Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Avatar: Legend of Korra (season 1)

I’ve already said much of the background stuff about Korra, about who is animating it and why it seems very much in-touch with its fanbase, in my first impressions post. That one became long enough that for the first time I’m going to have to keep it separate from this one – which is for final impressions having watched the season finale.

My feelings about the piece are on familiar turf, having been a long-term fan of Avatar. I ended up loving the setting, really enjoying the characters and seeing huge potential…but ultimately spending the entire season swinging between like and dislike, thrills and disappointments. Just like with the original series, I suspect my immediate feelings will be mixed but slightly on the positive side, but will grow in the direction of love with a bit of hindsight.

The point of Korra rather seemed to be to do something in a different direction from that of the original, to centre it on older characters to give it a more grown-up feel, which would be in keeping with the ages of its original target audience. Travelling from place to place has been replaced by the claustrophobia of an urban setting, so often associated with grittiness in American media, especially when it comes to comic books. The original had this with Ba Sing Se, but that was the diversion – here, Republic City very much forms the heart and soul of the narrative, showing its positive and its negative sides.

And yet despite its new direction, Korra falls back on familiar ground. We quickly get ‘the new Team Avatar’ established, and around the headstrong hero who must learn to overcome weaknesses and doubt, we have a wisecracking but reliable brother figure (Bolin was slightly more likeable than Sokka but had that same horribly irritating sense of humour), the standoffish but attractive and ultimately selfless firebender (though Mako was never an antagonist) and the idiosyncratic rich girl who is introduced later than the others and is born different from the rest (though Asami’s similarities to Toph are admittedly limited to these and very superficial). If you imagine Korra as a melding of Aang and Katara, it’s essentially the same set-up. And the awesome Tenzin fills the gap of Uncle Iroh, too – both stealing every scene they’re in.

But this is no bad thing and the team had potential for great adventures. But the main problems I had with Korra were that its pacing and scale seemed totally off and that its conflict was ultimately too inconsequential and badly-conceived.

Much of the 12 episodes are given over to the pro-bending tournament, which should have taken up an episode or two but dominates all but one of the entire first half of this season. Even Wakfu’s boufball episodes didn’t go that over-the-top. They were a convenient way to have Korra make strong allies but they were excessive, got in the way of real character development despite the shortcuts they provided and ultimately felt too throwaway because the whole plot arc got abandoned.

The writers clearly remembered that what drove much of fandom in the original was shipping, so we end up thrown by episode 3 into complex love triangles and squares. It’s all too superficial, moves too fast and feels too tacked-on, especially when it’s treated as so important. It worked in season 1 because you never did quite know if the kids had feelings for one another, and Aang was believably stupid about it. Here, all the young adults are upfront, so there’s little in the way of mystery.

And finally, we come to the story of Amon, which as it was clear from his first appearance it would, soon becomes the dominant element of the season’s overall plot. My first observation was that it owes a lot to The Uncanny X-Men – totally unrelated to how much Korra in Avatar State mode looks like Storm throwing her elemental powers about. Amon is much like Graydon Creed, creating The Equalists, who much like The Friends of Humanity are against humans with advanced powers. Like Creed, he is not all he appears, and he was set on his current course by family members.

One of the best parts of the season was the flashback to tell Amon’s past. It was nothing highly original – there were hints of Naruto and HunterXHunterand, perhaps, Thor in the siblings-and-father relationship – but it was no rip-off and had enough original elements to work. I very possibly would have enjoyed a dark season about its characters more than what we got. But it was only one positive when there were too many negatives, most of them as a result of rushing. The episode where Korra discovers a trusted patron is in league with the equalists is an absurd Scooby-Doo story of peeking through keyholes and snooping, getting proven right by the villain’s stupidity. Amon himself is dealt with much too expediently, not only arbitrarily deciding to stage a full-blown invasion when his advantage was clearly working from the shadows, but giving his own game away in a panicked moment I couldn’t quite believe someone so calculating would do. And then his sad final scene just seemed tacked on for the sake of convenience, not because it hit the right emotive notes or advanced the plot.

None of this is to say Korra wasn’t excellent. It’s likely the best cartoon coming from the US right now. Its characters are solid, its setting interesting and the animation pleasant to look at. But it was also disappointing in many ways, and putting a good episode of the original series on makes me remember that it had a spark that isn’t really here. I cared much more about the gaang and their quest than I do about Korra. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep watching, or that s2 can’t be far better!


  1. I enjoyed it too, a lot. The issues I had was that the whole point of Aman's uprising, the suppression of the non-benders, wasn't even addressed as an issue. Perhaps it will come up again in future seasons, but I was quite disappointed that it was completely overlooked when plenty of people clearly felt like they were suppressed.  Things also came too easy to Korra. Aang spent so long learning things and perfecting his bending, when Korra would almost have an epiphany and suddenly she was a pro, like her air bending, and her sudden ability to claim back everyone's bending. I really enjoyed the characters, but the pacing was terrible. It took her ages to learn how to work as a team, then air bending comes as soon as she sees someone in danger (which has happened how many times in the season before?).

  2. Yeah, I wrote in 

  3. I agree with most, if not all that you have said here but with Karen's point below there is one thing I must address. With Aang, he pretty much had less than 12 months to learn the other elements in order to solve the issue with Sozin's Comet. Korra never had that issue and was able to learn the elements at her own pace (though, indeed the final blast with Airbending at the end was very... well, out of place. Though one could say it was only as her other bending was blocked, she was able to unlock the air element) Relatively speaking, Aang is the Avatar that learnt all four elements the quickest. It just seems longer due to it being spread over three seasons. We never got that with Korra so yes it seems quite shounen-esque, but think about it she discovered her bending powers at four. At the start of the series she is 17. That is a LOT of time to perfect her skills.

    In relation to the epiphany point. Again, yes a bit rushed but it makes sense. Korra was never a spiritual person, a trait seemingly shared with all Waterbender Avatars (or at least the two that we have seen) but even Aang only gained a connection to the spirit world when he was troubled and/or in despair. Korra was indeed at her lowest point at that point, thinking she was no longer the Avatar. It is at our lowest where we seek help from higher powers. Hence why to me it was more believable.

    Now to my chagrin. They never explained how and why bloodbending had the capability to suppress other forms of bending. Is this something that would be explained further? Can it be done with other elements? I am curious.

    Otherwise, darker and more mature, but certainly as enjoyable as ATLA. Though I would have preferred they did 20 eps and not 12.

  4. Was that a typo for certainly NOT as enjoyable as ATLA? 

    Regarding bloodbending, I found that an acceptable thing to swallow given that bending could temporarily be stopped by physical strikes stopping chi. I can see bloodbending being used to permanently have the same effect. 

    When it comes to the levelling up, it's really only the airbending that's in question, as she learned it abruptly and under great pressure. 

  5. Not a typo :P

    And in fairness, you could say the same for Aang and his learning of Earth and Fire and mastering of Water. She showed earlier that she was able to learn the form with ease. However, since that Pro Bending ep she hadn't shown the need to learn Airbending because of everything happening around her. If she had tried earlier she may have realised she could do it sooner.

    And I see your point about chi/bloodbending... but does that mean water is the most powerful of elements as it can heal as well as damage permanently?

  6. Not sure what you mean about airbending - she was trying and trying to get past the basic forms to actually be able to do it, but failed until she grasped it at times of great duress (each time happening to save the day, of course). 

    With Aang, he picked up all the basics quickly when he had a teacher and gradually improved. 

    On the other hand, Katara's becoming better than venerated waterbenders in days and Sokka gaining a lifetime of mastery of the sword after an episode were buuuulll. 

    And Aang certainly did gain powers/pass trials far too easily, as the original series was often rushed too. 
    As for waterbending being so powerful, perhaps, but after all that was a completely unique ability, much like Combustion Man's. Who knows what powers the other elements might get in just one unique variation?