“I know your heart is in the right place. You just have to trust it.”
LegendofLaura finally gets around to Legend of Korra. But, wow…as much as I LOVE this show, this is going to be painful to write. Please keep in mind: the following is just one girl’s opinion.
So, here’s the story: I was out for my friend’s 21st birthday…dinner, drinks, good times all around. And, because we’re all such nerds, we decide to take the party back to my other friend’s apartment to watch the Season 2 premiere of The Legend of Korra. I don’t know if I was tipsy or tired or just had a long week…but MAN. The things I shouted at this television screen…things I can never take back.
Yep, I was really disappointed with the Season 2 premiere. And, before you decide to hate me forever, just hear me out. I really, REALLY like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The characters, the relationships, the conflicts, the writing, the universe of the franchise itself…in my opinion, both animated shows are among the best on television. And, that’s partly why I was disappointed: my expectations were that high.
But, I happen to believe that you can enjoy a series/film/whatever and critique it at the same time. So, Korra fans and followers, come on back…I’m not out to destroy this series. Also, for the record, I recently rewatched the premiere, with a completely clear mind. Thus, all is fair.
But, first off, for all you Korra newcomers, here’s a little bit of background and context:
THE SHOW’S PREMISE
Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra is the sequel series to an older animated show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both were created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, and, despite appearances, they are both American shows. They are, however, heavily influenced by anime, a fantastical Japanese style of animation. And, I’ll say this, the GORGEOUS animation is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
The first series, known simply as Avatar, depicts a world of four nations: the Fire Nation, the Southern and Northern Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Temples. Among these nations live a select few people known as “benders,” who are born with the skill to manipulate either fire, water, earth, or air. When the Fire Nation decides to expand and declares war, the rest of the world waits for the Avatar, a kind of messiah, to restore balance to the universe. The Avatar, a being who can bend all four elements, is embodied in a twelve year-old air nomad named Aang. With the help of his friends, Aang masters his bending abilities and rises against the Fire Nation to save the world.
It’s an epic series that tells a beautiful coming-of-age story, and it’s definitely worth a look before starting up The Legend of Korra. If you appreciate strong characters and even stronger writing, you won’t be sorry.
Flash-forward about seventy years after the events of Avatar: the new Avatar respawns, sometime after Aang’s death, in a seventeen year-old Southern Water Tribe girl named Korra. In those seven decades, the universe has changed dramatically, from a world of divided nations to something more united, industrialized, and urban. We learn that Aang and Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation have founded Republic City, a capital where people of all races, benders and non-benders alike, can live in harmony. And, the city itself looks like Manhattan, San Francisco, Paris, and Hong Kong combined into one…as set in the 1920s. Yep, steam punk…and it’s AWESOME. Nickelodeon also jacked up the ages of the main characters, after realizing that people in their teens and twenties (hi) make up a large portion of the Avatar fan base. More mature characters, more mature relationships, more mature drama. Can’t go wrong there, right?
Six months since the defeat of Amon, leader of the anti-bending “Equalist” organization, Korra (Janet Varney) is now a seasoned airbender, who can easily slip in and out of the “Avatar state.” But her trainer, Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), still believes that Korra has a lot to learn about airbending; he intends to take her on a spiritual expedition to the world’s remaining Air Temples. First, Korra insists on visiting her parents in the South Pole with her firebending boyfriend, Mako (David Faustino). Tenzin and his family accompany her, and, together, they attend the Southern Water Tribe’s winter solstice festival. There, we are reintroduced to Tonraq, Korra’s father and chief of the Southern Water Tribe (who we met very briefly in Season One…there was no mention of him being chief but whatever). We also meet Tonraq’s brother and chief of the Northern Water Tribe, Unalaq. Parks and Rec fans are in for a treat – Aubrey Plaza guest stars as Korra’s monotone cousin, Eska.
Meanwhile, Asami (Seychelle Gabriel) struggles to keep her imprisoned father’s automobile company, Future Industries, afloat. With the help of Bolin (P.J. Byrne), she convinces an eccentric billionaire named Varrick to do business with her. At the winter solstice festival, Unalaq declares that the Southern Water Tribe is no longer in touch with the “spirit world,” for dark spirits are allegedly attacking Southern ships. He expresses interest in replacing Tenzin as Korra’s new trainer, but Tonraq, who clearly dislikes his brother, forbids it. Korra, on the other hand, is tired of listening to Tenzin and her father, and, after witnessing Unalaq banish a dark spirit, she insists on taking her uncle as her new teacher. She dismisses Tenzin, who decides to travel to the Air Temples anyway, with his family in tow. Unalaq takes Korra under his wing and leads her to the site of the “spirit portal.” As the link between the spirit world and the physical world, Korra manages to open the spirit portal and reignite the Southern lights. But then, everything changed when the Northern Water Tribe attacked…no, really, the Northern Water Tribe attacks (er, invades). Thus, Unalaq is exposed as our obvious villain.
TWIST. Okay, whatever, let’s just get to The Good.
As always, the animation is stunning. It’s some of the best animation you’ll see on TV – easily.
Apparently, the show switched animation studios since last season. Everything looks a little cleaner and crisper…which is nice. It could just be me, but doesn’t Korra look slimmer too? I’m personally not a fan of her new look, specifically – because, come on, she’s the Avatar, not a supermodel. Nevertheless, the animators’ attention to detail is impeccable. The wintry landscapes are lovely, and the design of the dark spirits is straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie:
Remember this guy from Princess Mononoke? No shame if you don’t – we can’t all be nerds…I really hope that doesn’t become my catchphrase.
Still, I can’t help but love this show for paying homage to one of the greatest anime films of all time:
People, this is no accident.
Anyway, the premiere’s breathtaking imagery also lends itself to some pretty intense, action-packed fight scenes, which are ALWAYS a plus. Although their motive is a little unclear at this point, the dark spirits have some sweet moves…and Korra fighting in the Avatar state is nothing short of epic to the nerdiest degree.
In terms of characters, we have some pretty great moments with our old friend, Bolin, the show’s primary source of comic relief. He’s already sick of third-wheeling around with Mako and Korra (and, let’s face it, he’s probably still a little sore about losing the girl to his older brother). Who could forget this from last season?
Poor guy. This time around, it’s nice to see that Bolin’s at least trying to get over Korra. He has his sights set on Eska, whose complete lack of personality clashes delightfully with Bolin’s goofiness. Again, big points for Aubrey Plaza’s voice acting.
We also briefly meet Varrick, the billionaire who agrees to handle shipping for Future Industries. In my opinion, he’s the most interesting new character so far…simply because he’s CRAZY. Which is at least memorable, unlike the other two new main characters…but we’ll get to that later.
Varrick’s character is a welcomed addition, partly because he fits in so nicely with the show’s steam punk setting. He’s a filthy rich, fast-talking, delusional businessman; he says one stupid thing, and people fawn all over him. To me, he’s a wonderful caricature of your typical Hollywood tycoon from the 1920s. And, speaking of Hollywood, we find out that the Avatar universe has finally developed the technology of “moving pictures,” thanks to Varrick…all I can say is, my communications nerd is showing. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to more appearances from Varrick this season.
I’m sorry, but there are a few things about the premiere that make no damn sense…at least to me. When the episode begins, we see that the Fire Ferrets, our heroes’ pro-bending team, has disbanded. Okay, I can understand why Korra would quit…she’s now the fully-realized Avatar, and she has new responsibilities. But Mako is now a…cop? Excuse me, why? Anyone want to provide a little context? No?
Nope, it’s never explained. We’re reintroduced to Mako as he’s chasing some bad guys on a motorbike. When he catches them, he quips, “Looks like you’re having some car trouble. It’s a good thing the police are here.” Ugh. The writing is another story. But, anyway, Mako has never expressed an interest in becoming a police officer – all we heard about last season was pro-bending, pro-bending, pro-bending! So, seriously, what the hell…
At least his lack of a personality remains consistent. I’ll give the premiere that.
Speaking of new occupations, Korra’s dad is the chief of the Southern Water Tribe? Since when.
We quickly met Tonraq last season, when Korra was running away to train with Tenzin in Republic City. If you’ll kindly remember, he was living in a damn hut. Go back and watch the episode: that’s not where the chief lives! And, I’ll tell you why this bothers me so much: it’s lazy storytelling, plain and simple. The reason I even remember that Korra’s parents lived in a simple hut was because we barely saw them last season – there was really nothing else to remember about them. Granted, it’s not a huge problem…but I hate inconsistency. If Tonraq was chief, you’d think that Korra would at least mention it once in a while…? There are more inconsistencies with this character…but, for me, they’re BAD inconsistencies. Later.
Finally, Korra and Mako…my feelings were mixed when these two got together last season. As I hinted before, I just think Mako is such a bland character. Aside from being confused about liking two girls at once, with the occasional “my parents are dead” angst thrown in there, he has little to no personality. At least Bolin would crack a joke every once in a while…and have his serious moments too. Characters can be three-demensionsal, you know. Maybe I’m just partial to goofy guys, who knows.
But, if the chemistry between Korra and Mako didn’t already feel somewhat forced…damn, this premiere got the job done.
They share an awkward conversation about Mako’s latest arrest, which leads to Korra venting about Tenzin. Mako tries to offer some advice, but she completely shoots him down and storms off. Pretty much the same thing happens at least two more times in the episode, I’m not kidding. It’s unpleasant to watch…and I couldn’t help but cringe when Korra half-assedly apologizes later:
“It’s hard being the Avatar.” “It’s harder being the Avatar’s boyfriend.” They laugh and hug it out. You guys keep it up, and someone’s gonna get dumped.
I’ll let the Mako/Korra dilemma transition into The Bad – can someone explain why Korra is being so uncharacteristically mean? I’ve been holding off on the third episode, and I REALLY hope that this doesn’t become a thing…
First off, why I love Korra: she’s a tough, headstrong seventeen year-old who loves to have fun and is never afraid of a fight. Well, that’s not true…we learned last season that, as much as she might act brave, she gets scared too sometimes. She has a vulnerable side that she doesn’t reveal to many people – being the famous, heroic Avatar isn’t sunshine-and-rainbows all the time. She aspires to be as great and helpful to the world as her predecessor, Aang. And, yes, like any teenage girl, she likes to resist authority every now and then. But, geez, she’s never been cold or mean…I don’t know what the writers were thinking this time around.
We’ll take Tenzin, for instance. Korra’s always had a tendency to challenge his authority and disagree with him…but, man, when she fires him – in front of EVERYONE – that is stone cold. Seriously, this is the man who helped you face your fear of losing your bending…this is the guy who helped you beat the bad guy last season! I guess that means nothing now. And, I never expected Korra to have perfect morals or judgment – her flaws make her compelling – but, to me, the delivery of all of this was so uncharacteristically harsh. I’m looking forward to Korra making mistakes and resolving them, but at least write it so it’s believable.
That leads to my next big problem: the writing is absolutely awful. At least, when compared to the writing in other Avatar/Korra episodes. What the hell happened.
Well, I might have an idea. It looks like the main plot from last season is done, finished, completed; it makes sense because, apparently, the creators weren’t sure if Nickelodeon was going to invest in another season of Korra. So, this time around, we are completely transported from Republic City to the South Pole…new location, new plot, new characters, new relationships…it’s almost like the show wants to start from scratch. The Equalists were barely mentioned.
And, I think it’s great that the show is going in a new and different direction. But again, you have to write it well. It’s not like this is a pilot episode – the writers have so much folklore and character development to jump off of already…because, you know, there was a first season. Yet, the writing in this premiere is chockfull of EXPOSITION. Ugh.
To me, there is almost nothing worse in writing than characters who just spill out exposition with every. single. line. In television and film, the audience is supposed to learn by seeing – you know, watching everything unfold before them. When a character ends up explaining a bunch of stuff that we never see…that’s a huge problem. And, unfortunately, this premiere suffered because of that…and Unalaq and Tonraq – I’m lookin’ at you, boys.
Right off the bat, there’s tension between these two brothers…tension that seems to come out of nowhere since, again, they are both fairly new to the series. And, when those tensions rise, Unalaq asks Korra, “Haven’t you ever wondered how your father ended up in the South Pole?” as ominous music plays in the background. Hi, I’m the audience and the answer is NO. Of course we never wondered that – up until now, Tonraq’s been onscreen for two minutes tops! And, from what we’ve heard and seen so far, it sounds like Korra’s never wondered that either. Therefore, why is this so important? Yet, here we go, as we dramatically zoom onto Tonraq’s face: “I was banished.” COMMERCIAL BREAK. Again, who cares?
Well, apparently we should care, because we’re then subjected to a flashback of Tonraq’s banishment from the Northern Water Tribe…it looks like he was supposed to be chief there, not his brother. Oh well, I guess he just had to settle being chief of the Southern Water Tribe…where, apparently, even the chief lives in a crappy hut.
Anyway, the confession leads to Korra hashing out all this anger towards her father, especially when it’s implied that Tonraq mandated her solitary upbringing – you know, because he’s apparently the stereotypical, overprotective cartoon dad. Even that’s inconsistent: remember in the very first episode of Season 1, when she’s running away from home and risking her own life? Look who’s there to see her off!
I’m sorry, but this is stupid. And I can see your little hut in the background.
Inconsistencies aside, the writing is so clunky and full of explanations about things and PEOPLE we’re not even invested in…it’s painful to sit through. I wish the show would’ve taken a LOT more time developing Tonraq and Unalaq’s characters – because to jump into their dramatic backstories so early and with so much damn emphasis…it makes me want to break out the Mean Girls gifs:
Korra, look what you made me do. And I was rooting for you. We were all rooting for you.
This review exhausted me. Because it stinks to write so negatively about something you actually really like.
Just for the sake of cheering myself up, I’ll conclude with a couple more tiny positives. Like in Season 1, the music in the premiere is phenomenal. It’s a truly beautiful score that, like the animation, seems too good for television – it has a sweeping, cinematic quality that transitions flawlessly from the most exciting fight scene to the most tender moment between Korra and Mako. We also become more acquainted with Kya and Bumi, Tenzin’s older siblings, who humorously pick on their little brother. I’m looking forward to more comic relief from those two.
Again, I think the biggest reason for my disappointment lies in my expectations. They were so unbelievably high, and I couldn’t wait for the return of Korra! So, I honestly can’t help but compare this hour-long special with other episodes of the series – and, for me, it just fell short. Bad writing, underdeveloped characters, the protagonist acting out of character…not good. Once again, I don’t hate the series, and I hope I don’t make anyone else hate it. This is just one critic’s opinion about one season premiere. And that’s what’s great about television – there’s always another episode, and there’s always the possibility of improvement. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have the third episode of Season 2 waiting for me.