Korra learns that the leader of the Equalist movement can take away people’s Bending. She does her best to cope with her fear by ignoring it.
- In Avatar, Aang was the reluctant hero who needed to accept his responsibility as Avatar in order to defeat the Firelord and save the world. Korra, being the anti-thesis of Aang, relished her Avatar status since she was a child and finds every opportunity to use (and abuse) her incredible power. What kind of villain could pose a threat to someone like Korra? Someone who could take that power away.
- Enter Amon, the leader of the Equalist movement. He preaches the evils of Bending, and how every single catastrophe in history has been instigated by Benders. After seeing his family be slaughtered by corrupt Firebenders, he vowed to rid the world of Bending and bring peace and equality. And the Spirits have given him the ultimate gift for the task: the power to take away a person’s Bending forever (just as Aang did to Firelord Ozai).
- But isn’t that a power only the Avatar possesses? Not so, as Amon promptly demonstrates in front of a huge crowd of Equalists (and Korra and Mako). He strips the most dangerous mob boss of his Firebending, rendering him helpless. Amon means business.
- This revelation of Amon’s power is a game changer, not just in the fight against the Equalists, but for Korra, for whom the prospect of losing her Bending is the ultimate nightmare, literally and figuratively. This may just be the first time that she has even experienced genuine fear in her entire life.
- Little wonder that she handles this new emotion pretty poorly. Aside from the traumatic nightmares, she does everything to hide her true feelings from everyone, especially Tarrlok, the smarmy counsel member who wants her to head his new task force to stop Amon. She rejects the offer, much to Tenzin’s surprise, opting instead to “focus on her Airbending.”
- This Tarrlok, however, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and does everything he can to suade Korra, including lavish gifts, each more expensive than the last. When that doesn’t work, he holds a party in her honor and, with the help of the press, virtually bullies Korra into joining the task force anyway.
- As Tarrlok is quick to observe, Korra’s fear can easily be overridden by her pride. It’s her pride that tricks her into accepting the task force position, but also to call Amon over the radio and challenge him to a one-on-one match at midnight on Avatar Aang Memorial Island (the island with the giant statue of Aang). Stupid is an understatement; even Tarrlok tries to talk her out of it.
- And Amon does show up—eventually, and not at all alone—but not to take away Korra’s Bending. Smart man that he is, he knows she’d only be a martyr if he defeated her then and there, and is waiting for the perfect moment to destroy her. Having come this close to having her Bending taken away, Korra finally allows herself to cry in Tenzin’s arms and admit her fear.
- She’s had a rough few days. On top of this Amon stuff, Korra now has a rival for Mako’s affection. Her name is Asami, and she’s the daughter of Hirashi Sato, Republic City’s richest resident and inventor of the automobile—called the “Satomobile” in the Avatar universe, which doesn’t explain where they got the Latin root for “mobile” from—AND the new official sponsor for the Fire Ferrets. To make matters worse, Asami and Mako have already had a few dates and seem highly compatible. Did I mention that Asami is very pretty?
- It’s worth mentioning that, before all the Mako hate started pouring in, he and Bolin’s back story as street rats orphaned by Firebenders did make him, however briefly, into a somewhat sympathetic and trustworthy character.
- Oh, and we also meet Pabu the red panda, who’d I actually forgotten all about until just now. Much like Naga is the new Appa, Pabu is the new Momo. Both new animals are equally memorable.
- It takes a little bit of time before the third episode really takes off, but once it does—from the Chi-Blocker chase and fight sequence and beyond—these two episodes are amazing! The fight sequences are visceral and fun; the character interactions are almost always intriguing and actually move the story forward; the art direction, especially for the night scenes in the city, is gorgeous; and the suspense actually keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next. Even as I watch these episodes for probably the fourth time in my life, they still work magnificently.
- I think what makes all the difference between these episodes and the first two is the establishment of an actual conflict, which gives everything that happens from now on some gravitas and meaning. The battle with Amon and the Equalist movement is much, much bigger than Korra’s initial problems with Airbending, but now it makes those problem more pressing of an issue: if Korra can’t master this last element, does she really stand a chance against a man who take all her Bending away?
- Amon, what a villain! What a terrifying presence, even before we learn of his Energybending ability! What a pitch perfect performance by anime-dub veteran Steve Blum, who channels charisma and menace into every line! What a riveting show when he demonstrates his De-Bending technique (from lightning to fire to nothing)! And at this point, what a perfect opposition to Korra! You get the sense that this girl’s impulsive aggression is no match at all for Amon’s calculated cool. (No wonder DiMartino and Konietzko had to cop-out in the end: without a deus ex machina, this guy would have definitely defeated Korra fair-and-square, meaning they’d actually have to *GASP* develop her character!)
- All jokes aside, the towering presence of Amon puts Korra’s inflated ego and machismo in check, and you finally start to feel some sympathy for the girl. All she knows and all she’s good (arguably) at is being the Avatar, and now her entire being is threatened by Amon and his anti-Bending, anti-Avatar ideology. Her fear is completely justified, which is why every scene in which that fear is at the center works really well.
- Check out the scene where Amon interrupts the normal radio broadcast to deliver his message to Republic City. A simple shot-reverse-shot of Korra staring at the radio which tighten into close-ups of each, yet combined with Blum’s great delivery and Korra’s silent yet visible terror, it becomes a paralyzing moment of unbearable, almost Hitchcockian tension. It may be my favorite scene of the two episodes.
- Another favorite is Korra’s close encounter with Amon on Avatar Aang Memorial Island. Once again, Blum’s performance is the centerpiece, complimented by more great silent animation of Korra and subtle, moody lighting. The follow-up scene of Korra crying into Tenzin’s arms is effective, too, and for once Janet Varney finds the perfect note in which to portray Korra sympathetically.
- There are a few action sequences, the best of which is the first encounter with Chi-Blockers who have kidnapped Bolin and some other gang members. Great use of CG environments in that one, which allows the “camera” to circle and track the action at key moment, making for some kinetic shots. Same goes for the scene where Korra, Tarrlok and his task force infiltrate an Equalist training facility. Good job, Messieurs Ryu and Dos Santos!
- As new characters go, both Asami and Tarrlok are pretty interesting. Asami’s personality, as far as I can go, is deliberately left vague so that the show can throw a twist our way, revealing her true intentions. We already don’t trust her since she started moving in on Korra’s guy, so I’d say it works in the show’s favor.
- Tarrlok is such a smart guy, and an expert manipulator, that you already know not to trust a single word he says, even when he makes good on them. His task force with Korra on board is a success, but is he doing it for glory or justice? Both seem about right, and is there anything wrong with that?
10. Finally, special mention goes to Lin Bei Fong. She gets a single line in which she gets to put down Korra again, and absolutely nails it!
- I said I liked Tarrlok, didn’t I? Well, I don’t really like his voice actor. Which is borderline heresy, because if you know anything about Dee Bradley Baker, you’d know he’s one of the most prolific and versatile voice actors in the business, particularly in the field of animal noises. (Appa? Momo? Pabu? Nagu? Daffy Duck in Space Jam? All him!) Tarrlok, though?
- And it’s not even that his performance is bad per se. It just sounds a little too cartoonish and theatrical next to the relatively natural and less obvious performances of Varney, Blum, J.K. Simmons, Mindy Sterling, and others. I’ve always theorized that Baker was a replacement for another actor who dropped out at the last minute. Imagine Tarrlok’s lines being read by someone like, say, Oliver Platt, and you’ll understand how Baker oversteps the line between sleaze ball and “sleaze ball.”
- On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, P.J. Byrne is excellent as Bolin, even if the character is a little too silly for his own good. How does Bolin wind up getting involved with the gang that gets kidnapped by the Equalists? By putting on a street-side mini-circus featuring Pabu the whatever-I-don’t hybrid animal to raise money for the entry fee into the Pro-Bending championships. Come to think of it, this particular incident isn’t that bad, but as the series progresses, it doesn’t get any better for Bolin.
- I want to talk a little bit about that scene where Tarrlok’s task force infiltrates the Equalist training facility, because it illustrates some of the more trouble aspects of Book One’s message.
- The main conflict of Book One is between Benders and a certain faction of Non-Benders who believe that Benders have a disproportionate amount of power in society, and they use that power to oppress Non-Benders. The most extreme of this faction are the Equalists, the terrorist organization led by Amon and designed to take down all Benders and rid them of their ability to Bend, including the Avatar.
- It’s been observed many times by much more intelligent folks than myself that this isn’t exactly a black-and-white issue. While the Equalists are clearly the “bad guys” and Korra and the other Benders are the “good guys,” it’s definitely true that in the grand scheme of things, Benders do have a physical advantage over Non-Benders, an advantage which can and has been abused in the series itself (even by Korra, no less). It makes perfect sense that a group would come along to “equalize” the playing field in an attempt to bring “peace” to the world, even if by violent means.
- Extremists or not, the Equalists have a point, even if the show itself attempt to dissuade you otherwise. In the task force attack scene, we see a group of Equalists training themselves both in self-defense and in the art of Chi-Blocking, two skills that would come in handy with rouge Benders. Putting aside the Equalist agenda, are these not skills that any sane Non-Bender living in a world of Benders would want to have in case of emergency?
- And why is Chi-Blocking a skill limited to the Equalists? Along with Lightning-Bending(?), Chi-Blocking is one of those rare techniques we’d only seen used by one or two people in Avatar. In Korra, though, Lightning-Bending has been normalized to a degree that those capable of doing it can work in power plants to provide electricity for the city. Why isn’t Chi-Blocking also normalized? Apparently, everyone on the police force is a Bender, but wouldn’t that be a solid, pacifying skill to have at one’s disposable when dealing with out-of-control Benders? (Instead of, you know, fighting Bending with Bending, which the first episode demonstrated could cause more damage than it’s worth?)
- And not a single one of those Equalists arrested gets even a brief moment of humanity or sympathy to their plight. More to the point, am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that each one of those Equalists we see training in the facility are all wearing their Equalist masks while they’re training? As far as they’re concerned, this is a safe-space where they’re all in solidarity against the oppression of Benders, so why keep the masks (especially with banners of Amon plastered all over the walls? The easy answer: so the audience will know that they’re the “bad guys,” and thus will feel few qualms about seeing these folks ruthlessly frozen with Waterbending or assaulted with Earthbending. I doubt even the members of Antifa wear their masks all the time.
- In this day and age, when we’re seeing pretty close parallels to the Equalist movement being played out in real life, it’s a bit troubling to see how carelessly the conflict is handled in Book One of Korra. Generally speaking, Benders are the “privilege” class of the Avatar universe (at least, according to the series itself), and for writers as transparently left-leaning as DiMartino and especially Konietzko, their muddled handling of the politic crisis in their own fantasy universe either reflects a poor understanding of real world politics, or an even worse understanding of their own political agenda. It’s difficult to say, especially since their agenda seems to shift with every season until finally Korra and Asami close the series as symbols of LGBT representation, with absolutely no warning or development of any kind.
Well that got a lot more political than I ever intended (Lord knows it won’t be the last time when dealing with DiMartino and Konietzko). But I don’t watch Korra or Avatar for the politics, I watch them for the storytelling, and on those terms, “The Revelation” and “The Voice in the Night” are pretty damn good. Since there aren’t that many episodes of Korra you can definitively say that about, you’d better enjoy them while you can. I have a feeling the next episode is going to be a tad more divisive.
Next week: Avatar: “The Warriors of Kyoshi” & “The King of Omashu” & “Imprisoned”
The next Retrospective review is getting pushed back to next Saturday, April 29th. I won’t bother you all with the details, but let’s just say that a few days back, I experienced a “debilitating relapse” that all but wrecked my mental faculties for the rest of the week. I’ll be back on track by Sunday, by which point I’ll recommence with the Retrospective and the research.
Speaking of research, I want to say thank you to everyone who sends me links to interesting interviews or articles on Avatar and Korra. I’ll be adding them to the Research Hub. I also need to get better with responding to any and all comments I get, so I’m going to reserve Wednesday and Saturday as the days I respond to all new comments. We’ll see if that works out better.
In general, I want to thank everyone who’s been with me on this long, crazy ride to review Avatar and Korra (AGAIN). This entire process is always fun and educational for me, especially seeing what other folks feel and think about these two shows. To have created two shows so rich with ideas and intrigue is no small feat, and whatever my qualms with the quality and execution of either show, DiMartino and Konietzko deserve a good deal of praise and respect.
Thanks again for all the love and support. Have fun, be safe, and choose life!
Aang returns to his home in the Southern Air Temple only to discover that the Fire Nation really did wipe out his entire race. Meanwhile, Zuko must capture the Avatar before his rival, Commander Zhao, does.
- Just in case the title of the show didn’t make it clear, Aang is most definitely the last Airbender on the planet. Knowing that the next Avatar in the cycle would be reincarnated as an Airbender, the Fire Nation made sure to eradicate every single one of them in the hopes of stopping the Avatar from foiling their plans for world domination. Ruthless is an understatement.
- It would be one thing if Aang, having returned to his home after a hundred years of being frozen in an iceberg, discovered that the Southern Air Temple was still brimming with life and activity, let alone with Airbenders. What he, Katara, Sokka, and Appa find instead is a decrepit ghost town, and the only initial signs of life are the tall weeds growing from the cracks of the crumbling structures.
- For their part, Katara and Sokka expected as much from the evil Fire Nation, and do their best to brace Aang for the brutal truth of what happened to his home and his people. Aang, the eternal optimistic, refuses to give up hope that there’s someone still around after all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary.
- They do find one living creature: a flying lemur that the nature-loving Aang vows to make his pet and that a starving Sokka vows to make his dinner. In the end, there’s a nice compromise: the lemur, which they name Momo, brings the hungry kids an assortment of fruits from God knows where, and is graciously made a part of their oddball family before they leave the Southern Air Temple.
- Other than Momo, there’s not a single soul left in the temple. Who is Aang looking for specifically? According to a flashback, Aang’s old mentor and best friend, Monk Gyatso, informed the newly anointed Avatar that when he was old enough, he’d be able to enter the Air Temple sanctuary and meet someone who would guide Aang through his Avatar training.
- Aang and his friends do find the sanctuary and go inside, discovering over a hundred statues that represent all of the Avatar’s past lives. It is here that we learn about the Avatar cycle, which goes Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and repeats. Aang’s predecessor was a Firebender named Avatar Roku (a fact Aang just knows by looking at the statue, since there’s no writing of any kind on the statue), which explains why the Fire Nation knew the next Avatar would be an Airbender and killed all of them. Including, much to Aang’s horror, good old Monk Gyatso.
- It’s not that Gyatso is dead that sends Aang over the edge (it’s been a hundred years since Aang last him, and he was pretty old then); it’s that his skeletal remains are surrouned by the armor and corpses of dozens of Fire Nation soldiers, leaving no mystery as to how Gyatso must have died.
- It’s all too much for the poor little Airbender, and for the second time in the series, he goes into the Avatar State to unleash his fury. Had Katara and Sokka not been there to calm him down, he probably would have destroyed the entire temple. Luckily, they bring him back to his senses by reassuring him that while he may have lost his original family, he’ll always be a part of theirs. With that, they continue on their journey.
- Meanwhile, Aang’s Avatar State sets off a chain reaction around the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has finally returned. This worldwide phenomenon is a major blow to Zuko’s plan to keep the Avatar’s return a secret. Or, at least, it would be if his secret hadn’t already been figured out by one Commander Zhao.
- Commander Zhao is a snaky, condescending man who lives to inflate his own ego and humiliate those he sees as beneath him. Zuko is an easy target, having been banished from the Fire Nation and only allowed to return when he captures the Avatar. If Zhao catches him first, then that’s just one more insult he can shove in Zuko’s face. How proud these Fire Nation folks must be that a grown man gets off on putting down a teenager with enough of a burden on his shoulder.
- And so this strong-headed prince and this overconfident commander engage in a Firebending duel known as an Ag Ni Kai. Zuko barely manages to emerge victorious, thanks in part to Uncle Iroh, who yells fundamental advice from the sidelines.
- What matters most, however, is that Zuko decides against delivering the finishing move on his fallen opponent. It’s Zhao, who in a fit of sore loserdom, tries to attack Zuko when his back is turned. Again, Iroh saves his nephew, and delivers some choice words to Zhao before he and Zuko depart to their ship.
- The tense encounter between Zuko and Zhao (and Uncle Iroh) are easily the best and most intriguing scenes in the episode. At this point, it’s pretty clear that Aang and friends are the “heroes” and the Fire Nation is the “villain.” But this episode throws some ambiguity our way by presenting us three different variants of “bad guy.”
- Zhao is the most traditional (and least interesting) villain of the three, and would likely have been the main baddie along with the Firelord in a lesser children’s show. But Zuko and Iroh? Iroh doesn’t seem all that villainous at all, with his love for tea and his nephew. Zuko, of course, wants to capture our hero Aang, but he’s hopelessly outmatched by Zhao in terms of resources and connections. Yet, as Iroh puts it, he’s a much more noble and honorable person than Zhao, even as an exiled prince. (And can a person who’s been exiled from the bad guys’ homeland really be all that bad?)
- One really has to give props to DiMartino, Konietzko, and company for further developing and humanizing the main bad guys. How many children’s shows even attempt to do that as early as episode three of any series?
- The Ag Ni Kai is also a fantastic demonstration of Firebending. This is one of the many ways in which the series makes concept of Bending more grounded and palpable by connecting it to actual martial arts principles and techniques. Scenes like this really benefit from the consultation of Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, hired to provide insight on the real life forms which inspire each element of Bending.
- As for our heroes, there are two moments in this episode that rank among the most emotionally resonant in the entire series, both of which take place just before the end credits, and both of which have to do with Aang coming to terms with the loss of his people and culture.
- The first, in which Aang says to Momo, “You, me, and Appa. We’re all that’s left of this place. We have to stick together.” So simple. So poignant. What more is there to say?
- The second, which closes the episode, shows our heroes flying away from the Southern Air Temple. Aang and Momo watch silently as the abandoned temple disappears behind the clouds.
- Both moments are underpinned by an amazing music cue from the Track Team, Avatar’s resident music composers (and sound designers) Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman. These two have always been an integral part of Avatar’s success (and would later work on Korra), and this is just one of many standout moments. It’s little wonder fans used to beg year after year for a CD release of the Avatar soundtrack.
- Thank God the episode ends on such a soaring high note because, except for the scenes with Zuko and Iroh and Zhao, the rest of the episode SUCKS. The animation? SUCKS. The voice acting? SUCKS. The dialogue? The humor? The drama? SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS!
- That’s a bit hyperbolic (not to mention juvenile), but it’s honestly shocking how bad this episode is. I know, it’s the first season and they haven’t worked out all the bugs yet. That doesn’t quite explain how this episode came out so terribly, especially since the first two episodes weren’t that bad at all.
- Then again, those episodes were animated by an entirely different animation studio. For the entirely of Avatar’s production, the only way that Nickelodeon and the Avatar crew could fulfill their huge workload and episode order each season was to delegate the animation production to two separate studios (all stationed in South Korea). During Book One, those studios were JM Animation Co., Ltd and DR Movie. JM Animation animated the first two episodes, while DR Movie animated this one.
- The odd thing is, if you look at the two studios’ track records, DR Movie would appear to have the more impressive resume. According to their Wikipedia page, DR Movie is the only Korean studio to have a contract with Studio Ghibli. (Hell, as of this writing, DR Movie is the only one of the three animation studios that worked on Avatar to even have a Wikipedia page.) But as Avatar went on, it was JM Animation that consistently produced the best-looking episodes of the series. DR Movie even quit Avatar after Book Two and handed its animation duties to its sister studio, MOI Animation.
- So maybe DR Movie wasn’t quite sure yet what to do with Avatar, or maybe the directions they received from DiMartino, Konietzko, and company weren’t entirely clear. Whatever the case, the first few episodes they animated for Avatar are pretty bad.
- Every time Aang has to express an emotion like disappointment, reminiscing, or sorrow, he just looks sleepy. The voice performance by Zack Tyler Eisen is on-point (as it usually is), but sleepy Aang just makes me laugh.
- You know what doesn’t make me laugh? Sokka. At least not in this episode. In the past, I used to think my hatred of Sokka was entirely due to Jack De Sena’s voice acting. He can certainly go overboard sometimes, but at the end of the day, he’s just an actor doing his best to make something out of a terrible script. (Not even P.J. Byrne, the voice of Bolin and one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood today, is immune to the horrid lines this franchise can occasionally pump out.)
- The animation doesn’t do Sokka any favors either. Because he’s the comic relief, we’re supposed to believe that whatever violence is inflicted upon him is automatically funny. But flipping him in the air with an Airbending blast seems intolerably cruel coming from someone like Aang. Later, when Aang enters his Avatar state, we see Sokka get blown about twenty feet into a stone wall. He’s not knocked unconscious, and he doesn’t experience any broken bones. So why should I care if he and Katara get blown off the mountain by Aang’s windy rage?
- That entire sequence is particularly awful. These kids are hundreds of feet in the air and in danger of being blown away to their deaths by the merciless winds of Aang’s despair. Yet Katara and Sokka speak to each other about the situation like people reciting their lines for an Advil commercial. Katara immediately volunteers to attempt to calm Aang down (with absolutely no precedence of how she could possibly do that), and Sokka callously tells her that she better hurry up before they both get blown off the mountain. Is Sokka’s sudden lack of brotherly concern for his sister’s safety supposed to be funny?
- To make matters worse, the scenes of Aang and friends at the Air Temple are clumsily intercut with the scenes of Zuko, Iroh, and Zhao. It’s particularly jarring towards the end, when Aang’s Avatar state havoc is edited around Zuko and Zhao’s Ag Ni Kai. I think they should have saved the Avatar state business for after the Ag Ni Kai, that way the worldwide reveal of the Avatar’s return doesn’t undercut the tension between Zuko and Zhao (who, aside from pride, are basically fighting for the right to capture the Avatar).
- All this confusion really does undermine the main emotional point of the episode, in which Aang discovers that he really is the last Airbender left on this planet. As harrowing as this concept is in theory, within the context of this episode’s messy script and clunky humor, it rings pretty hollow (at least until the final two moments discussed in the High Points). As time goes on, the episodes will strike a firmer balance between its pathos and its humor, making for some wonderful episodes. This is just one misstep (but unfortunately not the last).
- I always wondered about that scene when Aang goes into the Avatar State, which transmits a signal to different places in the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has returned. Does this happen every time an Avatar goes into the Avatar State? Or did it only happen this time because Aang was in the proximity of the Air Temple sanctuary containing all the statues of the past Avatars? If it’s the former, why wasn’t the world alerted to the Avatar’s return back in episode two, which was the first time we’d ever seen the Avatar State activated? If it’s the latter, then I suppose it makes sense. The episode doesn’t clarify this one way or the other, which is why it still puzzles me after all these years.
- Did you know that DiMartino and Konietzko hired Jason Isaacs to play Zhao based on his performance in The Patriot starring Mel Gibson? That said, am I the only one who think that Zhao’s character design and voice performance resembles Gibson more so than Isaacs?
As we can see, Avatar has a few production hurdles to clear before it can even qualify for the title of “best American animated children’s series ever made.” The ambitious and the potential is there, at least. As Konietzko put once it, “the first season of anything is Hell.” He was referring to the production side of things, but it can be true for the audience as well. It’s a good thing children are way more forgiving of sloppy execution, so long as whatever is on screen provides enough sustenance for their imagination, and even the worst episode of Avatar has more creativity and interest than most kid’s show.
Next week: Korra: “The Revelation” & “The Voice in the Night”
Having mastered Water, Earth and Fire, Korra leaves her home to learn Airbending from Aang’s son Tenzin in Republic City. The Airbending lessons go poorly, however, and Korra ends up finding more success in a new Bending sport known as “Pro-Bending.”
- These episodes really want to make sure you understand that Korra is absolutely nothing like Aang. Where the former Avatar was basically a kind and good-nature soul who did not want to be the Avatar, but needed to learn to be brave, assertive, and confrontational in order to fulfill his duty to the world, Korra is the exact opposite: she’s a head-strong, aggressive young lady who loves her status as the new Avatar, but desperately needs to learn patience and tenderness, especially if she’s going to master Airbending, the most evasive and spiritual of the elements.
- Needless to say, Airbending masters aren’t exactly abundant anymore. To make things worse, Tenzin, son of Aang and currently the only Airbending master on the planet, can’t make time to teach Korra anything because of his duties in Republic City. And it’s not like there’s any pressing reason to teach her right away. Republic City may have its problems, but that’s nothing compared to having to single-handedly end a war that had been going on for a hundred years.
- But Korra doesn’t just run away to Republic City to learn Airbending: ever since she was “discovered” to be the Avatar at the age of four (?), the White Lotus have kept her in her Southern Water Tribe village for the past thirteen years. The better part of her developmental years were spent in isolation and what must have been constant training to be the next Avatar. (Apparently, Aang wanted the White Lotus to make sure the next Avatar was well-protected from an early age. This makes a certain amount of sense coming from Aang, but the show implies that the White Lotus took this to the extreme, and sheltered Korra from the outside world most of her life.) The girl desperately needs to get out into the world, and the giant metropolis where her Airbending teacher lives is a great start.
- Republic City is the capital of the new world, envisioned by Aang and Zuko to be a place where everyone—Benders, Non-Benders, etc.—could come together in peace and harmony. It’s societal issues notwithstanding, Republic City is a marvel of a place, booming with modern industry, technology, architecture, business, entertainment, etc. Unfortunately, the dream of “peace and harmony” has given way to violent disputes between Benders and Non-Benders, so much so that an organization known as the Equalists is calling for a revolution to end “Bending oppression.”
- Not that any of this concerns Korra (yet), who just wants to learn her Airbending and fulfill her duty as Avatar. Mostly, she just wants to kick ass and bring justice whenever she can, wherever she can. Unfortunately, there’s only so much ass you can kick in Republic City before the law gets involved. That law is firmly enforced by the Metalbending police, led by Lin Bei Fong (daughter of Toph), and they won’t stand for vigilante justice, not even from the Avatar. If Tenzin hadn’t persuaded Lin to drop the charges, Korra could have very well been the first Avatar with a record.
- Against his better judgment, Tenzin decides to keep Korra in Republic City with him, letting her live with his family (including his wife, Pema, and three Airbending children, Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo) and making time to teach her Airbending. The first hurdle they have to overcome is Korra’s stubbornness and impatience. Not that she’d admit to anything like that: when all fails and she still can’t break her own wind, she blames it on Tenzin’s incompetence as a teacher. For his part, Tenzin barely manages to maintain his composure when dealing with this prideful teenager. Still, the girl has a point: Tenzin’s old school methods and principles simply don’t translate to the “here-and-now” ethos of a young woman who has only just begun to explore the outside world.
- For someone as competitive and aggressive as Korra, Pro-Bending is where it’s at. In this sport, two teams of three Benders face off and try to knock each opposing player out of the ring. It’s a fast and dangerous sport, requiring as much agility in evading attacks as it does brute force in giving them. For everyone in Republic City, Pro-Bending is the main source of entertainment. Everyone but Tenzin, who considers it a mockery of the art of Bending. So naturally, Korra sneaks off to see a few matches against his wishes.
- Conveniently, she not only gets to meet her favorite team—the Fire Ferrets—and see them play first-hand, but when one of the players unexpected quits, she gets to play on the team (as long as she only Waterbends). Lo and behold, Pro-Bending turns out to be just the thing she needed to put those annoying Airbending lessons into practice. Even Tenzin recognizes this and (begrudgingly) allows her to continue playing professionally as long as she devotes as much time to her actual Airbending.
- Being on the Fire Ferrets also means making actual friends (boys, no less!). First, there’s Bolin, the Earthbender of the team, who is a bit of a goofball and absolutely loves the adoration of his fans. Then there’s Mako, the Firebender, who takes the sport (and life in general) very seriously and has no time for anyone who doesn’t. Bolin warms up to Korra almost immediately, while Mako only starts to have respect for her once she pulls her weight in Pro-Bending. For her part, Korra likes Bolin a lot, too, but seems very keen on getting Mako’s approval since he’s, like, her favorite Pro-Bending player ever.
- By the way, Bolin and Mako are brothers, which unfortunately makes the prospects of a love triangle very probable.
- Maybe this is more a testament to how little Korra develops as a character throughout the series, but the most entertaining scenes of these episodes are those of her failing to properly learn the principles of Airbending. One of her first challenges is to successfully navigate through a series of spinning doors by using the air currents created by their rotations. Not one for nuance, Korra constantly tries to force her way through and gets smacked around by the revolving doors like a pinball. Again, my enjoyment of these scenes probably have to do the fact that Korra so rarely gets any comeuppances for her terrible behavior. Scenes like these are a blessing.
- Same goes for her arrest by the Metalbending police and her initial failure as a Pro-Bender, where her rookie mistakes nearly cost the Fire Ferrets their chance at the championships. At least in these scenes, when she does get a handle on the sport thanks to Tenzin’s Airbending lessons, there is a sense that Korra can grow and learn from her mistakes, so the Fire Ferrets’ victory feels earned instead of forced.
- As for the Fire Ferret brothers, Bolin and Mako thus far are solid characters and well-voiced by P.J. Byrne and David Faustino respectively. As time went on, both would fall victim to some damning Flanderization. But for now? Just two cool dudes.
- We don’t see much of Tenzin’s family, but they all start off fairly likable. Meelo is the stand-out with his potato head and his bizarre, but cute animation patterns. Not that Ikki and Jinora aren’t cute, too.
- J.K. Simmons as Tenzin is one of those pitch perfect casting decisions that keeps reminding you just how much range Simmons really has. (Tenzin even bears enough resemblance to Simmons that you wonder if it’s intentional.) As the only Airbending spawn of Aang, Tenzin must endure the unenviable burden of being the Avatar’s son and training the new incarnate of the Avatar. Simmons finds a way to play up Tenzin’s put-upon seriousness for pathos and comedy.
- If there’s one constant in these two episode and the entirety of Book One, it’s the high quality of the animation. For American television animation, this is as good as it gets. The traditional animation of the characters and Bending is as good as the best stuff in Avatar, but it’s the computer animation that really gives it the edge. Sometimes the effect is obvious (as with the huge zeppelins that hover above Republic City), and sometimes it’s very subtle (as when the “camera” moves freely through the CG environment to produce the effect of a pan, a tilt, a dolly, etc.). All of this creates a sense of space and intensity that Avatar could only rarely capture. Truly impressive stuff from directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu (and Konietzko as art director).
- Unfortunately, not even the best animation could save these episodes from the lethargy of the writing. Unlike with Avatar, DiMartino and Konietzko wrote each of the twelve episodes themselves, which you’d think would keep the story tight and concise, preventing the occasional interludes of nonsense found sporadically in Avatar. Not only are those interludes present in these episodes, but the real problem is that the story proper doesn’t actually begin until episode three, when Amon makes his grand entrance.
- Two episodes of nothing but setup wouldn’t be so bad if the episodes were consistently entertaining and completely devoted to developing the new characters and the new setting of Republic City. But much like our protagonists, the writing lacks restraint.
- Within the first five minutes of the first episode of the new Avatar spin-off mini-series, we get a completely unnecessary and utterly unfunny joke where Katara is unable to answer the question “What happened to Zuko’s mom?” The fact that, seventy years after the fact, Jinora could read all about the adventures of Katara and friends from Avatar, and yet there’s still no closure to the mystery of Zuko’s mother is mystifying enough. But the real question is, in the context of this new adventure, “Who cares?”
- In Republic City, Korra meets a hobo who lives in the bushes. This hobo is supposed to represent the disparity of the classes in Republic City, shattering Korra’s delusion that everyone in the city is “living it up.” The problem is that this hobo and his situation is portrayed with the cheerful whimsy of…a kid’s show (or a Broadway musical). You’d think this man would at least be a little more desperate and broken in spirit if the intention was to show how low you can go living just enough for the city. Instead, this man looks as if he’ll break out into a lavish musical number any second about life as a hobo in Republic City. (His behavior is explained later in the season. Not that it helps.)
- The main problem with these episodes is the lack of any real drama. In Avatar, the war and the Avatar’s purpose to end it was established before we even met the characters. In contrast, Korra’s delay on her Airbending lessons seems more like a personal problem than a conflict worth investing in by the audience.
- Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko were banking on Korra’s personality to carry these episodes. For all her aggressive and occasional outbursts, however, she’s just not a very interesting person. I believe this is in large part because of Janet Varney’s voice performance, which is just a little too cool and restrained for a loose cannon like Korra.
- The scripts do her no favors, either: mistakes are made, but invariably, nearly every one of Korra’s decisions works in her favor, and there are damn near no consequences for her lousy behavior and actions. (After being arrested, it’s Tenzin who has to pay the damages for Korra’s destruction of private property; she all but destroys the 2,000-year-old contraption used to teach her Airbending and somehow makes Tenzin look like the one at fault.)
- I certainly don’t recall Aang getting off that easily for some of his more reckless behavior. I can recall how, in the span of two episodes, he damn near lost his only friends by: 1) withholding important information about their father, who they hadn’t seen in years (and didn’t even know was alive or not); and 2) burning Katara’s hands due to his impatience with his first Firebending instructor. If either of these things had happened with Korra, the narrative would surely have found some way to make her behavior seem justified.
- Before moving on, I must confess that I forgot all about Naga the polar-bear dog. I’ll let that speak for itself.
- All that said, I have to admit: I love little four-year-old Korra. I love the fact that she can easily Bend water, fire, and earth at such a ridiculously early age. I love that she’s very aware of what the Avatar is and especially that she’s the latest reincarnation. Little Korra is simply adorable, and I really wish that precious child could have had a better upbringing (by the White Lotus and by DiMartino and Konietzko).
- Of course, I can only judge her upbringing based on the results we see throughout the rest of the series, since we never actually get to witness any of Korra’s training up to the present day. We don’t even get so much as a flashback to those crucial years of Korra’s development. Did the idea never even occur to DiMartino and Konietzko that perhaps the audience would want to see snippets of Korra’s upbringing the same way we got to see the upbringings of villains Amon and Tarrlok?
- Then again, by leaving those thirteen years or so of training out of the big picture (except through throwaway lines of exposition), DiMartino and Konietzko almost successfully cover up some questionable choices in the story they wanted to tell. In fact, the more familiar you are with Avatar, the more damning these choices are.
- For instance, one of the White Lotus leaders (thanklessly played by Stephen Root) says that Korra always excelled at the physical side of Bending since she was a little girl, but ignored the spiritual side. Presumably, he’s referring to that same little girl that we all witnessed as fully capable of Bending water, earth, and fire, to which the only appropriate response is a resounding “no shit.”
- Let’s quickly compare this to Aang’s learning curve. The kid couldn’t even Earthbend until Book Two, and that required him to learn assertiveness and combativeness when the situation called for it. Then he couldn’t even Firebend until Book Three, after learning the true source of Firebending from a pair of dragons. The way I see, being able to Bend any of these elements at all is the first major obstacle towards mastering them. The fact that Korra is able to Bend earth and fire at the mere age of four is nothing short of a miracle.
- You would think that the White Lotus, having witnessed this little girl’s capacity to Bend three of the elements already, would immediately ask to see her Bend the fourth one. And when she couldn’t, they would instantly set about creating the conditions in which Airbending would be possible. Not that they would neglect her mastery of the other three elements, just that they’d put more focus and energy on her weak spots. Just thinking about it from a teacher’s perspective: if a student excelled in all but one subject, would it not be reasonable for the teacher to further investigate why that one subject that gave the student trouble where the others didn’t? Wouldn’t it have done the White Lotus some good to do the same for Korra (much like Aang had to do for himself when Earthbending just wasn’t coming to him)?
- The series does have an excuse for this lapse in judgment: Korra could only possibly learn Airbending from Tenzin, the only Airbending master on the planet, and the only reason he delays his teachings is due to his heavy workload in Republic City. This makes sense up to a point.
- Sure, he couldn’t teach her directly, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have given her something to study and practice until then. In Avatar, specifically “The Deserter,” Jeong Jeong didn’t teach Aang how to Bend fire right away; he started with basic breathing exercises. In Korra’s case, it’s vaguely established that he’s visited her in her homeland before. Couldn’t he have given her some exercises during his visits? Hell, when Korra actually gets to Republic City and starts learning from Tenzin directly, one of their first exercises is meditation. Couldn’t Korra have practiced meditating all those years in the Southern Water Tribe? (As for Tenzin’s excuse that Korra needs a “calm, quiet place free from distraction” to learn Airbending, well…what better place than the fucking South Pole?!)
- In fact, Tenzin wouldn’t even have to be physically present to give Korra these exercises. Postage clearly exists in the Avatar universe, and there’s no reason he couldn’t send her letters filled with Airbending practices, positions, and wisdom until he could teach her directly. In Avatar, Aang and Katara came upon a Waterbending scroll that taught them a lot of moves. This scroll wasn’t the be-all-end-all of Waterbending mastery—they’d still need to guidance of an actual master—but it was a start, especially since Aang hadn’t really Waterbended at that point. Couldn’t Korra have gotten something similar in letter form from Tenzin from time to time? I mean, it would be one thing if she got such letters and did ignore them (generating some tension between her and Tenzin). The fact that the idea never crossed anyone’s mind is negligence on someone’s point, be it Tenzin’s or the White Lotus’, or DiMartino and Konietzko’s.
- I could honestly continue much further down this train of thought, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop here. I believe much of this confusion comes from the fact that DiMartino and Konietzko wanted so badly for their initial conception of Korra (teenaged, female, anti-Aang to the point of not being able to Airbend) to work. The fact that they couldn’t even make it properly cohere to the mythology and logic previously established by Avatar should have been the first warning sign that Korra, the series and the character, were simply not going to live up to our expectations.
- I think what DiMartino, Konietzko, Santos and Ryu really needed during the development stage of Korra’s production was another writer; someone who could play Lawrence Kasdan to their George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; someone who could exclusively focus on the narrative, the characters, the drama, and all that important foundational stuff while the other four guys were busy arguing over the best way to draw a fucking ear. That writer could have even been Aaron Ehasz.
The best way to sum up these two episodes would be “visually engaging, narratively uninvolving.” (By Book Two, the first part wouldn’t even be true, absolving audiences of the only reason to continue watching the show.) Thankfully it will get better—even great—before it gets worse. Much, much worse.
Two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, discover Aang, the last Airbender and the Avatar, and decide to help him learn the elements and end the 100-year war with the Fire Nation. All the while, they’ll be chased by Prince Zuko, an ill-tempered teenage Firebender, and his loving uncle Iroh.
- Earth. Fire. Air. In the Avatar universe, Bending is the ability to manipulate one of these elements through a combination of magic and martial arts. Not everyone in this universe can Bend, and those who can are only able to Bend one element (i.e. Waterbenders, Earthbenders, Firebenders, and Airbenders). The kind of Bender you are is determined by which of the four nations you’re born in, be it the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, or the Northern/Southern Water Tribe.
- There is one exception to the one element per individual rule: the Avatar is the only person on the planet capable of Bending all four elements. The Avatar is also the one in charge of maintaining order and balance between the four nations.
- There’s a problem: the Avatar has disappeared, and his absence, the Fire Nation sought complete global domination, resulting in a terrible war which has gone on for a hundred years. Where, when, and why did the Avatar vanish in this time of need? And will he ever come back to finally defeat the evil Fire Nation? All of this is relayed to us in the minute-long introduction. From then one, these first two episodes waste no time defining the main conflict of the series and setting the narrative in motion.
- We’re introduced to our three main heroes: Aang, Katara, and Sokka.
- Aang is the fun-loving twelve-year-old Airbender and the long-missing Avatar of the title (a fact he initially hides from the others for reasons that will be revealed later). When we first meet him, he’s frozen alive inside a giant iceberg that was trapped underwater in the Souther Water Tribe. Upon being freed, immediately requests to go “penguin sledding.” As Katara will remind us every episode, this kid is clearly not up to the task of saving the world, but he’s going to try with a little help from his new friends.
- Those friends would be Katara and Sokka, Southern Water Tribe sister and brother (wisely ruling out any possibility of a love triangle, a la Harry Potter). Despite being siblings, the two teenagers couldn’t be more different: she’s a Waterbender and an eternal optimist, while Sokka is a non-Bender and a skeptic (except where his manly ego is concerned). Accordingly, she warms up to Aang almost instantly while Sokka is quick to accuse him of being a Fire Nation spy.
- Aang’s sudden appearance provides a break from the monotony of Southern Water Tribe life during wartime. On the one hand, Katara and the children in her village love him for his strange foreign ways, while Sokka and the elders don’t trust him for the same reason. More importantly, for Katara, Aang is her ticket out of the Water Tribe to find a tutor who can help her reach her potential as a Waterbender (the only Waterbender in the entire Southern Water Tribe, no less). For Sokka, as long as he can do his part in stomping the Fire Nation out of existence, teaming up with Aang to help him master the elements is a sweet deal.
- Aang even has an impressive mode of transportation: Appa, the sky bison (and the most overt Miyazaki homage thus far). Imagine the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro with the utility and mobility of the Millenium Falcon and you’ll immediately understand the appeal and popularity of Appa.
- Appa is definitely as asset in the group’s efforts to reach the Northern Water Tribe, to evade the Fire Nation, and especially to escape the clutches of Prince Zuko.
- Prince Zuko has been searching for the Avatar for years, and in a stroke of luck, Zuko and his crew are exploring the Southern Water Tribe when Aang makes his entrance in the story. Zuko, along with Iroh, Zuko’s uncle and Firebending tutor, finally have a real chance of capturing the Avatar, ending their (initially hopeless) search, and being allowed to return to the Fire Nation.
- There’s a lot at stake, especially for Aang, since committing to his role as Avatar means mastering the four elements, stopping a hundred-year war, and finding the maturity to do so. All the while making time to ride the hog-monkeys.
- Like all pilot episodes, “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” have one important job: establish the characters, the world, and the drama unifying it all just enough to make us eager to see how it all plays out. And in that respect, they’re a great success, which is something of a miracle considering just how much plot and exposition is in these two episodes alone. Avatar could have easily turned into a convoluted, aimless, emotionally void mess (which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened to Korra).
- Lucky for us, these two episodes already showcase the merits of the series as a whole: good writing, a solid voice cast, and a colorful, imaginative visual style.
- There’s a good helping of humor sprinkled throughout these episodes, but it’s not of the snarky, mean-spirited variety you see in most “hipper-than-thy-parents” children’s program, or of the sitcoms-for-toddlers variety you find in those programs which mostly function to sell merchandise. This humor is good-natured and stems organically from the characters and their circumstances, which is quite refreshing.
- There are a few standout sequences. Aang and Katara’s exploration of an abandoned Fire Nation ship creates an eerie atmosphere that perfectly complements the revelation that Aang has been frozen for a hundred years (hence his ignorance of the terrible war that has all but defined Katara and Sokka’s lives).
- In “The Avatar Returns,” we get our first major action sequence, in which Aang, having been taken aboard Zuko’s ship, takes back his Airbending staff and attempts to flee Zuko’s capture. Not that the Prince makes it easy for him. Such is his obsession with capturing the Avatar that he jumps from the ship’s observation deck about twenty feet in the air, which absolutely no regard for his own safety, just to stop Aang from getting away on his glider. Determination is, in Zuko’s case, an understatement.
- This sequence also showcases the potential of Bending as a means of generating visually impressive fight scenes. In later episodes, the writers and animators will continue to top themselves with the creative ways in which the four elements can be used in a fight.
- None of this would matter, though, if we didn’t start to care for Aang and friends as they duke it out with the banished prince and his goofy uncle. Thankfully, by the end of the episodes, each character’s personality and objective is so clearly defined that we’re pretty eager to follow them on their journey to save the world from this ongoing war.
- Honestly, I can’t say there are any genuine “low points” this early in the game. One could make the argument that these episodes are a little too leisurely in their pace, and that some jokes—despite how refreshing different the humor of the show is from that of most others—are a bit too silly, and that some of the animation isn’t as good as it will be later on. Then again, how many pilot episodes—especially of the animated variety—actually compare favorably to later episodes?
- Quick: can you recall ever hearing the word “sexist” used in an American animated children’s television program before Avatar? I can’t. I can certainly recall many programs that dealt with sexism as a concept and a theme (one of the best examples being The Powerpuff Girls with the cleverly-titled episode “Equal Fights,” whose story was written by Lauren “Friendship is Magic” Faust, no less), but never one in which a character outright says the word itself.
- In the case of Avatar, it occurs in the very first episode, in the very first real scene. And it does make sense in context. Sokka, the macho warrior, instantly blames Katara for crashing their canoe, insinuating that girls ruin everything. Katara’s furious scowling of her brother—exacerbated by her Waterbending, which nearly gets them crushed by an avalanche and ends up uncovering the iceberg in which the Avatar is frozen—is certainly justified (and hilariously animated), especially she’s the one stuck doing all the Charlie Work that comes with living and surviving in an Antarctic region while all he’s off, as she puts it, “playing soldier.” She also tosses in some choice adjectives, such as “immature,” “nut-brained,” and yes, “sexist.”
- But let’s think about this moment in the context of the overall narrative. There’s been a war going on with the Firebenders for almost a hundred years, and two years prior to this scene, Sokka and Katara’s father and the other men of the village have left to fight and contribute their efforts to defeating the Fire Nation. Presumably, that left Sokka as the only “man” to look after the village and doing his share of the labor. Katara belittles his role in all this by calling it “playing soldier.” But is that all? Does Sokka not hunt? Does he not help maintain civility and order in the village? Does he not try his best to prepare the next generation of soldiers—all adorable pre-pubescent children—for the war effort against the Fire Nation?
- Or did the absence of the father and other male role models render him incompetent and unprepared for the challenge, and thus reduce him to inflating his impotent ego by making muscles whenever he sees his reflection in the water? In such harsh living conditions where survival is the name of the game, Sokka would have long been exiled to freeze in the cold if he didn’t contribute something to their well-being. (Or does his status as the absent chief’s son prevent that?)
- Do any of these questions really matter? Not really. For one thing, the scene is clearly geared in Katara’s favor, and all Sokka can do is coward in fear as her angry Waterbending nearly gets them both crushed by a nearby glacier. At no point is Sokka allowed defended his place in the village as more than “playing soldier.” He’d probably point out that he does all the hunting (by himself, no less), and Katara would even retort that he may capture the food, but she and the other women are the ones who have to actually clean it, gut it, and cook it.
- None of that matters because the point of the scene is to present Katara is a fiercely independent young woman who has the balls to call Sokka out on his sexist attitudes. That’s fine. My contention is with the use of the word itself, because its such a modern word (it didn’t exist before the 1960s) that it sticks out like a sore thumb in this Asian-influenced fantasy adventure show.
- Ultimately, my problem is that “sexist” is not something a character would say ever say in this universe—in point of fact, the word is never uttered again in either Avatar or Korra—but something that the writers wanted her to say to signal to the audience “look how progressive we are, our female character knows what sexism is and calls it out when she sees it, aren’t we so hip and clever!”
- Not hip and/or clever at all, in my opinion. Maybe in 2005 it was at least surprising, but now, it comes across more like “self-conscious” and “pandering.” Not to mention “unnecessary,” because the series as a whole handles the issue so damn well and without calling attention to itself when doing so. Here, though, not only do the writers betray their motives in such blatant, tasteless fashion, but they damn near destroy the element of timelessness that makes these kinds of stories work. (If anything, this “virtue signaling” would eventually help to destroy Korra, but it’s rather disheartening to see the seeds of destruction already planted in the first goddamn scene of the first goddamn episode of Avatar.)
Looking on the bright side, though, the show creators’ “self-conscious progressivism” didn’t apply solely to the show’s politics. Whether it was in the animation, the storytelling, the voice acting, the themes, etc., Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko fought hard to expand the limitations of what could be done in an American animated children’s television program, and for that, they should be commended, and the show they and their crew created should be praised. For better and for worse, these first two episodes are the perfect harbinger of things to come.
Next week: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”
(P.S. I want to apologize to everyone for not responding to their comments yet. It’s been a hectic week, and I’m still trying to find my groove with this retrospective. Thanks for sticking with me, guys, I promise the quality of these retrospectives will improve with each week.)