Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why Legend of Korra is Not as Good as The Last Airbender

reading time: ca. 5 min




“Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked”

Or should i say: Everything changed when The Legend of Korra aired.

On occasion of the season finale of Book Three: Change last Friday i sat down and compiled a juxtaposition of The Legend of Korra (2012-2015) "versus" it's original Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008). As a fan of the original series, i am of course extremely biased. Nevertheless i think a comparison of the two is only fair because after all they are more or less immediately consecutive. And also, the producers must have had a good reason to re-launch the Avatar universe, right? So let's take a closer look at that.

// Where it went wrong (in my opinion)

An immature main protagonist.

Aang was young but wise, Korra is older but childish. Great. Isn't the Avatar supposed to be "fully realized", instead of acting like an impulsive, impatient, pigheaded girl?
Don't get me wrong, i do appreciate a "strong" female lead, but instead of showing not only physical but also emotional and social strength, Korra often just appears to be a pain in the ass, never following orders or acting rationally and reasonably. Strong-willed, sassy, fierce, independent... yeah that's all well and good, but she mostly seems to be rather stubborn, rude, sarcastic, ungrateful and aggressive at times.
Why do females always have to be tomboyish to be considered strong?

(Katara for example was a strong character in my opinion - not because of any physical properties, but because she was true to herself and listened to her heart as well)


Of course i am totally comparing Korra to Aang's lovable, sensitive, funny, compassionate character, but! The main problem here seems to be that not only i as the viewer am tempted to compare the two shows with each other, but the showrunners themselves seem to do that. Let me explain:


Repetition.

As if the showrunners were trying to replicate the success of the Last Airbender, there are a lot of recurring patterns and constellations that seem to be a direct imitation of the original. To name only a few:

- Bolin the goofy fella (Sokka)
- Mako the handsome gloomy guy that the audience is supposed to fancy (Zuko)
- Asami the non-bender girl that hooks up with the handsome guy at some point (Mai)
- Tenzin the wise mentor and guardian (Iroh)
- Lin Beifong the tough born fighter (Toph)
- Desna and Eska the sullen, bored and emotionally detached highborn with a dry sense of humor (Mai)
- Pro-bending, an equivalent to the earthbending tournament with Toph (Earth Rumbles)
- Team Avatar
- The Dai Li and their secret underground training camp
- Naga the big loyal pet companion (Appa)
- Pabu the little furry friend (Momo)
- Zaheer the prisoner that spent his time in prison training (Iroh)

I could go on and on. The problem with this is that it pretty much begs us to compare the two series. And in comparison to it's predecessor, Legend of Korra falls flat.


Half-baked world.

Another kind of repetition is the way they executed the "new" Avatar universe. As someone who likes Steampunk a lot, i do not mind seeing it as a part of Legend of Korra, but i feel like they didn't make it into something unique but simply copied already existing motifs. For example, in Korra's world they have automobiles, zeppelins, motorcycles, race cars, "movers" (black-and-white movies), swimwear that seems to be taken from the 1920s, and so forth. Yes, Republic City and everything else is set in a more modern world, but does this mean you have to copy the real-world history and technology? 

Take the Last Airbender - they created a universe that was inspired by real-world cultures (Earth Kingdom = Chinese and Mongol culture, mostly Hung Ga kung fu - Air Nomads = Hindu priests and Tibetan monks, Baguazhang - Water Tribe = Inuit-Yupik culture, T'ai chi ch'uan - Fire Nation = Japanese culture, Northern Shaolin kung fu) but still felt completely independent and "logical" in a way.

I mean, i'ts also interesting to place the Avatar in the '20s or something, but why? Only 70 years have passed since The Last Airbender. Would the world be really so drastically different? Maybe. But if you really want to stick with that whole Steampunk/Golden Age/industrialisation thing, don't you think it's time someone figured out how firearms work? I mean, they have planes, remote detonated explosives, and they were skilled enough to master metal bending and lava bending, so...


Self-mockery.

I do like a pinch of self-irony, but not when it's to the extend that it undermines certain characters or situations. How is the viewer supposed to take anything seriously if the show doesn't do it either?
For instance: the sneezing Earth Queen who can't be taken seriously because she is merely a caricature of herself. Or Bolin who turned from being a funny likeable guy into being just a ridiculous clown for comic relief. 
Also, in a similar way i dislike the bending in this new version. To be clear, i DO like the modernisation of the bending style as in pro-bending, but i do NOT approve of the way they portray it more as a magical power than as a spiritual martial art, kind of like a psychokinetic variant of Chinese martial arts. (In that way it felt similar to the Star Wars prequels, which eschewed the meditative, spiritual aspects of The Force in favour of making it into a magical superpower.)

The balance of comedy and drama is never an easy one. The Last Airbender had a similar balancing act to do at first: In season 1 Aang was a little goof-ball, Sokka was constantly hungry and Katara was grumpy, but the further the show evolved the more serious and substantial it became. 
Interestingly The Last Airbender looks more like a kid's show (young characters, "harmless" fights, bold colours, simple animation etc.) but feels quite mature (diving into more adult topics like loss, abuse, genocide, heartache and death), whereas Legend of Korra looks more adult (grown-up characters, kisses, blood, on-screen death etc.) but feels quite immature and shallow at times. Or maybe the gags just aren't as funny as the ones in the original.


What's the point?

To be honest, i quite liked Legend of Korra's Book One: Air. The equalists movement that served as an antagonistic force was very realistic (not saying that a good story is always realistic, on the contrary) and comprehensible. And the antagonist had a good motivation as well.
From Book One on however, i felt like the story was losing it's focus. Did it even have a focus in the first place?  
The Last Airbender had a clear aim: train Aang to become the realized Avatar, get away from Zuko and stop the destruction of the Firelord Ozai and his Fire Nation before Sozin's Comet arrives. 

Now, facing the high expectations to keep up with the brilliant and widely praised original, The Legend of Korra started off quite promisingly, but then completely unravelled. Why aren't they deepening the conflict between benders and non-benders that was touched on in Book One? That could have been the driving force for the entire series! 
Instead, they rush through a number of sub-plots with no end in sight. Too fast paced. Too little patience to develop a real relationship to the characters.

Where is the golden thread then? Where and how is all of this supposed to end? What is Korra's aspiration as the Avatar? Just "world piece" or what? And what happened to the army of the Fire Nation? Why aren't they supporting the Avatar - and Lord Zuko for that matter - in the fight against The Red Lotus and all the other villains that have crossed her path so far? Why is nobody doing something about this crazy Earth Queen and the corruption in Earth Kingdom? Questions upon questions.


Too many "main" characters.

In my opinion, this one could be the main weakness of Korra.

The Last Airbender gave us Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph on the "good" side, and Zuko, Azula, Mai, Ty Lee, Ozai and Iroh on the "bad" side. Fewer characters but all the more time and space to actually get to know those characters and grow to love them.

With Legend of Korra we have... let's see... Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Lin Beifong, Tenzin, Kya, Bumi, Jinora and the rest of the airbender family... not to mention Korra's parents, Kai, Lin's sister whatever-her-name-is and her daughter Opal, Mako's and Bolin's lost and found family, oh and old Lord Zuko of course. Did i forget anyone? - And that's only on the "good" side! On the bad we have: Amon/Noatak and the entire equalist group, Asami's father, Korra's uncle, a whole bunch of dark evil spirits, Vaatu, and now also The Red Lotus, consisting of the four category A prisoners Zaheer, P'Li, Ghazan and Ming-Hua. Phew!


Stagnating characters.

As a result of the great number of characters in Legend of Korra, most of them lack depth or even development. Let's take Sokka from Last Airbender as a counterdraft: Starting as a sceptical, immature boy, he became the strategist of the group over time, constantly trying to prove himself to be a great warrior like his father. 
Speaking of non-benders like Sokka: whereas the former made up for his non-bending with a sharp-witted mind and strategic skills (or in case of Ty Lee and Mai: being very capable fighters), Asami who is also a non-bender usually stands around helplessly - or, even worse, jumps into action or no sound reason, just to prove that "even a non-bender can be a worthy opponent to a bender". Yeah, i don't know about that... she seems really unnecessary in the plot. Sorry, Asami.

Also, Avatar Aang actually learned his lessons and grew as a character - as opposed to Korra who keeps making fun of Tenzin's lections and realizes them only reluctantly and grumbling, without any real understanding (as you would usually expect from an open-minded, spiritual being such as the Avatar, wouldn't you?). 

To be really harsh: the new characters from Korra are boring, undeveloped and stereotypic. And they try to cover that up by being oh so self-ironic -.-



Lacking intro. 

As nitpicky as this sounds, the intro of a show serves as its anchor and should therefore be gripping and, well, a hook to the show. As opposed to Legend of Korra's news show vibe (which has its own appeal to it), i could say all of the introductory lines of Last Airbender with the narrator: "Water... Earth... Fire... Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked..." And so on.

Oh. Speaking of sounds...


The soundtrack.

I don't expect a tellie show to have a superb soundtrack, but following in the steps of a series like The Last Airbender i couldn't help notice the absence of a more complex soundtrack. Whereas Airbender provided a memorable soundtrack (my favourites are probably Agni Kai, Cave Jivin, Invading the Palace, Leaves from the Vine, Last Agni Kai, Aang's Theme and of course the Avatar theme), i don't remember a single music piece from Korra. Which is a shame because i loved the soulful, Asian inspired score from the original!

I do not want to bash Korra in any way, i do actually enjoy the show - even though not in the way i loved The Last Airbender - and there are some elements that worked very well and shouldn't go unmentioned:


// Where it went right (and should've been expanded)

Amon the freedom fighter.

Like i said above, this one was huge potential for a great story arch! Amon and the equalists played an insurgent key role like V in V for Vendetta that brought a new igniting energy to the story. And he actually had sort of a decent background story. Unfortunately, the conflict of benders being superior to non-benders and everything that could have been developed from this basic conflict was dropped after that season. Shame.


Tenzin the bearded mentor.

Since i loved Uncle Iroh in the original, i like the equivalent mentor figure Tenzin as well. Though i wish Korra would treat him with more respect. Also, i would love to know more about those core characters such as Tenzin, as well as Mako, Bolin and Asami! We need to know our characters in order to love them.


The story of Wan, the first Avatar.

I love the way they incorporated the history - or should i say mythology - of the very first Avatar, Wan and Raava, into the show because you wonder, how did it all start? Why? Who? When? And above that, it is told in the most beautiful animation style inspired by Asian ink wash paintings and woodblock prints, maintain the sense of flatness from the ukiyo-e as it is called. 


I wish they had done the entire Korra series in that style! Maybe they should've done a prequel rather than a sequel, haha.

And what I loved about the character of Wan is that, despite being far from an innocent and pure one, he is absolutely likeable! (compare to what i said about Korra in the first paragraph) I guess you could say, he was an amalgamation of both Korra and Aang's personalities.


The downside of being the Avatar.

Dissatisfied citizens, an ungrateful president, and revolting anti-benders - i loved that aspect of the show! Another great story arch that didn't exploit its full potential. On the contrary, it even made Korra become a pain in the ass again due to her (understandable) anger and frustration. 


The artwork.

This is a no-brainer: the one very obvious advantage to The Last Airbender is the detailed, elaborate, gorgeous animation of Legend of Korra. The soft, magnificent panoramas reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki from time to time. Or maybe Makoto Shinkai actually. I sure hope this visual emphasis is not the reason for the lacking plot, emotional depth and character growth though...


The Red Lotus.

As an anti-movement to the White Lotus introduced in The Last Airbender, The Red Lotus had lots of potential to become a decent opponent for the Avatar. I'm glad we don't have the Humanity-vs-Evil-Spirits battle any more, but what we need is more than that. What we need is a human villain with human motivations. Relatable motivations!
What does The Red Lotus want other than "true freedom" and "a world without kings and queens, without borders or nations"? How, why? I mean, i get the part about not wanting any borders, kings and queens. But nations? Does he want to annihilate all cultural differences in order to get one single "equal" nation? why did they want to kill Korra and end the Avatar cycle? The Avatar has nothing to do with kings and queens, as far as i'm concerned. Also, i think "true balance of natural order" includes having a "king" or an "alpha male", right? Doesn't Zaheer know that a leaderless, chaotic crowd of people is not equal to "true freedom"? And why did we never hear of that movement - or any hint in that direction - before? That would have made this sudden appearance much more credible. 
But anyway. I didn't want to criticise in this section ; )


Tattoo Ritual.

Jinora getting her arrow tattoos which mark her as an airbending master was a nice touch that - finally - delved into the exploration of a culture, which for me was one of the appeals of Last Airbender, in this case the airbending culture. Hopefully there will be more of that in the next and final Book...


// Verdict

Despite the fact that i liked it fine overall, i feel The Legend of Korra has some significant problems. It does not compare to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and therefore shouldn't be compared. You'll only be disappointed, so don't do it.

Feel free to disagree.

Also, i really want to re-watch The Last Airbender now...


image sources: (poster) (korra) (crew) (town) (spirit world)



Maisy



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