Retro: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”
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.