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Spores, Molds, and Fungus

Pop Culture Miscellania

The Legend of Korra: Potential Dripping Away
I’m terribly, terribly disappointed with “The Legend of Korra”.

Anger would be too strong a word, but apathy doesn’t cover it, either. It’s the sad knowledge that the series could be so much better than it is, that it has so many unconventional elements for cartoons and for fantasy but it keeps squandering most of them.

A series with political complexity, modernized technology, a female lead, and then exploring how the role of magic might change with modern times sounded delicious. I am a fantasy fan, but don’t consider the genre inherently conservative, or inherently about anachronistic grandeur. I wanted to see what could be done with a less common fantasy setting.


I maintain that the problems with Legend of Korra are not the plot elements or setting, but what has been done with them. Execution is often lazy, taking the most simple and predictable path, and then not making us care about where it leads. And it is just heartbreaking.

Korra is likely intended to be the “young hothead who learns better”, which is fine. It’s been done a lot, but can be made to work. But Korra never seems to learn anything, and never seems to change. I don’t hate her, I just wish there would be some character development, because she’s getting dull. But she remains stubborn, petty, and naive.

Her relationship with Mako is also dull. Mako is still a colossal prick for leaving Asami, and it wasn’t until last week’s episode that season two Mako actually did anything as a character, or he and Korra did anything meaningful as a couple--and that involved breaking up. There’s just no spark between them, making their love and their anger both hard to get invested in.

And the series keeps shifting its focus away from things that would actually require Korra to be the Avatar. A lot of noise is made about the role of the Avatar in this world, but Korra is frequently swept up in circumstances and never does much that an ordinary Bender could not.

The result is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for the series to star an Avatar. I know it must be hard to re-interpret the Chosen One narrative for a modernized fantasy setting, but again, the writers don’t seem to be trying to decide how an Avatar would fit into a complex new world.

Like with Amon from season one, Unalaq looked like a villain cast in a different mould. He seemed to have compelling, sympathetic motivation, but handling things in all the wrong ways. Since the premiere, however, Unalaq has been steadily revealed to be power-hungry and deceptive. It’s still not clear if he was right about the spirits, or if he even believes in his previous words, but I’m preparing for him to become completely dull.

I would not be surprised if the barrel bottom were scraped further, and Unalaq was shown to not care at all about angry spirits or cultural degeneration, be manufacturing the whole thing, or trying to take advantage of circumstances so that he can gain power.

It’s so frustrating because the potential to tell an interesting story was right there: the writers just had to reach out and grab it. Not take the easy way out by making him a simplistic villain. What makes it worse is that if Unalaq had stuck to his originally motivations, he would also be a conservative (small c) villain, which goes against the stereotype of the fantasy genre wanting to preserve the past.

Now that Unalaq’s daughter Eska is pursuing Korra and her friends, I’m wondering if the writers are unconsciously mimicking the Ozai and Azula dynamics. That’s very bad form, since it’s lazy and the results here don’t measure up to their predecessors. I don’t believe the fan theory that Korra/Mako was meant to throw a bone to the Katara/Zuko shippers, but if the writers are trying to save themselves by calling on their previous success, the efforts are already doomed.

Which is a shame because I liked Desna and Eska, but no one can seem to think of anything interesting to do with them. Torturing Bolin isn’t interesting, nor is being their father’s attack dogs.

Bolin is how not to do a comic relief character. The first season Bolin wasn’t so bad, but here, he is full-tilt stupid, contributing nothing to the plot or the characters except for screaming pratfalls. Because of this, I can’t get upset at the irreverent treatment of Eska’s abuse of him.

Everyone is going to say that Sokka was done better, and that’s true, but there are so many other examples, including Varrick, who is right in the same cast, is comical, but also smart and useful. Putting him right beside Bolin makes it all worse: if the writers can handle one comic character decently, then why not?

As many have said, Tenzin’s nuclear family make for great characters. I love the idea of a main character being a family man, when parents are so often assumed to make uninteresting characters just because they are parents. Also, the mentor figure is usually assumed to have no life outside of his protegee, and here it’s obviously untrue.

And even the goofy-faced and fartbending Meelo got some subdued moments to himself in last week’s episode, making Bolin look like an even bigger failure of characterization.

But Tenzin and his own siblings...while I like the idea of Aang as an imperfect parent, and the personalities of Bumi and Kya (though I had assumed Kya was the firstborn, due to her grey hair; I sort of wish she was, given how heroes seldom have daughters first), to throw it at us after Aang has died, and offering nothing to contrast it except a swift wrap-up with a family photo, is too pessimistic for the series. The scenes didn’t even need it: a teasing but loving sibling relationship would have served the same purpose and not left dirty footprints behind.

At this point it almost seems like, set free from the more conventional plot of ATLA, the showrunners and writers can’t handle something different, and lose all the prowess that made the first series so brilliant. From that I hear about the comic interquels, this is also true for them.

Another way to describe it is that this series is starting to feel like a first draft: it’s a writer’s aphorism that first drafts suck. First drafts suck because things are just starting, because you’re throwing things at the wall trying to figure out what will stick; true direction is found later. Legend of Korra just feels like a first draft, the writers spewing out material that could be refined into something more--but this is the final product.

Yet laziness also fits perfectly. Legend of Korra could be so much better if only people tried.

It’s a shame because while I liked ATLA just fine, the setting and premise of Korra got me excited on an individual level. It sounded like it would deal with settings and plots that I preferred as a thing distinct from artistic quality. But it keeps doing the least it can.

I am still determined to finish the entire series, and right now that’s not a hard promise to keep. The series is still mildly entertaining on the surface, and still at least is visually impressive. But my hopes were much higher.