Thursday, February 11, 2021

Three Dread Horrors: A Legend of Korra Post

A sequel of sorts, to this post. Brought about by the news that Magpie Games got the RPG license for the series.

God, this was depressing to write. But y'all on Twitter wanted this instead of the happy fixfic post and I seek validation, so here we go.

**

The Legend of Korra horrifies me.

It's not the "I have learned a new fact about wasps" kind of horror, nor the "fucking loud noise as something suddenly appears on screen" kind of horror. It is the horror that lives in oily voice that I have heard in the depths of certain long, dark nights of the soul. A near-guarantee that its presence is unintentional, but intention is outclassed by end result eleven times out of ten.

It took me some time to reach this conclusion. In fact, it took me until I started writing this post, and the revelation was enough to make me want to quit writing it. But, perhaps there might still be use for it. Good critique is rooted in the experience of the thing, and I certainly have an experience to share.

I have not rewatched LoK since it aired. I have no plans on rewatching it. The contents of this post are all just my own memory and some reference to episode transcripts, and might have corroded with time. I accept any corrections that might be made.

(A side note: There is a great deal of critique made in bad faith about LoK, rooted in sexism or queerphobia or the possessive throws of the nostalgia-daemon or good old fashioned kvetching. Fuck those guys and fuck the dissolution of the critique into nitpicking for internet points. But I do enjoy myself a good kvetch now and then (and I certainly have them for this series), and to avoid going down that road I will stay away from the (many, many) issues I have with little things (god fucking damn that stupid fucking platinum mecha with a laser cannon) and focus on three points in particular.)

Three dread horrors.

THE FIRST HORROR

In the second episode of the series - just at the beginning of her airbending schooling - Korra is introduced to a simple device used for footwork training: a series of rotating wooden gates. It's an introductory lesson used to teach footwork to novices.

Korra runs face first into them, repeatedly. Swiftly growing frustrated with her failures, she destroys the device in a fit of rage. To which her mentor Tenzin exclaims:

"That was a two-thousand-year-old historical treasure!"

The scene is meant to illustrate Korra's childishness, her impatience, her uncontrolled angry outbursts. All fine and good, those are character flaws, character flaws are good. We can work with character flaws.

But...

There's really no good way to put this, is there?

Korra just destroyed one of the few remaining artifacts of the Air Nomads right in front of the son of the only survivor of their genocide. Not even out of hate - She destroyed it because martial arts training was going slower than "instant mastery". 

Draw whatever real-life parallels you wish, there are certainly plenty that can fit in, and no matter which one you choose it's going to get really bad really fast when I say that the script forgives her. By the end of the episode Tenzin apologizes for being too impatient and strict. The tantrum is swept under the rug. The incident is never mentioned again.  

In some other story, this would be an inciting incident. The thing that puts Korra on the path to realizing "oh, I'm a huge piece of shit". It's not, here.

The show is, in its way, saying that it doesn't matter. Doesn't matter that Korra throws tantrums like an infant, doesn't matter that apparently Katara wasn't able to get through to her with any sort of meaningful mentorship, doesn't matter that the genocide of the Air Nomads even happened. Tenzin is being unreasonable about some wooden boards and dowels.

Tenzin is being unreasonable.

Doesn't matter that the entire nation is hanging on by the thread of a few surviving artifacts and the memory of a twelve-year-old, or that the man has three kids, a fourth on the way, a position on city council, and is trying to rebuild an entire culture off of next to nothing. 

He and Aang probably went out and found those gates together. 

I wonder, does Tenzin ever catch himself in idle moments thinking "I should give dad a call"?

Fucking hell.

THE SECOND HORROR

LoK's first season finds its antagonists in the Equalists - a movement of Republic city's disenfranchised  non-benders protesting against the gross inequality perpetuated by the bender-dominated government and bender-dominated police force (who, of course, do nothing to stop the bender-dominated criminal triads either) that has built up enough support and momentum that they have begun taking direct action, staring against the triads.

So, obviously and of course, it is revealed later on that the movement was founded and led by an outside agitator (a bender, no less) who was using them purely as a means to his own personal revenge, AND that it was funded and supplied by the local billionaire industrial mogul...

Replace the proper nouns and you have a FOX segment about Black Lives Matter. While BLM was not extant as we know it when the show was being written, it is not like conspiracy as a genre is terribly creative - this idea has been mad-libbed a hundred times over.

I can't tell if this was malice or incompetence. It could be said that the writers were simply not thinking about this when plotting the series. To that, I say, that the things that people do when they are not thinking are often very telling about their ingrained biases and values.While charitable interpretation asks that we consider a work as a piece effected by its time (and thus, when we return to it later, the author's views might have shifted since the time of writing), that is an explanation, not an excuse.

(Also the Equalist moment dissolves and is never featured again after said outside agitator is no longer in the picture. They get a token representative seat on city council and, as far as the greater story is concerned, are a solved problem.)

Special sidetrack segment: The Equalist plot is what I like to call "Antagonist Ideology Sabotage" - this is when the antagonist of a story is in the right. They are more justified in their motivations than the protagonist, and if they accomplish what they are trying to do the world of the story will likely be much better for it.

So, in order to maintain the status quo of the setting (and thus, not rock the boat of the industry they exist within), the writer or writers or producer or the suits sabotage the antagonist by making them so bloodthirsty that they simply must be stopped. Maybe there's some cackhanded moral about they had good intentions but you can't go about seeking change that way.

An excellent other example is in Black Panther. Killmonger is fucking correct, his anger is true and justified, so they decided to make him a murderer who wants to start WW3 and T'challa, who is not so angry, gets to be the hero for opening up a community center and peaceably doing not much of anything at all.

THE THIRD HORROR

At the end of the third season, the chain of reincarnation is partially severed. The Avatar will continue reincarnating forward, but can no longer reach backward - the older incarnations are gone. There is now only Korra, and when the next avatar comes around she will be the only counsel they will receive.

Thousands of years of human experience, millennia of lived history, all the memories of who we are and where we have been - snuffed out. Extinguished. And in the ashes of all those lives, now lost forever, is someone who has fallen in love with the owner of Ford - United Steel.

That's where we leave this series, the final note of the AtLA universe - the union of the world's balance-keeper and the scion of industrial capitalism. And without the elder incarnations to guide future avatars, with only Korra there, I see nothing but a gaping black hole where the future should be.

This is the final horror. The victory of liberal capitalism, gallivanting off into the future suffering no lasting consequences from the horrors it has spawned. Here's Amazon, Google and Tesla dusting off their rainbow flags for a month as they grow ever fatter off the exploitation of their workforce. The course is set, the path is clear, there is no way to avoid the path we here in the real world have tread. Here will be the world stripped barren, its water poisoned, its air polluted, its people devoured. Here is that final monologue of A Machine for Pigs, that desperate cry of "This is your coming century!"

The voice in the dark unfurls its smile, the one with too many teeth, and says "Ah, you fool. Did you expect anything different? Did you really think things would get better?"

And that's the end of it.

** 

There was a post written by Michael DiMartino (now gone but thankfully still archived) when Man of Steel was coming out, wherein he expresses his appreciation of the film's interpretation of Jonathan Kent as follows:

"The father represents any parent, or institution, or religion, or government that wants to prevent you (or me) from coming into our own and expressing who we truly are"

This was the movie, mind you, where Jonathan Kent gets angry at Clark for saving a schoolbus full of children.

You know why Superman is Superman? It's not the super strength or the blue pajamas or the alien thing. It's because Pa Kent was a good man. If Pa Kent is not a good man, then there can be no Superman.

And just like Zach Snyder's pizza cutter, LoK is a thematic betrayal of its source material. A complete one-eighty. Total negation. Where there was empathy, there is now the dismissal of suffering. Where there was hope, there is now only the mocking laughter of nothing ever changing. There is now only the halls of power now, and their Principle Act. (See, I knew you were waiting for me to drop M-L-CH in this essay but HA I have subverted your expectations by doing exactly that, only at a different time!)

No wonder Tenzin got done dirty. Hell, they did everyone dirty. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko, Suki, Pema, Lin...shit they just did the entire adult cast dirty like that.

(God Pema got a perfect chance to shine and it got wasted on making her the butt of a joke. Come on the woman has four children, two of whom are ADD and three of whom know magic kung fu she knows how to handle high-stress situations.)

All for what, for the sterling and memorable characters like Mako, who was so boring that he inspired a bisexual awakening for two successive girlfriends and also became a cop, and that is his entire character? Or Bolin, the man who joined the fascists because we needed him to do something this season?

Honestly that summarizes the show pretty well. Korra and her friends the cop, the industrialist, and the idiot.

Sigh.

That's enough of this nonsense. Back to work on something less miserable.



21 comments:

  1. Tenzin and family were good, Red Lotus was good, music was good.

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    1. The Music was VERY good. OG avatar had a few memorable tunes and good main theme but due to its structure didn't get a chance to play around with more complex themes or leitmotifs. LoK, due to budget or planning or idk what, has some truly slapping themes.

      I also really liked the final season as a pulling together of the disparate elements (heh) of the first 3 villains via showing the effect they'd had on Korra and her mental state. Made the previous seasons feel more connected and relevant, a welcome feeling since LoK had previously struggled with actual status quo changes. (oh! And while the equalist arc is low to high key dumb the final scene where the senator blows him and his brother up because he realizes how far they've fallen is great)

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  2. I'm actually working through Avatar and Korra for the first time! In fact, I'm currently a few episodes into season 3 of Korra.

    This is a really interesting analysis, and I agree with the individual points, but not necessarily that it betrays the original series, but that gets into a broader critique I have of Avatar and feelings I have between the two series that is sort of besides the point of this post but actually something I was thinking of writing a post about myself at some point...

    Another side note I'd argue Black Panther does a good job of acknowledging what you're saying and threading that line and (mostly) not succumbing to "antagonist ideology sabotage" (incidentally I hate that as well and I like this term for it). I don't feel so strongly about that to get into an argument about it or anything, I can see why it might go over the line for someone else, but I do think it's handling in BP is much better than Korra.

    Anyway, this was an interesting post, thanks for sharing these thoughts.

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  3. The black panther villain was named Killmonger, not Warmonger. otherwise great points, agree 100%...

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  4. AtlA wore its heart on its sleeve: imperialism is bad, empowering the disenfranchised is good, people raised into bad can become good when they realise how the bad hurts others and themselves. Korra...empowers no one, does not reflect on her actions meaningfully, and hooks up with the heir of Ford Motors in the end of series disney moment. Sheesh.

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  5. I have deleted a comment here on the grounds that I have no place or patience for using antifa as a boogeyman. Antifa isn't an organization, it's an adjective.

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  6. Nice analysis, Dan! I can't say I've watched ATLA or Korra, but I think it's important to show deeper meaning in kids' media. Among other reasons, I think it helps nudge the Overton window in a better direction. So thanks for doing this piece. :) Sorry about the existential dread.

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  7. Korra, to me, comes across as someone who's just... unmoored from meaningful goals or emotional bonds. If one of my players handed me her as a character sheet, I would ask them to rewrite the backstory to give her some stronger motivation-hooks.

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    1. And that is super weird for someone who spent their formative years with Katara as their mentor.

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  8. Amen. I had the same sinking feeling throughout the whole series. A total betrayal of Avatar.

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  9. You might like The Dragon Prince. Unlike Voltron, which commits a lot of Korra's sins, it's a lot more faithful to moral heart of The Last Airbender.

    The most recent season was supposed to be the last, although I hear it's getting another one eventually. Still, it's a story about trying to repair thousand year old rifts by acting with kindness and grace. It's not equal to ATLA, but what is?

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    1. I have long said that Dragon prince is a series made entirely of solid Avatar B-plots, and I will stick by that. Can't wait till season 4 (give us more Amaya and her sun elf ladyfriend, writers!)

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  10. AtlA had three main writers and a host of sub-writers who were there to make sure the main ones didn't do something too stupid. Korra had the two who came up with ideas but couldn't write plot or characters and Dragon Prince had the one who could write characters but no settings. Both these successor shows had small writing teams of people who could fill the gaps and somewhat erratic budgets (Dave Filoni went from AtlA to Star Wars The Clone Wars because Lucas liked his art). Both the successor show matched the creator's pet ideologies even when committing antagonist ideology sabotage.
    The Last Airbender was very much not a one-off but it will continue to be one until someone realizes that writers need to work together and cover for each other.

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    1. While doing the rewatch of the original series it really sunk in how many of the best episodes were written by Elizabeth Welch Ehasz. Without her we don't get "Zuko Alone" or "Appa's Lost Days"

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  11. Legend of Korra being a Neo-Liberal nightmare world is explored more heavily in youtuber Kay And Skittles's "The Politics of The Legend of Korra" series. Highly recommended, if you haven't seen it already.

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    1. Someone recommended that to me on twitter and I binged all of them in one go.

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  12. This has given me a lot to think about. I've been plotting and scheming a "post-apoc 150 years after LoK" timeline, and after reading this I will have to go back and change a lot of it.
    In short, thank you very much for writing this. It must not have been easy, but it needed to be said.

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