December 29, 2014

My problems with Korra

korra korraTwo weeks ago, the show The Legend of Korra came to an end. As the follow-up show to the wildly beloved Avatar: the Last Airbender, it had a tall order: it had to continue exploring and developing a rich, historied world full of familiar and treasured characters, while introducing new themes, characters, and conflicts. That’s one of the most difficult things anyone could possibly try.

Do I think it succeeded?

Eh. I give it a B, maybe a B- or a C+.

I still consider myself a fan of the show. I stuck with it all four years, after all, and I have really positive thoughts and feelings about it. But as the show continued, I saw so many narrative and character missteps and felt so confused by the wildly varying themes and moods that I almost felt like every single season had a completely new writing crew, each of which was only vaguely aware of the goals of the others.

Korra is a really good learning example for writers, which is why I’m writing this. For example, while the original Avatar wasn’t completely even – I think most would say that the first season is, as most shows go, the odd one out of the three – it was largely consistent, telling large arcs across three acts.

Korra was not. The conflicts and stakes changed every season, leaving the series feeling somewhat unmoored (“Another globally threatening big bad?”). Each conflict had to be appropriately huge and devastating, as befitting a fantasy show. And worse, the main character – Korra herself – did not change much with them.

I’ll go through piece by piece where I think Korra faltered, and where I think it held strong, and what I think writers can learn from it. I’ll start with conflict and pace and focus on one of the biggest weaknesses – Korra herself – later.

CONFLICT AND PACE

Season One

This was the cool guy. Everyone liked this guy.

This was the cool guy. Everyone liked this guy.

The original Avatar did an almost staggeringly good job of staging and setting off the show’s ticking clock: within a handful of episodes, it established that the Avatar, Aang, has to master the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water before a certain comet crosses the sky, giving the Evil King and his Evil Army apocalyptic powers. If he doesn’t master everything by then, the world is doomed.

Pulling this off is a really big victory for any story with a large, epic scope: most stories fall into the trap of being too big, too complicated, with no clear end point. Avatar set the boundaries and borders at the very beginning, then painted in from there, focusing on the richness of the world and the characters.

Korra never quite pulled this off. It was stuck with a tough question: with no global threat in play, what the hell was the Avatar supposed to do, anyway? Wander around being a one-person United Nations? A divine referee of some kind?

Korra solved this, a little bit, by having the new Avatar – Korra herself, of course – almost wander right into the main conflict that happens to ask the same question. While some people in the world of Avatar can “bend” the elements, others can’t, and in the world of Korra, these people quickly become second class citizens. It’s an inherently unequal world, and what is unequal is therefore unstable.

This is a great conflict to introduce into fantasy, and with it came Korra’s most iconic Big Bad: Amon, who not only had a badass voice, badass powers, and a badass sense of style, but he also had a hand on what I think was possibly the main question of the show…

Why are things the way they are? Do they have to be that way? Despite our histories, can we change?

But Amon’s version of this question is a little more focused. He asks the question: does this world really need an Avatar? Or benders at all? Which is not, as far as all things go, a terribly bad point, as this world is wildly unequal, leading to rampant repression. One can acknowledge that France was in a bad place and the French Revolution was inevitable without agreeing with all the guillotines and whatnot.

Declaring himself the Equalizer, Amon works to remove bending from the world permanently so that the world can be fair. He receives a huge build-up in season one, and, like the class-oriented conflict, Amon’s character was modern and urban. He was, in a lot of ways, a terrorist and a revolutionary. It was a great setup, but…

But then things just sped up. The season ran from first base to third without even asking.

First Amon’s henchmen knew a martial art that could disable bending. Then they had what were, in essence, tasers or guns. Then they had airships. Then they had mecha-tanks. And then they had fleets of airplanes and bombs, and…

Oh, wait. Am I forgetting to mention that all this transpires within about 3-4 episodes? This underground revolutionary organization suddenly has more people in its ranks than a major city, and more weapons than a major military power, within the space of what feels like two weeks? Seems a little odd, right?

And in addition, the “benders” and the Avatar just kept losing. They never really won a fight until the very end. There was no back and forth, just back, back, back. In Avatar, we got to see Aang throw mountains around and bend rivers. Korra and the benders seemed incapable of handling a ninja and a cattle prod. The conflict felt unusually one-sided.

Worse, amidst all this we receive Amon’s backstory in what is, in essence, a giant infodump, a flashback told by one person within 5-10 minutes. We don’t ever hear it from Amon himself, it’s just dropped in – we are literally told what Amon’s motivations are, not shown. And in the end, Amon is disabled by what is functionally a lucky blow from Korra: after having struggled with airbending for months, she figures it out in three seconds, and lands a single hit on Amon, knocking off his mask and exposing him as a false prophet. We never really know the man behind the mask at all.

Amon, like a lot of Korra’s baddies, and perhaps the show itself, ends with a whimper. The great threat turns out to not be so great, and is extinguished within a handful of minutes, never to be thought of again. Having seen that Amon isn’t what he claims to be, the city chooses to elect a non-bending president, and all the ill-will and resentment just evaporates overnight. The season never really declares which side was right or not, and how to deal with the inherent inequality in this world. It just kind of forgets about it.

Season Two

Does this image confuse you? Then so will the plot of this season.

Does this image confuse you? Then so will the plot of this season. You are not alone.

All this would have been forgivable if, in the second season, Korra had continued looking at the inherent inequality in the world of Avatar. But it doesn’t. It zips right on to a conflict taking place at both the North and South Pole, where spirits are going nuts and attacking people, and her father and brother duke it out to decide who’s the chieftain of the Water Tribe people.

Season two is by far the worst of the Korra seasons, and it’s likely when a lot of people tuned out. The first half is a schizophrenic, chaotic mess of a story with no clear thread: Korra goes bouncing off all over the world, slamming into obstacles and dealing with minor kings and petty, courtly skullduggery, before being attacked, losing her memory, and remembering…

Everything.

And I mean literally everything: in the course of – again – one bigass flashback, Korra remembers the first Avatar, and the primeval, apocalyptic threat that started off this whole world.

"fyi, add apocalypse to your google calendar next week. did I forget to mention that"

“fyi, add apocalypse to your google calendar next week. did I forget to mention that”

And then – and this is where it gets really laughable – an old lady at a temple – unprompted – casually tells Korra on her way out the door that this apocalypse is going to happen, like, next week.

This is some of the worst pacing and story structure I can imagine. The entire conflict gets dropped into the audience’s lap like a waiter dropping off a burger, and it’s a galactic, apocalyptic threat to boot! I wanted Korra to say to the old lady, “Shit, why didn’t you say something before now? Also, how did you watch my flashback with me, nameless old lady? Or do you just casually mention the date of the apocalypse to everyone you meet?” Regardless, after this, Korra flies off to fight the galactic evil.

And again, this is telling, not showing. Like what happened with Amon, a character literally says to Korra, and thus the audience, “Hey, here’s the main conflict.”

The thing about arcs is that they’re gradual. An arc is a smooth, steady increase. The increase might be super fast, but it’s still steady, increasing at the same rate.

In the first two seasons, Korra didn’t bother with steady, gradual pace for its arcs. My feelings were that, unlike in Avatar, where there was one threat and one arc, the writers suddenly felt panicked and cramped, obliged to cram as much world-threatening stuff into each season as they could. This would explain why Amon’s forces went from a secret ninja group to the Axis forces overnight, and why Korra’s creepy uncle went from a minor King Claudius to the Antichrist in the space of, count ‘em, four episodes.

I have no idea what I'm even looking at here

I have no idea what I’m even looking at here

More confusingly, I still have no idea exactly what in the hell happens at the end of Season 2. Korra uses some kind of crazy mystical bending to make a giant version of herself, and then battles her giant evil uncle? It was like a fucked up version of Power Rangers, where both sides get a power up and get huge at the end.

Season Three

I’ll say it right here and now. Season three was great. It was fantastic. I loved it. If I was to show anyone a season of Korra, in hopes that it would be representative of the show, I’d pick this one.

Why? Well, part of it is that it handled pace so much better. The main conflict of season three is that Korra’s spirit shenanigans brought airbending back to the world. As airbenders were pretty much extinct, that’s a solid mixup, a rejiggering of the entire game, allowing season three to sort of start from scratch. Korra begins to assist the world with rebuilding the Air Nation, a nation of people that haven’t existed in over 100 years. This is much more integrated with the history of the world – something the previous two conflicts were not.

The thing is, an old assassin named Zaheer also became an airbender, and he escapes, frees his compatriots, and begins to pursue Korra, as he did before.

And this is where the gradualness comes into play: Zaheer’s motivations are only gradually revealed, bit by bit, and they are shown, not told. More, Zaheer gets to speak for himself. Rather than having a secondary character come in and say, “Hey, here’s what’s up with that one guy,” the main baddie makes his own case. He is, in other words, in a conversation from which all the other villains are largely excluded.

And you know what? His case isn’t a bad one. It hearkens back to Amon in season one: it’s a really shitty system to have one person be the Avatar and have so much power and tell everyone else what to do. Whereas Amon focused specifically on bending, Zaheer targets structures of power themselves, and is out to decentralize power everywhere he can – whether it’s killing off massively powered monarchs, or Korra herself.

This is a real, human, sympathetic cause. It’s not quite like season one, where Amon was basically a mask and a false prophet, always inscrutable and distant. And it’s not like season two, where all of the sudden Korra’s uncle was trying to be the Antichrist for who the hell knows why. Rather, Zaheer finds the flaws inherent in most fantasy stories – “Who the hell picked you to be the chosen one?” – and responds appropriately.

I also forgot to mention this guy is voiced by Henry Rollins. That's pretty baller.

I also forgot to mention this guy is voiced by Henry Rollins. That’s kinda baller.

Zaheer is also deeply rooted in airbender history, residing in temples and quoting scripture. It’s a nice touch, as Amon was a wholly urban, modern figure, and Korra’s uncle was a mishmash of spiritual nonsense we’d never heard before – so having someone integrated into the history of this world, which we already know quite well, is a welcome shift.

Moreso – and I’ll talk about this more later – this is the one season where Korra shows growth. She could go stampeding into Zaheer’s fights like a bull in a china shop, but she doesn’t. She chooses self-sacrifice over battle, and empowering others over her own sense of adventure, and, in the end, this is what saves her, and the world.

Somewhat. At the end of this season, Korra is tragically marred. It ends on a very touching note that I think was narratively brave. Too bad they kinda shit it all away again in the next season.

Season Four

The Big Bad of season four is another modern creation: a 20th Century fascist dictator.

By looking at this character, you already know absolutely everything about her.

By looking at this character, you already know absolutely everything about her.

In particular, this fascist dictator, named Kuvira, arises from a kingdom weakened by Zaheer’s execution of its monarch. She starts off with some kind words, but it’s immediately apparent from her cold disdain and storm-trooper aesthetics what she’s up to. They might as well have hung a sign from her head reading, “YUP, SHE’S HITLER.”

And here’s the thing with Kuvira: after an underclass uprising, a spiritual apocalypse, and a monkish revolutionary actually trying to do some good in the world, a run-of-the-mill fascist dictator just isn’t that interesting. Kuvira crosses the line from trope into cliché. Moreover, Korra never really bothers exploring why Kuvira is a fascist monster until the very end. Kuvira is introduced in a two second throwaway line at the end of season three, and her motivations are summed up in the same way at the tail end of season four. “I was an orphan!” she almost literally says during the big climactic fight. “No one ever cared about me, so why do you?”

It’s not that this is uninteresting. The idea of someone who grew up so vulnerable trying to rearrange the world so they’re invulnerable could be fascinating. The problem is that the show doesn’t seem to give a shit about exploring Kuvira herself until the last minute. Much like what happened with Amon and Korra’s uncle, the meat of the conflict isn’t shown, it’s told, and, like seasons one and two, it’s told too late. We’re getting our meal served before our drinks.

In addition, Kuvira doesn’t really seem to have any sympathetic or even interesting qualities. Amon had style, mystery, and while his cause was mostly explored in abstracts, it was at least a solid one. Zaheer was a much more flesh-and-blood character, a spiritual zealot who passionately believed in decentralizing power, and one who became more enlightened and talented than many of the established characters on the show. You kinda rooted for him.

Kuvira, on the other hand, is a really one-note character. Take her out of the armor, swap her with anyone else, and you’d know the basic beats of the story. She’s the Evil Overlord, like Dark Helmet from Spaceballs: a figure, a problem, not a person. That’s hard to get invested in.

And her plotline isn’t that interesting, either: it’s a run-of-the-mill Fascist Dictator develops a Doomsday Device. We’ve all seen this plotline a lot. A whole lot. She doesn’t even want to do much with the Doomsday Device: after all the spiritual and philosophical tangling of the past three seasons, Kuvira just wants to control the world.

I know Korra is a cartoon, but… Geez. That’s cartoonish.

The value of a character is mostly derived from the tests they go through. Korra is a somewhat simplistic show – it’s a YA fantasy show, even though I’m writing 2,000+ words on it – so Korra is tested by the Big Bads of each season, her arch-nemeses putting her through trials and traumas as they try to fulfill their cause.

Korra’s success – both as a character and as a show – resides on the quality of that conflict: not only what it explores, but how it explores it. And as we explore the conflict, we explore the characters.

A conflict is a lens used to bring humanity into sharp focus. The problem with Korra was they had to make up a new conflict every single time, and they didn’t develop the conflict gradually enough for the exploration to feel natural. These stories were rarely consistent. Almost none of these thoughtfully, deliberately explored a central theme or goal. Most of these stories literally sent Korra scrambling around the world. Whereas Aang made a direct, deliberate journey from one clear begging to one clear end point, Korra was a pinball, bouncing from problem to problem, and getting constantly bruised up along the way.

And that’s my other problem with this show. Which I’ll get into later.