WARNING: I’ve marked where the spoilers start in this article but I can’t be responsible for the linked material!!!
I am disgraced in my tardiness. 2014 ended with one hell of a fictional bang and I’m left to play catch-up.
Of course, we remember that what’s likely to be our last adventure in Sir Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. But one that isn’t perhaps as widely-known but at least as significant occurred about the same time, and is still sending shockwaves through the fan communities: the finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra!
If you regularly undertake to read this blog, then you’ll remember that waaay back I wrote a first impressions column on the first episode of Legend of Korra, successor of the animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender. Both are populated by four Nations, each defined by members of their society with the power of ‘bending’ the elements – able to master a telekinetic martial art over air, water, fire or earth. And into each generation is born the Avatar, able to manipulate all four elements, and bound to maintain peace and balance in the world.
As previously established, Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the first series, with the reincarnation of Avatar Aang in the person of Korra, a teenaged tomboy, excellent in combat and passionate about justice, but inexperienced in social and political matters, sheltered and initially lacking in the spiritual serenity that defined her predecessors.
She travels to Republic City, the young nation which serves as a Geneva-like middle ground between the four ‘Bending’ Nations.
Korra confronts anarchists, revolutionaries, terrorists and fanatics, all threatening Republic City, the peace and safety of the Nations, and the very balance between the material and spirit worlds. Korra must draw on her own strength, those of her past lives and most particularly of her cadre of friends and mentors – including a beautiful young captain of Industry; Aang’s own son, Tenzin; her teammates on a competitive bending team, and the chief of police, descendant of the metal-bending master Toph, from the last series.
Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DeMartino, the showrunners, wrote the Last Airbender Series for a target audience of 10-12 or thereabouts. The Legend of Korra was written to keep pace with the advancing age of that demographic. The characters are almost all over 16 this time. The content is also a lot more intense – which is saying something as Avatar: the Last Airbender was set in the climax of a hundred-year war in which many of the characters had suffered loss. Words like ‘death’ and ‘kill,’ traditionally off-limits in kids’ shows, come up reasonably often, and depictions of aggressive hand-to-hand combat, torture and a few just-barely-offscreen violent deaths take place.
Combine that with some of the big political ideas underlying the show, and I can see why I’ve heard it described as ‘Game of Thrones for kids.’ Korra moves in the corridors of power in the city, and into the unpredictable landscapes of the spirit world to try and avert disasters of geopolitical upheaval, the release of the ultimate dark spirits, and a threat to the Avatar line itself, all the while suffering personal heartache, social setbacks and terrible trauma.
As my summary may indicate, this show was structure differently than the Last Airbender: the first series distributed one year of adventures across three seasons, working toward one endgame. Korra, meanwhile, had a different ‘Big Bad’ every season, and the time gap between seasons varied from six months to as much as three years in the space between three and four.
This affords a rather different scope for storytelling, although equally it has the same consequence as it has for other shows with that approach, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: one Big Bad is not equal to another. With the original series, one continuous dramatic arc meant that things only got better. In Legend of Korra, the quality wavers more because trying to start ramping up to a high drama level over again from scratch produces inconsistent results.
Right out of the gate the series seemed to pick up some bad habits: not least, the introduction of a love triangle for no better reason that custom and tradition for teen drama. For a show trying to be more mature and serious than its predecessor, it’s funny how the humor actually seemed to get more juvenile and goofy – Bolin’s character is the vehicle of a lot of this and it tends to spoil rather than lighten the moments.
Season two was the low point. The goofy, arguably slightly creepy comic relief and the soap-opera elements were compounded by the destroy-the-entire-world villain and a number of ‘ancient secrets’ conjured up to advance the plot.
Part of the problem is that Korra was originally intended to be a miniseries, and the seasons are shorter than the Last Airbender’s. This means that the stories, complex as they are, have to proceed rather briskly, so that the themes, as strong as they are, often feel as if they aren’t followed through, and some decisions the characters have made are never really hashed out and dealt with fully.
The focus on Korra’s romantic entanglements makes passing the Bechdel Test less of a slam-dunk than the original series, though it still does it. Beyond that, the limited time per season means that only so many encounters can be written in. This means that Korra can’t always make the most of the exceptional ensemble cast for the range of character moments of its predecessor. In addition, an opportunity (one vaguely foreshadowed in the first episode) for Korra to become a grass-roots figure in the midst of these urbane politicos was missed by the necessity of her always keeping those politicos’ company. It also cost some realism and wasted space – in particular the characters seem to spend the three-year time skip in a holding pattern when in a longer format, some wonderful stories could have filled the space.
It also means that a lot of the themes sometimes seem a bit chopped-off. They’re there but sometimes it seems like they don’t follow through clearly to the end of a season, and don’t always seem to translate directly into affecting the world or the characters’ approach to things. In particular I feel as if the question of the Avatar’s role in the ‘modern’ Avatarverse never gets a satisfactory answer. Some others are just repetitive – how many times does Tenzin have to learn a lesson about being a real mentor, anyway?
But, in truth, a lot of these flaws are so egregious partly because of the sheer dazzling number of things that this show does right!
Legend of Korra is deep, serious, but fun, action-packed and laced with the kind of emotional punch that helped mark its predecessor. It honours its legacy, and characters who have lived this long appear only when it both tickles our affections and serves the plot.
It does the things that made the old series stand out: a plethora of interesting and multifaceted characters, including women and girls, characters of colour, strong characters of all ages, complex and understandable villains and surprisingly hard-hitting stakes, meaningful suffering and emotion. Korra has the additional virtue of being a character with atypical body type: she’s exceptionally buff and masculine-looking for a heroine – not for no reason does a lot of fan art depict her with a very ‘butch’ fashion sense. And it upgrades in intensity and seriousness from the last show – and I’ll point out that that show had an episode where a concentration camp survivor goes on a vengeance spree.
The most marked thing about it is that each of the villains succeeds in being sympathetic – something the old show excelled at – but also being remarkably reasonable and persuasive. Driven by a distrust of authority, a hatred of inequality or a belief in a better world, they’re not evil, just extremist, and the moral, though handled a bit haphazardly at times is one that supports moderation, compromise, and democracy.
The Avatarverse also has a strong sense of history, and that’s been maintained. The world has advanced about as much in 70 years as you’d expect, and we’re in the equivalent of the Roaring Twenties. Cars, radio broadcasting, air travel, and the economic highs and lows that come with madcap capitalism are all in there. Moreover, strong allusions are made, not only to modern terrorism and anarchism, but also to things like the Bolshevik movement, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the advent of the Atomic Age.
The introduction of the Spirit World as a more active story element was a little worrying, since it tends to be distressingly arbitrary and twee in its design and a source of borderline Deus Ex Machinas (still not clear on the plural there), but never at the expense of its value as a counterbalance and mirror of the ‘human’ realm. Plus it’s a charming homage to Studio Ghibli movies like Princess Mononoke.
Okay, let’s catch our breaths here. It’s no small wonder, with the sheer amount of depth and creative energy DiMartino and Konietzko have poured into this that the series is beloved by everyone from its target audience to their parents to random twenty-somethings like me. It evokes the quality character-driven cartoons of the Milennial childhood like the DC Animated Universe, Gargoyles and Sailor Moon.
Now, we’ve discussed the inclusion of female characters and characters of colour, something of a specialty of this team. Now comes the point where things got really intense. Much has been written about this already, but I nevertheless caution for SPOILERS:
Things were off to a good start when my hated love triangle turned into a friendship between the two romantic rivals – Korra and Asami Sato. That actually cleared up my biggest irritation with the show pretty well. I was also pleasantly surprised that it was depicted as being okay with breaking up with your first relationship for good – as opposed to neatly pairing everybody off in the Last Airbender series. Indeed, lots of successful and well-developed single people have positive arcs in this show.
But now for the big one, the one that made the whole internet explode: after hints, foreshadowing and fan interpretation over four seasons, it is confirmed that Korra, ahem, bends both ways!
When word first reached me, I was skeptical. If it was left ambiguous, up to the fans to interpret, then in mine and a lot of books it didn’t really count. I feared what I was about to see was an example of waffling and queerbaiting instead of true representation.
Well, the final scene was pretty on the nose, but to top it off the creators confirmed it flat-out shortly afterward! They made it as clear as the Standards and Practices of Nickelodeon let them. They pushed it as far as they could and then some.
Now, everything you’ve read so far might give the impression that Legend of Korra was very politically charged for a kids’ show. I suppose in a sense, but really? What the creators themselves said about it is really what it comes down to: if you’re going to tackle meaningful and demanding material, give it the respect it bloody well deserves.
And that includes representation. It baffles me when people react with indifference or hostility to this kind of thing. People of colour exist. LGBT people exist and I, as a straight, white cismale want to see them included, because they’re my friends and fellow nerds, too! I want to see their stories. And it took a kids’ show to even begin to push boundaries that few ‘grownup’ shows have the gall to do with any conviction!
So the Legend of Korra isn’t perfect. The creators freely acknowledged that they aren’t paragons of representation – I’ve always found it a bit odd that the actors aren’t as diverse as the characters, I must say – but it was great. It does young people a great compliment by giving them something fresh, original and intelligent, and it speaks to those of us old enough to see the full extent of the subtext and imagine more – Avatar: the Last Airbender has the highest number of fanfictions under the ‘Cartoon’ listings on fanfiction.net.
The animation is gorgeous, the choreography thrilling, the music beautiful, the characters magnificently written and acted, the story is epic, the themes deep and intelligent and bold. It reaches high, and misses sometimes, but ye gods when it counts, it reaches higher than most! It is a worthy successor to Avatar: Last Airbender and well worth the attention of anyone of any age!
And, let’s face it, the star couple at the end are just so darned cute!