Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Book 2: Spirits review

    I was a big fan of the first season of The Legend of Korra (reviewed here) despite the fact it had numerous flaws. Part of the issue was that Korra pushed the envelope in terms of storytelling with the relatively simplistic plotline of "Evil Empire versus Plucky Rebels" from A:TLA being replaced with a much more complex one involving class-relations as well as scapegoating.

    Which was good because more intelligent storytelling was always welcome but it was limited by the series' size as well as the need to keep it simple for its intended audience. Really, I wish they'd been able to do a full twenty-six episode series for the first season's story as it seems they could have gotten much deeper into the chaos of Amon and company.

    The second season, by contrast, makes things significantly simpler and not in a good way. There's a lot of very good ideas in Spirits but they're scattered unevenly throughout. The best episodes of the season don't involve Korra at all and are almost completely divorced from the main plot. The "issues" of the first season are thrown out the window for a straight fight between good and evil.

    Bluntly, Spirits just isn't very good.

    The premise is Korra returns to the Southern Water Tribe a hero only to be torn between her family when her religious fundamentalist uncle from the North unilaterally takes over the kingdom with his advanced military. Korra tries to believe the best of her uncle but, quickly, finds out that he is involved in a complicated plot to reunite the spirit and human worlds in order to (what else) take over the world.

    Meanwhile, Bolin finds himself in a controlling abusive relationship with the Northern Water Tribe's princess before somehow ending up a world-famous actor in the newly-created motion picture industry. Asami struggles with the guaranteed bankruptcy of her company following the Equalist crisis while Mako tries to distinguish himself as a Detective.

    There's plenty of good moments in Spirits but they are dissonant as well as don't jell together very well. For example, I absolutely love the plot of Bolin becoming a movie (or "mover") star with the bits we see of his series being homages to the old Flash Gordon serials crossed with wartime propaganda. They are, quite possibly, one of the funniest things I've ever seen in any cartoon ever. Likewise, I love the character of Varrick, the sleazy Howard Hughes-esque Water Tribe billionaire who is trying to play all the various sides together. He's a bad person but, damn, if you don't want him to win anyway.

    Unfortunately, they're contrasted against the character of Unalaq being a one-dimensional charisma-less character who doesn't display any real emotion across the entirety of the series. He's vaguely evil right up until the point he becomes really evil and his plot doesn't really make any sense. If you're going to portray a character as an evil religious fundamentalist, perhaps you shouldn't make him the equivalent of a Satanist. Which, as I'll explain below, doesn't even make any sense in the world's mythology.

Unalaq is the worst kind of villain - the boring kind.
    Character development is also reset from the first season. Korra is back to being the same hot-headed and unsure of herself figure she was before. Worse, her relationship with Tenzin is unnecessarily hostile. Mako, Asami, and Korra are back to their original love-triangle, which just makes Mako look like an unlikeable cad. Even Bolin doesn't come off very good during all this since there's an extraordinarily ill-advised plot to make him a stalker after having him abused in a "funny" way by his unwilling fiance.

    The decision to move the majority of the action from Republic City to the South Pole was also a mistake. Republic City was such a dynamic and gorgeous setting that the relatively banal and monochrome South Pole is just a step down. Even the series seems to realize this as they quickly move back to Republic City for most of its subplots, all of which are more interesting than the main parts of action. The signature steampunk style of Korra is a major part of its appeal and this absent from the South Pole or Spirit World sections.

Hands down, the best element of Season Two. He knows it too.
     I will take a moment, more, to praise the character of Varrick. In a season which was largely lacking fun and zaniness, he was a breath of pure joy in every scene he appears in. The fact he turns out to be a villain was disappointing because, Aang dammit, he was just awesome. If they were going to make any character a villain, they should have made him either the main one or at least his primary henchmen because that would have given us more screen-time with the character.

    While I was initially excited to learn more about the spirits and the Avatarverse's mythology, the majority of them are one-dimensional monsters which just exist to be punched or be vaguely racist to humans. If these are the equivalent of the universe's gods, then they're not worth worshiping. The only time they really come alive and are interesting is during the two-parter about the First Avatar, which is an amazingly fun pair of episodes but distract from our main heroes too much. They also introduce a dualistic morality between a "Good" Ultimate Spirit and an "Evil" Ultimate Spirit which makes no sense in the cosmology.

     Despite that, the episodes "The Beginning 1 and 2" are a highlight of the series. They take us back to the prehistoric times of the Avatar universe and while things are not too disimilar in technology or culture, they show a world which absolutely horrific and alien for humans. Mankind is forced to live in isolated enclaves on the back of giant turtles as survival in the wilderness is almost impossible. The protagonist is a lovable rogue who evolves into an all-loving hero who becomes the perfect sort of man to serve as the host of the Avatar's spirit. These are must-watches for any Avatar fan and it's almost a pity we have to see them in such a weak season.

The introduction of a dualistic "evil" element to the Avatar mythology is dissonant and confusing.
     I think part of my problem with this season is the larger conflict between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes were lacking context. The Northern Water Tribe is clearly more economically prosperous as well as religious but we don't know what other sorts of differences exists between them. Important characters for explaining these sorts of differences, like Katara or her daughter, were noticeably absent from the series' plotline. The civil war plotline could have been removed without noticeably affecting the season (except, perhaps, to cut away some of the fat and leave more room for Varrick).

    In conclusion, I don't necessarily think Spirits isn't worth watching but I can't help but think you'd do better just to watch the Varrick sections on Youtube as well as the episodes, "Beginnings, Part 1 and 2." The rest of the season is well-done but just doesn't really resonate in any way which captures the fun of not only the original A:TLA or Legend of Korra. Thankfully, the next two seasons are back to form and then some.


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