Monday, October 6, 2014

Four Elemental Reasons why you should be watching Avatar: the Legend of Korra

     The Legend of Korra is not a very controversial show, at least among Avatar fans. It is neither disappointing to these fans as a departure from Avatar: The Last Airbender, nor so well received that it experiences the evangelical zeal the first series inspired. But what it is is solid. The show is a solid sequel, a solid kid's show, just solid television in general. Few people think Legend of Korra as better than The Last Airbender, and I typically think of these two shows as different expressions of the same narrative, with their unique strengths and weaknesses. While I cannot barely scratch the details that should be considered to rate one of these shows above the other, I did just see the newest episode of LoK and I have good news for anyone whose attention is straying. If you have not yet seen this new episode, or are a season or two behind, keep watching. Here is why.....

     Fire: The Emotional Complexity in the characters

     Korra has always been a slightly more adult take on the word of Avatar. Not that its predecessor should be sneered at for being "a kid's show." TLA was both a kid's show and an adult's show, and that was wonderful. But Korra is more mature and complex, and that fits the characters just fine.

     Korra is a character defined by her status, not through arrogance, but in that she is extremely hard on herself. She is exceedingly physically capable, perhaps the most physically capable person in her society, but continuously pushes herself to be better, to better meet the expectations of the Avatar. She is not one dimensional as some other physical characters from animated TV, her drive is based on her caring for people and emotional intensity. She feels deeply, and she holds her physical success to the high standard set by her desires. Neither is she without her ingenuity, in fact, I would say that her lack of intellectual focus makes her struggles and triumphs in the worlds of words and spirit all the more interesting and cheer-inducing. Korra is also very self aware. She knows how much she does not know, and humility here has sometimes been her asset. When Korra defeats an enemy by acting outside of her normally-physical methods, the audience can appreciate her growth and development.

   ....especially in her self esteem, but no spoilers.

     Korra is not the only character with emotional depth on the show. Mako could have been pushed to the side as a romantic interest, but instead fills a larger role and develops emotionally with his brother Bolin and other characters. Likewise, Asami could have been dismissed as a non-bender, but her own story develops around the main plot, as she emotionally connects with Mako and Korra, as well as regains control of her traitorous father's corporation. And perhaps the most emotionally complex story, at least last season, went to one of the "mentor" figures, Lin Beifong, who's wrestling with her inner demons formed some of the most compelling story arcs.

     Air: Gender and feminist themes

     The show is noteworthy, I think, for how it depicts gender. The show features a physical female character who is deeper than the "strong female character" trope normally provides. Korra is not masculine in her strength, flawless in her heroic endeavors, unemotional, or angry. Korra is much more complex than that.  Korra and Asami's friendship is unusual for television in that it is not based around their relationship/desire for a man or other romantic partner, and the two of them work together in relative harmony, despite Korra's Avatar status.

     Additionally, the show depicts a world in which women are treated more equal to men, just by waving the hand and declaring it so. Bending is an equal opportunity magic and women are given the same opportunities as men to use their bending. But it was not always like this. In Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Northern Water Tribe refused to teach Katara based solely on her gender, but relented when her character and mastery was proven. The Legend of Korra builds on that change, at times showing Katara as an old woman still battling, and winning against, the prejudice that once robbed her of respect. Korra also is saddled with a sense of the prejudice - there are multiple male mentor figures trying to tell Korra what to do. In these situations, Korra's blind following of their (and anyone's) advice leads her into deeper trouble. It is only when she is able to listen to her instincts, intelligence, and experience that she truly overcomes the situation that these male mentors were trying to tell her how to solve.

     The show does not slack on the men, either. Male characters do not relate to Korra through traditionally romantic plots, and when they do, those romances have neither endured nor destroyed the friendship. When Bolin was heartbroken by a kiss shared between Korra and his brother Mako, his heartbroken sorrow gives way to wisdom. Bolin admits that he had no reason to be angry at anyone, and Korra should not feel guilty at all. He takes responsibility for his own feelings, and they are friends again. Later, Bolin is taken in by his status as a Celebrity and takes an opportunity to kiss a fellow (and possible romantically interested) actress, who is tied down at the time (gross). He later admits that the status went to his head and stops pursuing that actress. While this wasn't the hack up from that kiss I wanted, I appreciated that the show did not glorify the kiss - the entire set of behaviors on Bolin's part is shown to be a failing for which he humbly apologizes. In The Legend of Korra, men and women can indeed be healthy friends and male characters are more than their machismo.

     Water: Writing, especially in political complexity

     The show's writing is excellent, and I enjoy its complexity.  Instead of simple conflicts that represent complex moral truths, as in TLA, this show features complex conflicts that represent simple moral truths. When the disenfranchised protest, they are never shown to be one dimensional antagonists, even when they oppose the main characters. A recent complex family grudge breaks down in to a simple message of perspective and personal humility. The antagonist's philosophies are usually compelling, or at least not far from valid. The show depicts Korra battling these ideologies only in that she keeps their zealots from harming others and brings such wrong doers to justice. Her conflict with these ideologies are usually entirely internal.

     However, I am continually struck by the way different political beliefs and forces are depicted in the show. Even when the leader of a social justice movement is shown to be morally despicable, he is removed and distanced from the concerns of the movement, as if the shows writers did not want to taint their message by having them perfectly aligned with the villain. Additionally, the way that the political bodies and democratic process attempts to deal with the supernatural plots and events in TLoK is very compelling and valid.  At times, Korra has been in the wrong when she tries to overstep the democratic process. Unlike other shows that attempt to depict a simple force for good bogged down when political forces are applied, those political forces are not depicted as necessarily evil, stupid, or purely obstructionist. They are more realistic than that.

     As just a taste, I want to tell you how excited I am that this newest episodes features a plot seed for a political situation that mirrors China's historical development. The complexity they show in this plot does not paint an obvious evil, and I hope the situation will remain complex. In any case, the specific forces bringing this plot about are very true to life. You'll have to watch to know more.

     Earth: Martial Arts and Visual Beauty

     A major driving force in the show's momentum, I'd say, is the progression of the depiction of martial arts (both in bending fights and in the katas and forms themselves). TLoK has heavily developed the techniques as shown in TLA; there are more specialized benders, special bending is more prevalent, the long lost Airbending has grown far deeper than what we ever saw Aang perform. The entire arc helps me believe that I am watching a living world, and that the main effective form of violence, bending, has evolved as the world has evolved.

     The beautiful vistas and interesting scene locals are in no short supply either. TLA made a name for itself by being visually unique and enchanting, and Korra has succeeded in carrying that emphasis forward. Look out for the spirit world and Spirits, modernized technology and architecture, natural vistas, and especially the costumes. The Legend of Korra is a cosplayer's delight.

     This show is incredible, and I can't promote it enough. I truly feel that the spirit of original has been carried forward. The series is an equal to, in my opinion, the last (ahem) one and has moved beyond it, to create a unique show. Both are set in an intriguing, culturally Asian, evolving, beautiful world. However, while Airbender was an epic fantasy, much like The Hero's Journey, The Legend of Korra is a Superhero show. Probably my favorite current Superhero show.

The Legend of Korra Book 4 premiered online at last Friday. The three previous seasons are available on as well.

Jarys teaches in Alameda, where they live with their Partner, two cats, and not quite enough books. Jarys will be running a LARP at the upcoming Big Bad Con. Please stop by and say "hello".

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