Appreciation Post: Avatar and The Legend of Korra

On Thursday 18 December 2014 at midnight, the series finale of The Legend of Korra aired online, bringing a close to a journey which began back in 2002 with the creation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (subtitled The Legend of Aang here). Needless to say, the end of the animated Avatar universe will leave plenty in tears, myself included (as you may surmise from previous posts). With the tenth anniversary of the airing of The Boy in the Iceberg also coming up on 21 February in 2015, now is a good a time as any to look back on this engrossing experience and discuss why it was – and will always remain – so appealing in the first place. Mind you, there’s a lot to say here, so it could be a bit of a long post.

The Story

Both Avatar and Korra represent truly expertly-woven tales. The deceptively simple opening of the original series tells you all you need to know:

On the one hand, the stories are epic in scope, dealing with grand destinies and traversing a grand world which includes larger-than-life and supernatural personalities and stories. At the same time, the traditional tropes are in many cases subverted, as the portrayal of Aang and his detrimental experience of being the ‘chosen one’ can attest. On the other hand, viewers are given enough time to just know characters on a personal level and come to love them and care for them. This balance is enhanced by the addition of a good dose of legitimate humour which remains timeless by virtue of making sense in-universe and which can also appeal to both children and adults.

It has to be said that the details – many times small but significant – are also kept intact in the midst of the interchange between story and character. Seeds for story developments are often placed in advance and evolve organically. For instance, the bloodbending depicted in The Puppeteer is first subtly hinted at in The Swamp – in which plants are shown to be bendable – and in The Runaway, in which water still within human bodies is bendable. Amon’s capabilities in Book 1 of Korra combine bloodbending with knowledge of the physical side of bending as explained to Aang by Guru Pathik in The Guru.

The series also don’t shy away from genuinely dark material at times. In the original, Jet dies, Katara has the intention to kill her mother’s murderer. The Legend of Korra is even more forthcoming about death, as Tarrlok kills himself and Amon/Noatak, Professor Zei’s skeleton is shown in Wan Shi Tong’s Library, the Earth Queen and Red Lotus members are actually killed on screen, as is a garrison of United Republic soldiers in Kuvira’s Gambit. Korra herself has to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder throughout a good chunk of Book 4.

Copyright Nick

Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

While great to see, it is hardly these elements alone which make both Avatar and Korra worth watching at any age, but rather the fact that they don’t look down upon the audience when it comes to dealing with prevalent and complex themes. Aang deals with genocide, Toph turns her disability into strength, and Zuko deals with honour, family and identity. Korra continues the trend, as it tackles philosophies and their perversion through power and/or fear. Politics take centre stage and issues of equality, government, anarchy, fascism and redemption are expertly tackled through each Book’s different antagonist and their justifiable views. The graphic novel continuations of the original series, for all their constraints, do manage to cover issues such as colonialism, familyprogress, industry and tradition. Admittedly, the ending of the original series probably remains the most powerful in this respect. In a world where it is easier to give in to violence – much like our own – where the adults tell Aang that he must go against his belief and kill the Fire Lord for the greater good, Aang finds another way to end Ozai’s threat without taking his life. That’s a much more powerful and positive example to set than compromise and justifying the means by the ends.

Indeed, to the credit of the franchise and its creators, Book 2 of Korra is arguably the only weak link: characters regress somewhat, its villain often comes off as the most one-dimensional of the series upon first viewing and the middle meanders until it reaches Beginnings. This in turn stems out of the fact that Book 2 was ordered in such a way that the writers were not given enough time to think of something worthwhile after the rather somewhat definitive ending of Book 1. Unalaq is, at least, retroactively made more interesting by being revealed as a rogue member of the Red Lotus and in being compared to his fellow antagonists. The true saving grace of the Book is, however, that even at the series’s lowest point – by its own standards – it remains far greater than anything else on television and quite a few films, be they animated or live-action.

“Good. Let the spirituality flow through you …” (with apologies to George Lucas)
Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

The World, Its Mythology and Philosophies

The Avatar world has quite a rich composition, with its people segregated int four distinct nations based on four elements: water, earth, fire and air. A good number of people in each nation are able to channel chakra to “bend” the element of their nation, with the Avatar having the unique ability to bend all four elements and to reincarnate into a different nation (and element) upon death. In parallel to this world is the Spirit World to which the Avatar acts as a bridge and from which spirits cross over for various reasons, be it to maintain the natural balance, collect knowledge or otherwise.

The mechanics of the world are intriguing enough, but Avatar has the added value of being influenced almost exclusively by East Asian and Pacific Rim culture and history. The Water Tribes are inspired by the Inuits, the Earth Kingdom by ancient China, the Fire Nation by Imperial Japan and the Air Nomads by Tibetan monks. Bending itself is based on different forms of Chinese martial arts – with aid from martial arts master Sifu Kisu as consultant – with airbending being derived from Ba Gua, waterbending from T’ai Chi, earthbending from Hung Gar (and Toph’s in particular from Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis), and firebending from Northern Shaolin art. Several elements of the Avatar world are based on real-world philosophies, such as the Avatar from Hinduism, the four elements from Buddhism, the concepts of ying and yang and chi from Taoism.

“Tui and La, your Moon and Ocean, have always circled each other in an eternal dance. They balance each other… push and pull… life and death… good and evil… yin… and yang.”
Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

The world also evolves very organically. Legends are born as facts which are lost over the span of centuries, such as the story of the Cave of the Two Lovers and the founding of the city of Omashu, first Avatar Wan and Raava’s story in Beginnings and the origins of human bending – rather than the technique – being attributed to animals rather than lion turtles. Bending itself also becomes less of an art form in Korra as it is put to more mundane uses by the common masses, such as weaponry for triads, probending or even the generation of electricity in Republic City.

Technology also undergoes developments which make sense. The air balloon the Fire Nation gains at the end of The Northern Air Temple is the template for the larger airships it uses later on in the series.The Earth Kingdom likewise develops its own tanks in The Day of Black Sun and appropriates its own war balloons in The Promise. Both proliferate and are shown as having become commonplace in Korra. The seventy-year time skip also allows for a rapid – but believable – development of technologies as the Avatar world takes on the attributes of the West in 1920s, including radio, skyscrapers, electricity and cars.

It also helps to have the Avatar world populated by human characters who prove to be individuals, often going against cultural expectations of their nation. In fact, one element I appreciate in the original series is that, despite the major villains of the series being the Fire Nation at war with other nations, no one nation is represented as perfect. The Northern Water Tribe may welcome Aang, but its system is initially patriarchal to a fault (and it produces Korra‘s first two antagonists later on). The Earth Kingdom may be facing the brunt of the Fire Nation’s aggression, but its own soldiers terrorise its citizens in Zuko Alone and Ba Sing Se is divided into a rigid class system and harbours its own dark secrets and conspiracies. Even the Air Nomad council is ready to ultimately sacrifice Aang’s childhood for the greater good. The Fire Nation itself is the aggressor of the series, but episodes like The Headband show how it does have good people whom the militarised system wants to breed into merciless soldiers.

“We’re in enemy territory. Those are enemy birds”
Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

Characters

Indeed, Avatar boasts some of the best characters I have yet to see on screen, who manage to grow and come into their own by the end of the series. Aang is energetic, kind and an all round fun boy. More importantly, we see him come to terms with the loss of his people and his responsibility towards the world. Katara is both motherly and a powerful bender who is not afraid to stand up for her beliefs. Her journey gets her to grow into a force to be reckoned with as she overcomes her loss and her role as the carer of the group. Sokka manages to be a warrior, genius and bona fide comedian all at once. He gets to prove his worth mutliple times and become a leader despite being surrounded by benders, and we see his chauvinism fizzle into nothing as he meets and falls in love with Suki. Toph is a brash girl who manages to turn her blindness into strength through her eartbending, although we later learn that under that rough exterior is indeed a heart of gold. The relationship they share between them is a genuine friendship, and their interactions are a joy to watch. Here I can’t but also note that if there’s any proof that (non-white) female characters can be powerful and compelling without losing their character, Avatar is it.

When initially acting as an antagonist, Zuko’s duality with Aang is brilliantly showcased in The Storm. As their respective pasts are revealed, it becomes clear they are both defined by their resentment of their past actions, one choosing to escape from it and move on, the other completely consumed by it. From then on Zuko is put on a compelling path towards redemption, as he struggles with the salvation offered by his father and a true honour he can be comfortable with. His journey is a true thing of beauty, and I honestly can’t help but cry whenever I see his reunion with his uncle in The Old Masters.

Copyright Nick

Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

Avatar distinguishes itself from Korra in using so-called ‘filler’ episodes to flesh out its characters. Tales of Ba Sing Se is almost exclusively a character piece, and yet remains one of the best episodes of the series, if not the entire franchise. The Legend of Korra nonetheless has memorable (and sometimes subversive) characters who develop in their own way. Korra herself is a well-muscled female teenager, having a body type which is hardly represented, much less in a main character. We also get to see her compelling journey from a brash and over-confident Avatar in Book 1 to discovering her spirituality in Book 2 and becoming a a wiser but broken Avatar in Book 3, to finally rebuilding herself in Book 4. Bolin manages to uncover his potential, beginning as his brother’s follower and developing a new maturity while unleashing his lavabending, despite the fact that he is pressured into believing metalbeding was the ultimate goal he could reach. Mako and Asami remain the most static, as the former remains the level-headed straight man throughout, whereas Asami remains the same business-oriented individual. Their relationships likewise fluctuate, but, while we see Team Avatar work as a group, by the end of the Book 4 finale they seem to learn that friendship could be more important than the romantic love (even if some would debate it).

Copyright Nickolodeon

Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

Of course, no good hero would be watching unless he or she faces a good villain, and both Avatar and Korra have much to offer in that respect. Zuko proves to be a multifaceted character, as he switches sides after a significant period of soul-searching. His father Ozai and sister Azula, on the other hand, gain no redemption. While initially unseen and shrouded in shadow, his face is revealed as human and handsome just as he proves how merciless he can be. Azula revels in the manipulation and fear of others, but the devastating belief that even her mother fears her proves to be her undoing as she descends into madness. Seeing the good – if delusional – intentions of Ozai’s grandfather when starting the War in The Avatar and The Fire Lord, it becomes clear that the militarisation of the Fire Nation is taking its toll on its people and its royal family; Ozai is intent on gaining victory by any means necessary, and his distorted vision has opened his daughter’s mind to insanity.

Copyright Nick

Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

The villains in Korra, on the other hand, are more complex characters in their own right rather than a simply a villainous foil for the protagonists. I would, in fact, much rather refer to them as antagonists, as they lie in a grey area of morality. Their methods are extreme, but their ultimate goals prove to be just and, more often than not, vindicated in some way. Korra initially tries to frame her opponents as villains, but as one contributor puts it in her excellent piece:

Where Korra saw divine talent, Amon saw an underclass maintained by the caprice of nature. Where Korra saw vengeful dark spirits, Unalaq saw a grave imbalance that had pained the world for thousands of years. Where Korra saw an inept, but inevitable monarchy, Zaheer saw a tyrant whose willful ignorance kept her people destitute. Where Korra was absent, Kuvira, in her own words, “stepped up.” Where Korra sees status quo, others see the cruelty of those in power—and the opportunity for change.

In doing so, they bring out an intriguing dichotomy between Avatar and The Legend of Korra by putting the role of the Avatar itself into question. Ozai opposes Aang the person, who is empowered by being the Avatar. Korra’s antagonists oppose the Avatar, which in its current incarnation is Korra. Her hallucination in Venom of the Red Lotus proves to be a masterstroke in this regard, as it emphasises the fact that they have a common goal: to forge a new world in which the Avatar wouldn’t be needed. The hallucination itself also hints at the progressive toll they have taken on her psyche; that tear at the end of the episode could easily signify Korra’s pride for Jinora’s accomplishments, the realisation that she needs to be replaced, or a mixture of both.

red lotus 1 amon

red lotus 2 unalaq

red lotus 3 vaatu

Toph later explains that they are indeed right, but out of balance. Korra herself learns from her opponents, leaving the door open for Zaheer and Hiroshi – both unrepentant about their initial beliefs – to guide her through her recovery and help her defeat Kuvira, respectively. When faced with Kuvira herself, Korra manages to bring out the humanity in her by proving how similar they are. Both are “fierce and determined to succeed”, but ultimately want to help people and make a world where they wouldn’t feel vulnerable and afraid as they themselves have felt. Facing someone so much like herself forces Korra to learn compassion, saving both herself and Kuvira in the process.

The other supporting characters that populate the Avatar universe are worthwhile additions who add more humanity to the world. Iroh is a brilliant mentor figure with a life-loving attitude that never takes away anything from his wisdom. Mai and Ty Lee manage to have well-rounded personalities that contrast with their initial appearance and yet make them believable. Suki makes a brilliant first impression as a no-nonsense warrior who isn’t afraid of her femininity as well, after putting Sokka in his place, of course. Even someone like the cabbage merchant brings a smile to any viewer’s face whenever he appears. Korra‘s Varrick is an absolute marvel, combining ingenuity, charm and eccentricity with an almost merciless lust for profit, the latter of which then gets replaced by a conscience and caring heart. Tenzin is a great mentor figure for Korra, who learns to move out of his father’s shadow and become a better teacher and father. Lin and Suyin Beifong continue the trend of compelling and powerful women, each coming to terms with their familial problems and overcoming them wonderfully.

Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

Copyright Nickelodeon Studios

The Design and Animation

Both Avatar and The Legend of Korra are, simply put, a work of art. The character designs are often simple and yet exude character. The designs of spirits are likewise often inventive and very evocative of the great work of Hayao Miyazaki, especially when it comes to Koh and during the course of Korra Book 2. The painted backgrounds are absolutely breathtaking, and additional effort is taken in some cases to enhance them further, such as computer editing to shift slightly as the camera pans to another corner of the scene.

The animation in Avatar is brilliant, and that in Korra manages to surpass it to become simply astounding, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Studio Mir. While influenced by Japanese anime, the work on the series is arguably even better and smoother. The facial animation is spot on, and small details such as body language are also expertly brought to life. Needless to say, both series boast some of the best fight scenes seen on screen (both big and small). Animating the complex martial-arts movements of bending is by no means an easy feat, but the artists at work on both series manage to pull it off beautifully.

Overall, the series also have a cinematic feel, with some great directing and visual compositions that can successfully compete with big budget films. Expect to see some excellent use of colour as well, as in the case of the warm palette in Zuko Alone to evoke the spaghetti Westerns it emulates, Azula’s use of blue flame to differentiate her from Zuko and give the throne room a deathly aura which reflects her cold demeanor and increasing insanity, not to mention the bright colours of the ethereal Spirit World in Korra.

Anyone who loves the series and/or animation or even art in general should just enjoy the series, go and get the art books published by Dark Horse. There is some wonderful material to be enjoyed which is sure to inspire any viewer and reader.

The Voice Acting

The voice acting in both Avatar and Korra is top-notch. Zach Tyler (Aang), Mae Whitman (Katara), Jack DeSena (Sokka), Jessie Flower (Toph) do a great job with their respective characters, while Grey DeLisle and Dante Basco give a terrific performance as Azula and Zuko, respectively. Their successors Janet Varney (Korra) P. J. Bryne (Bolin), David Faustino (Mako), Seychelle Gabriel (Asami), J.K. Simmons (Tenzin) and Mindey Stirling (Lin Beifong) likewise do brilliantly. The franchise has also attracted a number of well-known actors and voice actors in various roles and cameos. The most famous could be Mark Hamill as Ozai, Mako Iwamatsu as Iroh, Jason Isaacs as Zhao and Steve Blum as Amon. Others include George Takei, James Hong, Clancy Brown, John DiMaggio, Quinton Flynn, Ron Perlman, Aubrey Plaza, Maurice LaMarche, Henry Rollins, Greg Cripes and Zelda Williams.

The Music

The music for both series by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn (the Track Team) is simply wonderful. Zuckerman’s compositions for Aang’s theme, for instance, manage to showcase his harnessing of inner strength through a relatively simple but effective use of French horns, whereas the Fire Nation’s theme immediately evokes a sense of foreboding and menace. One also has to appreciate that he also made sure to research the proper use of ethnic instruments such as the guzheng and pipa to use in the series to compliment the Eastern aesthetic of the series. Korra proves to have a somewhat distinct musical identity as Zuckerman includes influences from the 1920s and shift the focus to action- rather than theme-oriented compositions. The quality, however, remains as strong as ever, if not improved. Strong, emotional and always suitable within the scenes it is used, Zuckerman’s score is an absolute joy to listen to in episodes and on its own.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack has never been officially released except for Book 1 of Korra. Even then, this development occurred after years of online petitioning by fans and negotiations with Nickelodeon, a success which seems impossible to replicate any time soon. Thankfully, Zuckerman does share his work online, so we can still enjoy his music until that happens.

The People Behind It All

While I would not normally, consider the creators when evaluating a series itself, I just can’t but make an exception for Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (Bryke, or affectionately Mike and Bryan). They and their colleagues deserve all the credit for the huge amounts of love and attention to detail went into the series. One cannot but fall in love with the amount of commitment they have shown in sharing a their project with audiences:

The people who work on the series have a good relationship with fans, and it shines through in their actions and their work itself. DiMartino and Konietzko aren’t afraid to respond to fans’s feedback through their social media or face-to-face at comic cons. The excitement for the series and what has been achieved at last San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) panel for Korra is palpable. Bryke also tend to playfully acknowledge their mistakes and arent’ afraid to do so in the series itself, for instance, as The Ember Island Players includes references to the lack of clarity over Jet’s death and the reaction towards The Great Divide (“Eh, let’s keep flying”).

Not only do these people get to share their labour of love with us, but they’re pretty decent people themselves. Here’s an excerpt from Konietzko’s post on Tumblr before The Legend of Korra Book 4 episode Remembrances:

In a couple hours the eighth chapter of Korra Book 4 will be released online, and I suppose, if you are none the wiser, a few minutes into it you will feel duped and yell at your screen, “Hey! This is a crummy clips episode!” And that is (almost) exactly what it is––except we all worked really hard to make sure at the very least it isn’t crummy. I’m here to explain why we ended up having to do one. Sometime around a year and a half ago we were similarly duped on a large scale. We got the news from the higher-ups that our Book 4 budget was getting slashed, almost to the tune of an entire episode’s budget. We had two options: 1) let go a significant number of crew members several weeks early, or 2) make a clips episode. We never considered the first option. We weren’t going to do that to our crew, and even if we were callous enough to do so, we never would have been able to finish the season without them.

As one contributor put it: “Putting people before your art can be really hard, especially when it’s a project you’re passionate about […] it’s always a tough call, but people matter more. Bryan and Mike you made the right choice.” It also helps that they did the best with what they had and Remembrances actually turned out to be enjoyable and not crummy at all as far as clip episodes go. It’s definitely no The Ember Island Players, but the villain conference call alone is worth the price of admission and its existence is ultimately a love letter to fans and DiMartino and Konietzko’s colleagues when taken in context.

The Nick Factor

So, as you may have surmised from the above, being hosted at Nickelodeon has proven to be a double-edged sword. As much as is stood out for its mature and somewhat complex storytelling, the original Avatar does fit in (for the most part) with the child-friendly corporate image of the station and thus got sufficient attention. Merchandise has remained lacking compared to other series on Nick but Dark Horse seems poised to make up for that. As bad as it is, Avatar also has the honour of being only one of two Nick series to get a theatrical installment.

When it comes to The Legend of Korra, though, Nick has grossly mismanaged its best series. The production of Korra – the successor to the same series that brought us Katara, Toph, Suki and Azula – was almost halted altogether because of Korra’s gender. Thankfully, as Konietzko puts it, “Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls. During test screenings, though, boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.” Book 1 proved to be a success, but Nick’s order for a second series late into the production of Book 1 and with difficult deadlines left DiMartino and Konietzko undecided about what to do with their characters now that they had completed their stories, leading to some unfortunate story choices. Book 3, on the other hand, was ordered together with Book 4 and just a month after Book 2 was; not only is it a vast improvement over past Books but is also the closest to capturing the feel of the original Avatar. Unfortunately, the first episodes were leaked and Nick rushed into airing Book 3 with two episodes a week and without any proper prior advertising. With quite a few people unaware that Book 3 premiered, ratings suffered. Days before the Korra panel was to appear at the San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), half-way through Book 3, Nick decided to pull the series off its schedule, leading to rampant rumours of cancellation until the creators posted on their respective  Facebook and Tumblr with reassurance. They subsequently announced that the series would move online, where it has, at least, prospered. That being said, Bryan’s post about budget cuts to Book 4 some time later basically outlines Nick’s final insult to the series, interefering directly with the quality of the series and forcing a clips episode upon a series that had gained such momentum and deserves to go out in a blaze of glory.

Any goodwill I still had for Nick has indeed been lost by this point. The fact that the creators are being more candid about what goes on behind the scenes does make the prospect of seeing anything from them on Nick – the legal owner of Avatar and Korra – impossibly remote. I am sure The Legend of Korra will successfully outlive the network’s bumbling, but it’s a very real shame to have the enduring success of the Avatar franchise ultimately be in spite of Nick rather than because of it.

Images by Bryan Konietzko

Images by Bryan Konietzko

The You-Know-What

Speaking of things that don’t do the franchise justice, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender remains a bad film in its own right and takes away any of the spirit, joy and fun of the original series, making it quite possibly the worst adaptation I’ve ever seen. In fact, Gene Luen Yang’s public show of distaste for the film is what brought him to the attention of one Dark Horse editor as a potential writing collaborator on the official continuation of the series in graphic novel form.

I can’t really add much to the many reviews available online, so here’s one done by Doug Walker (as the Nostalgia Critic) which perfectly encapsulates my own feelings for the film. Be warned, it does contain some strong language at times, but I’m ready to make an exception when it comes to this thing:

There are, at least, a couple of positive points about this abomination. Firstly, the film’s soundtrack remains a beautifully realised score which is just a joy to listen to. Secondly, the film itself may have served to introduce new people to the original series, as it did for Walker, who watched the series and did a series of vlogs to prepare for the above review (which I recommend anyone watch to see someone fall in love with the series).

In Conclusion

Avatar remains not only the best animated series, but one of the best series period and easily my favourite. It has excellent writing, great pacing, brilliant world-building, compelling and well-rounded characters, complex and prevalent themes, all given life with amazing visuals and high quality animation, voice work and music. It can genuinely inspire people to change lives for the better, and is recommended viewing for people of any age, either alone or with the family. Ten years on, Avatar is still going strong, with a huge fan-base, graphic novels still continuing its story, an increasing amount of merchandise and its own sequel series. The Legend of Korra may not completely live up to its standards as a whole, but it comes so very close and remains a worthy addition to such a beautiful piece of story-telling.

It has been through some bumps, but I am sure that the franchise will survive. To quote Janet Varney: “I think that it is completely timeless. The storytelling, where it’s set, what the stories are, what the lessons are, what the puzzling questions are, the conflicts, the characters.” Mike and Bryan have shared a journey with us that I will genuinely never forget. It is always sad to see such a good thing end, but the journey has been worthwhile and I cannot help but look forward to their next project already.

Thank you for sharing this journey with us! Image by Bryan Konietzko

Thank you for sharing this journey with us!
Image by Bryan Konietzko

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