Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Book Three] (TheByteScene Review)

Date: December 21, 2014

TheByteDaily

Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Book Three] (TheByteScene Review)

3.5 Reconnected-Earthly-Tethers out of 4

The idea that sequels never truly live up to the quality of their originals is not an idea purely founded in angry message boards. With a few rare exceptions, sequel films, prequel novels, and remake TV shows are almost never as good as the originals that spawned them. Part of this has to do with the risk assumed by creators, and part of this has to do with audience nostalgia, but the fact remains that it’s nearly impossible to capture the pure vivid emotion that results from viewing something great for the first time. Something amazing – something truly original – is difficult to recreate, simply because the mere act of recreation results in a diluted end product seeking only to appease fans or make money.

Understandably, fans of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender were cautiously optimistic when Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino announced plans to return to the universe they created. The story of Aang ended so neatly, and the central conflicts had been resolved so compactly, that it was difficult to imagine any possibility of expansion. However, Konietzko and DiMartino proved both fans and critics wrong when The Legend of Korra debuted to resounding fanfare and praise. Not only did it manage to capture the Asian-influenced, literary greatness of the original, it managed to present a story filled with narrative complexity, driven by compelling characters. Korra, at the very least, was interesting, and her legend was captivating enough that fans were more than satisfied with its continued production.

The Legend of Korra, up until the moment season three debuted, was not as impressive as The Last Airbender, however. From a purely objective perspective, the vast world-building, character development, and plot progression found in Korra’s legend very rarely reached the levels of excitement and intrigue produced by Aang’s world and its story. Speaking from a fan’s perspective – a perspective filled with subjectivity, and nostalgia – The Legend of Korra could barely hold a candle to the legend of Aang. With an often lacklustre second season that barely held itself together, and with an expansive and complicated mythology that required time and effort to appreciate, Korra’s second season almost threw her off the throne created by Aang.

This brief history lesson in the world of Avatar is necessary, because it succinctly presents the complex set of emotions that results from producing a powerful form of literature. Make no mistake, The Legend of Korra is, and should be, held up to the quality of The Last Airbender. It is inappropriate to call spin-offs mediocre without comparing them to their peers – Korra is consistently one of the strongest shows on television, and that includes its second season – but it is completely appropriate to call spin-offs weaker than their originals when they truly are weaker than their originals.

It seems, at this point, that I have complaints about Korra’s third book – about her second chance at producing affect in her audience. It seems that I didn’t enjoy the story, or its characters, and I’m about to tarnish the series.

Simply put, I must state that Book Three: Change is perhaps the greatest season of television produced by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. More than meeting the quality of its predecessors, Change attains a level of complexity, intrigue, and compelling narrative structure that has not been seen, and most likely will not be seen, by fans of television, literature, and Avatar for an exceptionally long time.

The story picks up approximately two weeks after the universe-altering Harmonic Convergence that shifted balance in Book Two. While the world slowly adapts to Korra’s decision to keep the Spirit Portals open, and spirits and mortal creatures now freely interact, there’s a prevailing air of uncertainty in the world. In more ways than one, this season is about change, as well as the universe’s tendency to throw us into complicated situations that are often beyond our control. As the Avatar – the bridge between both worlds – the full brunt of insuring harmony has been placed squarely on Korra’s shoulders, and the season’s opening moments quickly tells its audience that people are not happy. The world needs its Avatar now more than ever, and sadly, the general public seems entirely displeased with both its elected officials, and its unelected protector.

Korra’s chief personality trait has always been her hotheadedness. In short, Korra has a short fuse, and though her growth has been evident in the past, it’s obvious that her inability to truly fulfil her duties is baring down on her. After all, she’s the Avatar, and it shouldn’t be so difficult to help spirits and mortals. This notion that Korra is not fit to be Avatar actually conceals a deep underlying problem within the world Konietzko and DiMartino have written thus far: Does the world really need an Avatar? It’s a question that was presented early on in Book One: Air, and it was a question that sometimes appeared in Book Two: Spirits, but if there is a central theme past change, in Book Three, it’s the notion that the world no longer needs its great spiritual leader.

This theme of necessity and spiritual pragmatism interacts with Change‘s universe, where mortals are having a rough time getting used to their spirit brethren. More importantly, this theme of necessity ties in with Korra’s constant struggle to understand herself. After all, if the world doesn’t want the Avatar, then the world doesn’t want Korra, and her entire existence is pointless.

As if an existential crisis isn’t enough to deal with, new Airbenders have begun popping up all over the world, most likely a result of the change brought on by Harmonic Convergence. The rising of the new Air Nation plays into Book Three‘s central conceit. Using the airbenders – who are in dire need of direction and training – Team Avatar uses the opportunity to get out of Republic City and help Korra focus on her Avatar duties. However, the new airbenders are especially important to Korra’s airbending master, and Avatar Aang’s son, Tenzin, who’s eyes well up at the possibility of seeing his father’s dream of a world filled with airbenders come to fruition.

Tenzin’s scenes – where he interacts with new airbender recruits in both an enlisting and education sense – are a delight to watch, and J.K. Simmons lends his natural exasperation to a character who simply can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be an airbender. In Rebirth, the season’s second episode, Tenzin tries and fails numerous times to convince would-be citizens of the Air Nation to fulfil their spiritual obligations and their humanitarian duties. It comes to no surprise, much heartbreak, and a little delight when doors slam in his face because he’s either too pushy or too ignorant to realize how difficult it can be to sacrifice one’s entire life to fulfil someone else’s dream.

Tenzin’s character arc also heavily features his eldest daughter, Jinora, coming to her own. In the past season, Jinora served as Korra’s guide through the Spirit World, and her involvement in bringing down Unalaq was essential to the survival of the entire planet. A talented airbender, and a strong spiritual leader, Jinora’s arc is tightly bound to the Air Nation’s fate. Jinora wants the tattoos bestowed upon airbending masters, and though she deserves them, Tenzin’s love for his daughter blinds him to the truth that one airbending master – one leader – is not enough to guide an entire nation of people.

Leaders in the world of Avatar are a funny bunch. In the past, audiences have watched dictators grow before their eyes, mad geniuses free entire cities, and reluctant Firelords rise to the occasion, but Korra introduces one more archetype into the foray: Earth Queen Hou-Ting. Konietzko and DiMartino have never shied away from using history as a blueprint for characters – Phoenix King Ozai seemed like the lovechild of Hitler, Mussolini, and Genghis Khan – and Queen Hou-Ting is no different. Heavily based on Empress Dowager Cixi of the Manchu Yehenara clan, Hou-Ting is a seemingly benign despot intent on overtaxing her citizens to death. When a bandit cries out to Korra, “You’re fighting for the wrong side,” in The Earth Queen, we can tell that he’s not wrong.

Queen Hou-Ting, however, is not Book Three‘s central antagonist – she’s more of a political adversary whose decision to wrongfully imprison airbenders to serve the Earth Kingdom rubs Team Avatar the wrong way. This decision is not one without precedent – citizens of a nation are legally bound to protect their nation when conscription is enforced, and airbenders from the Earth Kingdom are still legally citizens of the Earth Kingdom. It’s this kind of political manoeuvring that enables Konietzko and DiMartino a chance to present the true villains in a more relatable light.

The Red Lotus, led by new airbender Zaheer is an anarchist sect that branched away from the Order of the White Lotus when White Lotus members chose to bring their secret society into the light. Comprised of members all over the world, the Red Lotus is the closest thing to a terrorist organization that the Avatar world has ever introduced. What truly makes them so compelling as villains is their ideological devotion to the notions of anarchy.

There are two ways to make compelling villains: have them overpower the protagonist so we care about the redemptive journey, or have them connect with the protagonist, so we’re left unsure of our own moral convictions. Zaheer falls into both categories; a two-week-old airbender with immense knowledge of airbender poetry, form, and culture, his ideological viewpoint is the logical extension of Air Nomad philosophy, and his anarchist beliefs force the audience to confront the truth: The world would be better if we didn’t have so many powerful people messing it up. Zaheer isn’t wrong when he says that world leaders are an outdated notion, and he’s not wrong when he says that we’d all be better if we could make decisions for ourselves.

Voiced by Henry Rollins, who presents a performance devoid of major emotion, Zaheer is an ideological and physical force to be reckoned with. Fascinating is the way the other Red Lotus members treat him as their leader; as a short man with a fierce physical bend, and a set of powers roughly two-weeks-old, the fact that a dangerous waterbender, a powerful lavabender, and a combustionbender treat him as their leader is indicative of deep character complexity. This ability to convey depth of character – the skill to tell audiences a lot by saying very little – is exactly the kind of writing that Konietzko and DiMartino are renowned for. It’s exactly the kind of writing that made The Last Airbender so great – that, and the martial arts sequences.

Studio Mir, thankfully, returns to create the animation for Book Three, and their return also brings back the incredible fight choreography that the series has been known for. Bending finally feels real again, thanks greatly to amazing cinematography and directing by Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, Ian Graham, and Melchior Zwyer, as well as music and sound editing that makes bending sound possible. Furthermore, locations look large and expansive, colours blend together to form backgrounds akin to paintings, and the use of lighting to highlight, showcase, hide, and subdue is spectacular. This is a masterfully created series, and the Earth kingdom’s browns and greens, and Republic City’s blues, reds, greens, and yellows are made impressive and interesting because of a studio willing to make the extra effort required to draw the most out of a palette.

More importantly, characters look like real people, instead of drawn figures moving their bodies. When Korra speaks, her eyes light up, her eyebrows move, her lips purse, her face contorts. When Jinora bends, her body strikes, her frame dances. Even Zaheer – whose entire schtick seems to be that he’s calm and collected all the time – seems menacing, imposing, and even threatening when lighting changes the shadows on his face and the camera moves from long shot to medium shot to close-up to wide-angle and back again.

Avatar The Last Airbender was a show about a universe; it’s entire premise was that a powerful cosmic and spiritual force had to save the world from an evil mortal exerting his twisted will over others. In contrast, The Legend of Korra is a show about a person – really, a show about people. Not to belabour the point, but the show’s title reflects the idea that this is Korra’s story – not her world’s, but her own. Regardless of where she goes, who she meets, or what she sees, this is a story about Korra’s fears, apprehensions, successes, and failures. Unlike Book One and Book Two, however, Book Three spends significant time on other characters, as well as other stories. Audiences learn about Mako and Bolin’s Earth Kingdom family, we learn about Jinora’s struggle for identity, and we finally learn the history behind Lin Beifong’s scar.

Lin’s arc, in particular, is brought into extreme focus when Team Avatar travels to Zaofu, a city created by Toph Beifong and led by Suyin Beifong, Lin’s younger half-sister. There’s a reason Lin is so tightly wound, and it all has to do with Toph’s extremely hands-off parenting style and Suyin’s lackadaisical attitude during their youth. As an overarching plot point that serves to characterize a popular character, there’s little reason why Konietzko and DiMartino should have presented Zao Fu. Instead, the decision to focus on the development of someone other than Korra is deeply tied to the series’ – and the franchise’s – focus on world-building.

Over the course of 13 tightly-packed episodes, Konietzko and DiMartino deliver an expansive story about an entire world, and what makes much of this season so exciting is the wide playing field the creators have afforded themselves. Make no mistake, this is Korra’s story, and her involvement in the plot is still integral, but by exploring other characters – like Suyin and Lin – the creators manage to produce a character-driven story about an entire world. This is important because it removes the narrative burden off of a single central character – Korra – and places the burden of intrigue on other equally compelling individuals. This isn’t to say that The Legend of Korra needs to be a copy of Game of Thrones to succeed, but in a fictional world that practically begs to be expanded, world-building is one of the most beneficial facets to explore.

After Book Two, I was cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of Book Three. For the first time since Avatar the Last Airbender, however, I’m genuinely excited to see what comes next, and I look forward to being a part of Korra’s story next season when it comes to the stunning conclusion I’m sure is in store.

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

-SC(EK)

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