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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 6: Which is better, The Last Airbender or Legend of Korra?

            Now HERE’S a question to get the fans riled up.  “Which is better” comparisons are always tricky, but they are a bit easier when it comes to works residing more or less within the same world, since you can compare in a much more direct fashion how whichever shows, or books, or movies, or comics, etc. contrast within their set, fictional universe.  And as a general rule, it’s always the older, or “original,” in a given set that comes out on top, right?  No topping the original.  Ever.  Right? 

            Weeeeell….often, yes, but not always.  Bear with me here, I know many of those reading- perhaps most- are smacking your keyboards (please stop if you are) and vigorously shaking your heads (again, stop, please) yelling, “DUUUUDE!  The Last Airbender!  Of course!  What the hell, man!” 

            If you are part of this glorious, rowdy crowd, rest assured, I understand you.  The Last Airbender will always carry the hallowed, nostalgic air of being “The Original” within the Avatar universe, no matter how many shows, comics, or movies end up being made.  It is a weight not to be overlooked or taken lightly.  But the tendency of nostalgia to soften off the edges of artistic works must always be kept in the back of one’s head when making comparisons like the one I am about to (foolishly) attempt. 

            So how best to go about determining the answer to my question?  Since both of these shows are animated, a seemingly easy point of comparison is the visual style- which show is prettier, or more detailed, or has better-looking CGI mixed in with the hand-drawn designs?  On a purely surface level, this would give Legend of Korra a clear edge, since the vast differences in the budget of both shows was apparent from day one.  There are a lot more details in the backgrounds, the characters speak and move with motions more fluid than in TLA, and while there is a much higher amount of CGI used, particularly in the action scenes, it’s never excessive, and is always expertly blended in with the hand-drawn characters and sets.  

            But it would certainly be churlishly unfair to hold budget differences against TLA, and the higher level of motion and detail in LOK does not necessarily mean the animation is better-used in the one than in the other.  Animation, contrary to what many in the American film industry believe, is not just about making pretty pictures- they can fall prey to being all visuals and no substance just as much as CGI-laden action films can be.  And while the designs and movements in TLA are, perhaps, simpler, they fit the purpose, focus, and tone of the show every bit as much as the more detailed designs or LOKLOK was more adult in its focus, with older characters, so the more serious style suited it well.  TLA, while just as complex and serious a story, nonetheless had a more childish and comical tone and atmosphere, and so having a simpler style, with backgrounds less detailed (but no less beautiful) and characters that used sillier movements or facial expression, worked every bit as much in service of the greater story.  Preferences between the one and the other are, of course, subject to personal taste, but from a relatively objective standpoint it’s hard to argue that the one show was better or worse in its use of the visual. 

            So much, then, for the animation itself being a deciding factor.  What about characters?  A show can’t be great without good main characters.  I’m talking specifically about main characters, since both shows are stuffed to the gills with fantastic smaller roles and villains, and any comparison there would end in a complete draw.  Here one might be tempted to declare TLA the winner, especially given the amount of hate and/or general antipathy that Mako and Bolin seemed to draw to them.  Aang, Katara, and Sokka (and later Toph and Zuko) had an almost magical camaraderie that just about any show would be hard-put to duplicate.  And I confess, I might lean that way as well.  I didn’t really feel for Korra, Mako, or Bolin at first (but I did for Asami- looooove Asami).  They didn’t click for me for the first two seasons.  I wasn’t feeling the “New Team Avatar vibe” until about halfway through Book 3.  Part of this was because of the jumbled writing in Book 2 (which we’ll return to in a bit), but part of it was also me having to adjust to different faces in the same setting.  Which, again, is on me, not the creators of the show who are simply putting out what comes into their heads.  Can I fault the creators of a show for wanting to create new characters for their world?  In the end, like with animation styles, this really boils down to personal taste.  Anyone can find characters they like in both shows, and it is ultimately purely subjective if one show happens to give you more new favorite characters than another. 

            Let’s go further than just the surface level of whether or not a character was just plain fun or interesting.  Tons of shows have fun, memorable, well-written characters.  The GREAT ones pair at least some of those characters with deep, long-term, personal story arcs, where one or more of the people whose stories we experience undergo some great change or shift in their lives, and have to adapt or change in reaction to it. 

            The great arc of TLA, perhaps the definitive character arc, was Zuko’s journey of redemption.  Out of all the characters present from the very first episode to the very last, he undergoes the most dramatic shift in his thinking and worldview, turning from a cold and vengeance-driven youth led by a misguided notion of “honor” into someone of genuine integrity and mature wisdom, and thus reaching a higher plane of honor than he ever before thought possible.  It is one of the key elements of the show that lifts the whole to true greatness. 

            Is there any comparable arc in LOK?  There are certainly none amongst the villains- each lasted only one season, so none were provided the chance to “turn” the way Zuko was (I don’t really count Kuvira here, for obvious reasons).  And while most of the good characters had enough screen time to be impacted by the events of the story, none of those around from start to finish- Tenzin, Bolin, Mako, Asami, or Lin, among others- could be said to have been altered by the end in any sort of dramatic fashion.  Which really leaves just one arc we could compare to Zuko’s- that of Korra herself. 

            As regular readers recall, I was extremely ambivalent about Korra at first, mostly because her character underwent a bewildering regression during the mixed middle act of Book 2 and had been allowed to get off Scott-free at the end of Book 1.  This lack of consequences was quickly rectified though- although she doesn’t seem immediately affected by it, it is established at the end of Book 2 that her connections to the past Avatars are forever severed.  Whatever comes after this, she will have to face it alone. 

            Initially, this doesn’t seem to phase her much.  She is optimistic at the end of Book 2, and as Book 3 begins, she is more or less her punchy old self.  But things in that season snowball rapidly, and she is soon overwhelmed by the events set in motion by the Red Lotus, and deeply damaged physically and mentally after her battle with Zaheer.  When we get that last, tearing shot of her at the very end of Book 3, we’re seeing more than the after-effects of a brush with physical death.  Korra has come to question the very essence of her being; everything she believed was enough to be the Avatar proved inadequate; her physical prowess may never return; her already-tentative spiritual connections seem damaged beyond repair; and with Tenzin declaring that the Air Nation would take over the task of traveling the world to right wrongs, does it even matter if she physically recovers?  Is there any further need for an Avatar? 

            The difficulties these questions pose for Korra are truly fundamental, and the results of this play out across the canvas of Book 4- through a journey of arduous personal redemption, Korra remakes herself completely, not just regaining her physical strength and health, but also fashioning for herself a level of emotional and spiritual confidence and wisdom that we had never seen before.  Ironically, despite her attainment of full elemental control and the Avatar state at the end of Book 1 and her achievement of metalbending in Book 3, it is only at this point that we finally see her as a fully-realized Avatar.

            This is a surprisingly subversive twist on how stories of this nature are usually told.  In most tales of an individual struggling to attain the powers needed to realize “their destiny,” the focus is either entirely on their development of hard, physical power (the Three Lords of Manga- Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece- are examples of this), or with an even split between developing physical power and reaching emotional wisdom (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or even Aang in TLA).  Korra reverses this- within the very first season, she attains all the needed bending abilities to be the Avatar, something that it took Aang three full seasons to get.  But that’s not enough.  And that is the point.  If The Last Airbender was fairly classical in its overall structure and story arc, Korra is almost post-classical- we are beyond the standard shtick of “Individual Attains Power, Achieves Destiny” and are in the realm of, “And What Comes After That?”  It is a fundamentally different kind of journey than the one Zuko takes, but it is no less radical in how much Korra as a person has changed by the end of the show. 

            How this aspect of the story is split up and played out ties in to a final key difference between the two shows, and one that, perhaps, offers the key to determining why some might prefer the one to the other.  The Last Airbender was intended to be a single, grand, overarching adventure, taking place over 3 separate seasons but with all the same main good guys, villains, and story elements, building itself up through 61 expertly-paced episodes.  The Legend of Korra is almost exactly the opposite.  Not only are there slightly fewer episodes (52 instead of 61), they are divided up into 4 seasons instead of 3, and in complete contrast to how TLA was arranged, each season functions as a self-contained storyline, like an animated HBO mini-series.  So while TLA plays the slow game, carefully putting piece after piece into place before the massive 4-part finale hits you right between the eyes, LOK goes for a hit-hard-and-fast rush experience with each season. 

            An obvious result of this is that, when viewed in its entirety, TLA does function better as a single, complete story.  This is partially due to the fact that, while both shows have moments or episodes that are weaker or don’t work as well as others, those in TLA are more easily subsumed by the grandeur of the larger tale taking place.  Conversely, in LOK, since each individual season is meant to work as a short-yet-seamless hole, any failings or shortfalls or mistakes in the writing become all the more apparent.  A few weak episodes scattered within a season of 20 are far less noticeable (and drag on the whole much less) than a few bumped together in a more compact, 13-episode mini-series. 

            And this is where perhaps the biggest strikes against LOK are to be found- as unbelievably excellent as the last two seasons ended up being, there are some major missteps in the earlier seasons that end up being sadly impossible to ignore.  I am speaking, above all else, of the Deus ex Machina that is the very end of Book 1 and the bizarre character regressions that Korra and Lin experience in Book 2.  I am especially torn up about the ending of Book 1.  On a purely visual level, the scene is absolutely flawless, but from a thematic and narrative standpoint, it is fatally misplaced.  Such a moment would have been put to much better use at or towards the end of Book 2.  But that is a non sequitur. 

            I, as well as many others, have gone on more than a few rants about how these particularly egregious examples are most likely the end product of massive studio mismanagement on the part of Nickelodeon, but even if we were ever to get a leaked batch of management e-mails confirming this to be exactly the case, re-exhuming and re-beating that particular dead horse once more is a useless exercise.  The final aired product is what it is, and there’s nothing beneficial to be found in a debate over whether or not LOK theoretically could have worked better had the ranks of the studio execs consist of lobotomized guinea hens.  And simply absolving a show or movie of its evident faults simply because of what could otherwise have been is a slippery slope- anyone ready to jump up and defend the potential positive contribution Jar Jar Binks could have made to the Star Wars universe?  No?  You see my point then. 

            When looking at things this way, and with all else discussed above (animation/visual design, strength of character interaction, and presence of a defining character arc) coming out more or less equal, it seems apparent that this is the final sticking point- TLA has a broader story intimately connecting all 3 seasons, whereas each of LOK’s seasons are each a sort of one-off, and at least the first two have substantial story and character issues in the writing that are harder to ignore than anything present in LOK.  So, debate over, right?  The Last Airbender, purely on the basis of having a more cohesive, collective plot, comes out over The Legend of Korra

            Mmmm….not so fast.  Here we have to consider one, final factor- authorial intent.  And I don’t mean that in the sense described above of, “Well, the author intended the work to be just as good, so it counts!”  I mean in how Mike and Brian openly admitted that, when they sat down to craft LOK, they approached it from a fundamentally different angle than they had TLATLA contains a more comprehensive and more grandeur-filled, epic tale because that is what the creators wanted to make.  LOK is a collection of 1-season mini-series, with only tangential connections between most of them because, again, that was the exact aim of the creators of the show. 

            Just as there are robust debates to be had whether or how TLA functions as a grand, seasons-long fantasy narrative, there are plenty of debates to be had over how well each season of LOK works as what effectively amounts to a single animated film split up into a dozen parts.  However, since the storytelling approach once has to take in each bring different needs to the table, measuring the success of the one versus the success of the another is a bit of a non-starter right from the get-to.  And once again, we find ourselves having to step back down to the personal and subjective level.  An individual viewer will like TLA if it fits with what they like to see in larger stories, and they will like LOK if it hits the notes they like to see in a collection of mini-series.  As with everything else, since this aspect of how both TLA and LOK differ not so much in terms of quality than in authorial intent and purpose, an attempt at a direct comparison once again seems fruitless. 

            What, then, was the point of this little thought exercise?  Why even bother delving into the differences between the two shows if there ultimately isn’t any effective way to claim that one of them is objectively better than the other? 

            Even though it may be fair to say that pure objectivity doesn’t exist, I would argue that taking the time for comparisons like this can still be immensely beneficial simply because doing so requires us to reconsider what we expect from different types of storytelling.  By simply thinking through in greater detail why we think the way we do, even if our minds never change, we are left with a fuller and deeper comprehension of the why.  And that is always something to be cherished. 

            And as it relates to the Avatar world, it is yet another reminder of just how wondrously diverse the experiences the shows have brought us are.  Endlessly malleable world like this one, or the Star Wars or Star Trek universes, are some of the greatest cultural gemstones to come out of human creativity over the past few generations, and by reinforcing for ourselves and for others just what makes them so special will only strengthen their influence and staying power.  Of which I stand wholeheartedly in favor. 

            This concludes by multiple-post look-back at the wonderful Avatar world that, for over a decade now, has come to mean so much to each of us, and will no doubt continue to do so years and years to come.  I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

-Noah Franc

**For Part 1 of Avatar Month, click here

**For Part 2 of Avatar Month, click here

**For Part 3 of Avatar Month, click here

**For Part 4 of Avatar Month, click here

**For Part 5 of Avatar Month, click here  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review- Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Written and directed by Joss Whedon.  Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, your dog, your mother, and your grandmother.  Yes, yours.  Running Time: 141 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4 

            Comic fanboys (and girls!) are howling with delight, hipster film snobs are mewling contempt, those who don’t care….still don’t care, even more massive bags of profit have been added to the Official Disney Money Mountain (roller coaster tickets now on sale), and plus it’s now the lusty month of May.  Or to put it another way- a new entry into the Marvel Avengers canon is out in theaters!  All hail the Marvel Cloud!   

            And this is not just any Marvel movie.  Age of Ultron is the long, long, long awaited successor to the groundbreaking first Avengers movie, which not only did to the box office what the Hulk did to Loki, but also set a wholly new precedent ala LOTR and Harry Potter in terms of how big-budget, tent-pole blockbuster films are made.  Whether you loved it, hated it, or found it somewhat overrated, the simple fact of the matter is that every superhero made since, especially Marvel ones, enter the public gaze beneath its immensely long shadow.  Which begs the inevitable question; can Age of Ultron in any measure live up to the immense expectations set by its predecessor? 

            The answer to that question depends almost entirely on your attitude towards both the Marvel movies as a set and the plethora of recent superhero/comic book movies overall, and whether or not you can accept the current, heavily flawed environment these films are made in.  It will also depend on how committed you are to keeping up with the next wave of films slated to come out over the next 5-6 years.  Most of the previous films (even the first Avengers) can be enjoyed by newcomers without prior understanding of all the minutiae established in the other connecting movies, but that will very soon cease to be the case.  Age of Ultron is ultimately nothing more than an interlude, a pit stop between the first and second phase of this now immensely expansive cinematic universe, providing the first signs of the old guard slowly giving way to the new, and the growing pains show.  If you are on board already, and are only here for relaxing fun times, then come on in.  If not, save your money for Tomorrowland, because nobody will bother welcoming you here.  

            Ah well.  Even if it just an interlude, the relative calm before the expected insanity that Infinity Wars has been built up to be (with this film’s credits including yet another punishing cocktease), is it at least a fun and diverting interlude?  Oh yes, very much indeed, made so primarily through the presence of James Spader’s smooth, silky, Goddamn-sexy purr of a voice. 
            But first, the plot synopsis; the Avengers, it would seem, have banded back together following the massive revelations of last year’s The Winter Soldier to sniff out the remaining Hydra bases around the world, one of which they believe contains Loki’s scepter.  The opening is a brisk action set, brought down somewhat by a brief episode of the Shaky Cams, after which our heroes find the scepter and take it back to Stark’s tower in New York.  Spurred on by a nightmarish vision of his friend’s deaths implanted in his mind by the vaguely-psychic Wanda Maximoff (one of a set of super-human twins created by Hydra to be a counterweight to the Avengers squad- the other is her brother Pietro, who has superspeed), Tony decides the few days he has before Thor leaves for Asgard to harness the scepter’s immense power to create an AI defense program he’d been brainstorming with Bruce Banner called Ultron, which would, in theory, one day make the Avengers Initiative unnecessary. 

            If you think it’s a spoiler for me to say that their plan goes wrong literally seconds after Ultron’s creation, you need to see more movies.  Ultron “embraces” his programmed purpose (creating world peace) with a little too much enthusiasm, coming very quickly to the conclusion that peace is best maintained where there are no humans around to muck it up, and he soon enlists the aid of the Twins who bear their own personal grudge against Tony Stark) in devising a scheme to simultaneously destroy the Avengers and (unbeknownst to them at first) destroy all life on Earth.  If there has been a consistent Achilles Heel in this franchise, it has been the paucity of decent villains to liven things up, but despite being limited to just this one film, Spader gives Loki a run for his money.  His Ultron shifts constantly between being threatening, arrogant, forgetful, psychotic, and hilariously hammy, and if I had wished for one thing from this movie, it would have been to have at least a few more scenes of him chewing up the screen. 

            The finale this all builds up to isn’t quite the level of Awesome Pants the climax of the first movie is, mostly because it too features the Avengers exclusively plowing through wave after wave of samey, faceless machine baddies.  Not that it isn’t every bit as entertaining as I’d hoped- my only wish when I go see these types of movies is to feel compelled to put on a goofy, fun-loving grin by the end, and the film’s flaws aside, I was all smiles as I headed for the bus home. 

            As noted though, there are some growing pains within the franchise that rear their heads here, with the biggest being a much more packed screenplay- with all the named characters with superpowers now introduced, the cast of these films is only going to get more and more crowded.  Avengers had just the right amount- with 4 main characters having had past movies to set up their characters, plus two side ones, the interplay between each of them was pretty cozy, with more than enough time for each character to meet their allotted one-liner quota without one or two overshadowing the rest.  For all of its plot and story issues it was actually a relatively tight work, flowing very smoothly from start to finish. 

            Here, though, we have an awful lot of new faces popping up, with more promised to come- the Twins you know from the trailers, and they are later joined by a third new Avenger, whose identity I will not divulge here since they cleverly kept it out of the film’s marketing entirely .  We also have several appearances by Falcon and War Machine, with the ending indicating that they will be front-and-center teammates in the Avengers by the next movie (on that day, perhaps, I will no longer have cause to lament War Machine’s underuse….but not today).  This makes for a lot of rough edges within the film itself, as it has to cut back and forth between characters and locations a lot more than it had to before, and the stretch marks are fairly obvious (especially since Whedon has confirmed he had to cut a fair bit from the final product).  When taken together with the fact that at least one of the old characters is stepping out for good (oh no, not saying who), all indicators seem to be that Marvel is preparing to charge right into the biggest question surrounding the future of this franchise- can these movies move beyond the original cast, a magical mix of character actors who mesh excellently with each other, and still achieve box-office success?  And will we finally get some long-overdue racial and gender diversity in our main cast, or will the characters with the most story attention and screen time continue to be white men? 

            We won’t really know until the next full-blown Avengers film comes out in….2057, I guess.  For now, I am content with the rides we are getting.  These are not deep movies.  These characters are fun, funny, charming, and certainly iconic, but there are no Charles Kanes to be found amongst them.  The action is brisk, exciting, and shows the best in special effects technology we currently possess, but the fights have been getting more and more repetitive.  So these are not “great” films in the classic sense. 

            But there is a quiet earnestness in many of them that shines through, even though they are transparent commercial vehicles for huge corporate conglomerations.  There is an abiding sense of fun in ever the lesser works of the set, and that is still here in spades.  Perhaps the day will come when even the people making these movies tire of the repetitive action beats, and the bottom will surely fall out of this particular bubble at some point.  For now, that day still lies in the future.  For now, these movies are still simple exercises in childlike- and sometimes childish- fun.  And that is its own form of greatness. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 5- Meditation and Spirituality in the Avatar Universe

“Do you understand?  The spirits will always have a place in this world, as long as you- and humans like you- create one for us.”

“But how can you be sure we’ll do that?  How can you know?” 

“I don’t know, young Avatar.  I hope.” 

-Lady Tenhai speaking with Aang in Avatar: The Rift (Part 3)

            We live in skeptical times.  We are seeing a profound shift in our popular consciousness towards scientific reasoning, and hard facts, as the preferred basis of thought and public policy.  The benefits of this are countless, and beyond quantifiable value- silly, unhealthy, and even downright destructive superstitions are vanishing piecemeal throughout the world, it is becoming easier than ever before to collect and add to the vast pool of knowledge that humanity has collected over the course of our existence, and our ability to understand the fundamental laws of nature and the universe has exploded to levels previously unknown. 

            But something can easily be lost (indeed, is being lost) in this rapid transitional process- the importance of spirituality to a healthy and full existence, from the individual to the collective level.  With so much of our focus these days on the external proof of the senses, trying to live spiritually in accordance with religious or faith practices is dismissed by many as frivolous, or childish, or ignorant, or simply useless.  Religion and faith, we are told, are things dead or dying, no longer fit for a modern world.  Faith or philosophical doctrines are at best quant, and at worst, destructive.  Therefore, best to slowly remove such things from our popular consciousness. 

            Avatar, in both its concept and its execution in TV show/comic book form, rejects this as something positive or inevitable.  At its innermost core, Avatar is more than just a series of coming-of-age hero adventures with a wacky bunch of teens, their kids, and their grandkids in a realm of animated fantasy.   It is that rare example of something successful, popular, profitable, and mainstream that beats against the current of the times, that dares to say that cultivating a spiritual philosophy and resolutely holding on to hope and optimism, no matter how dark the times, is not only important and helpful, but is indeed essential if we genuinely wish to see a better tomorrow. 

             Given the wealth of spiritual material worked into every level of the film, from the broad strokes of the plot to the tiniest features in the artistic designs and lore of the world, a full tackling of the religious/philosophical material in the show could easily fill several semesters’ worth of college seminars, but for now, let’s consider one particular spiritual practice that takes center stage throughout much of both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra; meditation. 

            Meditation serves a number of crucial purposes within the Avatar world, with perhaps the biggest one being that it is the primary method for the Avatar to travel back and forth between the spiritual and physical world.  Since there are only a handful of direct portals between the worlds, when the need is great enough, the Avatar must sit down where they are, be present in the world, and go deep within to enter into the other realm.  This is not just something the shows treat as a side detail- it is often an absolute necessity for Aang and Korra to retreat from the human world for a time to seek answers for their troubles.  I am thinking especially of Aang’s visit to the Koi Fish during the siege of the North and his encounter with the lion turtle (preceded by an extended round of meditation) just before the arrival of Sozin’s comet in TLA, and Korra’s struggles to find her own inner connection with the spirits in Books 2 and 4 of LoK

            Think about how drastically at odds this approach is to not just American animation, but American visual media in general; even in the thick of a battle, our heroes often realize there is a need to not throw themselves into the fray just yet, and that a better solution (or better help) could be just around the corner if they take a few more moments to seek it out within the greater connection of the two realms of the Avatar world.  Just hopping in and busting heads isn’t enough.  Doing so requires patience, mindfulness, and a strong spiritual connection with the greater universe, and having these qualities at the forefront of the story sets it far, far apart from the hectic, animated climaxes of so many of the superhero shows and movies currently clogging our cinemas. 

            But the show brings in meditation in other ways as well, especially in The Last Airbender.  Aang is a kid, impish, impulsive, and fun, but also a spiritual nomad trained in various meditative practices, and we see him utilize them constantly, not just for emergencies or official Avatar business.  He uses them often just to deal with daily frustrations or negative emotions, or to try to sort through emotional turmoil.  It is not an abandonment of the outside world, or a way to repress or cast out emotions, but simply a way for him to handle everything more constructively, to hold himself back a bit when he senses his first instincts might not be the right ones to follow.  And, above all, it is his way of constantly refreshing his spiritual connection to the world around him, how he comes to peace with everything in his life. 

            The most refined example of this is found in “The Guru,” already on the record as one of my favorite Avatar episodes of all time.  Aang is taken through a series of intense meditative practices to unlock the power of each of 7 chakras of the human body and psyche.  Chakras that, by the by, aren’t just thought-up fantasy powers ala the chakra in Naruto, they actually exist and are studied extensively.  Each of them deals with a different spiritual aspect of a person, and to unlock each one, Aang has to delve deep within himself to identify the core qualities and characteristics of his being.  This includes the bad, his fears and regrets and worries, but also requires in equal measure identification of the good- his loves, his hopes, and his confidence.  It’s the closest the show gets to having a single, unified religious philosophy, even though the creators have gone on record as saying they never tried to create such a thing, because it touches on just about all of the core things living a life of faith and spirituality requires- openness to the bad and the good inside oneself, having the wisdom and sight to identify which is which, and finding within this journey the strength to do the right thing. 

            There’s another aspect to how meditation and spiritual elements are used in Avatar I’d like to call attention to briefly- how they can be used to strengthen optimism and hope, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds.  The quote I included at the beginning of this post, found towards the very end of Part 3 of The Rift, is a key example of this; the story of this particular graphic novel revolves partially around the struggle to reconcile the oncoming tide of modernity and change with the timeless need to find room for (and, of course, balance with) the spirits and their world. 

            At the time of this exchange, one spirit, Old Iron, has abandoned his ancient form, convinced that the age of spirits is over and that they no longer have a place in the world of humans, directly accusing Aang (and, by extension, the entire existence of the Avatar) of facilitating this by always siding with the interests of humans over those of spirits.  Aang, taught to revere the spirits by both the air nomads and his training as the Avatar, is distraught and worried by this, wondering if what the old spirit says may be true.  However, another spirit, that of the Lady Tenhai, appears to him and says that she believes that the other spirit is wrong- there IS still a place for spirits alongside humans, and vice versa, and even though the connections between the two are often broken or harmed by human error or arrogance, they can always be repaired and rebuilt, even if a beneficial and balanced outcome is never guaranteed.   

            That last point is one of the best examples I can think of that testify to the brilliance of the storytelling we’ve gotten from both the shows and the comics over the past 10 years.  Avatar deals with a lot of heavy, complicated, and messy material, including PTSD, genocide, colonialism, WMDs, and post-conflict reconciliation. It does them all justice too, treating them with nuance, and never talking down or over-simplifying things for the viewer.  Even when the show is at its most kid-friendly, it still deals with itself (and us) maturely and intelligently.  But despite this, it never stoops to providing easy answers or cop-outs for any of the problems brought up.  Korra’s recovery from PTSD is arduous, long, and exhausting.  The first of the comics dealt with the difficult and messy fallout of the Fire Nation’s colonial policies and the hurt feelings preventing post-war reconciliation.   Mirroring our own world, Avatar eschews simple solutions, outright telling us that sometimes, the only way to move forward is to jump head-first into an ocean of uncertainty and dubious outcomes. 

            The key (and Lady Tenhai recognizes this as well) is that humans must want to work for a solution to problems both physical and metaphysical; we must want to create space for both, and must make the effort to make it possible for both the material and the spiritual to live side-by-side.  The outcome is never guaranteed, but Lady Tenhai still sees reason for hope simply because it is possible for people to change, and as long as people are able to change for the better, things can always improve over time. 

            None of this is anything revolutionary, of course.  Avatar may not be the launch point for a new wave of spirituality-infused children’s TV.  It could, of course, but it will be years yet before we can properly judge the full cultural impact of a franchise a mere 10 years of age.  Nonetheless, even if nothing else were to come of this, for what it is, it is a breath of fresh air, a collection of tales that take a different tack from most of modern entertainment.  Avatar is a masterwork of storytelling and adventure, but I also love it for how it nurtures spiritualism as part of its world and characters as well, encouraging thoughtful reflection over all aspects of existence, and not the cold abandonment of some to the favor of others. 

            This is important because, ultimately, there is no life without faith, regardless of the form said faith takes.  When we just look to the surface of what we observe and claim it as the whole, we see only the superficial divisions of the world, thin dividing lines between existence and empty space, living and non-living matter, plants and animals, humans from other animals, and individuals from each other.  We forget faith, and are unable to move, though we live in the illusion of perpetual motion. 

            Think about it- we only get out of bed in the morning because we are able to find the faith within myself that the day will be wonderful, that good things will happen, and that we will survive it to see another.  If that faith were not there- if we could find no reason to believe that standing up and getting dressed could not lead to something positive, we would not move.  We would wither, and die. 

            But we do not.  We rise, we eat, we live, and we grow.  We do this because we have an inherent, instinctive faith in tomorrow.  And our going through this life is enhanced, and improved, and made more joyous when we actively seek out our inherent faith and look for the paths that strengthen and enhance it.  Through this, we cultivate the spirit as well as the body, and by tying this to an enduring hope of a better tomorrow, we make our world anew with each breath we take. 

            Avatar deserves praise for a great many things, but for me, chief among them is that it does its part to try to get each of us, young and old, to be more thoughtful and mindful of the spiritual side of life, thus enriching both ourselves and those around us.  And God bless it for that. 

-Noah Franc

**For Part 1 of Avatar Month, click here

**For Part 2, here

**For Part 3, here

**For Part 4, here