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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  

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