Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Salvation Of Korra?

It's common knowledge now that "The Legend Of Korra" has been a disappointment as both a sequel to the masterpiece "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and as a show on it's own merits. Last year's season, Book 1, had a high quantity of flaws, but the quality of the strengths was good enough to keep it from failing completely. This year's Book 2, on the other hand, started off as a total disaster. Bad storytelling, bad characterization, wasted potential, character derailment, wrong implications, poor choices, and a general betrayal of the original's spirit was everywhere. Many viewers hate this show, feeling heartbroken, betrayed, and disgusted by what it had become. And it shows in how Book 2 steadily bombed in the ratings. A lot of people walked out from this show, not wanting to give it any more chances. On one hand, I cannot blame them at all for this. But on the other hand, it's a shame. Because I believe that following the two-part "Beginnings" story, which told the gripping tale of the first Avatar and how many things in the Avatar mythos came to be, the show took an upswing in quality. Not a major enough upswing to get rid of all it's faults, but it went back to having quality that offset the problematic elements of the story and series. The season finale in particular just really impressed me. In a complete opposite of last season's finale, it actually took risks. It actually had sacrifices and permanent consequences. It actually had character growth for the main character and her closest friends. It had a great atmosphere, an epic battle, a strong finish and everything. So now when I look back at Book 2, I can see that it's like the opposite of Book 1: the story and quality got better as it's second half progressed rather than get weaker. Here's how I would rate the episodes:

1. Rebel Spirit - Adequate
2. The Southern Lights - Poor
3. Civil Wars Part 1 - Bad
4. Civil Wars Part 2 - Crap
5. Peacekeepers - Weak
6. The Sting - Absolute Shit
7/8. Beginnings - WOW, that was GOOD.
9. The Guide - Small step down, but still good
10. A New Spiritual Age - Even better
11. Night Of A Thousand Stars - Great, but flawed
12. Harmonic Convergence - Great
13. Darkness Falls - Excellent
14. Light In The Dark - Holy crap, that was awesome!

Yeah, it's really something. I can certainly say that I didn't enjoy Book 2 as much as Book 1 because the bad stuff here was really bad, and the premise it set up wasn't strong enough to hook one in like Book 1's story. That so many people walked out before it got to the good stuff is evidence of that. So now I think I want to go over the pros and cons of Book 2: Spirits. I'll start with the notorious cons:

- Korra's character derailment in the first half of the story. I understand they were going for showing the inevitable negative consequences that Book 1's false happy ending would have on her character, but there were too many big problems with how they decided to portray Korra here. She was written as too angry, too aggressive, too proud, too bratty, and too much of a dumbass to the point of having virtually no likability or sympathy. For all her flaws in Book 1, she was always well meaning and had a nicer side that showed she was capable of caring for others. Here she was always only thinking about what was best for HER: her family, her wants, her needs. She was a mean, self-centered, completely unlikable little bitch. Another problem is that she had next to no agency of her own. All of her major decisions and actions were influenced by Mako, her uncle, her parents, or circumstances. And she barely had any positive interactions with anyone who wasn't her slimy, manipulative, enabling uncle or her slimy, manipulative, enabling boyfriend. Speaking of whom, it's asinine that he's portrayed as the poor, put-upon ideal man who's too good for a dumbass girlfriend like Korra, even though between the two of them hooking up in Book 1, HE was the one who came out looking worse. The writers just had to invalidate the freaking titular protagonist so darling Mako could look better!

- Bolin's character derailment. Now that might sound weird since by the second half of Book 1, Bolin had next to no character left to derail. And yet somehow, Book 2 did it. First he gets himself stuck in an abusive relationship where all he can do is whine and cry and react in fear, which gets played for "comedy" each and every time, giving no serious consideration to Bolin's feelings, making empathy with him impossible. Then Varrick makes him a mover star, and suddenly he's this smug jackass who thinks he can say and do whatever he wants, and even disrespects the actress he's working with by forcing an unscripted kiss on her. And he's apparently so retarded now that he doesn't know the difference between reality and acting. And I get that it was meant to be him losing himself in his role as Nuktuk, but yet again it's played for "comedy." Something that should be really disturbing and serious is executed with this goofy tone that makes it clear we are not meant to take Bolin seriously. There was more to Sokka than comic relief. There could be more to Bolin if they'd only let there be.

- Lin's character derailment. Yeah, nobody saw this one coming. Lin Bei Fong, daughter of Toph, smart, no-nonsense, hardcore badass police chief of Republic City, was turned into the stupidest, most irrational, ill-tempered, and incompetent police chief ever. She was fine in her first and last appearances this season, but her three middle ones had her acting so freaking dumb all the time. And the worst part is it was just so Mako could look like such a super awesome competent detective on a force full of idiots. Urrgh! Lin was a great character last year. How the Hell did this happen?

- Asami's character derailment. This is the most minor derailment and it only really came up in two episodes, but it's still one all the same. Strong, intelligent, independent Asami Sato goes from making her own business deals to relying entirely on Varrick or Mako to make the big decisions for her, another example of a female character showing a lack of agency. Once she seemingly loses everything again despite all her hard work and gets hit with the feels, Asami, in her moment of weakness, kisses the newly single Mako. Despite the fact that he might not be entirely over his break-up with Korra and the fact that it's the same douche who lied to her, cheated on her, and broke her heart before. Yet Asami sees nothing wrong with crawling back to him. Afterwards, she goes crying to Varrick about her business and allows herself to get duped by him without ever suspecting a thing or doing anything for herself to find out about his crimes and manipulations. The next times we see Asami, she acts like a clingy girlfriend and unsuspecting airhead. Until Mako shows his true colors...again. Then she goes back to being an independent badass, and how is she rewarded for it? By being written out of the finale. That's the biggest issue with Asami's character. Bryke and the writers still have no clue how to use her 'cause they've yet to give her an effective, satisfying role.

- Unalaq. Just...blegh. Unalaq. We seriously follow up the awesome Amon with this dude? He was an incredibly weak main villain. At first he had some potential to be a good religious fundamentalist villain who'd have valid points about the nonspiritual state of the world and what should be done to restore harmony between humans and spirits, but would go to extremes in the name of his self righteous cause. But then he started showing obviously evil vibes and playing a role that was essentially a bland copy of Tarrlok's. Then he called on a war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes because he wanted conquest for some reason. Then he was revealed to have played Loki to Tonraq's Thor, having set up a disaster that got his brother banished, all so that he could be chief instead. What his motives were is never addressed: he's just written off as a power-hungry evil jerk. There was still a chance that he was doing all that he did in order to protect his tribes from the dark spirits...but then that got dashed when we learned he was in fact serving Vaatu and the dark spirits, willingly and selfishly throwing his tribes and the entire world under the bus for the sake of power. In the end, he was just wanting to destroy the world so that it could be reborn into a new age of spirits in which he would be the all powerful Dark Avatar, the supreme spiritual ruler. The nickname "H2Ozai" pretty much describes what he ultimately was. He started off promising but ended up as this completely one-dimensional villain whose character ran on cliched tropes. What tops off the disappointment is how little depth and presence he has. His lackluster design and monotonous voice did him no favors, and he lacked certain nuance and passion needed for me to get invested in him as an antagonist. It's almost insulting that this generic bad guy is the one who ended up becoming the Avatar's evil counterpart. He's a horrible, boring failure of a character on just about all levels.

- Unalaq's kids, Eska and Desna, were barely any better. Their shtick of being creepy twins who act and talk like they're not from this world was amusing at first, but it wore thin fast. They really needed character development, but for the most part, they did not receive it. The idea that was mentioned in their bios that they didn't get along with Korra due to them being classist pricks who considered her   a southern rube went completely unspoken of in the actual show. Eska became a satellite not-love interest for Bolin just to subject us to that horrible abusive relationship subplot, while Desna was a satellite character to his sister. When Bolin left Eska, she went totally bonkers in what amounted to "lol, crazy ex-girlfriends, am I right?", and when Unalaq sent her and Desna out to capture Korra, all I saw was a bland rehash of Zuko and Azula. Thankfully they did get development in the next half, but it still wasn't enough to make me like them completely. They were boring and annoying for too long.

- Makorra was still a terrible relationship. Thankfully this season showed that rather than trying to play it as true love between soul-mates like Book 1 did, yet it still failed to address the actual reasons. Instead it first had Korra acting like a violent bitchy girlfriend, then had Mako as a lying, cowardly cad of an ex-boyfriend, and then finally just flat out saying they're not compatible.

- Boleska as a teased relationship, meant for "comedy." Abusive relationships are not funny, Bryke. And in real life, they don't end on good terms from both sides. What were they thinking with this?

- The romantic subplots in general, while not as bad as in Book 1, were still needless. Just...stop.

- Tonraq's character was very clumsy. We're now told that he, along with Tenzin, played a part in keeping Korra's childhood confined to the Southern Water Tribe, never allowing her freedom. I'd thought it was the White Lotus Order that was behind that back in Book 1. There, Tonraq seemed a-okay with letting his daughter run off to Republic City at Katara's request. So why are we expected to believe he's been a controlling, restrictive father? It would have made sense if he'd just become overprotective after the whole ordeal with Amon taking Korra's bending, but nope, they pull a retcon instead. His backstory also came right out of left field, and Korra' anger at him keeping it secret wasn't really understandable. And despite it showing him as something of a nonspiritual warmonger, the narrative uses the fact that Unalaq set him up for exile in order to validate him so that he doesn't have to be accountable for his actions. Please. His deeds should not need be whitewashed like that.

- The Civil War. Okay, a Civil War between the North and the South. Cute, Bryke. Really cute. So where are you taking this angle? Nowhere? We're barely going to see the war at all? Huh. Oh well.

- The grimdark tone that took up most of the season, especially in the first half, was so off-putting. The original series and Book 1 could make things serious and exciting while keeping it fun to watch. Here it seems like every major character was often bitter or unpleasant, and the tone of the story's events was needlessly gritty. Part of this could be due to the animation that'll I'll mention, but the writing, voice acting, musical score, and general direction all share guilt here. We did get good comic relief with Varrick and Bumi, but we also got bad comic relief with Bolin and the creepy water twins.

- Studio Pierrot doing the animation for episodes 1 through 9 of the season. It's noticeably inferior to the animation as done by Studio Mir, which did Book 1. It made the show that much more tiring to watch. Thankfully Studio Mir came back for "Beginnings" and the end portion of episode 9, and then did all remaining episodes and will do all episodes of the next two seasons to come. Yay!

- I don't fault Tim Hendrick and Josh Hamilton for this, but Mike and Bryan's sexism, whether it be conscious or not, still seeps into the scripts. Male characters are the most major players in the story. Male characters have agency and development that's not dependent on female characters, while female characters get the reverse. Ex-girlfriends get stereotyped. Women like Katara, Senna, and Pema do squat. Asami needs a man to turn to when things look down. Did I mention Lin Bei Fong already? Even the minor role of actress Ginger is sexist. When did we get so anti-feminist, Bryke?

- We only saw General Iroh in two episodes, both in very minor roles. Such a waste of Dante Basco.

- Idiot plots abounded in this story. The most glaring example would be the "Detective Mako" subplot in Republic City, where every main good guy behaved like idiots, even dear Mako himself often acted idiotically so that conflict could be forced, and the smartest character was Varrick! Korra also had several idiot moments, Tenzin and his siblings had idiot conflicts, and even our villain Unalaq was a bloody idiot. There's people making mistakes, and there's just being dumb. This was dumb.

- The continuing lack of camaraderie within "Team Avatar." Good lord, will they ever get this right?

- Even with two new writers, Mike and Bryan's reliance on bring in a Dues Ex Machina or two to help solve a crisis in the story still hasn't wavered. Jinora's soul of light in the finale...what even was that?

- The story rarely ever seized opportunities to NOT take the lazy, predictable routes, which sucks.

- MAKO. I don't think I need to elaborate, but I will a little. There were deniers that he was a Mary Sue and a creator's pet last season, but now there's no mistaking it. One could theorize that Bryke and the writers wanted people to forgive Mako for his actions in Book 1, so they wrote him as being as good a boyfriend, as good a cop, as good a guy as possible just to force his greatness down our throats. But seeing as Book 2 was in production when Book 1 was airing, before fan reaction towards Mako was a thing, that's not the case. In truth, they just wanted us to love Mako the way they love Mako, so they have him as the guy who always says and does the right things at the right time and gets talked up by the rest of the cast as being so awesome and generally being Mr. Perfect. It's the exact same deal as Wesley Crusher. And even this gets screwed up because it makes the moments where Mako acts like a dick even more jarring given how a nice, strong, wise person like him oughtn't be acting this way, and no one, freaking no one, ever calls him on his douchery. Yet again he seldom pays for his mistakes and he never, ever really has to say he's sorry. He owes up to them, but he doesn't apologize. Sheesh, at least Norman Osborn was honest about that! Mako is just ass-scum.

So with that negativity out of the way, let's get down to the GOOD STUFF!

- Tenzin is still the best character on the show, and not only did we get to explore his family more in this season, but he got a complete character arc through the whole thing. All along, he was looking for a way to define himself and prove himself worthy of his dad's legacy. Through being Korra's mentor, being the one to carry on the Air Nomad and airbender ways, being father of the next generation of Air Nomads, and being the spiritual guide to the Avatar in the Spirit World, he was always trying to be on top of everything, but we constantly see his failings here. The moment where he faces his demons and admits to himself that he already is who he wants and needs to be is a very moving moment, one that solidifies his character development. As always, JK Simmons did a great job in voice acting. His family, who in Book 1 were often annoyances, were handled much better this time around. Jinora played a pivotal role as a spirit guide for Korra who ultimately helped her recover the Avatar spirit and save the world, while also discovering her own spiritual side on her own. Ikki got some development when she realized the value of her family. Even Meelo learned to be in control and competent through lemur training. And of course Kya and Bumi, Tenzin's older brother and sister, were just great. They really felt like an older Katara and Sokka, which was not a bad thing at all. I'll say nothing of the controversial "Aang wasn't a perfect father" thing, except that I liked it.

- Korra Korra Korra. I'd long been waiting for her to truly grow and develop as a character, which didn't really happen in Book 1 since she got cheated out of all her progress, ending up never really learning anything that stuck with her. I already mentioned how despicable she was portrayed as at the start of Book 2, and for a moment, I lost all hope in her. Then she got eaten by a spirit, lost her identity, and had to undergo a spiritual rebirth in which she relived the origins of the Avatar. Suddenly, she was back to her old lovable, doofy but still well meaning and courageous self, but filled with a new resolve to do her Avatar duties correctly and get in touch with the spiritual forces in order to protect the world. In the next couple of episodes she grew smarter, nicer, more thoughtful, more patient, and more spiritual than she ever had been before, particularly during her wonderful ordeal in the Spirit World when she literally becomes a child again and learns spiritual lessons from Iroh. It's topped by the finale, where she FINALLY learns that her worth as a person is not defined by her role as the Avatar, and the Avatar is not defined by the power, bending, and spirit he/she possesses. She found self worth as a person: as Korra. For WHO she is, not WHAT she is. It's her spirit alone, without Raava's power inside her, that fights and defeats UnaVaatu. It's her decision, not based on any of her past lives, to keep the spirit portals open so that a new age can begin in the world. And she now has the wisdom to see how incompatible she and Mako are as a couple, so she breaks it off with him on her terms as well. Korra really grew up here and became a great character. I could not be prouder.

- Varrick was a terrific addition to the show. Not only was he a genuinely fun and hilarious comic relief character, but he ended up as a great antagonist. Easily my favorite villain in Book 2. He's such a shady character who does such corrupt, nefarious things that we're led to believe he's evil, despite our previous conception that he was an ally. And he technically stays on the side of the allies, even once it's known that he's really a criminal mastermind. But what's better is that he ends up not so evil so much as he is crazy and morally ambiguous. A classic trickster who plays any side of a conflict when it best conveniences him. Even when behind bars (in a luxurious pre-prepared jail cell), he flat out points out all the good he's done in spite of the bad he'd done too. "Korra, who warned you about Unalaq? I did! Bolin, who got you into the movers? I did! Asami, who rescued your company? I did! Mako, who got you thrown in prison? I did!" And despite what he may say, that last part was NOT a bad thing. And immediately afterwards, he helps the heroes again by loaning them his airship. Of course this doesn't change that he's a criminal, and as soon as he sees an escape, he takes it. What's best is that it would have been easy to have Varrick drop his silly, eccentric persona in favor of a more sinister attitude once he was outed as a bad guy. But he keeps his personality, effectively creating a balance of comedic humor and subtle menace. Wow, such an awesome guy!

- Asami might have had a miserable role in this story, but her character was less depressing this time around. In episodes 1, 4, and 5, she demonstrated the characteristics that I always wanted to see from her. She's a rich heiress to a business who's savvy enough to know how to use her money and connections, and though she takes it seriously, she can be all smiles about it too. She deserved more opportunities to be badass in fights, but the moments she got were fun and impressive. They still haven't quite cracked the way to write and handle this character, but we're steadily getting there.

- Bolin, along with Mako, is still one of the weakest characters for reasons we all should know. That said, he actually grew up a little by the end of the season. Yeah, I know: it shocked me too. When Varrick quite publicly called him a "knucklehead earthbender" whom he made a mover star, you could see in Bolin's face the realization that he wasn't as hot as he was thinking he was. He then walked out of his own mover premier and to Asami he expressed loneliness without his brother and friends there to share in his success, and bitterness over how they all never really came together as Team Avatar the way he'd hoped. The moment actually got played seriously, for once not invalidating Bolin's feelings because "lol, comic relief idiot." Bolin then ended up becoming a real hero as he saved the president and exposed Varrick, all this occurring while his fake hero role in the mover is playing, which was brilliant. He was also able to throw Mako's "rip off the leech" advice back at him when he needed to break it off with the forgetful Korra. He was able to use his overemotional behavior to manipulate Eska and Desna into letting him and Mako go. And as unrealistic as it was, he actually showed maturity in how he broke it off with Eska on good terms. Small yet major steps.

- "Beginnings". This two-parter was just...holy shit, it was like a one-hour short film! Korra was literally the only main cast member to be featured in it, and even then it was in the framing devices at the start and end of each part. The story of Wan that took up the bulk of it was just an incredible tale that wove more Avatarverse mythology and tied so many things together. It told an intriguing tale, featured characters that actually mattered and developed, and in general felt very much like it came out of the original "Avatar." The magic was back! And not only did this show us the origins of how the Avatar came to be, how benders were divided into nations, and how the human and spirit worlds got separated, but it was also a literal game changer for Korra. We now knew that Unalaq wanted both portals opened at Harmonic Convergence so that Vaatu could be set free to lay waste to the world. And it tied in to the finale, where we see things coming full circle. Seriously, go watch it! 

- The Spirit World itself and all the weird and wacky spirits we saw were just so enjoyable and intriguing and creative. Some have criticized Mike and Bryan for taking too much inspiration from Miyazaki and other Asian animation sources, but really, Miyazaki would see it as an honor. Folks in Japan barely cared about the whole "Kimba-Simba" debacle, so why should this matter? And I think we got a better glimpse of the Spirit World in this season than we ever did in the original show.

- Vaatu as the Bigger Bad of the story was a far better villain than boring Unalaq. Being the spirit of darkness, destruction, and chaos means that he is the living embodiment of all those evil things, so
it feels natural that he would harbor only dark thoughts and desires. He's gotten flak for acting so blatantly evil rather than neutral, ambiguous, or "necessary evil", but his high-and-mighty cackling evildoer persona made sense to me. Every mythology needs it's Devil, and that's exactly what Vaatu is for the Avatarverse. He had a great design and a compelling voice. He lacked much of anything in the ways of character, but damn if I couldn't buy that this was the ultimate villain. When he and Unalaq became the Dark Avatar and destroyed Raava, he took dominance in order to change his hosts form and provide the much needed threat for the big finale. I felt glad to see him vanquished.

- Iroh. Not General Iroh voiced by Dante Basco. The original Uncle Iroh voiced by Greg Baldwin impersonating the late great Mako (the kickass actor, not the shitty boyfriend character.) It was a huge surprise and delight to see his soul residing in the Spirit World. We got to see him twice, even. Once when he accompanied Korra and was her mentor in spirituality within the Spirit World, and again when he gave advice and directions to Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi. Such a well used guest star!

- The action was great as it's always been. Even better in the Studio Mir animated episodes.

- That season finale. That finale could cover an entry in itself! In those two episodes that premiered online last Friday but will be airing on TV this coming Friday, we had:
- Korra VS Vaatu
- Unalaq merging with Vaatu
- Korra VS Unalaq in a battle of Avatars
- Eska and Desna changing sides
- Conclusion to Tenzin's character arc
- Tenzin and his siblings saving Jinora
- Unalaq and Vaatu ripping Raava, the Avatar Spirit, out from Korra, attacking her, destroying her, and utterly breaking all connections Korra has to the past Avatars.
- Vaatu taking over Unalaq completely, turning into the giant "UnaVaatu."
- UnaVaatu attacking Republic City
- Varrick seizing the opportunity to make his escape
- Tenzin aiding Korra in her darkest moment
- Korra learning that being the Avatar is not defined by what she is, but by who she is
- Korra meditating and reflecting on her spiritual growth
- Korra's spirit coming out, enlarging, and going to Republic City to fight UnaVaatu
- Air (Tenzin), Water (Kya), Earth (Bolin), Fire (Mako), and normality (Bumi) against dark spirits!
- Jinora's soul fulfilling her role as Korra's spirit guide, literally guiding Korra's spirit to Raava's
- Korra's spirit using a spiritual technique to destroy UnaVaatu
- Korra getting her Raava-made Avatar spirit back but still not regaining her connections to the past lives! The cycle stays broken. Korra is the first in a new cycle of Avatars!
- Korra choosing to NOT close the spirit portals, instead letting the worlds of man and spirits co-exist the way they used to. It's up to the humans and spirits to determine the future, with Avatar Korra as the keeper of peace and balance who keeps Raava's light shining within her.
- Eska and Desna leaving for home, with the former and Bolin breaking it off on good terms.
- Korra, finally remembering that she and Mako broke up, realizing they're incompatible and unable to be together. So she breaks it off with Mako. The break up is real. It's over. MAKORA. IS. DEAD.
- Korra unites the Water Tribe, with her father Tonraq finally becoming chief.
- A wiser, more confident Korra tells us a new age has begun. Hopefully, a new age of quality.
- Oh, and did I forget to mention the RANDOM ADMIRAL ZHAO CAMEO? 

- It's a lot to take in, but it's really, really good. The addition of Tim Hendrick and Josh Hamilton as writers (though the latter is the weaker of the two) was ultimately a good move, and Michael Dante DeMartino as a writer on the finale has restored some of my respect for him. I still have no such respect for Bryan Konietzko, though. That guy's a hack with no writing talent and a major asshole.

So yeah, "The Legend of Korra" really picked up by the end of this season. It still has it's flaws and kinks that prevent it from being nearly as good as it's predecessor, but there can never be another "Avatar." I just hope that this show can be something good in it's own right, because we all know that it should be: it has the potential to be. Korra's speech about a new age at the end of this story, plus the fact that the show took a turn for the better in quality starting with episodes called "Beginnings" gives me hope for the future of this series, as naive as that may be. Even in the face of all the faults, and Mako and Bolin still being the worst characters, I have hope. Consider my faith restored.