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Friday, January 16, 2015

Reflections: The End of The Legend of Korra

**spoiler alert for anyone not yet up-to-date on the ending of Legend of Korra.  For my thoughts on Book 1, click here and here.  For Book 2, here.  For Book 3, here**

             “It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, hasn’t it?” 
            “Yes.  But I’ve come to realize that life is one big, bumpy ride.” 

            The degree to which this exchange between Korra and Tenzin, right at the end of the very last episode of The Legend of Korra, reflects the turbulent and drawn-out events of the show’s creation and public release has me reasonably convinced that it was a deliberate bit of metaphysical, almost humorous reflection on the part of the show’s creators.  They have certainly had to backflip through an uncomfortably large number of flaming hoops to bring us this 4-season extension of the Avatar universe.  Given just how much Nickelodeon succeeded in making every wrong decision possible as far as their handling of this franchise is concerned, I am blown away by how excellent The Legend of Korra, as a whole, ended up being, especially these last two seasons.  This show has been a prime example of how studio mismanagement can directly affect the artistic quality of a final product.  Because of this, I give the Superhero Award of 2014 to Mike Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, who have proven their storytelling chops by taking a franchise that almost seemed to be drowning by the middle of Book 2 and turning things around a full 180 degrees by the end.  Against all odds, they have once again given us something special, a grand tale that rises above the sum of its parts and that, I believe, will be remembered as something truly legendary. 

            I will admit it- I doubted.  After the disappointing ending to Book 1 and the hot mess of a middle act in Book 2, I was not sure that the series would be able to effectively right itself in time.  What a rush of a corrective this year was, with Book 3’s powerhouse of a trailer, the rapid release of Book 3 itself, and the start and conclusion of Book 4 shortly afterward, all taking place within 6 months.  Granted, the circumstances under which the releases happened were terrible, but in a way, that made the superbly high quality of the show’s writing all the more apparent, since it became obvious just how out of their element Nickelodeon was with a show that actually strove to make its viewers think. 

            Central to this turnaround was the fact that, after a bit of regression for some in Book 2, all the major characters started to click at the beginning of Book 3, both on their own and in tandem with each other, and this transformation was most noticeable (and therefore, all the more effective) with Korra herself.  My frustrations with her as a character were probably my biggest issue with the first two seasons.  She started out so cocky and aggressive, such a polar opposite of Aang.  A veritable savant when it came to fighting and bending, she had none of the spiritual or emotional strength needed to act as an effective Avatar.  She was abrasive and sometimes downright unlikable, whereas Aang started off funny and enjoyably childlike, but also already possessing the core of the emotional and moral strength he needed to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war.  Looking at The Last Airbender as a whole, it was fairly clear from the beginning what solution Aang would ultimately seek out to end the war.  All that remained was for him to develop enough bending and fighting ability to match Ozai in combat. 

             With Korra, we have observed the opposite journey.  She always had the sheer physical power needed to be the Avatar.  But at the end of every season, that is never enough for her to win.  As the finale of The Last Airbender showed us, simply winning a fight doesn’t mean you’ve won the war; you need to go deeper than that.  She first has to lose to Amon before she can catch him off-guard and expose him.  Her battle against Unalaq is only won after Jinora is able to find Raava’s spirit and return her to Korra.  Although able to hold off Zaheer at first, the poison continues to weaken her, until she is saved by the intervention of the airbenders.  And the final battle in Republic City against Kuvira’s mecha-suit is easily one of the best team-effort battles I have ever seen, with everyone needed, bender or no, to bring down the beast part by part.  And at the end, after the battle is all but won, only then does Korra go into the Avatar state, to save a life and possibly turn the mind an enemy, instead of simply killing her.  It is a tidy continuation of the final message of The Last Airbender- responding to evil by taking more lives is easy.  Finding ways to live on and build anew is hard. 

            At the end of each of the first 3 seasons Korra loses something, be it temporary or permanent.  Yet it’s through these losses that she learns, and grows, and even though she is still not whole by the end- her connection to the past Avatars is seemingly permanent now- we can see in her eyes and hear in her voice that she has risen above that to become something more.  She's gone from “I’M the Avatar, you gotta DEAL with it!” to “There’s so much more I want to learn and do.”  There are worlds of maturity and intelligence between these two statements.  It is this journey- through loss, through emotional turmoil, and after Book 3, through what is clearly depression and PTSD in all but name- that, more than anything else, raises The Legend of Korra far above most other animation of its kind, allowing it to transcend its flaws and become something very special indeed. 

            Given the success and pervasive love for The Last Airbender, this was a show that took a great deal of chances, and not just with its title character.  Mike and Brian could have gone the safe route, keeping the world in a cryogenic state, with little or no technological or social advancement having occurred since the end of the war, so that everything looked and sounded as much as possible like the original series.  Instead, they made deliberate choices about what advancements they thought could realistically occur over a 70-year period, including radio, cars, modern dress, and flight.  They worked out how the technology would be incorporated into the different storylines, and even thought up ways in which bending techniques themselves would have been developed, including a greater use of lightning and metal.  Even when it came to the music, they worked with Jeremy Zuckerman to find a balance between the traditional instruments present in The Last Airbender and newer instruments (the Book One soundtrack, a fantastic fusion of the original Airbender soundtrack and early 20’s jazz beats, is the best stand-alone example of this).  It was a jarring transition at first, but I value the show all the more for so effectively setting itself apart simply through the use of music and more modern visuals.  It was never what we, the fans, originally expected, meaning it was exactly what we needed. 

            On that note, how Legend of Korra relates itself to its predecessor overall is an accomplishment in and of itself.  As cases like the Star Wars prequels, and in recent years the Hobbit Trilogy show, follow-ups to massively influential, hugely popular movies or series always run the very considerable risk of being so overshadowed by (or over-compared to) what everyone saw years ago and already knows and loves.  In deliberately focusing on a cast of entirely new characters, there was always the possibility that they would either not click as a cast, or would simply not be able to win our affections the same way the original gang did.  Now, whether or not Korra and co. did worm their collective way into one’s heart by the end is, of course, up to individual taste (I hear there is a lot of Mako and Bolin hate floating around the internet), but from the looks of it, more than enough of the fans responded well to the new cast and loved them plenty.  I sure know I did (my personal favorites will follow in a later post). 

            That is not to say that the original series was ignored, which would have been just as ruinous as relying too heavily on the original characters.  Thankfully, Mike and Brian found the perfect balance, alluding to the original tale when needed, and even including Katara, Zuko, and Toph in spot moments, but never allowing them to shift focus from the new faces, stories, and themes they wanted to focus on.  Toph herself summed it up nicely- “At some point, you gotta leave it to the kids.”  I think my personal favorite example of this was the glorious shot we get of a photo of Aang, as a grown man and fully realized Avatar, still doing the same spinning-marble trick and still sporting that big, face-splitting grin. 

            If I had to pick my favorite aspect of the new world Korra inhabits, it’s how politically and militarily powerful women are a complete non-issue.  It is simply accepted, and never questioned or debated.  Avatar was from the start a great franchise for girl characters, but in The Last Airbender we never see any older women in positions of leadership, and we get plenty of episodes highlighting how female roles in many areas of the world were still traditionally restricted.  Here, though, we have, in addition to a female Avatar, the following; a female Fire Lord, a woman heading up the police force in Republic City, her sister presiding over a powerful sub-state nearby, a young woman running one of the most powerful and influential companies in the world, and a queen reigning alone over the Earth Kingdom.  After Book 2, we see that Eska is now jointly ruling the Northern Water Tribe with her brother, and watch as Jinora becomes the first airbending master in a generation, as well as learn of her extremely unusual and potent spiritual powers.  Between Books 3 and 4, with the Earth Kingdom descending into chaos, the first person the leaders of the world turn to is Suyin Beifong, and when she rejects the offer, they turn to another woman, her best lieutenant Kuvira, who as we all know proceeds to not only do the job well, but also develop into arguably the best villain the series has ever had (and now that it occurs to me, it would be pretty kick-ass to see her fight against Azula in her prime). 

            These characters all run the gamut of personality, age, and even body type.  There are several moments that draw attention to Korra’s extremely muscular physique, still something viewed by many in our world as unattractive or even unhealthy.  Lin and her sister are about or at least middle-aged, since they are both sporting gray hair.  Kuvira has all the complexity, determination, and intelligence of an Iago, or any other great, classic villain.  The character that would probably be considered the most “conventionally” beautiful (going by our culture’s standards) is Asami, who is tall, very light-skinned, slender, and curved, with long, flowing hair and full lips.  Yet, nearly every time we see her, she’s decked out in full-body mechanic outfits and workman gloves, and all the praise and attention she gets from others is based on either admiration and/or need for her brilliant engineering mind and business acumen.  This is a show that, even more than The Last Airbender, puts the power, skill, and complexity of its women on full display, not to be debated, but to be celebrated and admired. 

            Actually, there are a lot of topics and ideas that this show succeeded in including and doing justice to, while doing it in a way that never oversimplifies things and never talks down to its audience, but still breaks down and depicts things in a way that both younger AND older audiences can grasp, discuss, and appreciate.  Several articles have already devoted some time to this, so I will not try to list all of them here, but in addition to the truly wonderful variety of women in the story in roles devoid of traditional sexism, I am also a huge fan f how political the show got by the end.  The creators have repeatedly said that they never had a specific agenda in mind, nor do they subscribe to a certain ideology or political philosophy, but there is no denying how many parallels can be drawn between real-world figures, both historical and current, and the likes of Amon, Tarrlok, Zaheer, and Kuvira.  And again, at no point does the series tell the audience what to think- there are several challenging political discussions across the seasons that Korra is never able to fully handle.  We know the villains are wrong in at least some aspects, but since we only sporadically hear the characters themselves explain why, we must inevitably think of reasons ourselves.  And thus, we are brought to think about both the Avatar world and our own a little differently. 

            Alright, alright, now I’ll get to “the moment.”  I realize I have been prevaricating somewhat, but there were a lot of thoughts on the show as a whole I wanted to lay out before turning to Korrasami.  That said, let’s talk about Korrasami. 

            I have read/listened to a lot of views on how this was done, and how it was handled.  Without a doubt, it is a small landmark moment of sorts, and given that my girlfriend and I had started hoping for it during the last two seasons, I am personally really happy that it happened, and that the, as of right now, final Avatar series got to really break through another glass ceiling as far as children’s animation is concerned. 

            That said, I do also feel that it is an imperfect step.  More could have been done to set the relationship up, and I would love nothing more than a continuation of the story in some form that really explores how the relationship develops.  However, I also feel that the flaws in how this was handled reflect our continuing social hangups regarding homosexuality far more than they do any lack of ability or daring on the part of the writers.  They have now gone on the record as saying that as far back as Book 2, they started tossing this idea around.  However, they sat on it until it was almost too late, figuring that they would never get the green light from Nickelodeon.  And given how hard Nick screwed them towards the end, they had good ground to fear getting canceled entirely if they pushed too hard for more than the studio was willing to allow.  And when they finally did ask, they were given permission, but could not go as far as an actual kiss. 

            In a perfect world, free of the sexual hangups that still infest our society, none of those doubts or uncertainties would have surfaced, and Mike and Brian most likely would have done much more to set up the relationship by the end, or may have even started it sooner.  Hell, they may have planned to do so anyway, until Nick heinously robbed them of an extra episode halfway into the production of the final season.  All major “what ifs,” and sadly we will never know what the show could have done in less frustrating circumstances. 

            Yet, in a way, Korrasami is very much a perfect microcosm of the show as a whole.  It is a daring piece of work, hindered in its results somewhat by a bad mixture of cultural hangups, uncertainty on the part of the writers, and patently awful studio slip-ups, yet something that is still beautiful to behold despite, and in many cases because of, how flawed it is.  I think The Last Airbender comes away as the more solid show as a whole, which is largely a case of it being able to build and develop an overarching story in a perfectly paced manner, whereas Korra, by design, was meant to be a series of smaller, more compact arcs, with only unspoken themes connecting them.  It was another daring move on the part of the creators.  Like many daring artistic moves, it only fully works in some parts and less in others, but like all such creative risks, every minute of it is worth watching.  Thank God for this show. 

            This is by no means the last of my writings on the Avatar universe.  Once the rush of awards season is over and done with, I will be returning to this topic sometime in the Spring to do a series of posts about my favorite characters and moments from both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, which will include a bevy of various Top 10 lists, along with my personal thoughts on which is the “superior” series.  Until then, enjoy the coming onslaught of Oscar coverage, last-minute 2014 reviews, and my own various Top 10/end-of-the-year reflections.  Stay tuned.    

-Noah Franc 

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