Post Conflict World Building: The Force Awakens vs. The Legend of Korra

When a major fantasy series reaches its conclusion, the viewer is often left with a feeling of optimism. The foes have been vanquished, evil is defeated, and our heroes finally have peace. But what happens when that fantasy series is so popular that viewers demand a sequel? How can the writers continue to build their world after the major conflict is resolved?

Star Wars fans have long been preoccupied with this question. After Return of the Jedi ended there was a slew of media products that continued the stories of Luke, Han, Leia, and the others. When Episode VII: The Force Awakens was announced, fans received some devastating, but also curious news: the Expanded Universe would have no bearing on the story of Episode VII. J.J. Abrams and crew were starting fresh, picking up the story 30 years after Jedi.

However, in throwing out the canonical mythology of Star Wars, Abrams’ team created a huge challenge: how do they make The Force Awakens exciting given that the Empire has been defeated? And how can they possibly top the tension and conflict felt in the Original Trilogy?

I’m of the opinion that The Force Awakens, for all of its strengths, made several missteps in its attempt to continue the Star Wars mythology in the wake of the Empire’s collapse.

But before I explain why, I want to examine the post-conflict world building present in the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel, The Legend of Korra. The creators of Korra faced a similar challenge to Abram’s team, and found a way to make Korra feel fresh, even though the central conflict of Airbender was long resolved.

The Fire Nation and the Hundred Year War

Avatar: The Last Airbender (TLA) is a fantasy martial arts show about a world made up of four people groups: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Each society is centered around one of the four elements. The Avatar’s job is to keep the world in balance. The intro explains it concisely.

However, before TLA begins, the world is thrown into chaos. The Fire Nation declares war on the world. They commit genocide and wipe out the Air Nomads. Then over the course of a hundred years, they wage war on the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom.

Aang, the Avatar, ran away from his duties and accidentally froze himself in ice. There he remained, hidden in the sea, for a hundred years, until two Water Tribe peasants freed him.

The central conflict of TLA is clear: the Fire Nation is on the verge of conquering the world, and the Avatar has to stop them.

In fact, at the end of Season 2 (of 3), the Fire Nation succeeds, finally conquering the Earth Kingdom, by far the largest people group. The situation is hopeless, but Aang and friends manage to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war.

The series ends with our heroes hopeful for the future. They know that the world must be rebuilt, and know it will take a lot of effort.

Korra picks up the story 70 years later

TLA was hugely successful for Nickelodeon, and it’s my favorite animated series of all time. The show is perfect in its execution, from the story to the visuals to the music to the voice acting to the characters.

When Nick announced in 2010 that Avatar was receiving a sequel, I was excited, though I had some trepidation. How could The Legend of Korra possibly live up to the scope of TLA? The original series was about saving the world, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher: a hundred year war, a missing avatar, the destruction of an entire people group, and the conquering of the biggest nation.

The short answer is: Korra could never create a conflict greater than TLA. The creators—Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko—knew this, and they didn’t try.

Korra takes place 70 years after TLA. Aang is dead, as are many of his friends. A new avatar, Korra, has been reborn. She’s now charged with keeping the world in balance.

Korra ran for four seasons, 52 episodes, almost as long as TLA’s run (61 episodes). Instead of having one central conflict, Korra instead has four smaller conflicts. These conflicts never begin to approach the scope of TLA, and that’s okay. By having more tightly focused conflicts, the creators showed us more of the world, and exposed the characters to new challenges that didn’t come up in TLA.

Stories, at their core, are about characters, and DiMartino and Konietzko created an ensemble cast of characters who felt like real people. Just because Korra didn’t have as big of a conflict as TLA didn’t mean the show was automatically lesser than TLA (side note, Korra is a lesser show than TLA, but that has more to do with pacing and story problems, as well as a botched production and release schedule).

The four conflicts in Korra show us new facets of the world and are interesting in their own right. Season 1 is about an anti-bender revolution that believes that the benders, the heroes of the Hundred Years War, are bad people. Season 2 is about a civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes about which tribe should control access to the Spirit World. Season 3 is about overthrowing the government and throwing the world into chaos. Season 4 is about the rise of a totalitarian Earth Empire.

The story of TLA also continued in the comics. We see the struggles of Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang as they annex land from the Earth Kingdom to make Republic City, a place where people of all nations can live. We see the creation of Toph’s metalbending school. Each new arc in the comics explores consequences of the fall of the Fire Nation.

The creators of TLA found meaningful ways to continue the story, world building, and characters in both a sequel TV series and comics. So far, the Avatar mythology hasn’t tried to top the central conflict of the first story, and that’s for the better.

With that background, let’s look at how The Force Awakens struggled in its execution, namely in trying to make a conflict bigger than the Original Trilogy in a way that didn’t make logical sense.

Star Wars’ post-Empire challenge

When Star Wars: A New Hope begins, the stakes are set incredibly high, and it’s very clear from the opening scene what they are. The Empire is a massive, all-powerful operation. The Rebels are a ragtag group of freedom fighters with dirty, substandard ships. Midway through the movie, the Empire demonstrates the height of their power: they can blow up entire planets.

The Rebels have a brief victory in the destruction of the Death Star, but in The Empire Strikes Back their base gets destroyed, and in Return of the Jedi the Empire has already rebuilt their planet-killing machine.

By the end of the movie, all the conflicts are resolved: the Emperor is killed, Darth Vader is redeemed, and the second Death Star is destroyed. Similarly to TLA, the viewer is treated to an optimistic few minutes of denouement. Leia and Han fall in love, Luke mourns his father and sees the ghosts of his trainers, and the galaxy celebrates the fall of the Empire.

The viewer feels good: all the conflicts are resolved, right?

Well, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to realize that ROTJ doesn’t definitively end the conflict. Sure, the Emperor is dead and the Death Star is gone, but the Empire is huge. There are millions of soldiers spread across the galaxy, and countless Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters. And as anybody knows from history, toppling a dictator isn’t the end of any country’s struggles. All it does is create a power vacuum.

The Expanded Universe understood this. The first EU novels I read were Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, which concern Grand Admiral Thrawn, who attempts to pull together the last vestiges of the Empire to resist the New Republic. When I read those novels, the storyline of the EU instantly made sense: the Rebel’s actions at the end of ROTJ did not fully defeat the Empire. It would take years to recover from a generation of tyranny.

The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after ROTJ. Just as the Legend of Korra couldn’t replicate the magnitude of the conflict in TLA, there’s no way that the new Star Wars trilogy could replicate the magnitude of conflict in the Original Trilogy.

But that didn’t stop Abrams and team from trying.

The Force Awaken’s missteps

Star Wars is a series where you have to suspend your disbelief in many ways. It’s not science fiction: the way spaceships jet in and out of hyperspace like it’s no big deal wouldn’t actually work.

So it might be reading into it a bit too much, but researchers have calculated what the cost of building two Death Stars would be, and the amount is staggering. One estimate is $419 quintillion (billion billion). I’m not exactly sure how big the galaxy of Star Wars is, but even if there were thousands of systems containing intelligent life paying taxes to the Empire, this is an awfully large sum of money.

And the Rebels blew up both projects! The result should be a galaxy-wide economic depression, one that would take generations to recover from.

Considering that, how did the First Order manage to rise up in the first place? Sure, there would’ve been a power vacuum after the defeat of the Emperor. It’s reasonable to conclude, as the Hand of Thrawn series did, that splinter groups would arise.

The First Order, though, isn’t made up of the leftover parts of the Empire. Their ships are new, the stormtrooper armor is new, and somehow they found the resources to create an even more powerful weapon than the Death Star, one that can destroy not one planet at a time, but multiple planets and/or moons! And it also destroys suns in the process.

Our hero Finn says that he’s been raised since birth to be a stormtrooper. He looks about 20 in the film, so considering that The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Jedi, that means that the First Order must have arisen very near the beginning. How else would they be so organized that they are already raising babies to be stormtroopers?

For all the flaws that the Prequel Trilogy had, one thing they did well was show how Palpatine slowly, over the course of a decade, set all the pieces in place for the rise of his Empire. We see in Attack of the Clones that Palpatine was already planning the creation of the first Death Star, something that wouldn’t be complete until some 25 years later.

The First Order, then, would’ve had considerably less capital to work with than Palpatine did, given that the galaxy would likely be in an economic depression (not to mention the political chaos caused by the formation of the New Republic). And yet somehow the First Order was able to achieve dominance faster, and to a greater extent, than the Empire before it.

Abrams and crew, by the end of The Force Awakens, have somehow created a threat greater than the Empire ever was, but in a way that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

How the Force Awakens should’ve approached world building

The EU was on the right track with the understanding that the Empire wouldn’t completely collapse overnight. Others would attempt to fill the power vacuum, using the remnants of the Empire’s force.

And the New Republic, while its goals were certainly noble, would have a difficult time actually establishing a galaxy-wide government. How exactly could one government somehow maintain control of so many disparate systems? In The Phantom Menace, we saw that the Old Republic couldn’t even handle a simple trade dispute on a backwoods planet.

The Force Awakens should’ve began with both the fledgling New Republic and the resistant First Order each vying for power. And there would be no “Resistance” separate from the New Republic. Why would the New Republic be financing a secret organization that shares their same goals for peace in the galaxy? Why exactly didn’t the New Republic have an army, considering that many people would remember how well it worked out for the Old Republic when they didn’t have an army?

The Prequel Trilogy was criticized, rightfully so, for having far too much politics, far too much talking and legislating. Those criticisms have been well-voiced the past 15 years.

The Force Awakens, however, shows us absolutely nothing about how the New Republic functions. The viewer is treated to about 10 seconds of footage about the New Republic. We see a new planet and a new city that we know nothing about. We see dozens of people standing on a balcony, presumably the leaders of the New Republic? And then there’s a flash of light as the planets are vaporized by Starkiller Base.

It’s like Abrams wanted to reset the Star Wars universe as quickly as possible, to return us to the classic conflict of the Underdogs vs. a repressive Empire. The Legend or Korra recognized that it couldn’t top a Hundred Years War, so it didn’t even try. The Force Awakens did try, and hurt itself in the process.

The Force Awakens actually succeeded the most at world building in the first few minutes that we meet Rey. We see her scavenging through a deserted Star Destroyer and selling the parts. As she speeds into town, we see several downed Star Destroyers, the artifacts of a war a generation removed. Rey even lives in a broken down AT-AT!

Downed Star Destroyer in The Force Awakens

Those first few minutes with Rey are my favorite part of the movie. They provide a glimpse of how far the galaxy has to go in healing itself from the Empire. And isn’t that how military conflicts in real life resolve, after decades and decades of rebuilding? After all, the Great Wall of China was designed to protect the country against invaders. Post-World War II Germany was segregated into Eastern and Western sections for two generations. Many countries in Asia still have landmines buried from the result of wars long past.

And many nations around the world, including the United States, are still using military equipment that’s several generations old! The First Order shouldn’t be outfitted with shiny new black Star Destroyers. They should be using equipment from the Empire days that’s visibly degraded. You know how Han’s Millennium Falcon is always breaking down? Why aren’t the TIE Fighters doing the same thing?

The Force Awakens should’ve opened with a scrappy New Republic, struggling to keep everything hanging together. And the aggressors should’ve been the remnants of the Empire, jury rigging whatever equipment they could find just to keep their army functioning.

The citizens of the New Republic should be frustrated with the lack of progress that the galaxy’s made in recovering from the Empire. And the First Order should step in to show them a clear alternative, a group of people who believes they can return the galaxy to the glory days of the Empire.

There’s a scene right before the Starkiller Base fires when General Hux, dressed in black, gives a stirring speech about the majesty of power to crowds of assembled troops. Abrams was clearly drawing off Nazi imagery, and I think the Nazis provide a useful, albeit clichéd, lens for understanding the First Order. That’s fine, but Abrams misstepped by paralleling the Nazis at the height of their power: he should’ve paralleled the Nazis during their rise to power.

In the 1930s, Hitler arose to speak to the needs and desires of the German people. He promised a return to glory. He spoke to people who were fed up with the economic depression they were experiencing, caused in part by crippling debt from World War I.

I don’t think Starkiller Base was the correct plot device in the Force Awakens. It should’ve been something much smaller scale—after all, how can the Star Wars team possibly top this conflict by Episode IX? It would’ve been wise, though, if the First Order, by the end of the movie, managed to destroy, or at least significantly damage, the fragile New Republic.

Then, in Episode VIII, we’d see a shift in power. The New Republic and the First Order are no longer co-equals. The First Order clearly has the advantage, and the collapsing New Republic becomes the seed of the new Resistance.

The Force Awakens has already succeeded in introducing several new lovable, human, relatable characters. The Legend of Korra proved that if you have strong characters and strong relationships, you can still have a successful story, even if the scope of the conflict doesn’t match the level of the previous series.

If only the Force Awakens had shown similar discretion.

~Dennis

12 minutes of Great Toonami Interstitials and Promos

Fans of Toonami need no introduction to the greatest action animation programming block, but if you’ve never heard of Toonami, let me explain. Toonami was Cartoon Network’s primary action programming block from 1997 to 2008. Toonami was notable for bringing Japanese animation into the mainstream with exceptional shows like Sailor Moon, Dragon Bball Z, Outlaw Star, Robotech, Voltron, and Gundam Wing. Monday thru Friday kids across America would get home from school and turn on the toons.

Even though Toonami’s anime was often heavily edited for content, the programming block still managed to introduce viewers to serious shows that never talked down to them. Wrapped around the shows themselves was the Toonami packaging: techno music, blood-pumping intros that replaced the animes’ original openings, and the most intense promos.

While most networks limit promos to 0:30, Toonami did something different. They created unique 2:00+ interstitials that aired in between shows. These interstitials were super cuts of multiple shows put to music, and each had a theme, and dare I say, a message. As somebody who used to work at a local network television station, these interstitials are very curious to me in retrospect. Why would a network devote several minutes of airtime to what amounts to fan videos when they could instead be airing advertisements?

I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe they had trouble finding advertisers for the whole of Toonami’s ad space. Whatever the reason, these interstitials established a culture and an identity for Toonami. And they remain works of art even today.

Note: Credit for these videos goes out to SlimD716 on YouTube. This person has spent considerable time cataloging as many Toonami promos as possible, and has even remastered many in HD. They look so amazing!

Broken Promise (Dreams)

“A boy has a right to dream. There are endless possibilities stretched out before him.”

“As they search, they are always asking questions. What’s out there? What’s waiting for me? Why was I made? Who made me? And what did they make me for?”

“You gonna just keep running away?” “Just keep running away? … I’m not running.”

“Believe in yourself, and create your own destiny. Don’t fear failure.”

This interstitial has an ethereal quality to it. It’s about dreaming big, but in so doing, being confronted with fears while trying to realize those dreams. The key quote from this interstitial comes from Hilda, who asks Gene Starwind “You gonna just keep running away?” This comes from Outlaw Star, an anime about space bounty hunters. Interestingly, the main character, Gene, has a fear of space travel in the beginning of the series. It’s kind of difficult to have a space show about a pilot who’s afraid of space. But after Hilda questions Gene, he gradually overcomes his fear of space.

Shows used: Primarily Outlaw Star, but also Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Tenchi in Tokyo, and Tenchi Universe.

Pardon Our Dust

There are almost no words to this interstitial (aside from King Kai’s great interruption in the action: “Get set…and go!” but that’s okay. This interstitial has probably the best cadence of any of them, both visually and aurally. The message is simple: Toonami airs a lot of shows that have a lot of explosions. This video is probably one of the most memorable from Toonami’s “Golden Years” (about 1998-2001), mostly because they played it so often.

This interstitial is more than just a pretty piece of video to look at. Behind all of these explosions are fights and battles, featuring characters who are all fighting for something important: the people they love, their communities, or even the entire world.

My favorite part of the video is the clip of Goku punching Jeice in the nose. That dude was such a showboat!

Shows used: Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, ReBoot, Ronin Warriors, and Sailor Moon (just one very short clip of Sailor Jupiter attacking from 0:50-0:51)

Advanced Robotics

“Man’s greatest inventions, making the impossible possible, are no longer under our control.”

“This new breed of technology makes humanity obsolete.”

“Robots thinking, acting on their own, begin their march toward domination.”

“The robots among us, watching, waiting, calculate their new world order. Their time is coming. They cannot be stopped.”

“Let the fall of mankind give way to a new age.”

Not only did Toonami like explosions, but they liked robots. I’ve always been fascinated with storylines involving robots. The idea of humanity creating something greater than ourselves, and then the creation rebelling against us, seems very real and very possible to me. And yet in all of these shows, humans overcome the robots (often with the help of their own obedient robots). While shows about robots rebelling have always given me a certain kind of fear, the message of these shows is always the same: humans will always overcome robots in the end because we possess something special that can never be automated.

Note: According to the YouTube comments on this interstitial, the voice-over is Optimus Prime. Does anybody know what show/movie the narration is from, or was it an original recording for this promo using the voice actor who just so happened to voice Optimus Prime?

Shows used: The Big O, Blue Submarine No. 6, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Superman The Animated Series, and Outlaw Star.

Courage

I honestly don’t remember this one. At some point, Toonami did a series of interstitials about virtues exemplified by their shows. This one is about courage. The message is a bit preachy, and of all the videos in this post, this is my least favorite. But I’m including it because it features the amazing clip of Gohan facing down Recoome: “My dad taught me not to be scared of bullies like you!”

Shows used: Dragon Ball Z, The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest, ReBoot, and Sailor Moon.

Mad Rhetoric (Walking Stick)


Compared to the other interstitials on this list, Mad Rhetoric’s theme is difficult to discern. The interstitial pulls clips from a wide range of shows (many of which are used in other interstitials). There are many quotations throughout, but some are hard to hear. Nothing really stands out until the final line, “Nothing good can ever come from staying with normal people.” (What show is that from? Leave a comment if you know.)

This single line sort of defines my relationship with Toonami and my friends throughout high school and beyond. My closest friends were those who were into anime, video games, and Dungeons and Dragons. The nerdy kids, if you will. Over the years, Toonami introduced us to a wide range of unique, crazy, weird, off-the-wall, abnormal, and otherwise deranged characters, and we were all better for it.

As I reflect on the people I’ve known throughout my life, the ones who were “not normal” were and still are the most interesting. Toonami was a celebration of the abnormality of each individual.

Shows used: Blue Submarine No. 6, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star, Tenchi Muyo, and Tenchi in Tokyo.

Space is the Place

“To outer space, every one of us!”

“This is a pretty large scale operation.” Right. But it’ll be dangerous.” “So what? That’s never stopped us before.” “Right. But it’ll be dan–it’ll be dangerous.”

“We all have to make it out to space!”

“Never forget how beautiful the earth looks from afar.”

“Outer space…It’s so quiet.”

“Will you please come with me?” “Where to?” “Outer space.”

“Talented people are capable of understanding us.”

Easily the best Toonami video ever. They played this one a lot, and it really inspired me to think about space in a new light. Space is the place to be, and I want to go there someday. But as these clips from Gundam Wing show, space is also a very difficult place to live and is fraught with danger.

My favorite part of the clip is Quatre’s heavy breathing from 0:43-0:53. I don’t remember exactly when this scene happened, but I believe it was around the time he piloted the Wing Zero and began destroying space colonies. Quatre, who was mostly a pacifist at the beginning of Gundam Wing, eventually went crazy and decided the only way to stop the war in space was to kill everybody. His story arc is pretty interesting and is filled with emotional moments like this one.

Shows used: Mostly Gundam Wing, but three visual and one audio clip from Dragon Ball Z.

Legend of Korra Book Two Retrospective Continued: Criticism of this Season’s Character Arcs

Despite having quite a few criticisms of the Legend of Korra in my last post, I thoroughly enjoyed the half-season: it’s clearly the best animation currently on television.

Last post, I focused more on the overall issues with the story. In this post, I want to focus on specific characters. Korra has a LOT of characters, and some had better story arcs than others.

Story arcs done well

Unalaq

Let’s start with the villains. Unalaq was a formidable foe and managed to do something I didn’t think was possible: he upped the ante compared to Airbender. In Airbender, Aang had to save the entire world from the Firelord. It was a lofty goal, and the importance cannot be understated: the world had been at war for a hundred years. Fireload Ozai was on the verge of burning down the Earth Kingdom.

When Korra was announced, I thought, “There’s no way they can top Airbender. What, are they going to have her save the entire world again?” Korra did save the entire world again, but her mission was no repeat Death Star a la Return of the Jedi. The stakes for Korra were arguably higher.

Unalaq knew exactly what he wanted, and he had the right amount of charm and evil: he managed to coax Korra to his side for a few episodes, remember?

Even more interesting about Unalaq is how Korra actually believed in his message at the end. Unalaq thought that there should be no bridge between the spirit and physical world. Korra surprisingly agreed and united the worlds (well, it remains to be seen how united they are) in a different, less violent way than Unalaq intended.

The only thing I didn’t like about Unalaq was his immense understanding of the spirit world. Why are there so many people this season who seem to know so much about the spirit world, when Aang’s world was basically clueless about spirits?

Tonraq

Korra and Tonraq

Korra and Tonraq express their love for each other.

Tonraq didn’t get as much development as Unalaq, but he had an interesting backstory nonetheless. What’s interesting about Legend of Korra compared to Airbender is how much more family there is. Aang had no parents–Korra’s parents are at least present. And while she doesn’t always get along with her father, she loves him. I think one of the best scenes from this season was Korra asking her father if it was okay to enter his house after she favored Unalaq over him.

Mako

I wasn’t sure about Mako’s turn to cop at first, but I think it fits him. Mako’s story arc was separate from Korra’s much of the time, which allowed him to shine on his own. One thing I wished Airbender had done was broken up the main group a little more often. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph pretty much stuck together the entire time. In Book Two of Korra, Mako, Bolin, Korra, Tenzin, and Asami basically have their own separate story arcs going on.

Last kiss between Mako and Korra

Last kiss between Mako and Korra

I appreciated, too, that the love triangle between Mako, Asami, and Korra was toned down but resolved this season. Korra and Mako made the right decision to stop seeing each other.

Bolin

Bolin and Asami

Bolin confides in Asami how different things are this season with everybody doing their own thing. He seems genuinely sad that the group was broken up.

Bolin also had a chance to shine this season. In Book One, he felt more like he was tagging along. He was meant to be the comic relief, but actually wasn’t nearly as funny as Sokka. Yes he’s an earthbender, but nothing special. He didn’t have that many distinct aspects of his personality.

In Book Two, though, we finally got some good character development. Yes, Bolin was a blockhead and never once stopped to think about the morality of the propaganda films, but that’s okay. At least he was entertaining.

Desna and Eska

Eska kisses Bolin

Eska and Bolin try to rekindle their relationship.

I’m still not sure what to think of these characters, nor am I completely comfortable putting them in this section of “well-developed character arcs.” They were present a lot, but didn’t have many original thoughts. Eska got a little more development than Desna. I’m not sure I liked the Eska-Bolin love story, but it was funny at times.

Most of the season I was bothered with the twins’ monotone “nerdy” voices: haven’t we seen this character type before? But by the end, they actually showed a little emotion as they struggled to follow their father into eternal darkness. When I think back to Airbender, though, I was fine with Mai and Ty Lee as characters, even though they also didn’t have much development, so I guess I’m fine with Desna and Eska. Hopefully we see them in future episodes.

Desna is mad

Desna is mad at Korra’s suggestion that he betray his father.

Varrick

The shipping magnate Varrick ended up being my favorite new character this season. He got a lot of screen time, had the best jokes, and was perhaps most pivotal to the overall plot. Varrick was the one who convinced Korra that Unalaq couldn’t be trusted. Varrick helped lead the first rebellion of the southern water tribe against the northern occupation. Varrick helped Korra and crew escape from the south pole. Korra may have started the civil war, but Varrick was the one who made it happen: he hired Fire Nation thugs to impersonate northern water tribe terrorists; he bought Asami’s company and provided tanks for the war; he shipped those tanks to the south; he provided all the propaganda for the war.

Varrick was one of those rare versatile characters: he gets stuff done. His morality is ambiguous: in the end, we should probably view his actions as evil. In a way, he’s like Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad: Varrick doesn’t think about right or wrong: he only thinks pragmatically.

Zhu Li and Varrick escape from prison

Hopefully we see Zhu Li “do the thing” again next season!

If Varrick is to Saul Goodman, then Zhu Li is to Huell. She doesn’t get any character development: we don’t know what motivates her, why she follows Varrick, or if she even agrees with his actions. But we don’t necessarily need her to say these things: the fact that she does follow him, and follows his orders without question, tells us a lot. She probably does admire Varrick to some degree (romantically, though, who knows?), and sees her mission in life as supporting Varrick. In this way, she’s similar to Misa Amane from Death Note or Riza Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist.

Korra and Tenzin

I’m analyzing these two characters together for a reason. Korra and Tenzin obviously had the most well-developed arcs on the show. I think Tenzin is arguably co-equal in terms of importance to Korra, just like Katara and Sokka are co-equal with Aang in Airbender. What I loved about this season was the continued growth of Tenzin and Korra’s relationship.

They started out in a bad place, and Korra dismissed Tenzin as her mentor. Tenzin, though, accepted it, and went away to fight his own demons. But they came together at the end, forgave each other, and encouraged each other.

Tenzin and Korra’s relationship is the most mature one on the show. Tenzin’s relationship with Korra is more complex than the relationships with his own wife and children. Yes, he loves his family, but those relationships are simple. He takes care of them, he protects them, he loves them. With Korra, there’s obviously no romantic connection between the two, so the creators are allowed to explore the mentor-student relationship in all its complexity.

Tenzin and Korra

Tenzin tells Korra he’s proud of her.

What I also love about their relationship is that it’s not the typical mentor-student relationship we see in fantasy. Take Obi-Wan (with Luke) and Gandalf, two old mentors on the same level as Tenzin. Obi-Wan and Gandalf are wise, benevolent, and always right. They are nearly “perfect” and exist to further the destinies of Luke and Frodo. They don’t really have much maturing to do in their own right.

While Tenzin is wise compared to Korra, he’s not always right. In fact, Book Two makes Tenzin out to be a chump at times, given his repeated failures in spiritual matters. And Tenzin and Korra have quite a bit of friction in their relationship, unlike Obi-Wan and Luke or Gandalf and Frodo.

Tenzin unrolls Korra's sleeves

One of my favorite non-verbal scenes from Book One, Tenzin subtly correcting Korra’s training attire by rolling down her sleeves.

Tenzin can provide support for Korra as the Avatar in a way her father can’t. And Tenzin realizes his destiny is not just to propagate the Air Nomad line and train his kids in airbending: his real destiny seems to be supporting the Avatar in any way that she needs him. By the end of the season, Tenzin submits to Korra, telling her that he has nothing more to teach her and that he will support whatever decision she makes regarding whether or not to keep the spirit portals open.

I’m not sure if it’s true that Tenzin has nothing more to teach Korra. Perhaps now, though, the two of them can develop a friendship of equality, having moved past the student-mentor relationship, similar to how Obi-Wan and Anakin had a friendship relationship in Episode III, or how Teacher and Ed and Alphonse had a friendship relationship in Fullmetal Alchemist.

Story arcs that could’ve been better

Kya and Bumi

Bumi plays the flue

Silly Bumi with his silly pink earmuffs!

Ah yes, Tenzin’s family. While Tenzin got a lot of character development this season, and even spent a lot of time with his brother and sister, they, on other hand, didn’t get much development at all. Kya and Bumi were simply one-trick ponies: foils to Tenzin without their own senses of autonomy. Kya and Bumi were there making fun of Tenzin the entire season, and Tenzin lost of patience with them on more than one occasion. We don’t know much about Kya at all, other than that she spent her youth traveling the world “in search of herself,” then settled down in the south pole to take care of her mother.

I’m perhaps most disappointed in Bumi’s character. Yes, he contributed some good jokes here and there, but as a person, he didn’t seem to have any direction. At the end of Book One, we briefly see Bumi arriving on Air Temple Island. We are told he’s a great general and military leader. But at the beginning of Book Two, he’s already given up the military life. Why? His definitive character trait was immediately introduced then removed. In Book Two, he’s simply a lost soul following Tenzin around the world. Sure, he helps in the final battle and helps find Jinora, but beyond that, doesn’t have an original thought in his head.

Tenzin’s family

The rest of Tenzin’s family–his wife Pema and children Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo–didn’t get much development either, even though we spent a lot of time with them. Pema just plays the part of new mom taking care of Rohan: is Rohan’s name even spoken this season? Ikki had an episode where she discovered a lot of sky bison babies, but then left them and didn’t do much the rest of the season.

Meelo had an episode where he trained a hundred ring-tailed lemurs: I thought that was going to go somewhere, but no. It was just a throw-away sight gag.

Meelo trains Poki

Meelo tries to demonstrate to Poki how to roll over while Tenzin looks on with veiled condemnation.

Jinora obviously had more character development than the rest of the family. She’s the one who guided Korra into the spirit world, and she’s the one who resurrected Raava (maybe? how?) Nobody knows exactly what Jinora did at the end, or how she knew how to do it, so hopefully there’s an explanation coming down the pipe.

Tenzin carries Jinora

Tenzin carries Jinora

After being reunited with her father after being trapped in the spirit prison, Jinora tells Tenzin that she has something else to do, and she has to go away. Here’s how I hoped the final battle would’ve resolved itself: Jinora becomes the new Raava, rather than just resurrecting the old Raava, and then merges with Korra’s spirit, sacrificing herself so that Korra can save the world. It would’ve been a very sad scene had Jinora sacrificed herself, but it would’ve taught us something about the unique role each person has in combating evil.

While it would be deep for a children’s show, Airbender had a similar sacrifice when Yue turned into the moon.

Asami

Asami the pilot

I talked a lot about Asami in the last post, so I won’t spend too much time on her again. There was so much potential for her. One challenge with Asami compared to the other characters is that she’s not a bender: the show clearly focuses way more on benders than non-benders. But in Book One of Korra she proved that she could stand her own in a fight just fine without bending. In Book Two, she’s now an ace fighter pilot, which is useful a couple times, but when it came to the final battle, she was sent away, which is unfortunate, as it just reinforced the idea from Book One: Air that benders really are superior to non-benders.

Story arcs that failed

General Iroh, President Raiko, Lin Beifong

The three people stuck in Republic City didn’t really do much at all. Lin Beifong’s story arc seemed to end in Book One when her earthbending powers were returned to her.

President Raiko was a new character. Even though he was somebody in power and of importance, he did nothing. He was simply obstinate for the sake of obstinacy when Korra asked for his help fighting Unalaq.

President Raiko

“My name’s President Raiko, and I don’t feel the need to explain myself to somebody as lowly as the Avatar!”

And General Iroh…can we drop this character already? I know the creators were really pleased with Dante Basco’s performance as Zuko in Airbender, but this actor was mishandled and shoehorned in as General Iroh, the son of Zuko. Basco’s voice is just too distinctive and doesn’t fit the personality of the new General Iroh.

General Iroh

General Iroh only appeared on screen for this one shot during the final battle…how pathetic.

I believe General Iroh only had two scenes this entire season: one when Korra asked him for help and was rejected, and one tiny, tiny scene in the final battle when his ships ineffectively attacked Unavaatu. It’s almost as if the creators wanted Basco to work with them, but didn’t have a good idea for his character. They knew it had to be connected to Zuko because of Basco’s unique voice, but beyond that, they don’t have any plan for General Iroh. He’s easily my least favorite character of the series.

Appreciated cameos!

And then we had some callbacks to Airbender this season. These people didn’t have character arcs, per se, but their brief appearances added to the story nonetheless. Overall, Book Two of Korra did much better connecting to the original series than Book One did. In Book One, it seemed like there were an excessive number of references to the first series just to remind people that the shows were connected (the worst connection was Ikki asking Katara in the first episode whatever happened to Zuko’s mom…why would she care about such a peripheral character?)

Uncle Iroh

I was genuinely surprised when Uncle Iroh showed up in Korra. He was sort of a deus ex machina, showing up at just the right time to guide Korra, but that’s okay.

I’m really pleased that Iroh left the physical world and came to the spirit world, however that happened. It didn’t seem like a forced decision by the creators, either: Admiral Zhao commented to General Iroh in Book One of Airbender that he’d heard of Iroh’s journeys into the spirit world. It was never a detail elaborated upon in Airbender, but it is consistent with his character.

Iroh in the spirit world

Hello old friend!

I was also exceptionally pleased with Greg Baldwin, the voice actor for Iroh. Iroh’s original voice actor, Mako, died between Books Two and Three of Airbender. Greg Baldwin took over voice work in Book Three (and also took over for Mako’s other unfinished roles, like Aku from Samurai Jack and Splinter from TMNT). It’s really hard to replicate another person’s voice, and Baldwin did the best he could, but his Iroh was nowhere near as good as Mako’s. In Book Three of Airbender, it sounded like Baldwin was trying too hard to imitate Mako’s voice.

In Korra, though, Baldwin does a much better job of mimicking Mako’s voice, so much so that I can’t really tell that his Iroh is different than Mako’s. Maybe if I heard the two side by side I could, but separate, I can’t.

Avatar Aang

Old Aang in the spirit prison

Aang’s role in Book Two of Korra was significantly reduced compared to the first season, and I think that’s okay. After all, Avatar Roku played a larger role in Books One and Three of Airbender, but not as much in Book Two. I’m also glad we got to see an older version of Aang, not the 30-something version we see in Book One. As long as the creators don’t retcon their own story in Book Three: Changes, this should be the last time we see Aang. And we see him giving parting thoughts to his son Tenzin, which is an appropriate final message.

Admiral Zhao

Zhao in the spirit prison

I was really surprised to see Admiral Zhao in the spirit prison, but it makes sense. He really made the spirits mad when he killed the moon spirit in Airbender. We saw the moon spirit grab him and take him away, but we never knew what happened to him. I figured he died: it seems like the spirit prison is a hell of sorts. In the spirit prison scenes, I looked really closely at the background characters several times to see if perhaps other characters from Airbender were trapped in the prison, but I couldn’t make out anybody distinctive.

Whew, that’s the end of my two-part analysis! Share in the comment section who your favorite characters were this season!

~Dennis

Book Two: Spirits Retrospective: The Legend of Korra

Book Two: Spirits has finished. It was a quick half-season, but a successful and innovative season in many ways.

As the season progressed, many websites gave reviews of individual episodes as they aired. This is fine, but mostly these “reviews” end up being half summary, half speculation about what it could mean going forward.

But now that the season has concluded, let’s take a retrospective look at the season in its entirety to find out what worked and what didn’t.

Full spoilers ahead. Obviously.

The world's eye opens

When Korra destroys Vaatu, it’s as if the world is opening its eye to light again.

Improvements over the first season

The first book of Korra had a lot of pressure to be successful. It was coming off the hugely successful Last Airbender, a show I easily regard as my favorite visual programming of all time (including television shows, movies, animation, and live-action).

The co-creators, Michale Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, decided to approach Korra differently than Airbender. In Airbender, DiMartino and Konietzko occasionally wrote some episodes, usually episodes that were pivotal to the story. So they had some direct influence on the story, but not complete influence.

For Book One of Korra, they decided to write all the episodes themselves, 12 total. At first, I was excited. I thought, “If those two are writing all the episodes, then Korra will be on its A-game the entire time!” But I was also leery. Remember when George Lucas obtained complete creative control of the Star Wars prequel trilogy? The prequels ended up being hugely disappointing compared to the original series. Why?

Well, there are many reasons, but I think the main reason is that audio-visual storytelling is a collaborative enterprise. One author can write a novel, but it takes a team to create a television show or movie. Give one or two people complete control over everything, and the audience loses out on the creative collaboration that (usually) enhances the final product.

While Book One of Korra was great, it was no Airbender, the audio and visuals being the exception: Korra hit that out of the park. But when it came to the story, Korra noticeably felt rushed.

Part of the reason Korra was rushed has to do with Nickelodeon. Korra was originally intended to be a one-shot 12-episode mini-series. Midway through production, they expanded Korra to 26 episodes, then 52. The creators decided: instead of telling one coherent story for 52 episodes (Airbender had 61 episodes), let’s tell four smaller, independent stories.

As such, Book One had all the makings of a long, drawn out series. In the final episode, Korra lost her bending, and I thought, “This is great! Book Two will be called Spirit [I almost guessed right; it’s called “Spirits”] and will be about Korra struggling as an Avatar without any powers, gaining them back, and eventually defeating Amon, who becomes an Avatar antithesis.”

Nope. About 5 minutes after Korra loses her powers, Avatar Aang appears “deus-ex-machina-style” and gives them back to her. She gives everybody their bending back, everybody is happy, the end.

For Book Two, the co-creators thankfully relinquished some of their writing credits. Dimartino still wrote, but only a few episodes. Book Two also had 2 more episodes to work with than Book One (14 compared to 12), so they had a little more breathing room.

The realities of war are left unexamined

The great thing about Airbender was that it showed children and adults the consequences of war. This was a fighting show, a violent show, to be sure, but it didn’t revel in the violence. It acknowledged that people died in war. People got burned by the Fire Nation and had permanent scars. Families were broken apart by war. The Fire Nation committed genocide of the Air Nomads. Aang wrestled with the morality of killing the Firelord. This was all very deep stuff, and Airbender was applauded for discussing war in an honest, adult way.

I personally think Airbender shows the realities of war better than any adult movie or television show that discusses war.

Unalaq sucks out Raava

Unalaq sucks Raava out of Korra. I think this scene is easily the most violent in the season, paralleled only by the violence of energybending at the end of Airbender. This is spiritual violence, destroying the core of a person. Not all violence is physical.

Unalaq destroys Raava

Unalaq’s destruction of Raava was just as violent. The line of Avatars is broken forever. It really felt like this was a loss.

Book Two of Korra introduced new aspects of war that Airbender had never explored before.

  • There was a civil war between the northern and southern water tribes.
  • Asami and Varrick became war profiteers, merchants of death, selling tanks and weapons of war to the southern water tribe.
  • Varrick crassly used Bolin to spread war propaganda.

These three issues had the potential for instructing children about even more facets of war. And yet, all three were shortsighted.

The civil war that never was

Something has always bothered me about the southern and northern water tribes: are they composed of only one city each? In Airbender, we see one giant city in the north and one tiny village in the south. In Korra, we see one tiny village in the south, and one pretty big city in the south, but nothing in the north. Are these three cities all that constitute the water tribe, or are there more cities we just never see?

It’s an important question: if we knew the full extent of the water tribes’ boundaries, maybe the civil war would seem more real. But because we have such a narrow view of the water tribes, the civil war also seems insignificant.

Korra ditches the southern water tribe just as war breaks out and doesn’t return until the end of the book. We have no idea what the civil war is doing to the southern water tribe. Are people oppressed? In what ways? We don’t know. We never see the effects of war.

Effects of Korra's civil war

We do see this small scene of wounded, Katara too overwhelmed to heal them all. But this small scene is only a few seconds long.

In Airbender, we clearly saw the effects the Fire Nation had on the people. We saw people in the Earth Kingdom who had burns: we know they got those burns from somewhere. We saw Fire Nation flags draped over the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu.

We don’t see such things in Korra. It would be interesting if waterbending actually left permanent scars on people the same way firebending does. I grew up in North Dakota: I know that ice and cold can burn you–it’s called frostbite. When waterbenders encase people in ice, do they not get frostbite? People who suffer frostbite often lose toes and fingers, hands and feet.

Tanraq battles

Tonraq leads a small group of insurgents against Unalaq’s army, but scenes of civil war are rare in Korra.

Korra missed a real opportunity in this regard. What if Korra had returned to the southern water tribe, only to find that not only were people injured, but many had suffered frostbite? What if many waterbenders had their hands frozen off and could no longer bend? Typing that out sounds very dark for a children’s show, but Airbender did it. The main antagonist of the first season, Zuko, was permanently burned on his face via his father. Can anybody say child abuse?

Is nobody bothered by Bolin’s propaganda?

Bolin becomes a mover star (read: movie star) as Nuktuk, water tribe warrior of the south. Varrick’s propaganda films were clearly influenced by real-life World War I and II propaganda films. Bolin was finally given a unique identity this season. His mover scenes provided a lot of comic relief, but also had something to say about the morality of stretching the truth for a good cause (supporting the southern water tribe).

Bolin acting out a mover

Bolin’s big fight scene in “Night of a Thousand Stars” was probably my favorite fight this season. The animators really went out of their way animating Bolin twice in each scene: as a waterbender and an earthbender.

But nobody ever raises any objections to the propaganda, which is unfortunate. Bolin is a blockhead, so maybe he fails to see the significance of the propaganda. But what does Asami think? She watches Bolin’s movers and says nothing at all?

What about Korra? Bolin impersonates a waterbender and basically “borrows” Korra’s polar bear dog Naga for weeks on end. Is Korra not bothered by it? Why doesn’t anybody say to Bolin, “Hey, do you think these movers are acceptable?”

Nuktuk poster

For some reason, Nickelodeon is really slow to capitalize on merchandising for Korra. This poster, though, needs to be made!

Asami: the merchant of death

Asami’s company Future Industries is on the verge of bankruptcy following her father’s actions in Book One of Korra. Asami has no money; her inventory is stolen at one point; and she’s in desperate need of doing something to save the company. So Varrick comes up with an idea: why don’t you sell your mecha tanks to the people of the southern water tribe? They are being oppressed: they need weapons. It’s a win for them and a win for you.

Asami immediately agrees, which is fine at first. She’s just a teenager and maybe is thinking in the short-term. But throughout the entire season, she never once considers: I am profiting off the destruction of life. People are dying because of my weapons. Am I okay with this?

Useless Asami

Asami doesn’t even hang around for the final battle. She’s only an ambulance driver. She’s sad because maybe she realizes there’s nothing special about her this season.

When Team Avatar returns to the southern water tribe, it would’ve been really interesting to get Asami’s reaction to the way her tanks were being used to kill people. When Korra led the assault on the southern spirit portal, mecha tanks, controlled by Unalaq, surrounded it. Did Unalaq (who’s from the northern water tribe, remember) somehow steal the mecha tanks intended for the southern water tribe? Where did he get them? Why doesn’t Asami comment on this?

Bolin certainly had no qualms about blowing up the tanks.

Unalaq says he will fuse with Vaatu

When Unalaq said he would fuse with Vaatu, Eska and Desna are briefly surprised. Korra’s non-verbal storytelling, at least, is on top of its game.

The problem with a “tight” story

The overall problem with Korra is this: by writing “tight” stories, seasons with no “filler” episodes, the creators thought they were enhancing their storytelling capabilities. In reality, Korra has proven that the “filler” episodes in Airbender really weren’t so filler after all.

Let me show you. Below is a list of every episode of Airbender. I’ve classified the episodes in three ways: essential episodes, filler episodes that become important, and straight up filler episodes. Korra was supposed to be like Airbender, but without any filler.

Book One: Water

  1. The Boy in the Iceberg (essential)
  2. The Avatar Returns (essential)
  3. The Southern Air Temple (essential)
  4. The Warriors of Kyoshi (filler that becomes important)
  5. The King of Omashu (filler that becomes important)
  6. Imprisoned (filler that becomes important)
  7. The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) (essential)
  8. Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2) (essential)
  9. The Waterbending Scroll (filler that becomes important)
  10. Jet (filler that becomes important)
  11. The Great Divide (filler)
  12. The Storm (essential)
  13. The Blue Spirit (essential)
  14. The Fortuneteller (filler)
  15. Bato of the Water Tribe (filler that becomes important)
  16. The Deserter (filler that becomes important)
  17. The Northern Air Temple (filler that becomes important)
  18. The Waterbending Master (essential)
  19. The Siege of the North, Part 1 (essential)
  20. The Siege of the North, Part 2 (essential)

Book Two: Earth

  1. The Avatar State (essential)
  2. The Cave of Two Lovers (filler)
  3. Return to Omashu (filler that becomes important)
  4. The Swamp (filler that becomes important)
  5. Avatar Day (filler)
  6. The Blind Bandit (essential)
  7. Zuko Alone (essential)
  8. The Chase (essential)
  9. Bitter Work (essential)
  10. The Library (essential)
  11. The Desert (filler)
  12. The Serpent’s Pass (filler that becomes important)
  13. The Drill (essential)
  14. City of Walls and Secrets (essential)
  15. Tales of Ba Sing Se (filler)
  16. Appa’s Lost Days (filler that becomes important)
  17. Lake Laogai (essential)
  18. The Earth King (essential)
  19. The Guru (essential)
  20. The Crossroads of Destiny (essential)
Korra's cosmic energy

I love the callback to Book Two of Airbender when Korra fuses with her cosmic spiritual energy.

Book Three: Fire

  1. The Awakening (essential)
  2. The Headband (filler)
  3. The Painted Lady (filler)
  4. Sokka’s Master (essential)
  5. The Beach (filler that becomes important)
  6. The Avatar and the Firelord (essential)
  7. The Runaway (filler)
  8. The Puppetmaster (filler that becomes important)
  9. Nightmares and Daydreams (filler)
  10. The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: The Invasion (essential)
  11. The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse (essential)
  12. The Western Air Temple (essential)
  13. The Firebending Masters (essential)
  14. The Boiling Rock, Part 1 (filler that becomes important)
  15. The Boiling Rock, Part 2 (essential)
  16. The Southern Raiders (filler)
  17. The Ember Island Players (filler)
  18. Sozin’s Comet, Part 1: The Phoenix King (essential)
  19. Sozin’s Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters (essential)
  20. Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno (essential)
  21. Sozin’s Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang (essential)
Black and White Pabu

I love that Pabu is briefly shown in black and white. Back in the early days of film, animals and objects were sometimes painted black and white to help them show up on the camera better. I’m glad Korra contains little details like this, even if they are never explained. Airbender was good at leaving small details unexplained as well.

We could quibble about the designation I gave some of these episodes: I’m not entirely satisfied with these classifications myself. But one thing you might be wondering is: why were some episodes deemed “filler that become important?”

Airbender had a very special way of taking episodes that seemed useless, pointless, “filler,” and making them important episodes in retrospect. Characters, locations, or ideas introduced in the early episodes are referred to in later episodes. A character who seems like a throwaway at first, like Suki, ends up becoming extremely important.

The number of “essential” episodes from Airbender is as follows:

  • Book One: 10
  • Book Two: 12
  • Book Three: 12

As you can see, about the number of essential episodes is about a half-season of Korra.

The number of straight “filler,” useless episodes per season is as follows:

  • Book One: 2
  • Book Two: 4
  • Book Three: 6

Most episodes in Books One and Two eventually became important: I think Book Three has the most filler episodes because they were nearing the conclusion of the series and didn’t have time to expand upon the themes raised in some episodes.

But Airbender was about more than just filler and essential episodes. As somebody who’s watched Airbender five or six times now, I’ve found that the filler episodes were never a waste. Characters were developed, and themes of war explored in more detail. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the character arcs in Korra in more detail, but for now, let’s speculate on what some “filler” episodes of Korra could’ve looked like.

Vaatu almost trapped

I also love the callback to Airbender when Korra bends all four elements to put Vaatu back in his prison (unsuccessfully).

Filler Idea #1

The southern water tribe, we are told, was repopulated following the Hundred Years War by people from the northern water tribe. What if a soldier in the northern water tribe fights in the southern civil war and ends up facing against his cousin, uncle, or even brother? How do the two relatives feel about being on opposite sides of the same conflict? This is what Union and Confederate soldiers had to deal with in the American Civil War.

Filler Idea #2

Asami realizes that her war machines are killing people and sees directly that the more tanks she sells, the more money she gets, but the more people die. Perhaps at the beginning of the episode, she’s living the life of luxury, buying new clothes, new cars, a new house. But when she witnesses first-hand how her money comes at a consequence, she has a crisis of conscious. Perhaps she sabotages one of Varrick’s own ships, which is bringing a fresh supply of tanks to the mainland, because she doesn’t want to profit off murder anymore.

Filler Idea #3

Desna and Eska go back to the north to take care of something. While there, they remark on how empty the northern city has become now that all the ships and soldiers are gone. Perhaps some rabble-rouser tries to take advantage of the leaderless and soldierless north and stages a coup. Desna and Eska realize that the civil war is hurting the north just as much as the south. They debate what to tell their father Unalaq. They want to support his goal of reuniting the tribes, but not if it means weakening the homeland in the process.

Maybe those aren’t the best ideas, but you can see how they might work. The good thing about Korra is that there are still 26 episodes to go. Hopefully plot points raised in Books One and Two are returned to later: there’s still time.

I really hope the creators don’t drop any of the ethical questions raised in Book Two the same way they dropped the ethical questions raised in Book One. What happened to all the anti-bender sentiment from Book One? Are you telling me everybody immediately abandoned Amon once he was shown to be a fraud? Didn’t the non-benders have real concerns about being oppressed? Why is there suddenly harmony in Republic City? Book Two never answers these questions, and Korra suffers for it.

Season rating: 5/5 (a story I live my life by)

~Dennis

Tenzin's family is reunited

Tenzin’s family is reunited in the spirit world.

The Legend of Korra: Beginnings Review and Analysis

01korra-beginnings-title

If you haven’t been watching The Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon, you need to. While the show stumbled quite a bit in the first season, and has had a few missteps this season, it’s still the best animated show on television right now.

Last week Nickelodeon premiered the two-part episode “Beginnings,” which tells the origin story of the Avatar. In this episode we learn where the Avatar came from, and are given a preview of what Korra must do to balance the physical and spirit worlds. These two episodes were easily the best episodes in Korra thus far, and I’ll tell you why.

The beauty of animation

Before we talk about the story, let’s get this out of the way: the animation in these two episodes is–hands down, no debate needed–the best animation I’ve ever seen. This includes animation from classic Disney movies, which used to be higher quality than typical television shows simply due to the fact that when animators only have to animate 90 minutes of content for one movie verses hundreds of minutes of content for a full season of a television show, you expect the movie animation to be better. Korra has proven with every episode that a half-hour children’s show can set new standards in animation, and Beginnings kicked it up to 11.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Giant Frog Spirit

Legend of Korra Beginnings Tree

Legend of Korra Beginnings City on Fire

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirit World

Legend of Korra Beginnings Avatar Wan

The story takes place 10,000 years before the current show. To emphasize the ancient setting, the creators did something unprecedented: almost the entire episode was animated in the style of classic Chinese watercolor paintings. The bending especially looks amazing, from the swirls in the fire and air to the bold white and blue of the water.

Each animation frame is a work of art on its own, but when laced together, we are treated with a tapestry of visuals unlike any other.

Fleshing out the Avatar world

A good origin story has to do several things: tell a story that can stand alone from the plot of the main show, teach us something new that is relevant to the current timeline, and add details to the universe. Beginnings succeeds on all three tasks. While this episode will obviously be relevant to the rest of this season, I really enjoyed learning little details about the Avatar world.

Take firebending. At the beginning of the episode, Korra is helped by fire sages. One of the fire sages attempts to heal Korra with fire, very similar to how Katara used to heal people with waterbending. I love that firebending now contains this healing property, as the original Avatar series made it quite clear that fire is almost always used for destruction. Aang learned from the Sun Warriors that fire can also bring life, and Aang remarked that his fire was like “a little heartbeat.”

Legend of Korra Beginnings Fire Healing

It makes sense that we never saw fire used for healing in the original series, as the Fire Nation was so disconnected from their roots that all they knew was war. Now in Korra’s generation, the Fire Nation has a chance to redeem itself by showing that fire can be used for more than destruction.

We also learn that when spirits possess humans, the humans are left permanently scarred and deformed. This man, Crazy Yao, is a bit difficult to look at, but I’m glad his character was included, as it shows kids that messing around with spiritual matters can have life-altering consequences if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Crazy Yao

This episode also reintroduces the Lion Turtles, one of my favorite creatures from the original Airbender. Lion Turtles are such a unique creature, and Beginnings shows us that Lion Turtles not only protect humans, but gave them bending to begin with.

We only saw the Lion Turtle in the last couple episodes of Airbender, and while it was an impressive sight, co-creator Bryan Konietzko remarked in the DVD commentary that he was extremely disappointed with how the animation turned out, and he’s never criticized the Korean animation house before. Hopefully he was pleased with how the new Lion Turtles came out.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Lion Turtle

Finally, the creators changed the story slightly about where bending came from. In Airbender, they said that the Fire Nation learned bending from the dragons, the Water Tribe learned bending from the moon, the Earth Kingdom learned bending from the badger moles, and the Air Nomads learned bending from the sky bison. It appears, though, that the Lion Turtles actually gave humans the bending powers, and then when they retreated from the world, humans were taught how to use their bending powers from the various sources. Perhaps the Lion Turtles also gave bending to the dragons and sky bison?

Legend of Korra Beginnings Dancing Dragon

Wan learns the Dancing Dragon, the same set of moves Aang and Zuko learned from the Sun Warriors.

An episode packed with symbolism

The Avatar world has always been full of symbolism, which is great for dedicated viewers, even if children don’t always understand what’s happening. While Avatar mostly borrows from Chinese mythology and culture, it does borrow from other cultures as well. What I’ve always loved about Avatar is that the show’s not afraid to leave things unexplained: it doesn’t talk down to you by pointing out every last symbol.

Here are just a few from Beginnings:

Legend of Korra Beginnings Wan Steals Fire

The first bending discipline to be learned by Avatar Wan was fire. Wan, however, stole the fire from the Lion Turtle and was allowed to keep it when caught. This story references the great fire myths of many cultures, including the well-known myth of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirits

Raava, the white spirit, represents goodness while Vaatu, the black spirit, represents darkness and destruction. Wan was deceived by Vaatu and severed the spirits, bringing about humanity’s fall. When confronted, he tried to deny responsibility. His deception and response, then, mirrors Eve’s deception and fall with the serpent.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Water Womb

Korra receives spiritual healing inside this watery womb and then is “reborn” as the Avatar.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Lion Turtle

Some cultures have myths that the entirety of the world rests on the back of a turtle. In the world of Avatar, each original culture resided on the back of its own Lion Turtle.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirit World

In the spirit world, the southern and northern portals are apparently very close to each other. Notice the yin-yang pattern in the rocks: the spirits are supposed to be balanced with neither having supremacy.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Planets Align

Harmonic Convergence happens when the planets align, a common omen that something important is about to happen cosmically.

Legend of Korra Beginnings Spirit Prison

Wan defeated Vaatu and locked him in a spirit prison of sorts. Korra learns, though, that the next Harmonic Convergence is only a few weeks away. Vaatu must be released again, and the cosmic battle begins anew. The Book of Revelation predicts, for instance, that Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire while Jesus reigns on earth for a thousand years, but even Satan must be released for a time at the end of the 1,000 year reign.

If you haven’t done so already, check out Beginnings on Nickelodeon.com. The videos likely won’t be up forever, so don’t delay.

~Dennis