodes, and he still made more of an impression than this dude.  Villains, like female characters, have always been among this franchise’s biggest advantages, so to get a villain this bland and so utterly without a reason to do what he was doing is, in a way, even worse than if he’d been straight-up poorly written. 

            There are other loose threads in this season- a lot of them, actually- but instead of listing them all, I’ll just roll the biggest ones into the next point, since that needs to be dealt with on its own. 

Problem #2: There was no reason to drag us back to Republic City 

            This was not my biggest problem with “Spirits,” but it’s a close second.  Nothing that happened in Republic City needed to happen.  They go there to get military support for Korra’s father.  Doesn’t happen.  Korra stupidly decides to try and get General Iroh to break the friggin’ law and start one anyway.  Over in a heartbeat.  Bolin becomes a movie star in a parody of war propaganda.  Cute, sometimes funny, but aside from giving him a good character moment he could just as easily have gotten somewhere else, that also led nowhere.  Verrick’s turn as the bad guy?  Interesting, but also leads to an utter nothing. 

Problem #3: Love Triangle retread 

            This is one of the lesser issues with this Book, because unlike in the last one, it was mercifully brief.  Like getting a tooth yanked out without Novocain, we get one scene of awkwardness with Korra, Mako, and Asami, and then the pain quickly recedes into a dull ache, lingering in the background, but little enough to be ignored. 

Problem #4: Korra.  I mean, Jesus Christ girl

            And here we come to the biggest problem with this season- a main character who succeeded in spending the entire first half of the season pissing me off every time she opened her mouth.  What the hell happened?  We start off with her yelling at poor Tenzin (again) for not being the right kind of teacher for her (again) and thus being the source of all her shortcomings as an Avatar (again), and it all pretty much goes straight downhill from there.  She’s misled by the villain (again), is surly and difficult with her friends (again), and her default response to any problem or obstacle is, once again, a loud and aggressive, “Let me at it!  I’ll PUNCH it!” 

            The only real difference between this and the first season is that her levels of blinding aggression are pumped up to Ultra-Super Saiyan levels (DBZ lore minutiae for the win), culminating in a terrible, terrible scene where she is inexplicably angry towards Mako for not blandly agreeing to go along with her very bad plan to incite an open war, and is then completely shocked when he breaks up with her.  Yes, she comes around in the end, and we finally do see her learn and grow, and establish a real, adult relationship with Tenzin.  BUT, that only happens AFTER she gets eaten by a spirit animal, is punted to the sidelines for two episodes, loses all her memories, and THEN gets shrunken down into a little girl for another whole episode. 

            The rest of the issues with this season I can ultimately get by with (or at least press the fast forward button if needed), but there is no getting around a poorly-written main character, the person we’re supposed to be rooting for through the whole thing.  Korra is still not a bad character, but I really, really hope we’re done with the immature, overly-aggressive phase in her life, because I don’t think the show can handle another season of that. 

            And now, finally, on to the good stuff.   

            And there is a LOT of really good stuff in this season, my above complaints notwithstanding.  As gratingly unnecessary as, well, EVERYTHING in Republican city was, we got some great moments at the air temples and in the spirit world.  And for all the backwards nonsense we had to endure from Korra and the villain, we got some powerful character development from others.  My personal favorites are as follows-

The animation:

            This really goes without saying.  They switched up animation companies at least once this season, but the difference is most notable between the physical world and the Spirit World, which should look different anyway.

Everything with Tenzin and his family:

            For all the lack of development of the younger characters, we got a lot at the air temples from these guys.  Tenzin had several great moments with each of his kids, again being one of the only characters to noticeably grow and learn from others.  I would have liked a bit more interaction between him and his siblings, but at least we got to see Bumi save the day, in a scene reminiscent of some of Sokka’s best moments in the original show. 

            The best of Tenzin came towards the end though, when he is the only one able to realize the secret of the fog prison in the spirit world- the fog only exists as long as you have demons within you.  By realizing that all he needed was to be at peace with himself, he dispelled the fog on his own and rescued both his siblings and his daughter.  It was one of my favorite moments in the show for another reason too, but we’ll get to that in a bit. 

Korra’s journey in the Spirit World:

            The lone episode of Korra journeying through the spirit world as a small child was a lot better than I’d thought it would be after they shrunk her.  It was the first chance that we got to get an idea of what Korra was like earlier in her life, and how going back to that place allowed her to grow beyond some of her earlier mistakes as the Avatar.  How the journey ended- with Korra returning to her grown self my saving a phoenix, and with her sheer terror at failing to find Jinora, was also one of the better cliffhangers this show has given us so far. 

Iroh and Zhou in the Spirit World:

            Both of these reveals made me cheer out loud.  Iroh going to live in the Spirit World “when his work was finished.”  Fantastic.  The guy is basically the Gandalf of the entire franchise now.  And I have no problem with that. 

            However, it was the reveal of Zhou’s fate that really caught me off-guard, because there was NO way to see it coming.  And what a great ending for that character- forced to spend eternity tormented by his own egotistical anger.  AND he mistakes Tenzin for Aang.  Just fantastic. 

The Ending (the real one this time):

            This time, the real end of the season was very solid, despite the intrusion of yet another Deus ex Machina to save the day.  We got some great bending between Korra and Unaloq (although the giant Kamehameha waves lost me for a bit).  This time, it looks like Korra really has lost part of her Avatar self (although I’m not yet convinced that it’s permanent), and she will finally have to confront at least some consequences for her actions.  Finally, we see her grow.  She makes a major decision to keep the portals between the worlds open, and it will be really, really exciting to see how this plays out.  This time around, the finale did not make me want to throw my shoes. 

Beginnings (both parts):

            Best part of the entire Book.  Without a doubt.  Not only that, both of these rank as two of the greatest Avatar episodes ever.  I shouldn’t even need to bother explaining why, but why not?  These episodes deserve to be gushed over.  Wonderful Ghibli-esque animation.  A wonderful return of the original theme from Last Airbender in the music.  Note-perfect expansion of the show’s lore, delving into the personal history of the first Avatar, the origin of bending by humans, and more.  I found it particularly ironic (but in a good way) that the only reason there needed to even be an Avatar was because Wan got duped by the dark spirit, and had to make up for it by dedicated his life to reinstating the balance he disrupted.  We learn why the physical and spiritual realms are separate, and why it’s so rare for both humans and spirits to pass from one into the other.  They are perfect, perfect episodes. 

            And those are just a few of my thoughts on the second season of Legend of Korra.  It was, on the whole, a good ride, and I am excited for the next one.  Hopefully it will take less than a year and a half for us to get it though.  We shall see.  Until then, keep enjoying the site! 

-Noah Franc 

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