Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Season Two] (TheByteScene Review)

Date: July 1st, 2014

TheByteDaily

The Legend of Korra (Book Two: Spirits)

3 Dichotomous-Comparisons-Of-Good-And-Evil out of 4

Within the universe of Nickelodeon’s Avatar, everything is about maintaining balance. For every action, there’s an opposite reaction, and for every success there’s an accompanying failure. With the end of Book One, Korra had brought balance to the world, having completed her story arc while simultaneously connecting with her spiritual side and learning how to airbend.

The problem with the conclusion of Book One, however, is that Korra’s story was, for all intents and purposes, complete. The great evil had been vanquished, the great personal struggle had been overcome, and all was right in the world. To top it all off, series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko even wrapped up Korra’s romantic tribulations by bringing her together with Republic City firebender Mako.

Book One was never intended to be the beginning of a grand story. Quite the contrary, with The Legend of Korra‘s now first season, Michael and Bryan’s original intentions were to create a 12-episode miniseries for fans of their original show. It was a chance to tell a quick story about the next avatar and expand their creation’s universe, certainly not a chance to extend the franchise with four new seasons. With the revelation that Nickelodeon had picked up the series for three more seasons, all of the personal struggle Korra overcame with Amon and the Equalists had to be erased to make room for more character growth and more obstacles to bypass.

Spirits therefore, is troublesome as a season specifically because it serves as a character and partial series reboot, tying in Book One’s accomplishments while wiping Korra’s personality slate clean. At the conclusion of Book One, Korra had gained insight and maturity. At the beginning of Book Two, however, Korra is back to her snarky, arrogant self. She ignores Tenzin’s advice, clashes with Mako, abuses her avatar powers, and proves to be a general annoyance to audiences who have already witnessed her evolution.

By all accounts, Korra is now a full-fledged avatar, having mastered all four elements and gaining control over the omnipotent Avatar State. As far as anyone is concerned, her journey is complete, and any other adventures are merely extensions of her responsibilities as the avatar.

The first half of Book Two, therefore, attempts to present audiences with a compelling reason to continue watching Korra’s journeys as avatar. To do so, the show uses spirits and the spirit world as one more lesson Korra must master in order to truly call her journey complete, introducing the character of Unalaq (Korra’s uncle) and the concept of dark spirits.

I prefer to look at Book Two as consisting of two halves. The first half, comprised of the first six episodes, is the weaker portion of the season. The animation is weaker, the plot struggles to find a meaningful foothold, characters are all but rebooted to their Book One selves, and the lack of a compelling villain makes watching the show feel like a bother.

Many of my major complaints with the first half of Book Two have to do with the weak animation. For visual mediums, two components are paramount: Visuals and Writing. Weak writing can be forgiven in favour of marvelous visuals, and weak visuals can be forgiven if the writing is entertaining and compelling. Sadly, the writing and animation of the first six episodes in Book Two are mediocre at best.

The decision to switch from Korean Studio Mir to Japanese Studio Pierot proved to be a major misstep on the part of the showrunners. Though the series’ painting-like backgrounds remained, characters are static and lifeless. Furthermore, action sequences driven by kinetic movement are boring and lacking in vitality.

Issues with the first half of Book Two extend beyond visual quality. In terms of writing, because Michael and Bryan were busy setting up mythology and plot-threads for the second half of Book Two (and by extension, the rest of the series) the first six episodes are all posturing and no payoff.

Episodes like Rebel Spirit and both Civil Wars are heavy on build-up with little delivery, and feel tedious to sit through. It goes without saying that episodes one through six are better when watched a second time, but the expectation that audiences will sit through boring television the first time around is a dangerous risk to take.

Perhaps Book Two’s greatest failing is the lack of a compelling villain in Unalaq. Certainly, he does bad things and hurts people, but his reasons for doing so are difficult to ascertain. I don’t mean that I don’t understand why he does what he does, I mean that I don’t really care that he does anything in the first place. Unalaq is introduced as the spiritual leader of the Northern Water Tribe intent on unifying the Southern Tribe into his control. He’s disappointed with the world’s lack of spirituality, but because spirits and spirituality have always been secondary concepts in the Avatar universe, it’s difficult to truly identify with his concerns. Unalaq becomes one more villain acting simply because he’s evil.

Starting with the masterful Beginnings episodes, both Studio Mir and writing the Avatar series is famous for make a return. Telling the story of the first person to gain the title of Avatar, Beginnings describes how Aladdin-like street rat Wan goes from stealing bread to saving the world. Answering long-standing series questions about the nature of bending, the origins of the Avatar spirit, and the role of Spirits, Beginnings is the best part of Book Two, and perhaps a highlight for the entire Korra series.

Choosing to animate the pair of episodes with an East Asian ink wash painting and woodblock motif, Studio Mir’s returned involvement with Korra serves as a series return to form. Following Beginnings, the remaining episodes in Book Two (and the rest of the series) are animated by Studio Mir. With the Korean studio return dynamic facial expressions, a camera that shakes and stutters with every punch, and characters who don’t feel like static images on a page.

Most importantly, Beginnings serves as the long-awaited explanation for the actions of season villain Unalaq. He plans on opening the gates between the spirit and mortal planes using the power of the ancient dark spirit Vaatu. Once Unalaq’s motivations are made evident, he becomes more than just another bad guy. Yes, it’s the standard fantasy fair of light versus dark, but for a season composed of tedious and seemingly disconnected plot threads, it’s good to know that there is method to the maddening first-half chaos.

Despite my grumblings, the first half of Book Two isn’t without highlights. Howard Hughes-like inventor and businessman extraordinaire Varrick helps keep things interesting even though his involvement in the main plot is minor at most. That being said, Varrick is the secondary plot’s driving force, working with Asami and Bolin to create propaganda against Unalaq. There’s a satisfying undercurrent of duplicity with Varrick, and much of Book Two’s first half is more interesting because of the scenes where characters (and the audience) struggle to identify his alignment.

Also part of the secondary plot, Tenzin’s relationship with his immediate and extended family serve to raise questions of legacy and family in compelling ways. Tenzin’s arguments with his siblings Kya and Bumi bring years of tension and difficulty to the surface while also adding an extra dimension to the character of original series lead Aang. It turns out that Aang wasn’t the greatest father to his three children, and they all blame each other and themselves for not being able to live up to his expectations.

Interesting is how the series tackles the issue of brotherly love. Disregarding the Tenzin family drama, every major villain introduced in the Avatar universe – Ozai from The Last Airbender, Amon from Book One, and now Unalaq – is somehow bound to a brother.

The idea that two brothers could walk down wildly separate paths is at the heart of the balance dichotomy inherent to the Avatar franchise.

Without a doubt, Book Two’s most compelling storylines have very little to do with Korra, whose childlike insistence on barrelling through obstacles instead of rationally thinking about them cause trouble in-world and with the audience. My real gripe with Korra’s character has little to do with the way she was written and everything to do with the reboot Michael and Bryan felt was necessary for the series. Korra’s decision to abandon her airbending and spiritual mentor Tenzin in favour of spiritual guidance from Unalaq, for example, doesn’t make sense within the context of her Book One self.

Indeed, most of Korra’s decisions seem contradictory to the growth she achieved in Book One. I look forward to seeing how Korra’s character will continue to evolve following the conclusion of Spirits, as I have no doubt that her character will bear closer resemblance to the Korra at the conclusion of Book One now that Book Two has ended.

Ironically, despite Book Two’s conclusion bringing on great change for the Korra series, there is now a satisfying return to normalcy in the Avatar world. In a cathartic way, The Legend of Korra has shrugged off the burden associated with being a descendant of The Last Airbender, and with a firm understanding that Korra is not its predecessor, the show has a chance to truly achieve the greatness it deserves. Truthfully, along with the return of Studio Mir, Korra accepting that it will never be The Last Airbender makes me the most excited for Book Three.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Avid Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-SC(EK)

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