Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Five: “The Spirit of Competition”

Boy, am I glad I didn’t get a chance to write my initial reaction to “The Spirit of Competition” when I watched it on its original air date. It’s not that I hated the episode (I liked it), it’s just that I overreacted to the romantic elements. I thought DiMartino and Konietzko were idiots for using the cliched “love triangle” (or “love square,” in this case) plot, and then taking it too far, so that the episode ended up being very soap opera-esque. From my second viewing, I can see now that the romantic elements are actually handled way better than I remembered. On top of that, this is probably the funniest episode of the series thus far.

The space between viewings actually gave me time to consider what I hated about the “love triangle.” Turns out there’s really nothing to hate; hating a love story for using the “love triangle” is like hating a book for starting on page one instead of page 153. It’s simply silly to hate something that is, for better or worse, a staple of life and fiction as we know it, cliche or not. George Starostin, our most trusted Russian Internet music critic, puts it this way in his review of the Beatles:

…traditions do not appear out of thin air, they reflect certain natural tendencies in people’s minds, and totally discarding traditional forms in favour of something previously unheard before is much like somebody discarding the traditional way of walking down the street in favour of, say, crawling on all fours – just because this makes him different from the regular “sheep herd”.

So the “love triangle” is not inherently worth hating it and of itself. As always, it’s in the handling of the subject matter where things can fall apart. Sturgeon’s Law is almost never wrong, and when applied to something as universally sought and written about as love, that means there will be a lot of shitty love stories. Almost enough to scare off anyone trying to be unique and different from writing a single thing about it.

But enough rambling. The point is that “The Spirit of Competition” actually handles its “love square” better than most stories do and should be commended for that.

The “square” is between Korra (who likes Mako), Bolin (who likes Korra), Asami (who likes Mako), and Mako (who likes Korra and Asami, but goes with Asami). (As you can see, no one likes Bolin. Poor guy.) The tension this creates between the three Fire Ferrets—Asami is oblivious to all these feelings—rears its ugly head in their Pro-Bending matches, nearly costing them the chance to play in the Championships.

Why does Mako choose Asami over Korra? He says something about not dating teammates because it’s bad for business, or something to that effect. Also, he probably just doesn’t like Korra that much. Then, there is one more possibility, but it’s admittedly a stretch: he goes for Asami because she is clearly, undeniably—maybe even stereotypically—a WOMAN.

As for Korra, her only distinctively female features are her breasts and her voice actress (Janet Varney), and, frankly, they’re not fooling anyone.

I’m kidding, but still…

I know I’m going to sound like a conspiracy theorist for saying this, but I’ve often wondered if there’s a secret transgender agenda in Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The leading women are very masculine and the leading men are rather feminine. Is this intentional? Maybe DiMartino and Konietzko are trying to blur the line between girls and boys* and what constitutes either. And this theory isn’t coming out of nowhere: evidence exists all throughout both shows. Hell, one of the funniest moments in this episode involves Bolin bursting into tears and running off like a little girl.

You know the moment, so I won’t elaborate on that.

Speaking of blurring the line…

Another funny moment shows a belching contest between Korra and Bolin. It’s inadvertently initiated by Bolin, and notice that he briefly covers his mouth before seeing that Korra is fine with it. Isn’t that self-aware reaction usually reserved for ladies? But what makes the moment truly hilarious is—after the belching reaches its climax—the reveal of the horrified reactions of two other costumers in the restaurant.

Cute.

Of course.

Naturally.

Predictably adorable.

Brilliant!

Still, Korra is really a girl at heart (I think). She reacts to Pema’s story—of how she confessed her love for Tenzin because she couldn’t stand to see her soul mate unhappy with someone else—with the same girlish cooing as Ikki and Jinora.

Speaking of which, isn’t it usually the boy who has to admit his feelings for the girl and not vice versa? And what’s that line about Mako considering Korra less like “girlfriend material” and more like a “pal?” Hmm…

Whether DiMartino and Konietzko intended this or not (I kind of hope they did), it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the episode is as solid and entertaining as you could hope for.

Once again, the Pro-Bending matches are wonderful to watch. Having grown accustomed to its rules, we alternatively wince and cheer as Korra, Mako, and Bolin do their best to win. And I have to ask: is the Pro-Bending commentator Shiro Shinobi (played by seasoned voice actor Jeff Bennett) improvising his lines as the matches go or are his lines just that well-written? With his energy and humorous observations, he honestly makes the sport that much more fun to watch.

I have one last observation to make, and it regards our latest nemesis Tahno. It’s funny we should hate him so much, because he’s actually the most consistently well-animated character in the show so far. Maybe his overly feminine behavior makes him a caricature, but it’s well complimented by his voice acting. Sure, he’s an easy target, but at least he’s distinctive. Except for key moments, I couldn’t tell the animation acting of any other character apart (Ikki, Meelo, Bolin, and maybe Tenzin excepted).

Final verdict: good episode, but when’s the real action going to start?

*“Girls and Boys” is a song by Britpop band Blur. Seemed relevant.

All screenshots taken by me.

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4 responses

  1. SpiderHyphenMan

    “transgender” is not the same thing as “subverting gender roles.”
    Also, I never saw Bolin covering his mouth as a feminine thing, I saw it as him going “Oh god I just committed a faux pas in front of this girl who I am absolutely head over heels for I am so embarrassed.” His relief and joy when she returns with a louder belch is palpable.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    • Hmm…maybe “gender-neutrality” is a better modifier?

      On a base level, that’s certainly what’s going on in the scene. But look at how he’s posed and animated in that scene. His expression, the way he pulls away, and the position of his hand do strike me as kind of feminine. But that’s probably just me. Probably.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:02 pm

  2. The love triangle, as it was presented, was damaging to the show as a whole for me. Bryke said that they wanted to target this series to the older, teenaged fans, but that doesn’t mean that romance (however hormone-ridden the main characters may be) needs to be any more prevalent. I feel like that is one of the reasons there is more of it in the show. Every romance conflict is forced, the dialogue terrible, and it all seemed so…fake. It made me turn from almost-liking Mako to abhorring him. I know it’s not his character, it’s the horrible dialogue, but he still comes off as…hmm… inconsiderate?

    I guess the whole show is filled with these lapses in dialogue (I thought some of the anime-like faces were also unnecessary, except for the one with Korra after Ikki says that she likes Mako in front of Asami)…and they were most highlighted in the unfortunate hormone wars. (It doesn’t feel like love, so maybe I shouldn’t call it romance. But then again, what is romance? Rambling >.>)

    To sum it all up in one sentence (hopefully), The Legend of Korra needs better dialogue and more realistic character interaction…

    July 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    • I agree that the love triangle aspect really brought the show down, but by “The Aftermath,” I was convinced that they found a mature resolution to the whole ordeal. I was wrong.

      I remember reading a while ago that DiMartino and Konietzko were excited about doing the cheesy teenage romance stuff in Korra. At first, I thought, “Really? Why even waste your time with that stuff?” Personally, I think the love stuff before the last five episodes was handled rather well. It only became an issue once DiMartino and Konietzko let it override everything else, be it the plot, the characters, and common sense.

      Maybe this will sum it up for the both of us: the writing of Korra should be as brilliant as its direction.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:35 am

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