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Friday, April 17, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 4- My 10 Favorite Avatar Characters

            We now come to Part 4 of Avatar Month (and the last of the Top 10 lists), where I talk about what, for me, sets the great stories apart from the merely good ones; the characters.  Great characters can make mediocre, average, or standard stories vastly more interesting, and turn good stories into great, or even legendary, ones.  And Avatar, like any great epic, has a wealth of amazingly-written and endlessly interesting men, women, and children filling out the world with the emotions to get us invested.  Some of them are main characters, some are fairly important side characters, and some are bit roles that pop in and out here and there. 

            Like with my Naruto list from last month, since there are so many great figures in this world, my list is strictly limited to my absolute personal favorites, so if any other beloved names are left off this, believe me when I say that no offense or knocks or intended- there just wasn’t room.  I did try to limit myself to fairly significant characters, people in at least two seasons of each series, since the smaller roles are too numerous to include without overwhelming the mains.  I will, however, give two brief shout-outs to Koh the Face Stealer and Combustion Man, both of whom might very well have been on this list if they had not been on-screen as briefly as they were.  Koh remains my favorite out of all the spirits, and as for Combustion Man, what can I say?  I love me some silent villains that blow things up with their minds. 

            As with the last post, this list also mixes The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, so the following names are not just series favorites, they are franchise favorites. 

Honorable Mentions: Toph, Suki, Milo, Lin Beifong

10. Bolin

            To a certain extent, I can understand the dislike of Bolin emanating from certain corners of the internet.  He was clearly meant from the beginning to be the primary comic relief character in Korra.  And since being comic relief was one of Sokka’s chief tasks in The Last Airbender, that meant that from the start Bolin was often judged on the basis of how he measured up to Sokka as the funny guy, and that is a comparison that would be hard on anyone.  Personally, I warmed up to him very quickly, and I credit much of this to the voice actor (P. J. Byrne).  Bolin was clearly written as a more overly emotional, sentimental guy than any of the other leads, and given a lot of lines that need just the right touch to come across as genuine, and not fall-on-your-face silly.  Plus, he didn’t remain stuck in the slapstick role.  He grows a lot by the end, particularly in the very last season where he has to both acknowledge that supporting Kuvira was a mistake and actively work to rectify it, and it was this arc that really won him a place in my heart. 

9. Verrick

            At some point I am going to start a series dedicated to quotes, and when I get around to doing Legend of Korra, Verrick will likely dominate the list.  And how could he not?  At first, his character seemed like a throwaway joke, a Howard Hughes ripoff to take the comedic pressure off Bolin.  He never really ceased to be the least-serious character in the show, but it works, mostly because his lines (coupled with John Michael Higgin’s voice acting, of course) were spot-on comedic gold.  I loved every scene he was in. 

8. Korra

            If I had written this after Book Two of Korra (hell, even Book Three), Korra would not have made this list.  I had had very torn feelings about her from the beginning, mostly because she was such a polar opposite to Aang.  Even though we begin to see a shift in her in Book Three, it is her deep journey into her wounded and battered mind in Book Four that marked the real turning point for me, where I found I didn’t just like her, I loved her, and for the first time felt heavily invested in seeing her pull through.  The sharp contrasts between her and Aang become a strength- the unavoidable levels of emotional immaturity that plagued her in the first two seasons make her development in the final two seasons all the more striking.  I am still taken by the depth of feeling in her final exchange with Tenzin.  It was this profound shift, more than anything she did on the field of battle, that made me see Korra as one of best characters of the franchise, and a personal favorite of mine. 

7. Aang

            It’s hard- really, really hard- to not like Aang.  Look at his big, stupid grin- how can you not want to party with this dude? 

            Okay, obviously that’s not ALL there is to Aang.  He is funny and silly and impish, and very childlike, but sometimes too much so, to the point where he makes rash decisions or mistakes that have consequences later on.  And said consequences are things that the show never shied away from, even in the relatively lighter first season- in just the third episode, on Kyoshi Island, Aang’s refusal to leave after a few days allows Zuko to track him down there before too long, and the village is heavily damaged in the ensuing fight. His journey within the show is a constant battle against his own fears- fear of confronting his biggest mistake in abandoning the monks, fear of the responsibilities of the Avatar, fear of failing, fear of hurting others- and it is through having to face the consequences of his actions that he grows, and is ultimately able to succeed.  Much like Korra’s, it is a journey as satisfying as it is subtle. 

            But even with all that written into your main character, you still want the hero of your fantasy adventure tale to be someone the audience can’t help but like and laugh along with.  So for all the brilliant writing that went in to him, in a way, Aang’s infectious, pious impishness might be one of the most crucial parts of his character.  It meant that, no matter how silly he got or how serious the story, we could always laugh along with him. 

6. Azula

            God, I hated Azula.  Which is just another way of saying I loved her.  Villains will never cease to be some of the most interesting creations in the world of storytelling, and no other villain in the entire franchise- and Avatar has a LOT of great villains- won me over like Azula.  She openly calls herself a monster, but even though we can never be quite sure what led her to the personal path she took- laying it all on Ozai’s shoulders would have been way too simple- we can intuit that’s not all there is.  She’s not just a monster, even though she tries so hard to act like one.  And the results are, in many instances, bone-chilling.  “The Chase” might have been the first great example of just how truly ruthless her drive was, her somewhat-improvised ploy to take over Ba Sing Se eerily brilliant, and her instant attack upon Aang while in the Avatar state, while seemingly the obvious response, took major balls.  Out of all the fates handed out to villains within the context of either show, I found her descent into utter madness to be both immensely fitting, and unexpectedly heartbreaking to witness. 

5. Katara

            As much sentimental love as I bear for Aang, Sokka, and Toph, Katara easily comes out as my favorite of the original Team Avatar.  Fiery, passionate, and devoted to her friends and family, Katara was every bit as strong and determined as Azula, but also carried the heart and capacity for love that she lacked, and that, of course, is something decisive.  As young as she is, just barely older than Aang (at least in TLA), there is a powerful maturity to how she carries herself.  But she is never too serious!  She is still a young girl, prone to immaturities and errors, but these never feel contrived, and like all the other great female characters the show provided us, she never fell into any of the damsel-in-distress tropes.  She was smart, kind, loving, inspiring, and totally kickass, from start to finish. 

4. Iroh

            Ah Iroh.  Who doesn’t love Iroh?  He’s the uncle we always wanted, if we didn’t have one already.  Brimming with wisdom, with the sheer fighting power to back it up, and brought vividly to life by the unmatchable voice acting of Mako (later duplicated well enough by replacements after his death), Iroh is his own unique ideal in the pantheon of older wisemen figures, and no mere Gandalf-duplicate.  And I kinda want to be him when I’m old.  Preferably the buff Iroh.  Thaaaaaat was awesome. 

3. Asami

            Even with the realization of Korrasami at the very end (and, maybe, also because of it), I never got all the Asami I wanted from Legend of Korra.  Unless Korra gets its own comics series sometime in the future (please?), that will remain a personal disappointment.  She’s like an older, steampunk version of Katara- strong in her own way, fiercely intelligent and independent, beautiful, and never allowing others to doubt her talent or ability.  Her self-confidence leaps off the screen, but she is still fully human- she’s hit hard by many of the events in her life, and she allows it show, but she never lets it get her down.  I love how (and I’ve commented on this before), even though Asami is very much the most “conventionally” attractive/sexy female character in the show- curvy, long dark hair, slender, rich red lips, and lily-white- she’s nearly always wearing an engineering overcoat and workman’s gloves.  And not once is her intelligence questioned.  THAT is how you write a great female character. 

2. Tenzin

            From almost the very first time we meet him, I felt like Tenzin was written specifically for me.  Tall, gangly, pleasant but quiet with others, deeply philosophical, and immensely awkward, he seemed to reflect so much of what I see in myself (minus the blue tattoos....for now...).  So, for me, this is probably the most personal of these choices, the character I identified with the most.  Even if the fates toyed with him a bit, and he was never able to play quite the decisive, leading role in the fate of the world that he’d always wanted, he never allowed it to burden him with hurt ego.  In a way, his personal struggle to come to terms with this- that it’s okay for him to not be a second Aang- that was one of the best aspects of the troubled second season, leading to his attainment of a small, personal form of enlightenment in the Spirit World. 

1. Mako

            Just kidding.  But seriously…

1. Zuko

             I know, you’re shocked.  What else can I say?  Zuko’s transformation from a callous villain to a genuine hero of profound personal wisdom is perhaps the single greatest act of artistic mastery of the entire franchise to date (a franchise full of masterful artistic achievements!), an incredible fusion of expertly-paced, spot-on writing and superb voice acting (TO THE BASC).  Its completion of this arc was a key reason I had his final battle with Azula right near the top of my Favorite Battles list.  On top of being thrilling action and being gorgeous to look at, it was profoundly emotionally satisfying.  Add to this his arcs in the comics and his timely appearances in Legend of Korra, and there’s no other character I can picture calling my favorite out of the entire Avatar franchise. 

            With that, the Top 10 part of Avatar month comes to a close.  Keep checking in though, because I’ll have a few more topical overviews of the franchise up before the month is out. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 3- My 10 Favorite Avatar Fights/Battles

            In this next segment of Avatar Month, I look back at what I think are the franchise’s best offerings in the realm of action.  With the world featuring the very fantastical notion of people throwing elements at each other, the creators could have kept things very simple for the animators and just had everyone using standard barroom brawl techniques, with the focus on the elements themselves.  But no!  They went the extra mile to make sure the world felt as intricately real as possible, seeking out real-world martial forms to use as the core of each bending style (if you have not yet, do yourself a favor and look up the DVD special on the guy they found to pick out and develop each bending style for the show- it’s unbelievable).  Even Toph’s entirely unique blind-style Earthbending had its own Chinese Praying Mantis form it was based off of.  Add to that the various cultures and philosophical traditions they took to back up each elemental bending style with its own history, spirituality, and culture, and you have a phenomenally well-thought out canvas onto which you can paint some of the coolest action TV has ever offered. 

            With all that attention lovingly packed into every aspect of the world, all of the bending in each episode was something special to watch, but even still, there were a few particular fights that rise above the others.  These are the ones I was most impressed by.  What were yours?  Feel free to comment below!  Quick regarding the links- it was a lot easier to locate decent-quality clips of the fights from Korra than from Avatar, so I simply linked the good ones I could find.  For the full effect of each, it's better to watch the full episode.  

Honorable Mentions: Korra vs. Kuvira (the first one at Zaofu), Wan vs. Vaatu, Aang vs. Bumi, Aang vs. Azula (from “The Drill”), the Red Lotus battle at the Northern Air Temple

10. The Beifongs vs. Kuvira & Co. (The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episode 10)

            After successfully breaking out Suyin and her family from their underground prison, Bolin and the entire Beifong clan make a last-minute decision to try and take out the giant spirit gun Kuvira is testing out (on Zhu Li, no less).  It’s the biggest (and by far the most impressive) bout of Metalbending we get in either franchise.  While the twin brothers lob giant, mortar-esque boulders over the heads of the foot soldiers, Both Lin and Su jump in to go at it hand-to-hand with Kuvira herself.  Like with most of the action in Book 4, it is exquisitely tight in its choreography, never letting you catch your breath until it’s all over. 

            Another reason it’s on this list?  Toph.  Just Toph

9. Katara vs. Paku (The Last Airbender, Book 1, Episode 18)

            In the last of Book One’s “Girls gotta prove themselves to the boys” episodes, Katara finally snaps after spending an entire episode trying to convince the Waterbending master of the Northern Water Tribe to teach her alongside Aang, attacking him right in front of the tribe’s Chief.  Given that he had been training his entire life, it’s no surprise that Paku does eventually win, but that actually makes Katara’s ability to hold her own for at least a few minutes all the more impressive.  It’s the first great Waterbending battle of the show, but thankfully, it wasn’t the last. 

8. Toph vs. The Xin Fu Gang (The Last Airbender, Book 2, Episode 6)

            In Toph’s grand introduction as an Earthbending master, she takes on a whole gang of hard-bitten and merciless Earthbenders to prove to her parents that she is not as weak and helpless as they thought, and wipes the floor with each of them.  It’s the most comprehensive look we got in the original show at how Toph’s abilities to sense movement allowed her to respond instantly to all manner of attacks, and why she has set the standard for Earthbending ever since. 

7. Aang/Katara/Sokka/Toph/Zuko/Iroh vs. Azula (The Last Airbender, Book 2, Episode 8)

            A harrowing episode of Team Avatar being pursued by Azula to the point of utter exhaustion culminates in one of the greatest team battles of the show, when a frantic firefight (literally) between Aang, Zuko, and Azula breaks out in an abandoned village.  It starts out as an homage to classic Mexican stand-offs (plus bending, of course), and only builds from there, as first Katara, then Sokka, then Iroh (whom Zuko had left several episodes prior), and finally Toph (who had left the gang earlier that very episode) jump into the fray to corner Azula.  Who then, in order to escape, commits the greatest possible sin in the Avatar universe by striking down Iroh.  Oh, you bitch.  I can’t wait to see you get frozen in what, I strongly suspect, is sewage water. 

6. Tenzin vs. Zaheer (The Legend of Korra, Book 3, Episode 11)

            Our one-and-only glimpse at Airbender vs. Airbender fighting, this fight and the episode around it is Tenzin’s glorious high water mark as a character.  Refusing to allow the new Air Nation to come to harm, he directly takes on the entire Red Lotus at once to allow them a chance to escape.  Bumi and Kya join in as well, but there’s no getting around it, what makes this fight so incredible to watch is seeing Tenzin not only match Zaheer in combat, but actually come close to beating him.  When you think about it, this makes perfect sense- Zaheer was clearly an unorthodox fighter from the very beginning, and once he gained Airbending, which almost no one in the world had ever had to fight against, it stands to reason that no one could match him other than Tenzin, the only other person with greater Airbending expertise.  Watching this fight closely, it is obvious that Tenzin only loses because the rest of the Red Lotus join in at the very end, allowing them to gang up on him long enough to wear him down.  It’s a heartbreaking end, but it ultimately made the season finale all the more satisfying.  Speaking of which….

5. The Battle of the Red Lotus Cave (The Legend of Korra, Book 3, Episode 13)

            Featuring a breathtaking final face-off between Korra and Zaheer that takes mostly in midair, this grand climax was the culmination of about 3 straight episodes of the stakes (and the bending) being raised successively higher with each episode of the third season of Korra, arguably the show’s best.  As poison courses through her body, Korra falls deeper and deeper into psychological madness, hallucinating that all her past foes have come back to haunt her, until she lashes out and, even in her weakened state, breaks the chains securing her and pursues Zaheer into the heavens, as Bolin and Mako stay behind to take out Ghazan and Ming-Hua, respectively.  The end of the fight is also a great continuation of the theme in Korra of Korra herself not having the power to balance the world on her own- it is the new Airbenders in the end who combine to stop Zaheer and save the Avatar. 

4. Katara/Aang vs. Azula/Zuko (The Last Airbender, Book 2, Episode 20)

            Preceding one of the most nail-biting cliffhangers in the entire show, this battle within the old catacombs of Ba Sing Se was yet another turning point in Zuko’s journey of redemption.  It was the first time he faced a stark, unambiguous choice as to what was more important- defeating the Avatar, regaining his father’s trust, and restoring his old life, or striking out on his own to forge a new path for himself.  And at first, we in the audience aren’t actually sure what his choice will be.  His choice only becomes clear after a great moment where he stares down both Katara and Azula simultaneously, seemingly taking one last look at everything before him, before casting his lot with Azula.  And it is this choice of his that ends up being the direct cause of Aang’s defeat shortly afterwards.  Zuko makes his choice, and gets what he thought he wanted.  But as they say, you should always be very careful what you wish for.   

3. The Battle of Republic City (The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episodes 12-13)

            This grand ending to The Legend of Korra, and indeed to the franchise as a whole, is the greatest of all the team battles in both series.  With Kuvira set to wreak havoc on Republic City inside a giant platinum mecha-suit, every character joins together to use bending and technological tricks both large and small to take down the beast, bit by bit.  What makes the fight that follows so exciting is how, in part, just about everything they think up is countered by a contingency plan Kuvira had thought of in advance, up to and including freaking windshield wipers to get rid of the paint Milo has the Airbenders splatter across the suit’s visage.  And the action continues after a final plan my Asami’s father allows them to break inside.  Lin, Su, Mako, and Bolin each get their moments of heroism in taking down both the firing mechanism in the arm and the suit itself, while Korra and Kuvira duke it out in the machine’s head, leading to a final confrontation in the Spirit Forest in the middle of the city and the conclusion of Korra’s tale. 

2. Katara/Zuko vs. Azula (The Last Airbender, Book 3, Episodes 20-21)

            One of four primary battles in the massive, epic conclusion to The Last Airbender, this last fight between Zuko, Katara, and Azula was, for me, the most emotional- we have seen Zuko struggle for so long with his very mixed feelings of anger, inadequacy, and frustration with his sister, the one who had always been able to best him at everything in life.  At peace with himself at last, he carries himself with a confidence that we had not seen before, a sense of assuredness that this is what he is meant to do to help end the war.  And what a fight it is, animated with lush, gorgeous colors- everything is set with a deep, deep red, punctuated only by the brilliant blue of Azula’s fire. 

            Add to that that we got a last great moment from Katara- cleverly outwitting Azula to trap her once and for all- and you have what is easily one of the best fights of the entire show. 

1. Aang vs. Fire Lord Ozai (The Last Airbender, Book 3, Episodes 20-21)

            Doing an action series well, and making it part of a larger, greater story, requires that the action itself not simply be pretty, well-made, and fun to follow- there are countless movies and shows that do that.  You also have to connect it to the whole- the fights can’t simply be video game cut scenes separate from greater tones and themes of the narrative- otherwise they are merely distractions.  They must blend together seamlessly, so that the one is not resolved with the other, and vice versa. 

            And for my money, none of the battles in either The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra succeed in this to such a degree as the long-awaited confrontation between Aang and Ozai atop pillars of rock, with the red glare of the comet shining in the background.  It is an incredibly animated and beautiful fight sequence, yes, but it also fulfills a greater role by completing and fulfilling the show’s messages of seeking true balance above revenge, of never ceasing to strive for justice, and of the importance of seeking the harder, more nuanced way.  Aang rejects the simple solution to a grave and deep-seated problem, and in doing so becomes a far better example for children (and adults!) than most action heroes.  And like any great fantasy, it also brings into play elements of the larger forces that shape the Avatar world (here in the form of the Lion Turtle), which in and of itself completes our understanding of this world of wonderful and magical invention as one where individuals, no matter how powerful, and still just small parts of an unthinkably vast whole.  Which, of course, makes it exactly like our own world, leading us to rethink how we may have previously tried to define against ourselves against everything in the world around us.  It made me wonder, and applaud, and think, and cry, and for that, it will always be my favorite fight of the entire Avatar franchise. 

            Part 3 of Avatar Month is now complete.  Next up, Favorite Characters! 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 2- My 10 Favorite Episodes of Avatar: The Legend of Korra

            In Part 1 of Avatar Month, I lamented over the difficulty of having to cut out a lot of great episodes in The Last Airbender when formulating my Top 10 list, as nearly all of them are at least very good, and many more than the arbitrary 10 are truly great.  The Legend of Korra, sadly, does not present quite so much difficulty.  Korra was, to put it mildly, a much more up-and-down affair than The Last Airbender was, with several particularly rocky moments in Books 1 and 2 that held the series back before the last two Books righted the ship and finished everything off proper.  Ergo, you will notice a much heavier preponderance towards the second half of the series in this list than in my last one, although there were a few moments in the first two seasons that still managed to shine. 

            Before we begin, two brief dishonorable mentions, episodes where Nickelodeon’s terrible mismanagement of the franchise had a direct and visible effect on the quality of the show itself.  The first is “Endgames,” the final episode of Book 1, which was perfect right up until the aggressively unnecessary deus ex machine of an ending, apparently written in only because the show at the time was limited to just two short seasons.  The second is the infamous “Remembrances” in the final season, where the ham-fisted budget-cutting of Nick’s upper management got so extreme that it prompted the creators to formally apologize for the episode online before it had even aired.  Ugh.  And now that those two old scars have been itched, let us speak no more of this. 

            As always, spoiler warning for those fools who are reading this without having already seen all four seasons.  Seriously, why are you even here?  Think about your life, man.  Think about your life. 

Honorable Mentions: “Welcome to Republic City,” “The Revelation,” The Ultimatum,” “After All These Years”

10. “The Battle of Zaofu” (Book 4, Episode 6)

            Korra’s first dip back into the action following her 3-year odyssey to recover from her battle against the Red Lotus at the end of Book 3, and just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong.  Even though she has fully recovered from her battle with the Red Lotus physically, and (she had assumed) mentally, we learn that that is not the case, and Korra still has a great deal of spiritual healing to undergo before she is ready to stop Kuvira.  This functioned as a great fakeout climax, centering on an incredibly tense and intimate fistfight between Korra and one of the best villains in the entire franchise.  Kuvira proves definitely that she is far, far more than just talk, willing to go toe-to-toe with the Avatar even though she had no way of knowing, at least at first, that Korra was still emotionally crippled and unfit for battle.  That takes stones.  Immense, weighty stones. 

9. “Operation Beifong” (Book 4, Episode 10)

            The last great hurrah for Toph Beifong (at least, within the shows), “Operation Beifong” is the ultimate dream episode for any fans of Toph, Lin and/or Su, or just Earth/Metalbending in general.  With Su and her family imprisoned, Lin, Bolin, Opal, and Toph herself join up for one of the franchise’s best prison-breakout adventures, sneaking everyone out right under Kuvira’s nose, and then going all-out against her best forces to save Zhu Li from a gruesome, spirit-bomb-style execution.  Even if parts of it do feel rushed, it’s also a last bit of closure for Lin and Toph, a chance for them to smooth over the roughness of their relationship as best as any Beifong could.  In retrospect, it’s not that surprising to see that Toph ended up being so abrasive as an adult that she estranged herself from her entire family, but that made having a hint of possible closure between all the more important. 

8. “When Extremes Meet” (Book 1, Episode 8)

            I liked Book 1 a lot more the second time around than the first, particularly because the mix of traditional Asian instrumentals with 20’s-style jazz in the soundtrack is inspired, but given it’s uneven start and the frustrating nature of its finale, it ultimately still fails to hold the same weight that the last half of the show.  Nonetheless, it was not without its high points, and for me, that came roughly two-thirds of the way into the season when the political and personal tension between Korra and Tarrlok broke out into a brutal bending fight inside the council building, concluding with the (literally!) blood-curdling reveal that Tarrlok (and, we learn later, his brother Noatak/Amon) has psychic Bloodbending abilities far exceeding those that Aang, Katara, and Sokka bore witness to in “The Puppetmaster.”  Nothing in the season up to that point had really pulled me into the thick of the action.  This did. 

7. “Out of the Past” (Book 1, Episode 9)

            Continuing to up the ante from “When Extremes Meet,” “Out of the Past” starts off with Korra being locked away in an abandoned shack in the mountains.  Up to that point, it was easily one of the darkest moments (at least in terms of tone) we’d seen in either series.  She gets away, but not before the stakes are raised even higher when Tarrlok and Amon go head-to-head, and Amon throws off being Bloodbended like it was nothing.  This was, of course, explained later on when we learn that Tarrlok and Amon are actually brothers with the same Bloodbending abilities, but at the time, no one knew that (or guessed, but couldn’t be sure).  Which, for a brief few episodes, raised Amon’s character to whole new levels of terrifying.  Plus, we get to see adult Aang!  

6. “Enter The Void” (Book 3, Episode 12)

            Book 3 was an absolute thrill to experience from start to finish, much of that stemming from the fact that the last few episodes of the season tossed off some of the best, most intense, and most shocking bending we had yet seen.  “The Ultimatum” (which just barely missed making this list) featured the first-ever airbender-vs.-airbender fight in the entire franchise, and things get even more insane in this penultimate episode to the grand finale; Bolin learns to Lavabend, an entire commando squad takes on P’Li (aka Combustion LADY, thank you very much) on top of a cliff, she herself later dies in the most horrifying fashion, and Zaheer.  Learns.  To FLY.  The only that could have possibly topped this episode in terms of its utter bad-assedness was…..well, we’ll get to that soon. 

5. “Korra Alone” (Book 4, Episode 2)

            Mirroring the similar path taken by Zuko in his search for spiritual enlightenment in the equally great TLA counterpart “Zuko Alone,” this was the episode that made me forget all frustrations with Korra’s roundabout emotional development in the first two seasons.  Finally, we see her take stock of her errors up to that point in her life, and really delve deep to discover what she needed to about herself in order to heal from her battle with Zaheer.  The many issues she uncovers, including depression and PTSD, are not fully resolved until later in the season, but this journey is the first step.  Like its Last Airbender counterpart, it is a contemplative episode, breaking from the action for a bit to let us sink further into the Avatar world, and into the twisted mental struggle of our much-beleaguered protagonist. 

4. “Day of the Colossus” (Book 4, Episode 12)

            The merits of this episode are very straightforward and simple- its 22-minute jamboree of every major character left teaming up to use all 4 elements (plus a smorgasbord of technical gadgets, laws of physics, and even paint bombs) to take out the Avatar equivalent of the Walkers constitutes one of the best, most fist-pumpingly awesome bending face-offs of the entire franchise, including both Korra and Last Airbender.  There is no further need for narration.  The key emotional arcs of the season have been (mostly) resolved.  There is just the threat, and the instinctive, desperate response.  If I had to pick a favorite moment, it would be Bolin literally bending a building in half and dropping onto Kuvira’s proverbial head.   But only if you pointed a gun to my head and really pushed.  Because honestly, there are too many cool moments to choose from. 

3. “The Venom of the Red Lotus” (Book 3, Episode 13)

            For all the fantastic bending we get in the Book 3 finale, what makes this episode stand out far more than the also-impressive finales of the previous two Books is the very final scene.  There is no rushed deus ex machine to fix everything like in Book 1.  No Book 2 platitudes of “Well, we killed the bad guy, so everything is now okay!”  The villains have indeed been defeated, but this time things are so out of whack it barely counts as a victory.  The world leaders are openly fretting about the disintegration of the Earth Kingdom, and despite the emotional and visual beauty of Jinora’s induction as an Airbending master (if induction is the right word), there is no pretense that putting all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together will be anything but long and hard.  The final touch is an incredibly tearing final shot of Korra’s face; she seems so much older, so much more broken down than before.  She is finally experiencing physical and emotional wounds that no one else can fix.  No past Avatars will give her the answer.  Katara’s healing powers can only do so much.  She has finally reached a point where she clearly no longer knows where to turn.  It is a poignantly bittersweet ending that fits well with the more ambiguous tone of the entire season, and perfectly sets up the pieces for the conclusion of her tale (or at least, the first part of it) in Book 4. 

2. “The Last Stand” (Book 4, Episode 13)

            And what a conclusion we got.  Much like the wondrous several-part end to The Last Airbender, this final episode of the series (and, for now, of the entire franchise), “The Last Stand” has some of the most starkly impressive bending in the entire show, but also ties together the key character arcs of our main heroes in ways both sensible and satisfying.  This is nowhere else more important than in the completion of Korra’s arc, which, as I’ve already written before, successfully turned one of the show’s biggest problems into a saving grace.  It is in her final exchange with Tenzin that we see her as a fully-realized Avatar, ready to embrace the world in all its complexity, and not merely try to punch it. 

            All that, and to top it all off, the creators snuck in Korrasami in the very final shots, a last act of barrier-breaking daring by a franchise that has made a name for itself out of pushing the boundaries of children’s television.  Was the execution flawed?  Yes.  Does it diminish either its significance or the quality of the series as a whole?  Hell no. 

1. “Beginnings Parts 1 & 2” (Book 2, Episodes 7-8)

            Diving into the origins of the Avatar within the Avatar world is the sort of challenge that could easily end disastrously.  The deep past of the Avatar, a sense of time endlessly stretching back, remained a shrouded mystery throughout The Last Airbender, which of course left such origins up to individual interpretation.  Pegging down the world to a specific story ran the very real risk of either bogging down audiences with too much information (ala Star Wars), or simply ending up too boring or uninteresting to leave an impression. 

            Once again though, Mike and Brian proved more than equal to the task, giving us not just a wonderfully animated and fascinating explanation as to how the Avatar as a being itself came into existence, but also giving us the absolute highlight of the entire show, a pair of episodes equal to the very best of the original series.  Wan, like Aang and Katara, is quickly revealed to be a basically decent but still very flawed person, someone who initially just wants to ensure his own survival.  It is only through struggle, and more than a little suffering, that he finds his way, and in a singular act of daring changes the human world forever.  Even as a short microcosmic story set within a vast narrative, it glows as a brilliant piece of both animation and simply great storytelling.  It is, without contest, my favorite of all the episodes in The Legend of Korra

            Part 3 is now complete!  Coming up next, Favorite Battles and Favorite Characters, this time with the best of both shows mixed together.  Stay tuned! 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 1- My 10 Favorite Episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender

            Picking 10 most favorite episodes from The Last Airbender was no easy feat.  It is a show where a great episode was an animated masterpiece of television, and a “bad” episode was merely okay.  Almost any of the show’s 61, 23-minute offerings could be easily justified having on a list like this.  So which ones, in the end, have the most meaning for a particular person are really just matters of taste- which types of episodic adventures you prefer, which of the characters you loved most, whether you preferred the narratively filler episodes or saved your love for the big, plot-moving ones, etc.  After much thought, I think I’ve got a good handle on what my favorites were.   

            A spoiler warning for anyone reading who has not seen all of The Last Airbender.  Although if you haven’t, why are you reading this and not marathoning the show right now???  Shame on you.  Go get a life, buy the DVDs, and spend the weekend in front of the TV, loser. 

Honorable mentions: “The Drill,” “The Cave of Two Lovers,” “Into The Inferno,” “The Awakening,” “The Headband,” “The King of Omashu,” “Sokka’s Master”

10. “The Library” (Book 2, Episode 10)

             Ko was hands-down my favorite of the spirits, but Wan Shi Tong comes in a close second as the giant owl guardian of a vast, vast realm of knowledge slowly collected over the centuries.  As something of a book-lover myself (some, like my family, would use the word “addict,” or “obsessive,” but whatever) I fell in love instantly with the setting of this episode, and could perfectly understand the desire of the scholar Team Avatar drags down with them to stay there for forever (spoiler alert, he does).  It’s also this episode that really kicks off the best run of nonstop great episodes in the entire show, a streak of almost a dozen consistently excellent chapters in the second half of Book 2, culminating in the spine-tingling season finale, “Crossroads of Destiny.”  But more on that presently…

9. “Nightmares and Daydreams” (Book 3, Episode 9)

            Any episode where Momo and Appa talk and battle with samurai swords while talking sheep cheer them on has a place on a Top 10 list of mine.  Like with “Ember Island Players,” “Nightmare and Daydreams” provided a brief comic respite from the relentless heavy story rush of earlier episodes, working as a bridge between them and the major season climaxes that followed.  And out of the two, this was definitely my favorite, mostly because it was laden with homages and references to past animes, DBZ not least among them, and I am a reference-addict.  That, and we got some great Sokka-induced Schadenfreude

8. “The Deserter” (Book 1, Episode 16)

            An oft-overlooked aspect of Aang’s development as a character in the show is how non-linear his path to mastering the elements was.  In a simpler story he would have quickly picked up one element, then another, and then the fourth, before finally facing Ozai.  And while he does pick up Water fairly quickly, since the style and philosophy of the element closely resembled that of his native Air, Earth and Fire soon prove troublesome, resulting in him having to take a much more roundabout, and therefore much more interesting, journey towards his destiny.  He first picks up Fire, and then vows to never touch it again.  Even with a friend in danger, he cannot, at first, summon the will to move Earth.  He even balks at the first chance he gets to master the Avatar state. 

            It was in this episode where we first get a glimpse of the struggles he would face as a character, that his natural talent and happy-go-lucky demeanor would not be enough.  One of the first steps towards making the show a lot more intelligent and mature than many then (and sadly even now) gave it credit for.  We see him not only make a mistake, but suffer a bit for it too.  Plus, Jeong Jeong was one of my favorites of the older teacher-figures in the show, the right mix of wise, crazy, and powerful. 

7. “The Puppetmaster” (Book 3, Episode 8)

            This is the closest the show ever got to a legit Halloween classic, a horror story of abductions and disappearances by a mysterious, unexplained force in the woods around a small Fire Nation town.  Katara’s waterbending is taken to new and unwanted levels with the introduction of bloodbending, a frighteningly evil bending ability to take away the ability of someone to control their own body.  The mood of this episode is pitch perfect, slowly crafting a tense, uneasy sense of dread from start to finish.  Hama’s design deserves credit as well for making her seem harmless at first, but still not letting us feel too comfortable when she’s around.  Something is off, but the first time you watch the episode, you are hard-put to explain why.  In less than a half-hour, this episode puts the piss-poor excuses that pass for feature-length horror films these days to utter shame. 

            Funnily enough, for a while before Book 3 aired my friends and I had speculated as to whether or not any waterbenders could have power over the human body, given, you know, the whole 75% thing.  Then this came along, and we finally knew the terrible truth. 

6. “Zuko Alone” (Book 2, Episode 7)

            The classic Zuko episode, probably one of the most collectively beloved episodes of the entire series.  And it is a status well-earned.  Zuko’s arc as a character was one of the great artistic achievements of the show as a whole, an endlessly subtle tale of redemption, emotional struggle, and even intellectual enlightenment.  His brief decision to part from his uncle nearly ends in disaster, with him starving at first, and then being beset by a gang of Earth Kingdom thugs when he dares to defend a boy he befriended from their abusive actions.  We already had one part of the burden he carries revealed to us in “The Storm,” the brutal scarring and subsequent banishment by Ozai that began his hunt for the Avatar.  This episode magnificently reveals to us, it fragments and pieces, the other half of his story, that of the lonely, sensitive boy, who is constantly pushed to frustration by the demands of his dominance-loving father and sister, an abusive streak that finally costs him his mother.  He has not truly seen the light by the end- that would take another season’s worth of episodes and then some- but we finally see him in a fuller light as an audience, making us want to see him pull through more than we had before. 

5. “The Siege of the North, Parts 1 & 2” (Book 1, Episodes 19-20)

            Book One was, in accordance with standard trilogy practice, the lightest of the three seasons of The Last Airbender, using mostly episodic threats or dangers to slowly dip us into the wealth of character, narrative detail, and possibility that the world of Avatar offered.  This changed only over the course of the two-part finale, when a fleet of Fire Nation ships lays siege to the Northern Water Tribe, and the gang needs to both stop the fleet and fend off a more diabolical threat from Zhou, who attempts to destroy the Ocean and Moon spirits so as to permanently end the ability to waterbend.  It was a fantastic jump into the heavier elements that would dominate the next two seasons, including one of the most fearsomely awesome displays of power at the climax of the fight, when Aang bonds with the Ocean Spirit to wreak bloody vengeance upon the entirety of Zhou’s fleet. 

            There’s a lot about these episodes that earned them a spot on this list.  We get the first hints of the conflict between Zuko and his sister when he’s hiding with Aang from a blizzard (this was parlayed into an ending shot revealing the girl we saw in “The Storm” as Azula herself).  I loved the way Zhou goes out, after a season of being the primary villain- he would rather be taken by the spirit he tried to kill than allow Zuko to help him.  The giant, Godzilla-esque Koi Fish is impossible to not love.  But the biggest reason is in Part 1, when we get the (thus far) one and only appearance of Koh, the Face-Stealer, my favorite of all the spirits we have this far had the pleasure of meeting in either the shows or comics.

4. “The Crossroads of Destiny” (Book 2, Episode 20)

            Given how far Avatar has come and how firmly successful both shows have been, it’s hard to remember that for about a year or so after this finale for Book Two aired, there were questions marks as to whether and when The Last Airbender would actually be finished, and we would get the entire rest of the story.  This episode had some of the best bending of the entire show up to that point, and was highlighted by a heart-rending decision by Zuko to side with Azula against the Avatar once more.  I felt a literal shiver of terror go down my spine when Aang, having finally mastered the Avatar state, is promptly struck down by Azula.  There was no lower point in the series for the main characters than when, Aang barely alive, they fled on the back of Appa, while the Earth King looked back at Ba Sing Se and quietly lamented, “The Earth Kingdom…has fallen.”  Was the Avatar state gone forever?  Even with Aang alive, was the cycle broken?  With the lone nation powerful enough to match the Fire Nation effectively conquered, how could they possibly recover enough to win the war and save the world?  So many questions that, for a time, we feared would never be answered.  Thankfully, even though Book Three has come and gone, this episode has retained its power as one of the most thrilling and engaging of any in the show.    

3. “The Guru” (Book 2, Episode 19)

            Having now expressed my love for the season finale, you may be surprised to see that my most-favorite episode of Book Two is not, in fact, “Crossroads,” but rather the episode immediately preceding it.  While some time is devoted to putting chess pieces in place for the grand climax in the next episode, this one focuses primarily on Aang’s brief training with Guru Pathik, where he learns the secrets to unlock the 7 chakras of the body, each of which pertains to a certain aspect of one’s personality and self-awareness.  By fully tackling the different types of denial that block each one, Aang is able to attain a deep-enough level of enlightenment to gain full control over the Avatar state, even if it takes another episode before he fully commits to the necessary path. 

            This episode is one of the greatest examples of intelligent storytelling in the entire franchise.  The action scenes and the story tropes of the action/adventure/fantasy tale have always been the main marketing points of the series (“It’s cool because that girl threw a mountain, awesome!”), but what makes Avatar a true artistic masterpiece is how deftly it takes the superficial appeal of great action and a basic hero’s adventure and weaves in narrative depth and real-world spirituality and philosophy.  This episode might be the best, most concise summation of the themes and messages that suffuse The Last Airbender from start to finish- honest self-awareness as the key to true greatness, peace as a product of genuine balance and not the use of simple, vengeful force, and the importance of love as a binding force between all forms of life on Earth. 

2. “Avatar Aang” (Book 3, Episode 21)

            There isn’t that much in the long-awaited final episode of The Last Airbender that I don’t love.  Aang’s unexpected method of defeating the Fire Lord and ending the war is the culmination of a 3-season long tale about, more than anything else, the benefits of searching for answers beyond the easy solutions others will gladly tell you are the “only” way.  I am aware that it was not satisfying to a great many viewers used to the quick fixes to problems that both Hollywood and our politicians love to feed us, but set within the context of a show about the nature of balance, and the difficulties of achieving and maintaining it, the wisdom and power Aang gains from the Lion Turtle are a powerful reminder that, ultimately, even within a tale of high fantasy, an individual person or character is merely one part of a larger picture, a tool of forces far beyond their own control or even comprehension. 

            Of course, this would not be one of my favorite episodes if it did not manage to combine intellectual depth with the best visuals that a great, animated, action show has to offer.  The final battles between Aang and Ozai in the Earth Kingdom and Zuko, Katara, and Azula at the Fire Nation palace still rank among the best animated and most emotionally-engaging of the entire franchise.  Every single major character (and even a few side ones) gets at least one great moment to shine, and every major plot point (and relationship!) gets resolved.  It is a perfect ending to a very nearly perfect show. 

1. “The Storm” (Book 1, Episode 12)

          There was a time after this show started airing when I dismissed Avatar out of hand.  I saw snippets of some early episodes and thought that it just looked awful.  And then, for no particular reason I can recall, I decided to “tough out” just one episode to really see what it was all about.  That episode happened to be “The Storm,” and I have not looked back since.  This was the first episode of the show that I ever really watched, the one that got me hooked and made me realize that I had found something really, truly special.  And for that, it will always be my favorite episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender

            Even though the primary conflict with the Fire Lord and ultimate endgame of the story was established in an earlier episode, I feel that this is where the show really starts to turn into a great, classic tale, where the characters cease to be simple archetypes and become deep, complex creations of writing and voice acting.  The use of parallel storytelling and imagery to reveal the key similarities between Zuko and Aang is fantastic.  Aang has more to him than his childish fun side, and at least one major mistake he’s made that he will have to rectify, sooner or later.  Zuko is not just an angry, angsty teenage villain- he has suffered great injuries, psychological and emotional as well as physical, and he too must face a reckoning if he is to attain any real peace in this world.  It is just part of the beginning of the long, wonderful journey that is The Last Airbender


            This concludes Part 1 of Avatar Month.  Part 2, my favorite episodes from The Legend of Korra, will be posted shortly, so always, stay tuned! 

-Noah Franc