Kiss With A FistToday's Tune:
The following post will contain SUPER MASSIVE SPOILERS for both the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series and its followup, The Legend of Korra. Also, this post will be super long. YE HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED AND STUFF.
When I heard Nickelodeon was bringing back the Avatar universe for a brand new series, I was ridiculously excited. Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the most beautiful, entertaining, and best characterized television series I'd ever seen. I anticipated the pilot of The Legend of Korra with a ridiculous fervor, and you might recall that I wrote a lengthy post about the first two episodes, what they might mean for the perception of female protagonists, and excitement for the development of the series.
In a few aspects, the first book of the new series contained the things I'd been hoping for. More great characters to love (LIN BEIFONG FOR PRESIDENT OF ALL THINGS), an interesting and updated setting that maintained the charm of the original, gorgeous animation, and fight scenes that absolutely blew me away.
Unfortunately, as the series progressed, I began to worry. The original series was an epic, sprawling thing with a grand quest and lots of character development over the course of months/years, as is typical of many Middle Grade fantasies. With this new series, the creators decided to go a very different direction -- a much smaller-scale setting (no traveling for months across the entire world), a more immediate threat, an aged-up cast, and a much shorter timeline (important events happen within days or weeks, rather than months). The season was originally intended as a 12-episode mini-series, rather than the usual 20-some episode season, so the storyline was written to be wrapped up by the end of Episode 12. Where the original series took three entire seasons to prepare the Avatar for the final showdown with The Big Bad, this series had to take it on right away.
All of these factors combined in a way that didn't give quite the same level of world-and-character building the original series had, which might have been okay if they'd spun it the right way. But then the romance struck.
The original series was not without its romantic subplots. Hardly! There were several. All of the major characters experienced crushes, or dated. There were a number of kisses and even some implied sexuality. The fandom, myself included, LOVED it, and the creators enjoyed relentlessly trolling us with the will-they-won't-they-who-will-end-up-with-who giddiness of it all. The creators and writers clearly took note of this fact and decided to up the ante and include a substantial romantic subplot throughout the first season of Korra.
Sadly, it fell woefully, terribly flat.
What went wrong? Why did a large portion of the fandom (myself included) have such an adverse reaction to the inclusion of the romantic plot between Korra and Mako? Well, to start, it felt to me that the writers were trying to recreate the much-beloved pairing of Zuko and Katara, but it didn't work at all. Although Korra is Water Tribe, her personality far more closely matches Sokka's physically-inclined bull-headedness than Katara's emotion and empathy. Likewise, Mako can't pull off tortured jerk like Zuko can. The potential backstory was there -- protective big brother who lost his parents young and had to make a life for himself and his younger brother -- but it wasn't developed enough to make me feel that Mako's occasional jerkass behavior was understandable. Zuko had to go through extensive character development and growth (BEST CHARACTER ARC OF ALL TIME I MEAN REALLY) before his motivations became understandable, even admirable. Mako didn't have that.
In fact, the place I felt this series stumbled the most was in character development. There just wasn't enough time dedicated to getting to know the characters' personalities as there was in the original. Some characters had an easily accessible personality (Bolin, Tenzin), while others were more stoic and difficult to get to know. In addition, characterization was spotty -- a character would display an interesting trait, only to have it forgotten about by the next episode. This may be improved upon in the next season. We'll see. Korra's characterization in particular bothered me. I liked the consistency of her physicality and hot-headedness, and that she was allowed some vulnerability -- she felt scared, she worried she'd fail. However, I just didn't buy her strong personality matched up against Mako's rather bland characterization. I couldn't get invested in their relationship because I didn't understand what attracted her to him beyond... his being a cute pro bender? Who was kind of a giant jerk to her the first time he met her? And a few times after that? And cheated on his girlfriend with her...? I don't know.
And then came the love triangle. I think this may have been the franchise's first legitimate love triangle (square)? I mean, there was some cross-crushing going on in the original, and a few of the major players dated multiple characters, but as far as I remember, there was nothing like the Mako-Korra-Bolin shenanigans. On that note, KORRA. Y U NO LIKE BOLIN INSTEAD. I almost (ALMOST. ALMOST.) can't blame teen boys for thinking that girls don't go for the nice guy they actually have something in common with. It's like writers intentionally write in a funny, cool guy who actually has a lot of chemistry with the protagonist, and then they go LOL NOPE SHE'S GONNA GO WITH THE HOT-BUT-BORING GUY, occasionally committing character assassination in the process (JACOB BLACK, I AM SO SORRY SHE MADE YOU DO THOSE THINGS).
See also: Asami got crapped on a whole lot. Why. I am incredibly grateful to the writers for giving us this really cool lady with amazing style and fabulous makeup who's also a whiz with the vehicles and completely not a jerk in any way whatsoever. This could have so easily gone over into "make Korra's rival for Mako's affection a stereotypical stupid/mean girl," but Asami is remarkably amazing. And for being genuinely nice and skilled and really awesome she gets... a boyfriend who cheats on her and loses her only remaining family and her home and basically life as she knew it. I MEAN REALLY. I ASK YOU.
As much as I absolutely LOATHE admitting this because I really wanted something more out of this new series, it really felt like The Legend of Korra fell into a lot of traps that YA often finds itself stuck in. The romantic subplot didn't feel organic and it took over valuable story/character time. The supposedly "meant to be" couple didn't seem to click (why do they like each other exactly...?). I mean, Korra had a lot of amazing qualities and I could totally see people being all over that, but Mako's reason for liking her was... I don't know, she's the Avatar and when she was kidnapped he worried about her? Or something? And her reason for liking him... I still don't know. But then they're in love? And they're talking about their non-relationship when there are waaaaaay more pressing things going on? I mean, sure, I am all for making out when you think shit's about to get real, but MAKO. YOU HAVE AN AWESOMESAUCE GIRLFRIEND. AT LEAST GO BREAK UP WITH HER FIRST I MEAN WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING. I am supposed to get butterflies when you kiss. THERE ARE NO BUTTERFLIES ANYWHERE IN MY VICINITY. GUYS. GUYS. WHERE ARE THE BUTTERFLIES.
Okay I'm done wharrgarbling about the romance now. Now I will blather about the finale because COME OOONNNNNN.
When I watched the original Avatar series, one of the things I loved the most was the way that show broke my heart and amped up the stakes with real emotional crescendos that were not easily fixed. At the end of Book 2, Aang almost dies, and in the process, he's blocked from accessing the Avatar state -- his primary source of power. It takes all of Book 3 for him to figure out how to deal with this and unlock it again. He's forced to go through a lot of introspection and deal with being an Avatar without his full power. There's some criticism of the original series finale being a bit of a Deux Ex Machina, and I get that, but at the same time, I thought it worked because it felt EARNED. Aang had paid his dues and he deserved the big showdown.
The finale of Korra, however... hhhhnnnngggg. It's one big magical Band-Aid. There were some BIG losses this season. Lin, who should still be President of All the Things, lost her bending in a heart-wrenching moment of sacrifice. Korra! Our heroine! Our Avatar! Lost most of her bending, too. These are really huge, emotional moments. So much of who they are and their sense of power and worth is tied to their bending. How would they deal with that? What kind of personal journey would they have to go on to rediscover who they are and how they fit into the world now?
OH RIGHT, NONE. BECAUSE THE AVATAR STATE CAN UNDO ALL OF THAT RIGHT AWAY. That's it! There's no growth or change or dealing with the loss. No denouement or resolution or time to absorb what happened. All better now! Like it never happened! Do not even get me started on Korra's sudden ability to access her spiritual side and immediately master the Avatar State. WHEN EXACTLY DID SHE LEARN TO DO THIS, WRITERS. Did she even train with Tenzin anymore after about the halfway point?
I whine about this all the time, but that's because an ending like this can just ruin a story for me: YOUR CHARACTERS MUST EARN THEIR ENDING. You can't just take it all back. You can't bring all the dead characters back to life, you can't shove the bad guy off a pier without a proper climax, and YOU CAN'T USE A MAGICAL BAND-AID TO RESTORE EVERYTHING TO ITS ORIGINAL STATE. AAAARGH.
Also: so, what's going on with all the unrest the non-benders were experiencing at the hands of the benders again? Are all their legitimate complaints brushed under the rug now that Amon is out of the picture? The Triads get to go terrorize innocent shopkeepers again? SEE THIS PLOT THREAD? DANGLING. I was really disappointed in this turn. The original series was so good at inclusion and portraying oppression in a really interesting way, and it felt like all of that took a backseat to more kissy-face time for Mako and Korra. This is a big deal! These people were ready to go to war because they felt oppressed! We're really just going to leave that there? I honest-to-goodness hope that they're planning on exploring that storyline more in the next season.
I realize I just went on a giant screed, but it's coming from a place of love. I'm so disappointed BECAUSE I love this show so much. Or rather, I loved the initial promise and potential of it. I love that Korra is undoubtedly female, but still displays incredible strength. I love the music, the animation, the choreography. I love the humor and adventure. I loved the promise those initial seeds of story planted. I only wish they'd come to fruition in a way that didn't feel like a hasty wrap-up. Korra was originally intended to be a 12-episode mini-series, and I know that. I know that it was entirely possible that there would be no additional seasons after this one, and they needed an ending that would satisfy their target audience, despite its implausibility. But I wanted MORE out of those episodes.
And, damn it, I hate that this is going to end up as one more example in the many examples of how a poorly executed romantic subplot can screw with the entire feel of a story. These writers can write butterfly-inducing, adorable romance. I know they can. I've seen them do it. I don't know if this was an attempt to appeal to the large female viewership or what, but seriously. STORY FIRST. Most of all, I'm pissed that people will use this as a reason to bash female protagonists and their wacky little girl hijinks like nonsensical lovey-dovey junk. DISPLEASED.
A note: you should also go read this blog post for a more in-depth exploration of the exact plot points that fell flat, the misused story structure, and more.
So, to end, here's my wishlist for Book 2.
1) If you're going to include the romance, pleasegodplease build the characterization up more and make me believe it.
2) Revisit the non-bending movement and explore their very valid concerns.
3) More Lin. Lin forever. Tenzin can be there too.
4) Throw Asami a bone. I mean really.
5) More Pabu and Naga hijinks.
6) More incredible fight scenes those are good keep them kthx.
7) SOMEONE EXPLAIN TO ME HOW THERE ARE MORE SKY BISON AND LEMURS PLEASE.
8) More Sokka memories. All of the Sokka memories. Toph too. And Zuko. Just bring the GAang back okay.
9) Real stakes and struggles, dudes. No easy fixes.
10) More jokes. I like jokes. Episode dedicated to Bolin, maybe?
Yeah. So, these are all my Korra feels. Despite all of this, it was still thrilling to see more of the Avatar world and I loved a lot of it. There were times I felt genuine tension, sorrow, and joy. I'll continue watching in the hopes of feeling more.
So. Your thoughts?