Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Book 1: Air review

    You may ask why I am reviewing a Young Adult cartoon series on my blog devoted, primarily, to horror and science-fiction.

    My answer?

    It's my blog and I liked it.

    I was a big fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender. I thought it was extremely well-written and enjoyed it tremendously. Parents forget that children need things like Star Wars to instill in them the values of good, evil, freedom, oppression, spirituality and other important topics which will serve them later in life. Having watched both, though, how do I think The Legend of Korra stacks up to its predecessor?

    I think it's  better than the original series.

The art design for this series is truly fantastic.
    The Legend of Korra is by the same creators and takes place a century after the events of the original show. Already, I'm intrigued as you don't see many time-skips like this even in fantasy. It takes devotion by the original creators to want to evolve a world like this. The fact that it moves the setting from the quasi-Medieval China of the original setting to a pseudo 1920s New York analogue called Republic City.

    Using the definition of retro-science-fiction for steampunk, The Legend of Korra is one of the most mainstream examples of the genre. We have a divide between the traditional "old ways" of the religious past and the new ways of modern industry embodied by the Avatar, a literal physical god, visiting a city torn by economic strife. It's fairly high concept for children's fair and I'm happy to put it up there with The Hunger Games.

    The premise is Korra is the new Avatar after the death of previous series hero Aang. As the Avatar she possesses all four kung-fu sorcery types (called "bending") based on the Greek elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water). It is her job to bring balance to the world. However, what is balance and what does it mean in a world with cars and zeppelins? The questioning of this role and how Korra is not one for introspection herself, is one of the underlying themes of the show.

I never would have guess Tenzin was played by Spiderman's boss.
     The central villains, if you can call them that, are the Equalist movement. They are a group of non-benders, normal folk like you and me, who have decided the biggest problem in the world is those who possess supernatural powers. It's a ridiculous premise but, in my humble opinion, believable. When times are tough, people look for someone to blame and those people often looked privileged to outsiders.

     The fact Korra comes into Republic City expecting to be revered as the Avatar and ignores anyone who gets in her way, official or not, gives a credibility to their cause. Those with power have to be wary of those they step on, which is often not the case. Our heroine has to learn humility and respect for others' beliefs, even when they differ from her own.

The series maintains its trademark humor throughout.
    I like Korra and think she's one of the best female characters to come out in the last few years. She's a well-rounded three-dimensional character with likes, wants, aspirations, and attitudes all her own. She doesn't fit in any neat little package but forges her own path. The fact she is an unapologetic action star who isn't lily-white Caucasian already sets her apart from many creations.

    The villain of the series, Amon, and his Equalist movement are an inspired creation. While on some level they don't much make sense, as we've never seen any organized prejudice against bending in the setting, their cause serves as a good metaphor for scapegoating. The show is also smart enough not to depict them as one-dimensional villains.The Equalists have the sincerity of their convictions and even if their philosophy is wrong, it's easy to see how people could fall into it.

    The fact the show depicts the majority of Equalists joining because of the city's poor economic conditions is deep storytelling for a children's show. I would have liked the show to get deeper into the Equalists and their philosophy than they did but I understand why they chose not to. Depicting a group as understandable doesn't mean it should be depicted as right after all.

Amon was a great villain. He even had the viewers questioning whether or not he had a point.
    I also enjoyed the secondary villain of Tarrlok, a character who oozes slime and self-confidence but isn't a Palpatine-level manipulator either. He's just the sort of fellow you might see in the real-life halls of power, someone who is capable of manipulating events as they happen to benefit himself. The fact he's able to take the tide of public opinion and turn it to his advantage makes him despicable in a thoroughly believable way.

    Really, the entire cast is great. I liked every single character from Tenzin the Air-Bending Master to his children to Asami the heiress adventurer. Lin Beifong the Chief of Police is one of my favorite characters in the series as she's both a woman in her fifties, an authority figure, and a badass. The fact the two major male supporting cast, Mako and Bo-Lin, are regulated mostly to the love-interest and comic relief roles is groundbreaking by itself.

     Credit goes to the artists and storyboarders for the fact the action is top-notch. This is a good example of the wuxia genre in that, despite being animated sorcerous kung-fu battles, everything felt believable in the context of the world. There were only a few times I felt the heroes were given easy victories and, most of them, I felt they were too hard on our heroes. Things were exciting, visually stunning to watch, and fast-paced. What more could you want?

Korra has a great character arc and believable flaws. All which you rarely see in these sorts of shows.
    Is their room for improvement? I believe so. I think the love triangle between Mako, Korra, and Asami was the absolute worst element of the series. Resolving it literally any other way than how they chose to do it would have been better in my opinion. The way they did do it made Mako look like a jerk, Korra to look somewhat pathetic, and Asami to be rather pitiful--qualities I didn't think fit any of them.  It's sad, too, because I thought the teenage romance element started off reasonably strong with the good lesson, "sometimes you don't get the boy or girl you like. Move on."

    Really, I could talk about this series all day.

    So what do I think of this program overall? I think The Legend of Korra is not just a good cartoon but good television period. I would recommend this show to adults and children alike. It's the kind of family entertainment which the networks should be more focused on producing. It also manages to say something, which is rare enough by itself. The art is gorgeous, the designs beautiful, and the storytelling great.

    Kudos, Nickelodeon! You've surprised me.


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  1. Nice review of the first season of Korra, it mainly fits my view of it as well. Especially on the romance front, which I felt too much time was spent on it, not to mention I felt Mako just wasn't an interesting character overall really didn't help my view on him. Asami I did like for subverting a lot of clichés and tropes in her role.

    Though as you said it should have been resolved better. I think the one weakness Korra had (and still has to some extent) is the fact it feels rushed at times in the pacing of the story. Mainly in that they do a big plot and loads of characters and subplots in too few episodes when 20 would help pace it better in ways, though atlas 20 episodes per season wasn't always filled well at times (season three being an example of how long it too for them to get to the invasion).

    Though Korra does have tighter writing all together so points can be made for the current episode structure for it and for the 20 episodes of the previous series as well.

    Looking forward to what you think of season two and three, since both seasons have their up's and down. The preview for Book four looks great form what I have seen this morning.

    1. Yeah, I look forward to reviewing Season 2 but I've got to say that is a season with some serious ups and downs. Overall, I think they had a better sense of pacing in Season 1. They didn't make any of Season 1's mistakes in season 2 but they made new ones and forgot some of season 1's better parts. But yes, it's interesting Mako is the character who exists solely as the love interest.

  2. I think part of the weird ending of book 1 and the wonky downs s2 has (specially on the first half) is because Nickelodeon initially only asked for one season of the show and when they realized this show was profitable, they decided to order three more seasons, that's why Book 1 has that uncomfortable little happy bow and then Book 2 has some characters regressing (although they get better). And it didn't help that studio Mir doesn't animate the first 6 episodes of Book 2, Studio Pierrot is not in the same ballpark and it wasn't what this show needs. On episode 7, when Studio Mir is back, the bump in animation quality is evident.
    Anyway, whatever problems you have with this first two seasons, keep going because Book 3 is an absolute masterpiece of storytelling and characterization and easily the best season of the two Avatar shows since "Earth".

    And I enjoyed this blog post, BTW!