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Archive for September, 2012

Chapter Fifty-Nine: “Sozen’s Comet, Part Two: The Old Masters”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

Practically all of the action sequences in “Sozin’s Comet” take place in Part Three and Part Four, once the titular comet arrives. You could not find a more varied collection of such sequences in terms of quality. This is even more astonishing when you realize that the episodes are still good; the mediocre-to-awful sequences kinda bring down the good-to-great sequences, thus more or less balancing everything out. What better way to get into these sequences than by examining them from the very worst to the very best? As a great Waterbender once said, “Let’s fly!”

Hey, it was lame when you said it, too.

The Horrible

By far the worst action sequences in these episodes are those involving the members of the White Lotus in Ba Sing Se. I don’t understand how DiMartino and Konietzko and company could possibly take Uncle Iroh and four of the most beloved minor characters in all of Avatar and then have their final moments to shine be completely and utterly boring.

Where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? Where’s even the slightest hint of danger for these guys? Were they really expecting me to think that anything bad was going to happen to crazy ol’ Bumi? Hell, I would expect a swordsman and a Waterbender to at least have some difficulty fending off Firebenders with ten times their usual power.

Maybe the point of these scenes was to show that these old geezers are still at the top of their game, as we bear witness to master Benders—and a master swordsman—strut their stuff over swarms of Fire Nation grunts. That’s an entirely valid reason for the existence of these scenes, but it still doesn’t make up for the lack of excitement and interest, not to mention memorability. I can only recall two distinct moments from these scenes: 1) Bumi knocking the tanks into a high stack; and 2) Iroh burning the Fire Nation banners that hang on the palace. The former is typical Bumi madness, and the latter is actually a neat story point (I’ll discuss that much later).

These old masters deserved a much better final hoorah than the one they got here. Maybe there just wasn’t enough setup for one. I mean, the real final bosses Firelord Ozai and Azula are being handled by our young heroes, leaving the old masters without a truly formidable opponent. What a pity.

The Mediocre

If there’s one consolation about the scenes with the old masters, it’s that they are all pretty short. That’s not the case with the scenes of Sokka, Suki, and Toph on the warships; those scenes drag and drag and drag. Thankfully, they’re not as boring and there’s at least some suspense—not to mention some really neat action—but once is enough for these sequences.

Now I just said there is some suspense in these sequences.  Truth be told, the whole thing is handled rather clumsily, and more often than not the smaller moments that are cool and entertaining in themselves end up, on the long run, canceling out the tension and making for a mostly boring watch. (I just completely contradicted my original complement, didn’t I?)

For instance, near the end, Sokka tells Toph to Metalbend the warship’s tail so that it crashes into the other ships. Toph does exactly that, and during this extremely dangerous endeavor, you’d think the kids would be kind of concerned about being knocked off of the top of the ship by the force of the crash. No, instead we get some witty banter:

Sokka:  Have I ever mentioned how sweet it is that you invented metalbending?
Toph: You could stand to mention it more.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that, as the wisecrackers of Team Avatar, Sokka and Toph are guaranteed at least one comic relief moment per scene so things don’t become too serious. This moment in particular, however (along with another one I’ll have to wait to discuss in Part Three), I have a slight problem with because: 1) the banter, while amusing, isn’t nearly funny enough to warrant its existence; and because of that 2) it really highlights just how little suspense there is. See, comic relief is usually just that: temporary relief from the tension. So when you inject comic relief in a situation that wasn’t all that suspenseful to begin with…well, it kinda defeats the purpose, wouldn’t you say?

This is especially a problem since, as mentioned before, no one seems capable of the D-word. It really makes me wonder if DiMartino and Konietzko and company should have even bothered with presenting death as something possible in the Avatar universe if they were just going to pussyfoot around the subject every time an instance where death seems pretty much inevitable comes around. But hey, that’s just the bizarre compromise that comes with being a kids’ show, I guess. Sometimes they make it work (like in “The Puppetmaster”), but sometimes it’s just awkward and ridiculous.

I guess it goes without saying that my absolute favorite moment in this sequence is when Sokka and Toph appear to be doomed.

It’s a great moment because all the while I’m wondering, “Is Toph going to die?” Naturally, I could care less about Sokka, but I really must give DiMartino and Konietzko and company credit here: they can be really clever bastards when they want to be. It’s like they somehow knew I wouldn’t give a shit about Sokka’s well-being, so they literally put Toph’s life in his hands. Either they both die, or they both live. You can’t have one without the other. So my pleasure in seeing Sokka this close to death conflicts with my concern for Toph’s safety. That’s just diabolical genius!

Of course, Suki saves the day in a fashion just as ridiculous as anything else in these sequences. I’m not going to complain, though. This is the closest the writers ever came to killing Sokka, and that’s satisfying enough for me.

So close… *sigh*

Before moving on, I should mention that Toph’s impromptu metal-armor fight scene is really neat, but I have to ask (because I’m sure there’s an answer): with all that fire hitting the metal that was protecting her, shouldn’t she have gotten cooked in that armor, brazen bull-style? (Without the morbidly amusing “bull bellowing,” of course.)

The Good

Aang’s fight with Firelord Ozai is, amazingly enough, pretty damn exciting, and definitely one of the few genuine highlights of the finale.

Of course, the main question during this very long fight is whether Aang will actually kill Ozai to defeat him. I’ll deal with that particular tidbit much later, so let’s just say that it neither enhances nor detracts from these magnificent sequences. See, unlike those scenes with the White Lotus members or with Sokka, Suki, and Toph, these scenes work regardless of whether you’re emotionally invested in the situation or not. So even though I still don’t care at all about Aang, I’m still blown away by the way these fights are put together. Watching Aang do his best to evade Ozai’s blasts is fun, but it does get a bit tiresome overtime: even with the masterful animation of the ever-reliable JM Animation Co. Ltd., these sequences become as repetitive and predictable as a Nirvana album.

Even as a fan, I have to admit this.

But then Aang accidentally recovers the Avatar State and…I want to save discussing this scene for later, too.

The Brilliant

All right. Combine the brilliant JM animation with the fantastic and sorrowful score of the Track Team—even as a non-fan, I have to admit that they really outdid themselves this time—and the fact that I absolutely do care about both Zuko and Azula, and you’ve got one of the greatest action sequences in the entire series.

Should I even really have to explain this one? That Zuko having to fight his own sister to the death is equally inevitable and heartbreaking? That Azula’s nearly final slip into insanity makes her defeat that much more difficult to witness? That Zuko saving Katara so that she could save him finally provides her with the closure she needed all along? She may not have gotten to save her mother, but at least she could save Zuko (at least, that’s why I think she’s the one thanking him afterwards). And let’s not forget this haunting image.

Again, these wonderful moments stick out like a sore thumb amongst everything else, which comes across as business as usual. And that’s just the action sequences. We haven’t even gotten to the drama and comedy stuff yet. Not that I’m in hurry to review much of it…

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Fifty-Eight: “Sozin’s Comet, Part One: The Phoenix King”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

“Sozin’s Comet,” the four-part finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender, is a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the adventures of Aang, Zuko, and friends in their quest to defeat the Firelord. Unfortunately, the key word is “satisfactory.” While there are certainly fantastic moments scattered throughout, the finale as a whole never rises above its functionality; it does it’s job of wrapping up the story with just enough of a hint of what the future will hold, and that’s about it.

Could I have just been in a pretty sour mood both times I watched this? I mean, I wasn’t enthusiastic to watch the finale again anyway, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be bored throughout most of it. Hell, the first time I watched it, I turned the sound off and attempted to [unsuccessfully] sync it to Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans. Just to make it interesting for myself. I could have written a review based off that failed screening, but decided it wouldn’t be fair, to the show or to anyone else. Still, that should give you an idea of how much I was not looking forward to re-watching these episodes. Hell, if I didn’t have to review the entire series, I probably wouldn’t have watched them at all.

Fun fact: this is considered one of the worst albums ever made.

Can you really blame me, you readers who know me well? The best episode of the series (“The Southern Raiders,” as far as I’m concerned) has just come and gone; the worst episode (“The Ember Island Players”) has destroyed whatever emotional credibility the series used to have; none of the finale episodes have good re-watch value; there’s not much real tension, probably because most of the stakes are mostly physical rather than emotional, and it’s not like any of the characters could die (that would explain why I can watch “The Puppetmaster” repeatedly and still be on the edge of my seat); and, most importantly at all, the series never ever succeeded in giving me a reason to care much about Aang, so his fight with Ozai and the issue of killing versus not killing is merely stimulating on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one.

There’s another, probably more significant problem with the finale, though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was well into Part Three, the best of the four episodes and where the contrast between the stuff that works marvelously and the stuff that works marginally is most apparent.

See, the really, really wonderful parts of the finale continue the tradition of emotional intensity and character introspection that the very best episodes (ex. “The Southern Raiders,” “Zuko Alone,” “The Crossroads of Destiny”) always relied upon. Because those episodes depended solely on who the characters were and how that effected the outcome of the story, they not only had the most humanity, but they were also the most uniquely Avatar episodes of the series. In the finale, a few of those moments include Zuko’s reunion with Iroh and Azula’s mental breakdown.

The rest of the finale is almost like a regression to the simplistic carefree days of Book One; just about everything that happens, sans the formal Avatar details–like Bending–could have come from virtually any show. For example, the moment we learn that Firelord Ozai plans to essentially destroy the world, whatever tension there may have been is immediately ruined. How many kids’ shows have you seen with this conflict where the villain actually succeeds in destroying the world?

If you answered Dr. Strangelove, which is neither for kids nor a show, then you’re probably wrong.

In addition, the issue of whether Aang should kill Ozai or not becomes laughable when you realize that not a single character in the finale seems even remotely capable of dying. There are injuries—mostly endured by main male characters Aang, Zuko, and Sokka—but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for the fact that, with all this fire and destruction, not a single person dies or is even implied to have died. This is so clearly a symptom of being a kids’ show that it’s annoying. DiMartino and Konietzko and company are really doing their mostly teenage demographic a major disservice by implying that it’s more likely to die at a Radiohead concert than during wartime in a fantasy world where people can shoot fire from their fucking hands.

Clearly more dangerous than Firebenders.

All-in-all—I really hate to say this—the finale as a whole is very, very perfunctory. After displaying emotional complexity and moral grey areas throughout the course of the series, the big final battle is reduced to a simple fight between good and evil where characters actually say things like, “If you don’t stop him now, there won’t be a world left to save.” How disappointing.

THAT SAID, I don’t want to give the impression that the finale is completely horrible. Sure, none of these episodes will be going on my Top Ten Episodes List anytime soon, but all things considered, they are all at least good episodes. Boring, but never offensive. I may not care all that much, but there’s still enough merit to keep my interest. Let’s just all agree that DiMartino and Konietzko simply suck at endings; keeping that in mind makes watching this finale a little bit easier.

Ugh…

Instead of judging each episode individually on it’s own merits—an all but impossible task considering they were all essentially designed as quarters of a feature-length film—I’ll just go examine the entire finale in four parts. That’s fair, right? I”ll start with the basic concepts that drive the whole thing…

If there are a few themes running through the finale, one of them surely has to be poor communication. A great deal of what happens in these episodes happens because everyone seems to be withholding very important information. For example, no one tells Zuko that Aang plans to wait until after Sozin’s Comet to face the Firelord. This is pretty crucial to know, don’t you think? Of course, Zuko doesn’t tell the others that his father plans to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom on that fateful day. Gee, that’s kind of important, too, regardless of if you knew Aang was going to wait or not. But wait: Aang forgets to tell everyone that he’s a pacifist, and that literally taking out the Firelord is not an option. As you can see, our heroes have the communication prowess of your average teenager. (And technically they are all teenagers at this point, so I guess it makes some sense.)

Apparently, the past Avatars aren’t very good at communicating either. When Aang finds himself on the back of the Lion Turtle and asking his past lives whether he should kill Ozai or not, not a single one of them gives him a straight answer. Their vague pseudo-wisdom essentially amounts to telling him that he must make up his own mind. You don’t say! Only the Air nomad gives anything resembling practical advice, and it’s basically the classic Spock line: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Not even the Lion Turtle gives a straight answer. I’ll admit that my frustration with the Lion Turtle’s jibberish is as much my fault as it is his. I mean, should I really have expected fucking sense from a giant Lion Turtle that knows English? I was very thankful when the giant hybrid animal stopped talking and just said all he needed to say by extending two fingers onto Aang’s head and chest.

The only efficient method of communication in the Avatar universe.

And it doesn’t just stop at giving information: everyone seems suck at listening, too. Near the end, Zuko tells Katara to clear out so that he can take on Azula by himself. Later, we see her inexplicably show up behind Zuko for no reason at all, which damn near results in Zuko getting killed by Azula’s lightning. At this point, I’m starting to think Katara is the unfortunate victim of a cosmic joke: so many of her attempts to “help out” results in things ending up worse than they were before and requiring others to fix it. Hell, she was as indirectly responsible for Aang’s death in “Crossroads of Destiny” as Zuko was. Why so cruel, unseen makers of the universe? (On top of that, just how useful did Katara think she would be against a Firebender with about ten times more power?)

Granted, she does usually makes things right by herself sometimes. Even here, she does manage to defeat Azula without killing her, and she does heal Zuko after he was struck by lightning. Still, if this is the kind of suffering that being acquainted with Katara involves, I’d rather not be.

Still, the worst communicators throughout this finale are the writers themselves (come on, you knew that was coming). For knowing how their show was going to end, DiMartino and Konietzko and company sure make it seem like they pulled a lot of the plot elements of the finale out of their ass at the last minute. I get that they were trying to keep Energybending a secret and a twist, but couldn’t it have been handled better? The way it’s suddenly dropped into the show the moment Aang starts to do it feels like an abrupt “Oh, by the way, this is Energybending, it does this.”

These abrupt explanations are only appropriate when it’s one audience member explaining something to another audience member, because at least one member gets to feel smart. (i.e. explaining the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In the case of the finale, the entire audience feels dumb, and that’s a big filmmaking 101 no-no: never make the audience feel dumb.

I’ve already harped on this way too much, so I’ll finish by examining the only good communicating in the episode. Wouldn’t you know it makes just about as little sense?

Sokka, Suki, and Toph arrive just as the Fire Nation airships are taking off. Without hesitation, Toph asks Sokka where the nearest airship is, and just as Sokka points to it, Toph launches Sokka, Suki and herself right onto the ship.

Dear reader, please, please, please explain to me how she was able to do that. How did she know that those airships had a spot for them to even land on? How could she calculate the projectory force needed for them to land in that exact spot? How could she calculate all of that from Sokka simply pointing at the airship? And, considering how swiftly she launched them all into the air, how sure was she that Sokka was going to point at the airship, instead of saying something like, “It’s right in front of us”?

Honestly, I want to know, because it was pretty damn impressive. That feat would make a great question on a physics test.

I’d like to conclude Part One of this review by addressing Ozai’s plan to scorch the entire Earth Kingdom so that the new Fire Nation could rise from the ashes (thus justifying his title of Phoenix King). I am not very knowledgeable about military strategies or historical takeovers, but Ozai’s plan just seems awful. Why would you want to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom? The Fire Nation may be fruitful in its own way, but certainly the land and resources of the Earth Kingdom are worth preserving for your new regime.

Also, just how effectively would you be able to burn down the Earth Kingdom with a single fleet of airship? Granted, all that fire power is a wonder to behold, but from just one fleet? Taking out the Air Temples was one thing, but this is completely different. Maybe if you somehow spread airships around the entire Earth Kingdom coastline, but even that seems impossible. Unless this Avatar world is just smaller than Earth. (Also, just how long do the effects of Sozin’s Comet last? From what I gathered, about an hour, tops?)

I realize that Aang and friends had no way of knowing just what evil Ozai had in store for the world on the day of the Comet—again, thanks to everyone’s poor communication skills—but what exactly did they think he was going to do on that day? Nothing? Break the world record for largest bonfire? Burn all the world’s opium and marijuana so that everyone on the planet becomes high and incapacitated so they can’t defend themselves as the Fire Nation finally takes over the world?

Actually…that would probably work.

The bottom line is that I don’t think DiMartino and Konietzko and company really thought this plan through. It feels like they were desperately searching for some world ending plot device that would raise the stakes and tension. Unfortunately, they went a bit too far and virtually destroyed all the tension. Too bad.

Sorry if this review seems more rambling than usual. In Part Two, I’ll focus more on a specific aspect of the finale. Namely, the action sequences.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Quick Thoughts on the Finale of “Avatar: the Last Airbender”

The really in-depth discussions will have to be saved for–and written–tomorrow, but for now, some quick impressions:

  • I hate to say it, but I was pretty much bored throughout much of this four-part finale. None of these episodes have very good re-watch value, least of all in and of themselves.
  • It’s quite amazing how the issue of killing Firelord Ozai or not didn’t come up until now (and technically “The Southern Raiders”).
  • Oazi’s plan to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom is actually a pretty lousy idea. I feel like the writers were trying way too hard to make him pure evil.
  • This finale is completely stolen by the following characters: Zuko (naturally), Bumi, Iroh, Aang in his Avatar State, and, most of all, Azula. Everyone else barely makes a reasonable impact.
  • With a few exceptions, the action sequences are pretty lame. The exceptions are Zuko and Azula’s Ag Ni Kai [sp?], and bits and pieces of Aang’s fight with Ozai, especially in Avatar State.
  • All of the scenes involving Azula were the best and most effective in the entire finale. Her defeat and meltdown is, in my opinion, the greatest moment in the entire series. Ever.
  • Zuko and Iroh’s reunion was fantastic. But you knew that.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly of all:

  • Energybending did not ruin the finale. It’s clumsy entry into the plot makes it a Deus ex Machina, yes, but it actually makes sense. (Unlike the Deus ex Machina of that other show.)

Expect a much deeper analysis tomorrow, starting, naturally with Part One.


Announcement: Re-adjustment Time Over, Time to Face the Finale

My unofficial, unannounced hiatus–in which I adjusted to my new college living quarters and class schedule–is finally and mercifully over. I apologize to those patiently awaiting my thoughts on the Avatar: the Last Airbender finale, and I promise that my thoughts on such will be posted starting this Saturday September 8th.

Also, regarding my unfinished The Legend of Korra reviews: as awkward as it would be, I feel the need to re-watch and review the entire series in light of the horrid finale. Probably not as extensive as my usual stuff–especially with the numerous writings elsewhere on how the series went wrong–but something nonetheless.

– Marshall Turner