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Archive for December, 2014

Thoughts on the Series Finale of “Korra”

There are two specific moments in the Book Four finale that resonated with me in contrary, but peculiar ways.

The first moment occurs at the end, and it involves everything with Korra and Asami. Now, let’s say you’re an unsuspecting viewer with no prior knowledge of The Legend of Korra, and you just happen to catch these last few minutes of the series. You’d be excused for thinking this was the culmination of a relationship between two women who’d been through Hell and back together, and now wanted to take some time away with to relax and enjoy each other’s company. On it’s own, it’s a touching moment. (And I agree with JMR that the implications of a lesbian relationship in a kid’s show is pretty damn cool.)

Unfortunately, as seasoned viewers of Korra know, this moment is supposed to be the pay-off to four seasons worth of material. But where was the set-up? Where in the rest of the story did the writers plant the expectation in the audience’s head that these two should be together like this? Perhaps it counts as a hint when Korra and Asami wrote each other letters during the three-year gap between Book Three and Book Four. In one episode, Korra specifically states she only felt comfortable writing to Asami. But even that development comes out of nowhere (though it does get addressed in another episode, which helps). As much as I’d love for this ending between Korra and Asami to work, from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t. It feels forced and unnatural. I can’t go, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” because my brain is making me go, “Where the fuck did that come from?”

Contrast this with the second moment, which occurs right after Korra has saved Kuvira from her own death ray gun, opened a new spirit portal, and transported them both to the Spirit World. Upon entry, Korra is holding an unconscious Kuvira in her arms (in a manner uncharacteristically maternal for Korra, which adds to the effect). Here’s the kicker: Kuvira wakes up, realizes she’s in the Avatar’s arms, releases a genuinely terrified whimper and jumps out of Korra’s arms.

Initially, I expected Kuvira to stay weak and vulnerable in Korra’s arms as they went into the usual spiel of “You saved my life! Why?” That expectation was usurped by Kuvira simply because she’s not the kind of person to allow herself to be weak and vulnerable, especially not in the presence of her greatest enemy, let alone in her arms. (Listen to that whimper Zelda Williams does once Kuvira starts pulling away from Korra. It sounds frightened, but also embarrassed. Since when in the Hell is Kuvira ever embarrassed?)

This little window into Kuvira’s psyche reveals more about her than even the following sob story about her childhood as an orphan (that said, it does make her repulsion at being in such a child-like state in Mama Korra’s arms that much more intriguing). Like the best and most effective bits of character development, our understanding of the character comes from not what she says, but from our expectations being subverted/affirmed by her emotional reality. In this brief little moment, Kuvira has no choice but to be herself, even if it’s completely irrational. In hindsight, what else would she have done?

These two relatively brief moments are the only ones that really stood out to me in the entire two-part finale. Had you checked my pulse throughout the rest of the finale, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was dead. That’s how bored I was. Not that there weren’t nice little touches here and there—the fight between Kuvira and Korra in the head of the Giant Mecha Suit was brilliantly accomplished, and I personally loved everything having to do with Varrick and Zhu Li, but they really deserve their own show—but for the most part, it played out so blandly. Moments that should have been tense and exhilarating don’t have the impact they should. Moments that should be emotional lack characters and motivations strong enough to warrant such investment (particularly bad when it comes to the fate of Hiroshi Sato, who the writers reconnected with his daughter only so he could take part in the final boss battle). Any scene involving the Giant Mecha Suit comes across as silly and non-threatening (watching that thing try to swat away its airborne attackers falls somewhere between being really funny and really stupid). And on top of everything, the level of destruction in these episodes damn near made me sick. This could just be a personal thing, but after enduring Transformers, The Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Godzilla, and especially Man of Steel (one of the absolute worst movie-going experiences of my life), I’m tired of all this reckless property and collateral damage. They should have spent less time destroying Republic City and more time making sure we actually cared about the folks caught in the chaos.

Much like the rest of the series, the finale contains one wasted opportunity after another. As much as I despise the Giant Mecha Suit, it did provide a brilliant conceit: because Kuvira is Metalbending to the Suit, she can feel everything that happens to it. That explains how she could tell Hiroshi was cutting into her leg with the Hummingbird ship (because she certainly couldn’t look down to see it). The idea that Kuvira was personally enduring the damage brought upon the Giant Mecha Suit would have made for some interesting drama, especially in the scene where she rips her right arm off when the gun no longer works. None of this really comes into play, though, probably because they didn’t have time (or the budget, for that matter) to fully realize the potential of all their ideas. What a pity.

Still, what works does work well. Despite the typically stilted dialogue, I rathed liked Korra’s final scene with Tenzin, even though it reminded me that Tenzin was one of the worst casualities of Korra‘s messy, unfocused execution. And it was nice to see Kuvira, if not redeemed, at least surrender on her own terms. And seeing the Bei Fong sisters in action is always fun.

Overall, though, this was the most disappointing finale of the entire series, which is odd to think about. Book One’s finale infuriated me. Book Two’s finale baffled me. Book Three’s finale physically made me sick. And now this finale made me feel almost nothing. Unless I’ve just grown numb after four seasons, I simply don’t understand how this could happen. How could a series with so much going for it from the start devolve into such a mess? How is this a worthy follow-up to Avatar: the Last Airbender? I honestly wonder if creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko just stopped caring at some point, and just wanted to get the whole thing over with. What will their next project be? Will they try to separate themselves from the Avatar universe as much as possible? Or will they be stuck having to make those Avatar comics for the rest of their lives?

Whatever the case, Korra is finally done, and all I’m left with is the nagging regret of someone whose wasted a good part of their life devoted to a relationship that was never really there to begin with. (Now I’m just being dramatic, and I apologize.)

The good news, though, is that now I’m that much more excited to re-watch Avatar!


Still Collecting My Thoughts On the Series Finale

I honestly don’t know how I feel (to be more direct, when it was all over, I didn’t feel anything). I’m going to watch it again very soon and then write my piece.

In the meantime, what did you all think? Satisfied? Blown away? Let down and hanging around? What even happened?

I Can’t Believe It’s Almost Over…

It’s a bit strange to think that, in just a few days, The Legend of Korra will come to an end. After four seasons and two-and-a-half years, the spin-off of Avatar: the Last Airbender will no longer be around.* No more new episodes to tune in to, on the Internet or otherwise. No more adventures of Korra, who only just started to grow on me this season. No more relevant updates from creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who will probably forever be caught in the existential trappings of a hardcore fandom and anime conventions. No more bizarre developments to bitch and moan about (like that Giant Mech Suit, which I’ll talk about in a moment). No more missed/wasted opportunities to tell a good story within the confines of an American animated children’s program.

I’m actually tearing up just thinking about it.

To alleviate (exacerbate?) my grief, I started leafing through the “Art of” book for Book One of Korra. Every new page made me more wistful than the last. Here I am going through the selected concepts, ideas, sketches, background paintings, key animation sheets, etc., of what will probably be the last great traditionally-animated television show ever produced (and it wasn’t even that good). How did a show with the potential to revolutionize what could be done with American animated children’s programming devolve into such a joyless and pretentious enterprise? How did we go from the Equalists (who, for all their dirty tactics, made some damn good points about the marginalization of Non-Benders in the Avatar universe) to a Giant Mech Suit straight out of C-grade anime?

And let me make this absolutely clear: I hate Kuriva’s Giant Mech Suit. It fails on every possible level. Aesthetically, it doesn’t match up with the mostly traditionally-animated atmosphere of the series. Viscerally, it lacks any sense of weight and scale necessary to make us feel its terrifying presence. Thematically, it’s silly and obvious. Dramatically, it reduces the human drama to a video game.** Intellectually, all bets are off: Kuvira is most definitely crazy, and beyond redemption and empathy. Emotionally, it’s void: how am I supposed to be invested in something I don’t believe has any right to exist in this universe? How am I supposed to relate to the characters if they can’t even relate to the gravity of their own situation? Not one character seems bothered that a giant robot being controlled by an evil dictator—on the face of it, a gruesomely nightmarish idea—is going to destroy their city. Wouldn’t the very sight of such a monstrosity cause even a hint of shock and awe? By comparison, Seth Rogen’s reaction to the giant, well-endowed demon of Hell in This Is The End was more plausible. Yes, a Seth Rogen comedy about the apocalypse was more believable than this new development in a serious fantasy drama. (And you know what? I bet Rogen’s new film The Interview will contain a much more nuanced portrayal of an evil dictator than we have here in Kuvira.)

Are my tribulations unfounded? Could the last two episodes actually save the series from utter disgrace? Have DiMartino, Konietzko, and company found a way to redeem the many missed opportunities and mistakes they’ve made up to this point?

I honestly don’t think so. History certainly isn’t on their side: every single season finale of Korra has been horrendous, and they’ve gotten worse each season (though I’ll give Book Three a pass because it finally helped humanize Korra in my eyes). First, Aang gave Korra back her Bending when she was in no position to deserve it. That happened in the last three or so minutes. Then, there was the completely nonsensical (or “spiritual,” as Konietzko called it) fight between a giant blue Korra and a giant red Unalaq. That lasted almost an entire episode.

Now here’s a Giant Mech Suit that Korra must find a way to take down (only because she promised Dante Basco that she would). Two episodes to go? What’s going to happen? Will Korra become the Blue Giant again and wrestle it out with the Giant Mech Suit? While that’s happening, will the others and Bataar, Jr. sneak into the suit, find Kuvira, and distract her with Bataar, Jr.’s presence? Maybe Bataar, Jr., having nothing else to live for—he betrayed his family, and now his own lover just tried to kill him—will initiate the second known murder-suicide in the Avatar universe by destroying himself, Kuvira, and the Giant Mech Suit. Maybe Blue Giant Korra will deliver an uppercut that sends Kuvira and her Giant Mech Suit to spend their remaining breathes in outer space. (Now I’m just getting silly.)

If this wild speculation tells you anything, it’s that I hungrily await these last two episodes of Korra. Good or bad, redeeming or damning, tear or rage-inducing, whatever they are, I’ll be tuning. I don’t know if it’s for completionist’s sake (I mean, it’s only two more episodes), or masochism, or plain curiosity to see how much worse (or better!) it could actually get, but facts are facts: for two more episodes, I am a faithful viewer. Only when it’s over will I be able to adequately evaluate what exactly it was I was faithful to.***

*On television, anyway. As far as I know, they’ll still be making Avatar and Korra comics as long as they make money from devoted fans.

**In all fairness, while the Giant Mech Suit itself is beyond idiotic, from a strictly formal standpoint, its reveal was absolutely brilliant. Despite their flaws as storytellers, DiMartino and Konietzko are masters of the element of surprise. Maybe they learned it from working with M. Night Shyamalan.

***On a completely unrelated note, happy 40th birthday, P.J. Byrne!

Take Two:

Quick Impressions of “Kuvira’s Gambit”

Has it come to this? Is this what we were waiting for? Were Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra nothing more than an extended preview to a video game? Have we finally reached the final boss? Will Korra have to hypercharge into her Giant Mega Form (as last seen in the nauseating finale of Book Two)?

Perhaps I’d be more open to accepting this new plot development if the Giant Mecha Suit looked like it belonged within the Avatar universe on at least an aesthetic level. As executed in the episode, this lumbling CG travesty looks like it was imported directly from a PlayStation 2 release. Where were the Miyazaki-inspired intuitions of creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko when this came into development? (Or maybe they were thinking of Neon Genesis Evangelion.) Maybe this would have played out better with a cinema-level budget, as opposed to the comparatively meager budgets of television animation. Then again, this isn’t the first time something was compromised by Book Four’s budget cut. Remember the clips show episode “Remembrances?”

Forgive me if I dwell too much on my hatred of the very existence of this Giant Mecha Suit. My judgment of this entire episode has been clouded by it. I could have sworn that the rest of the episode played out like video game cut scenes, complete with strategies on how to defeat the giant boss (for the multi-player effect), and even a concept for a stealth level: kidnapp Bataar, Jr. and bring him back to the hideout.

Speaking of Bataar, Jr., my tribulations with voice actor Todd Haberkorn’s performance have proven justified. The entire sequence in which his love for Kuvira proves to be his undoing –she’d rather lose him trying to defeat the Avatar rather than save him to secure a happy relationship during peace time–loses much of its power thanks to his unconvincing slimeball delivery. (Zelda Williams, on the other hand, provided just enough nuance to her short lines with Bataar, Jr. to make you feel her dilemma.) Had Haberkorn been up to snuff, this could have been a nice little scene. It may have even redeemed the stupidity of the Giant Mecha Suit by attaching it to an emotional beak of the story.

I’m afraid, dear readers. We only have two more episodes to go. Every season finale has gotten longer and more horrible. Book Two’s finale was twice as bad (and lasted much longer) as the Book One finale. We’re approaching the finale of Book Four. Will this finale be twice as bad as Book Two’s? Mathematically, it seems feasible. What are we in for?

Maybe I’ll just being silly. What did you all think of this episode?

Quick Thoughts on “Operation Beifong”

A very good episode! It definitely has the best Bending duel (between Kuvira and Suyin) that I’ve seen in a long time. All the action and suspense worked wonderfully. And it was good to see that Zhu Li was trying to sabotage the big gun all along (even if she did help build it, but she was just trying to keep up appearances, or maybe she changed her mind in the process of building it, speculation, speculation, etc.).

I was afraid that Toph’s re-appearance would be intrusive (in a bad way), but it wasn’t. It actually felt quite natural. Seeing the entire Bei Fong family together was actually kind of sweet. (I loved that Suyin’s husband tries to call Toph “mom.”)

By the way, I think I know why Opal bugs me. It has nothing to do with her anger at Bolin. It’s her voice actor, Alison Stoner, that irks me. She was fine last season, but here, she’s being asked to convey emotions that are beyond her capabilities (compare Stoner to Mae Whitman as Katara back in Avatar: the Last Airbender, where a similar grudge was held against Zuko until “The Southern Raiders”).

Maybe it’s just me. In any case, what did you all think of this episode?