Thursday, 21 November 2013

Avatar: Legend of Korra – Book 2: Spirits

I ended my review of the first season of Korra on a disappointed but optimistic note. I wasn’t very impressed by the new setting or characters, or the X-men-derived powered-citizens-vs-non-powered-citizens plotline. But none of my problems with the season, I said, meant that s2 couldn’t be much better.

And, indeed, that’s exactly what happened. I liked the second season of Korra far more than the first. The scope was far greater, the cast got a lot more to do and the new characters were much more interesting. Instead of having the insular, urban theme of the first episodes, we had a conflict that may have started and ended in Republic City, but spanned the entire planet with an emphasis on the poles. 

Rather than a dull, far over-prolonged subplot about a sports tournament, the other members of the new Team Avatar get interesting and highly individualised things to do – Asami has to revive her company with the help of the hyperactive, charismatic but devious Varrick, who is an utterly brilliant new character; Mako gets away from the whole sports-and-romance thing to be a serious investigating officer, a far better role for him; and Bolin becomes a star in the ‘movers’, an affectionate parody of badly-made early films, providing some genuinely very funny moments.

There’s great development for the rest of the cast as well. Tenzin’s brother Bumi (with the luck of the devil) and sister Kya (a stern waterbender played by Cuddy from House) force him to confront his issues about living up to Aang’s legacy, as well as accepting the fact that his father wasn’t as perfect as he remembers. His adorable eldest daughter Jinora also has a much-inflated role, going from sweet but rather dull eldest child to member of the family with the strongest spiritual power and absolutely crucial to the final confrontations. If the characters were lacking in development in the first season, they get a whole lot more now, and all are very much likeable.

The main plot of the season involves the long-standing tensions between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. Korra isn’t an ordinary low-born girl, but actually the daughter of the rightful chief of the Northern Water Tribe, Tonraq. However, he lives as de facto leader of the Southern Water Tribe because he was exiled in disgrace after a disastrous episode involving upsetting forest spirits, with his younger brother Unalaq instead assuming leadership of the Northern Tribe – and as a result, the overall leader of the two tribes.

Struggling to understand the spiritual lessons Tenzin is giving her, Korra eventually ends up instead being impressed by Unalaq’s knowledge of spiritual matters and decides to study under him instead. Of course, Unalaq is up to no good and uses her to open an ancient, sealed portal to the Spirit World. The portal links the North and South Poles, but more importantly contains the Tree of Time, which imprisons the dark spirit of chaos Vaatu. 

In a vision of her past lives, Korra learns of Avatar Wan, the very first avatar. Ten thousand years earlier, Wan had been the first to leave behind the safety of human cities, when he was exiled for not returning the power to fire-bend to the giant lion-turtle on whose back the humans lived. He lived amongst spirits in the ‘Spirit Wilds’ and was given the gifts of element-bending by all the world’s different lion-turtles, but also happened upon the struggle between the great spirits of order and chaos Raava and Vaatu. Inadvertently helping the evil Vaatu, Wan puts his world in danger, but saves it by working with and eventually merging with Raava, and ends up imprisoning him in the tree of time and sealing away the entry. Korra opening the portal not only allows access to the Tree of Time, but with ‘Harmonic Convergence’ approaching, Vaatu may be able to break free and inhabit a vessel to create a ‘dark avatar’. You can probably tell how the rest will go, and just what epic confrontations might form the big climactic episodes of this season. It’s not highly original, but it is spectacular and much more satisfying than the oddly-motivated assault from the Equalists.

Instrumental to the final conflict, and very possibly the most important swinging element of the whole series, are the hilarious and brilliant twins Desna and Eska, near-identical despite being different genders and Unalaq’s children. They are machine-like and sarcastic, but the female twin Eska decides to date Bolin and the odd-couple relationship is priceless, especially when heartbreak is involved. With Varrick, and if you discount the final-epsiode cameo, Bumi, this season brings in some characters that are brilliantly capable of being hilarious most of the time but also formidable when need be.

It’s little details that make Book 2 so enjoyable. The backstory and how it feeds into the main storyline. The little dragonfly-bunny spirits and the very Ghibli-like world Wan inhabits. The moment at the final episode where Mako, Bolin, Kya and Tenzin represent the four elements. The return of Wan Shi Tong the librarian owl and the fate of General Zhao. Uncle Iroh! Perhaps things are a bit too convenient at the end and the idea of ‘balance’ is…well, pretty one-sided, but it all works satisfactorily.

What would I like to see in Book 3? Well, more about Toph’s legacy perhaps, and maybe more of Dante Basco’s newer role, Iroh. More from Studio Pierrot, as it was fun to see them animating half of this season. But if I’m totally honest, what I’d really like to see would be … well, for the comics being drawn by GuriHiru for the original universe to be animated. 

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