The Legend of Korra Analysis: Elemental Errors?
The Legend of Korra series finished late last year, but new seasons have already been planned well in advance. Some feel that the series so far doesn’t, perhaps, hold up to its predecessor – Avatar: The Last Airbender. B-Mask takes a look at why that might be the case.
Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko are incredibly inspirational people, having through their work ignited my own interest in the power of animated television. I hold them in the highest regard, and would love it if they saw this video. Having said that, I’m now going to burn all these budding bridges by talking about why The Legend of Korra sucks.
Nah, I’m not hatin’. Well, to be pedantic I don’t really set out to hate on anything, though many find my critiques blasphemous. I’m incredibly fond of the Avatar franchise and The Legend of Korra is no exception. I love the world, the style, the music, the ideas, and the characters- not to mention that Janet Varney is absolutely adorable. I LOVE YOU.
Which is why it pains me to have anything bad to say at all. I still maintain that the first few episodes of The Legend of Korra are perfection and the original series, Avatar the Last Airbender, is my overall favourite animated show. Sadly, it’s clear that the latest incarnation is somewhat lacking. I worry that the creators of The Legend of Korra believe all the critics are variations on the eternal fanboy and have thereby disregarded many arguments. I like to think that I could offer more eloquence to some of these points of contention- i mean not to blow my own trumpet but…actually, eh, fuck it. With The Legend of Korra Book 3 on its way I’m keen to address this series while it’s still fresh in my mind- and while I will be looking at what doesn’t work, I will also give credit where credit is due.
Avatar is set in a world where people are born with the ability to bend the elements- coming in flavours of earth, air, water, fire, and absolutely normal. The Avatar is a reincarnated deity who has the ability to control all of these elements, and therefore can bring balance to the world when things get a bit rowdy. The Avatar is also able to act as the bridge between the spirit world and the mortal realm.
In the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series, the overarching plot was set right from the get-go- Aang had to learn his skills and bring balance to the world by stopping the fire nation. This became the forward momentum for everything that followed, allowing the focus to fall on character development and evolving perspectives on the entirety of the situations context. Exposition felt progressional, not retractive.
The Legend of Korra does have an overall agenda but also ekes out plot details bit by bit purely for exposition, and the goalposts shift almost every episode come the second season. Now on the one hand this does work if the plan is to really pull the rug out from people’s feet and create a sense of mystery, but the surprises and twists offered are often incredibly superficial, offering little sense of weight or insight. Our characters are active in pursuing a goal but aren’t very good at questioning anything in same way as their predecessors.
Some threads also simply just don’t tie together as neatly as they could- The Legend of Korra Season 2’s adventures in republic city could probably have been their own series outside of the spiritual unrest Korra and Tenzin dealt with, and they pair together rather poorly compared to the parallels between Aang and Zuko’s stories of gaining independence and self discovery in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The encompassing issue that creates this is that Avatar: The Last Airbender had real growth, and The Legend of Korra doesn’t. This is present in three distinct perspectives I’m going to cover- spirituality, physicality and empathy. So let’s start with the spirits.
Spirituality and physicality were highly allegorical in Avatar: The Last Airbender- the spirits were deliberately mysterious and unexplained because it leant more focus to the actual struggle Aang was going through. They weren’t simply black and white in their makeup (well, except for that guy.) They were there with specific purposes, even if it was to set the tone, express the difference in style from the physical realm or hint at previous endeavours that fed into Aang’s current plight. Same can be said of his physical trials which were more than simply overcoming obstacles- With each lesson, Avatar Aang learns how to control his abilities and emotions- but in doing so has to by proxy change his behaviour and outlook in order to master them. He is forced to change as a person, and as he changes, the way he decides to solve the overall problem changes with it. As a result each lesson, each bit of exposition, each interaction and facet added to his repertoire feels utterly necessary and fulfilling, because we feel Aang’s growth offer a sense of progression.
Spirituality for The Legend of Korra, until the last episode of season 2, was merely a means of plot dumping. Through spirituality Korra accesses flashbacks which only give her a basic understanding of the semantics of what must be done and to whom. They offer no personal understanding and are often far removed from her own experiences, which makes it difficult to care for her journey. There comes a point in season one where the plot hands itself over to an event that feels far too detached from the political ideology and character relationships presented to really invest emotionally in the outcome. In The Legend of Korra Season 2 this continues to be an issue, though frustratingly so as the character she should be relating to in question is someone she shares family history with- not to mention there was actually the potential for a story about the misuse of spiritual guidance. No amount of Godzilla can make up for that. (roar)
Korra’s physical prowess is basically rendered pointless to serialise because it’s done in a manner of convenience. As a hotheaded character Korra relies a lot on her powers and relishes the ability to use them, which obviously hampers her foresight in using them effectively later on when they’re removed. Not a difficult dramatic arc to pinpoint overall. Sadly the way it’s handled doesn’t belie it’s predictability. Korra only uses an ability because it’s the only thing left available to her, but she doesn’t learn anything about it or learn from the surrounding circumstances that had her resort to said power in the process, leaving her at the same point of understanding as at the start of the series. These ultimately feel like Deus Ex Machinas even if they’re passingly explained because we don’t experience an understanding of them on any kind of relateable level.
At one point all her powers are taken away and are then given back without consequence- which is a damn shame. There was the potential to create a very nice contrast from Avatar: The Last Airbender- Aang was always reluctant to use his powers while The Legend of Korra took them for granted. He was forced into using them to actively save the day and appreciate his potential, while Korra could have learnt to work within the limitations to truly become a more rounded Avatar. The yin, and the yang, so to speak. Ah! It was so good to see Iroh again and his soothing Jasmine tea.
Iroh: “Ancient Zen proverb: to become strong one must lift many heavy burdens. Now help me get this vacuum to fuck this cake.”
The last part is empathy. In Avatar: The Last Airbender Aang begins life as not only a child but a sheltered one. His re-introduction to the rest of the world means that his journey instructs both the audience and Aang from the ground up on the many differing perspectives and values held within that world. With each new meeting Aang gains a new understanding on how to deal with the problems before him. For example, Aang’s dealing with Fire Lord Ozai which is a conclusion drawn from his experience from the entire journey. Aang knows that if he kills the fire lord he will create a martyr to the fire nations cause and violate his own principles. However if he leaves him be, he will cause unrest and probably be blamed for being ineffective. It’s debatable that the final conflict is achieved in a satisfactory manner but the ending does satisfy the ultimate arc of the series and the character arcs present.
In The Legend of Korra, Korra doesn’t really gain any insight into her foes or her friends, and they in return seem to be too wrapped up in themselves to have anything resembling meaningful interactions. We catch glimpses of it but it almost feels like a lot of characters are just talking to themselves and establishing they are, in fact, that kind of character. There’s a clear deficiency in the dialogue as a result- you only have to compare some of the nuanced dialogue in Avatar: The Last Airbender to The Legend of Korra to see what I mean:
Avatar: The Last Airbender, Azula: “Well then, maybe you should worry less about the tides, who have already made up their mind to kill you, and worry more about me, who is still mulling it over.”
The Legend of Korra, Lin Beifong: “I’m going to do it my way. Outside the law!”
As a result incredibly intriguing issues are left feeling moot. The Equalists never come to any understanding with Korra or their bending peers and are explained away under a new president at the start of The Legend of Korra Season 2. The mob which is so prominently given notice in episode one also only appears as a plot device now and then, which is rather aggravating when their minuscule character development seems more interesting than that of our leads. The spirits are surely still hampered by negative energy within the real world and are clearly unfit in many ways to live amongst normal people.
Overall The Legend of Korra series just lacks that extra level of humanity. It’s slowly becoming a show that draws on skewed sentimentality and world building rather than concentrating on the sincerity and frankness that made the original series so solid.
But you know what? Some of this stuff is addressed, which is what makes this really frustrating, and proof that these writers are capable of more.
The first couple episodes of The Legend of Korra Season One and the last half of The Legend of Korra Season 2 really do a great job of combating my issues. Season one starts with Korra fighting against the element of air until she realises it can actually improve her overall physicality outside of being the avatar. Korra experiences the entire range of citizens and the idea that the Avatar may in fact be a flawed concept. Nepotism is covered in a way most series ignore, with the children of ATLA’s heroes burdened with living up to their parents and having to deal with the legacy of their actions. We have a villain who brings up political manipulation under a genuinely imposing guise and one who invokes the idea of blind faith in a world where we know it may not be so misplaced. The Avatar as a concept is explained very well and the lack of fulfillment within the first avatar feels incredibly moving. Bolin and Mako achieve some much needed character development, pitted against each other as Bolin’s selfishness and naivety begins to blossom. And of course, Avatar always manages to keep its sense of humour while balancing it against dashes of real pathos- including perhaps the best thing to happen to the series in a long time. (cut to varrick)
Korra herself finally goes through that long awaited growth, and while it may feel like too little, too late, it is well conveyed. She finds herself manipulated and turned into a political figurehead. She finds that her capacity for strong relationships is tested by her duties as the Avatar. Korra has her legacy literally ripped away from her, and when she emerges after realising that her strength comes from her own being and not her predecessors nor the spirit she is the avatar of, she finds herself emotionally and spiritually drained. Korra has grown into a shaken, weary avatar, who’s experimental decisions will perhaps hurt her in the future. Her sense of humour, her willingness towards aggression is gone, and she will have to rely more on her own intuition as time goes on.
This simultaneously sets up hopes and fears for the progression come The Legend of Korra Season 3. With a title like ‘The Legend of Korra: Change’ there’s a lot of potential for this to be a series that really puts The Legend of Korra back on track, and to hopefully win back a lot of viewers. I worry that such a wonderful franchise and concept with be marred by poor handling and misguided notions- and yet I know that with every installment, their integrity is always present, and their love of what they have set forth is always evident. Mike, Bri, you guys have a wonderful thing going here, and I’m sure that you’ll give it the dignity it deserves. (Varrick poops money). Heh, poop.