I really like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang’s story is solid, and the core cast all get great moments like Katara’s “The Painted Lady”, Toph’s “The Blind Bandit” and Sokka’s “Sokka’s Master”. Even Zuko’s arc works really well. It’s not a perfect show, and it has its weak episodes like many shows, but for every beach party episode, there’s a gem like “The Boiling Rock”. For every facepalming moment like the musical hippies, there are great character moments like Sokka reflexively covering Toph on a crashing airship or Iroh counseling a mugger. There are even really great subtle worldbuilding touches like the trains in Ba Sing Se. (And oh, Iroh’s Tale.)
It’s one of the very few series that I have on DVD, in the august company of DuckTales, Stargate SG-1 and MacGyver (classics, all, and though also cursed with the occasional stinker episode, the good far outweighs the bad).
So, when it came to the sequel Avatar series, Legend of Korra, I was really looking forward to seeing some cool new ‘bending tricks or even combo uses (like Chrono Trigger’s team-up Tech attacks) for the magic in that world. I thought it would be great to see how technological advancements might happen in a world with magic, and how the two might compete and cooperate. The world really has a ton of rich potential.
Unfortunately, I wound up disappointed with the characters, writing and meta manipulations of the series creators. The animation is often great, and the flashback two-parter in Book 2 where we see the origin of the Avatar is really, really fine work. I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on a lot of what bothered me, though, until I stumbled across this Tumblr:
Poorly Written, Poorly Executed
It’s true that there’s no shortage of criticism and nitpickery online, but almost every single entry I’ve read over there resonates with concerns I have with the series. This one is perhaps the best place to start, though, looking at it through my perspective as an aspiring writer and experienced artist, since it underlines the backbone of the trouble; the creative staff. (See also: the Star Wars “prequel” films, and how a rein-free Lucas squandered some of his goodwill credit.)
My single biggest complaint with Korra is that there is so much wasted potential. The bad writing and character assassinations throughout are like a persistent cough, but the lost opportunities are really what bug me. The series really could have tackled things ranging from social considerations of magic (one of the stronger themes in the series, but undermined by Amon’s big reveal), the importance of spirituality in the Avatar world, liberty vs. the State (OK, Book 3’s baddies were mostly well done), nascent dictators and assorted other considerations in a world where magic is relatively common but with wildly differing power levels.
There’s so much there to mine, but no, we got relationship drama, disjointed storytelling, burned bridges, relationship drama, character assassination, pointless drama, character assassination of the previous series’ characters, and relationship drama. There were certainly high points, so the series isn’t devoid of value, but it could have been so much more.
One other big thing that bothers me is something that seems to be a concern in a lot of popular media. Once the creators start engaging an audience, things can often go sour. Far too many little beats in Korra came across as either fanservice or trolling that it became less of a legend and more of a performance art experience. Maybe that’s fine for what some people want, but I think that the Avatar world deserved better. There’s certainly a good reason to be aware of your audience, but I think there needs to be a barrier there, or else the creative work suffers.
I think I can still recommend Book 1 of Korra’s Legend, but really, it’s best just to go watch Aang’s Airbender stories.
Edited to add: I ran into another Tumblr that reminded me that the group dynamic was better in Season 1, Bolin was better, and man, they really needed to make a team work like Aang’s crew. They never really did that well at all in Korra. They could have, but failed.
Man… that’s really the downer of all this. It could have been so much better.
Edited again to add: This article from Larry Correia is a great fisking of a monumentally dumb article that shows some of the mentality that I think pervaded Korra’s story. Maybe not at first, but it seeped in as the authors engaged with the most rabid segments of the audience and catered to sociopolitical quirks of today instead of staying true to their own story. To be sure, every work is a “product of its time” in ways small and great, but when a work of fiction becomes less about its own interesting story and more about preaching a Message, it falls apart. This was the problem with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land‘s third act, for example.
Aang’s journey was internally consistent (mostly, and notably, the Message episodes were the weakest), Korra’s was a mess of Messages and fourth-wall pressures, suffering from undue external influences. It’s a good case study in what not to do, in many ways.
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