You may remember Avatar : The Last Airbender.
No – not the half baked movie – the famous, popular american cartoon that has inspired and enchanted kids and grown ups alike.
Avatar was exceptionally well written and well told as a story which was based on the struggle of good and evil among people in an enchanted, mystical and genuine world set in an Asian cultural setting. It told the story of Aang and his friends, who journeyed around the world in order to train themselves so that they could take on the King of the Fire Nation, in order to save the world from total conquest and repression under the clutches of a repressive empire, all the while Fire Lord’s exiled son, Zuko, struggles within himself in between good and evil to find his true self.
Avatar was told in a very rich, populated and varied world – the four nations – Air, Earth, Water and Fire nations – had each their different cultures and societies, customs, living separately but interacting with each other. Just like anything else in the story, they were also based on very simple, easy to understand philosophical principles. Earth nation was the nation of the earth and dirt, Water tribe was the nation of the water and oceans, and so on – basically, the four elements. There was the skill of ‘bending’, which allowed any specific bender to be able to manipulate and use earth, fire, water and air, respectively. The nations used these to shape their respective, colorful and different cultures and lifestyles. Only the avatar, which is an ever-reincarnating spirit, could master all of the four elements and use their power to protect the world from imbalance, and strife.
The world had a very apparent asian cultural color – there was yin and yang, asian religions, architecture, even humor. Dont get me wrong – the humor in the series was very good. Colorful unique, numerous characters with different backgrounds and ongoing simultaneous stories of their own added great richness to the bigger story arc and very genuinely intertwined with it and enhanced it. All nations used their philosophical element base to keep their lives going – Water nation lived in oceans and used frozen ice to build their buildings, bent water to propel their ships, fire nation used fire to make machines work, earth nation bent earth to build and make contraptions and so on.
Overall, it ended up in a very smooth-flowing, entertaining and inspiring storytelling that kept you just going along with aang and the gang right until the climactic end of series. It was so good that you wouldnt hesitate from watching it again soon after finishing the series the first time.
But of course, it had its detractors. For starters, it was criticized as being ‘un-american’ by various political segments of american society. And it had a distinctly unfriendly spirit towards the established values of the society – it had strong anti-violence message, advocated and promoted sharing without expecting a return (very distasteful in terms of capitalism and corporatism), forgiveness, friendship and being non-discriminating and unbiased. Oh, and the women in avatar world were strong figures, being left behind men in no respects of life. Apparently these were too much for some circles in the american society, therefore they have made modicum amount of noise criticizing this wonderful, enchanting story in a dazzling, alternate world.
Still, the cartoon has had exceptional ratings, had spawned a lot of merchandising, numerous games, even an online massively multiplayer game, and brought huge viewership and revenue to Nickelodeon and its corporate owner, Viacom. It was inevitable that a sequel would be made, and rightfully so too – for once you have gone through its wonderful story, you just wanted to see more of this colorful world and its intricacies. So, a sequel was done and broadcast in 2012 at last …
Enter Legend of Korra …
And Enter Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar the Last Airbender. Again by Nickelodeon, again by the people who created Avatar. In appearance, everything needed for this to be as great and engaging as the prequel is there.
Or …. maybe not …
Right after the short prologue, which takes our new avatar, Korra, from her house in water tribe she was living with Katara from original series, we are met by our first shock with the arrival of Korra in the mega ‘Republic City’.
Instantly, you are in Republic city, a mega city which is fashioned after 1930s New York, not only in its architecture and atmosphere, but also even its landmarks. There is a huge statue of former avatar, Aang, fashioned after Statue of Liberty right in the place it needs to be – a small island. Not only that, but it has the same color with its live counterpart too.
Cars in crowded streets, which are exactly modeled after cars of 1930s, with many landmarks which are clearly copied after real New York, busy New Yorkers in crowded streets going about their busy lives like ordinay New Yorkers.
Korra uses her water and earthbending powers to beat up some 1930s gangsters harassing a shopkeeper, 1930s NYPD arrives to arrest the mobsters, while Korra takes her leave again to the Air Temple where she will stay as guest of Aang’s son.
Suddenly you are taken away from the wonderful, fairy-tale world of Avatar the Last Airbender, and thrown into a 1930s american movie that is set in New York. So much that for a few minutes, you wonder whether you are watching the sequel to avatar and doubt yourself. But knowing that you are watching the correct cartoon, you make believe : “Ok, thats a novel and original setting. Maybe it will be a rich, different story in Avatar world” …
And you are wrong
In a short while you start noticing that the change you have observed is not just a cosmetic or artistic change in the setting and atmosphere of the series – but also in the philosophical basis of the series as well : for example, Air Tribe is revived, but they are no longer the peace-loving, anti-violence, sharing and caring, communing buddhist monks they used to be in the prequel – they are just airbending. “Allright”, you tell yourself, “There may be this much variation in between a prequel and a sequel” – trying to convince yourself to stomach the huge difference.
But it just keeps coming on.
‘Republic City’ citizens are just colorless city denizens, compared to the richly varied cultures of the prequel – not only a high majority of them do not know how to bend, but also they have lost their entire cultural traits, regardless of where they may have come from. Republic City is supposedly founded by Aang and the gang, and developed into this maturity. But, republic city citizens seem to be popped out of nowhere instead of coming from any of the cultures that are present in the world even at that point in time. For some reason, they just decided to forget all their culture and their working society, and even how to build and make things with bending and make use of them, and decided to revert into a 1930s New York in which they had to be subservient to rather primitive technology in order to keep life going.
It seems, in time in between the sequel and prequel, someone hit all people in the world in the head and made them forget everything.
You would think that any community with a decent amount of earth benders would be able to build majestic cities like in the prequel, right ? No – not in this sequel – the architecture and buildings are properly from the 30s, added with the tedious and expensive means needed to maintain buildings in our civilization. You would think that airbenders would use their flying bisons and flying kites to travel, right ? Nay – Aang’s Son, master airbender and city council member prefers to travel in a proper car, slowly, just like the other air bender. While earth, fire and water benders prefer * for some reason * not to use their bending abilities while traveling or doing things, and instead they stick to, well, living under the limitations of 1930s New York.
And then Korra discovers ‘arena’ and the ‘bending’ sport …
“Let’s do something to sell merchandise like Pokemon, shall we ?”
That is probably what the corporate overlords in Nickelodeon said to the production team after prodding from their corporate overlords in Viacom. Because, see, you will notice that after this point on, a lot of your time will be spent on watching the repetitive, stale bending ‘matches’ in between contestants in the Arena.
Arena is a stadium in which the very popular and new ‘Bending’ sports tournaments are played. Teams from different types of benders match in pairs to beat each other off the stage into water to win their matches. Anyone who watched any other kind of cartoon or japanese animation will notice that arena is precisely modeled after the Japanese method of creating a setting which you can use to sell merchandise and games to kids – like in Pokemon and its spawn. Rules and mechanics are created in this arena match which would easily be ported into any kind of card game merchandise or computer game merchandise, and it follows all the conventions of hyping up the pointless and meaningless lets-beat-each-other-up sequences that keeps coming over and over.
They didnt refrain from any further brutalization of the Avatar world for this too – firebending doesnt burn people anymore for some reason. Earth benders are just throwing skets of rock. Water benders just throw water without shaping it. All are little details that you could let go, if you werent exposed to these meaningless long fighting sequences with generic cliches of Japanese battle anime conventions over and over incessantly.
This point is the point you realize that Korra is something which was produced more to be commercial than good storytelling. Rather too heavy on the commercial side. You are not watching the sequel to avatar anymore, but something which uses its elements in order to sell itself to kids and pitt potential merchandise.
This isnt the first time this happened, and Avatar wasnt the first series to be brutalized in that fashion. It would be rather easy to let these go distastefully, if it wasnt for something else you notice by this point in the series – something much more disturbing.
“Let’s give some pro-capitalist, pro-corporate messages to children !”
Around this point in the series, you notice that the ‘Equalists’ whom Korra met early in the series are into full blown revolution now, and a lot of messages are being sent over them to the malleable minds of children watching the show.
Equalists are people who are fed up with ‘talented’ benders ruling over everyone in the city and enjoying their privileges which are the result of their ‘talents’. They want benders to lose their bending talents, so that everyone can be equal and live equally. And they revolt against current government in order to do so, following their leader who is able to take away people’s bending talents.
This is the main story arc of the series’ first season. And after it picks up, you notice a recurring pattern with events, giving the following messages to children :
– Korra and other ‘talented’ benders suffer horrible equality as their bending skills are taken away, and they end up having to live in undesired ‘equality’ with everyone else. Which is portrayed as something horrible, and you are made to feel sorry for these talented people
– Equalists are continually portrayed as villains, whereas concepts like ‘equality’, ‘people’ are identified with harmful events and acts
– Korra and friends work hard to restore the ‘natural’ order of things – that is the masses of ‘unprivileged’ people being lead by ‘talented’ privileged few
So much that it is as if a few corporate bigwigs have told the production team to give these messages – for the format, messages, the delivery exactly target the mass political movement that has started in America back in 2011 – The Occupy Wall Street – horrible equalists who want more equality for the repressed, unprivileged masses, revolting and moving against a system in which the ‘talented’ privileged few rule them and enjoy their privileges. If you pay attention, you can even notice a few of the movement’s demands being slipped into, and being vilified, in the story flow.
The increasing clumsiness and half-assedness of the storytelling and makeshiftness of events do not help the distasteful progression of the story. It feels like a production in which production staff was increasingly pressurized by external managers to focus on certain things – that is the anti-equality message – instead of a good story told by creative storytelling. Neither shoving in sons/grandsons of the characters from original series in semi-relevant points in the story or the semi-believable drama introduced to their small arcs help at all.
The half-bakedness and irreverence of the story reaches a climax at the point Korra admits her pain from losing its bending powers, meditates in sorrow for like 2 seconds, causing a ghost/spirit Aang to appear and give her back all her bending powers with some half-baked explanation and justification. Korra’s immediate peacock-like display of force with her regained bending powers right on the spot just 1-2 seconds later, and the hurried, half-baked short explanation by Aang’s son on how Korra now has realized her full potential and that she is a full blown avatar now, ends the series with a very distasteful, unsatisfied experience.
Order returns to big Republic City, with the untalented, unprivileged masses being governed happily by talented, privileged overlords, with Korra being realized fully as avatar after two seconds of meditation and a peacock-display.
Leave aside the strong, vivid spiritual basis and messages of Avatar, Korra ends up giving messages which are very often contrary to the ones in the original.
You end up hoping they wont do a third installment in the series.
But isnt there anything good with this sequel ?!!?
Of course there is. Like in many half-baked, corporate-directed, profit-oriented productions that come out of Hollywood and television, the animation quality and art are very good. It is a lush, vivid world of colors and variation, even if the world is not the world of Avatar : The Last Air Bender. It is complete with half-baked Hollywood blockbuster humor too, totally replacing the genuine, effective humor of the original series. But oops – that isn’t a plus. The 1920-30s ‘roaring 20s’ setting is somewhat genuine and interesting, but that genuineness doesn’t have anything to do with what you know from Avatar the last air bender. If it wasn’t set in Avatar world, and had nothing to do with its story, and the corporate brutalization was kept to a minimum, Korra could have been a very good, different world and story. But alas, it isn’t.
In conclusion, those who watch Legend of Korra as the sequel to Avatar : The Last Air Bender would get extremely disoriented and dissatisfied by the brutal deviation and squander of the story world and saga, to find a properly, perfectly corporate-manufactured production to sell merchandise and give subliminal messages to fresh minds of the children. Watch, at your own risk.