Friday, July 27, 2012

Legend of Korra, the True Disappointment

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!!

Before I begin, I just want to state that I liked "The Legend of Korra" the summer squeal to "Avatar: the Last Airbender" (AtlA). Despite its faults, the plot was engaging, the changes in the Avatar universe were believable and refreshing, the bending battles were really cool, and it expanded the original characters' stories without relying on them. In short, the 12 episode-long story was worth the (about) 6 hours it took to watch.

However, as others have pointed out the season was not flawless. There were mistakes and dropped opportunities that had events gone differently, "Korra" could have been truly amazing. And while most of the reviews focus on failed plot points I think it's almost important to note a bigger failure in "Korra" i.e. the lack of social commentary.

For anyone who hasn't seen the shown (watch it!), "Korra" tells the story of Avatar Korra. A woman in her teens who can "bend" three of the four elements. When we meet Korra, she has mastered water, earth and fire, but is having trouble with air as well as the spiritual side of the being the Avatar - the only person in her world that can bend more than one element.

Realizing that the only way she's going to learn how to bend air is to travel to the large metropolis Republic City, Korra takes control of her destiny and travels to the large city. However, she quickly discovers that all is not well in Republic City. A cult-like movement headed by Equalists, is trying to rid the world of benders - especially the Avatar.

After 12 drama-filled episodes, Korra defeats the Equalist leader and (debatable-ly) fully realizes her Avatar abilities. However, in order to truly understand my main complaint with "Korra" we have to discuss how AtlA handled social commentary.

In AtlA, episodes tackled sexism ("The Warriors of Kyoshi" and "The Waterbending Master"), racism (any fire-bending central episode), holding grudges ("Jet" and "The Great Divide"), class division ("The Blind Bandit"), the concept of justice ("The Puppetmaster"), self-confidence ("Sokka's Master" and parts of "Tales of Ba Sing Se") and the effects of war ("Imprisoned") to name a few.

AtlA blends these very real social problems that viewers face/will face while advancing plot and not seeming like a Very Special Episode. A rare treat  in television programming that should be celebrated.

"Korra" does this to an extend, but not nearly as well as AtlA. And more often than not, the solution is a joke or worse, the problem is answered with violence. The very premise mirrors prejudice perfectly. Benders vs. non-benders. People are being judged and hated simply because of traits that they cannot choose. There's even a moment were some benders are abusing non-benders and a non-bender tells Korra that she "is their Avatar too."

This could have been a great time for Korra to grow as a character and try to understand life as a non-bender. To see a different side of an argument and to use that knowledge to try to close the gap between the two sides - something the Avatar should do. Instead she using her Earth bending to threaten the benders to leave the non-benders alone.

The same can be said of pretty much every time Korra interacts with an Equalist. And yes, drama makes good TV, and no one wants to watch two characters talk it out. However, there could have been a moment when a captioned Equalist shares his/her beliefs, and then the next scene is Korra mulling over what she learned. But that never happens because Korra defaults to violence and that attitude isn't healthy for real world counterparts to absorb.

Another problem is how homelessness is depicted. When Korra first arrives in Republic City she is surprised to discover a man living in a bush. This character later returns to help Korra and her friends go underground. Again, this could have been a great moment to discuss the very real problem of homelessness, but it's made into a joke. When the characters are forced  to eat "squirrel soup" it could have a statement about how desperate people below the poverty live. Instead we laugh at Asami's awkwardness.

To its credit, "Korra" does handle family dynamics really well. The father-daughter, brother-brother, abusive father-sons, and traditional nuclear family relationships are accurate and very real - an aspect missing from AtlA.

There is a second season of "Korra" coming, so maybe the show will tackle social issues more effectively in the coming year, but as I said, the first season was a bit disappointing.