Over at Reaxxion, Joshua Wise has been writing up a storm about the Legend of Korra. First he penned an article about why “men love” the Last Airbender sequel. Then he took to the comments to vigorously defend his arguments. When it became clear that he was drowning in a sea of critics, he took up the megaphone once again to address the chief complaints about his original piece and explain why his detractors are wrong.
First of all, Joshua is welcome to his opinions, and I think they are defensible ones. I’ve argued many times with my friend Magnataur about the merits and shortcomings of the Legend of Korra. The short version is that I think it falls way short of its predecessor and has few redeeming features. But I won’t get too deep into my laundry list of complaints about the show. Many of them are, probably, just preferences. For example I strongly preferred the medievalish setting of TLA and was put off by the practically overnight jump into TLK’s industrial age.
Before we dive in, I’d like to disclose that I didn’t finish watching Korra to the very end, so that may erode my credibility a little, though I did watch most of the series. I got a few episodes into the last season, found out about the last episode, and quit watching in disgust. Perhaps at some point I’ll go back and watch the handful that I missed, but I’m not tempted at the moment.
Oh, and of course the obligatory SPOILER ALERT.
Now, let’s have a look at what Joshua liked about the show. Here are his main bullets along with my thoughts:
1. Male characters are treated with respect
Debatable. It’s true that the characters in Korra do grow and develop. Tenzin’s arch was notable to me. But many of the male characters (or perhaps all the characters?) just came across as rather two-dimensional from what I saw. Bolin was a goof who did get more serious with age and experience but still struck me (and some of Reaxxion’s commenters) as a watered-down Sokka-type. Mako was just painful to watch. He threw away a relationship with the beautiful, kind, rich Asami to pursue Korra. And then he gave up on that because, um…feelings? Oh the angst! Going back to Tenzin, he had his moments. But the overall message I got was that he was a stuffy, conservative monk who was only able to reach his full potential once he loosened up and became more open-minded. Tolerance and progressivism!
2. The action was never disappointing
There was a lot of action, I’ll give it that. Whether this was always to its credit is another story. From early on in the show, there’s a lot going on. We’ve got metal benders on the police force, firebenders shooting lightning in the factories, and the flash of pro-bending. The way the writers escalated the action reminds of Dragon Ball Z, in a way. There’s a famous meme that involves Vegita exclaiming that Goku’s power level is over 9000. By the close of the series, however, enemies usually have power levels somewhere around 100 gazillion. In Korra, the bending and the fights just ramp up and up until you have villains that can take on all of the protagonists almost singlehandedly. Personally I’ll take clever, coherent plot over mindless action anyday.
3. More relationships, less romance
Again, perhaps chalk this one up to preference. I know that “romance” persay isn’t manly, but I’d argue that neither is the abundance of relationships just for the sake of having relationships. So we have Mako and Bolin screwing up their courtships left and right, and then Korra and Asami ultimately deciding that they like girls. Score? For my money, give me an Aang-Katara arch or one of Sokka’s pursuits. They were perhaps a bit more sappy and had their own share of teenage angst, but they also had depth that felt lacking in Korra. I might not go so far as to say Korra’s take is more advocative of the contemporary hook-up culture, but its characters seem like they could use a little more romance and perhaps less relationships.
4. Korra crossed lines that Airbender didn’t
Preference once more? It’s true that Korra got darker than TLA in general. There was some straight up killing. But again, this didn’t feel like it really added much. It was shock value. Killing off characters can be a very powerful storytelling tool, but when you’re offing a random minor character who no one cares about or a villain who’s outlived his story arch, the effect is going to be diminished. I found the struggles of Zuko and Aang much more stirring.
Then we have Joshua’s rebuttal piece, addressing his critics:
1. You are wrong about Korra
Joshua begins by addressing one of the chief complaints of the anti-Korra crowd.
“Yes, Korra begins the series as an entitled cunt, but many of you fail to notice this is never considered to be a good thing? In fact, much of the time her behavior reinforces her personality as naive and destructive.”
He then elaborates that these negative characteristics give her room to grow as a character. And this is true; she learns from Tenzin and others and her powers grow as a result. This is a point well taken. However, I’d like to raise two objections to this defense of Korra. First, while she grows as a character, she remains both abrasive and cocksure. Her tendency to brood doesn’t help. I get that she’s both a teenage girl and that world’s equivalent to Superman (she bears a heavy burden), but generally it’s a good idea to at least build a likable protagonist. While she does have her fans, she’s a lot more polarizing than she should have been.
Second, Korra follows the Wonder Woman archetype. That’s perfectly fine for some people – Wonder Woman is a popular enough superhero. But I’d like to draw from a post written recently by JC Wright on why he likes Supergirl:
“For the record, this is the reason why I think that Wonder Woman is a poorer character than Supergirl, even though they are both simply female versions of Superman. Wonder Woman is competing with men at what men do best. The Amazon is more macho than a masked Mexican wrestler, at least in the recent versions of the character. Supergirl is stronger than any man but is not competing against men for the man-prize. She is still feminine, with all the mystery and paradox and allure that word implies.”
Korra is an Amazon. It’s true that bending is a great equalizer (hey, is Avatar pro-gun?), but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to characterize Korra as feminine. She competes with men on their level and is ready to kick their asses. And in the end she decides she doesn’t need men at all! It’s true that this female masculinity isn’t unique to Korra. Avatar Kyoshi struck me as a similar figure – strong-willed and unflinching at the prospect of a good fight. At least Kyoshi wore some makeup though, eh?
Ultimately I’d say that creating a strong, feminine heroine is perhaps challenging but certainly doable. Look at Katara from TLA – she may not have been the Avatar, but she was simultaneously both soft and tough. She learned to become a strong water bending fighter and even mastered the terrible art of blood bending, but she was also a healer and a nurturer. She worried over and cared for both Aang and Sokka, and eventually wound up becoming a wife and mother. Not in the cards for Korra.
2. You are wrong about Mako and Bolin
Joshua makes another sensible point here:
“Mako is not Zuko, and Bolin is not Sokka. Yes, they share similar molds and hold similar roles. First off all, saying Zuko is Mako is an insult to Zuko, who was the best character in the show. I’m not saying Mako is a bad character, but where Zuko started compared to where he finished is astronomical compared to Mako.”
He then goes on to say that Bolin is more modeled after Toph than Sokka because of his jock-ness, and winds up being a lava bender because he’s a Fire Nation / Earth Nation hafu. That was a cool development, I’ll agree, but it wasn’t game changing.
Bolin was better written than Mako, granted. But they were still weak characters that felt like rehashes/mash-ups of TLA’s Team Avatar.
3. You are wrong about bending
This is the section where Joshua points out that bending is the great equalizer in the world of Avatar.
“Some of you take issue with the idea that in Korra, the women are as strong as the men. I don’t see you hating on Toph, Katara, Azula, Suki, Ty Lee, or Mai.”
I would just say that he’s right that the idea of strong women is not new to Korra. As he points out, there were plenty of strong female characters in TLA. But again, most if not all of these characters display a degree of femininity. In most cases their physical strength or the strength of their bending are not their primary attributes. Toph may be gruff and unkempt, but in an unguarded moment she lets Katara give her a makeover and beams when she is told how pretty she looks. That was a rich and heartwarming moment! I’ve already extolled Katara’s feminine virtues, but will reiterate that they go beyond bending; she has a softness to her. Azula, Suki, Ty Lee, and even Mai – they all display feminine traits. I’m not arguing that Korra never does, but her character usually feels like a man in the body of a teenage girl; that’s the way she has been written and balanced. She is supposed to be strong, so she is made to be borderline butch, arrogant, brash, and loud.
Once again I’d like to point to JC Wright, who has written a series of excellent pieces on the execution of the strong female character. Men and women have different strengths, and the best female characters are those who possess those particular strengths. The Amazon is a great example of a politically correct female character – one that refuses to recognize that men and women are different.
4. You are wrong about the villains
Here Joshua asserts that every Korra villain is a SJW. Thus the SJW agenda is the true antagonist and ultimate loser. The representations that he illustrates for each villain are definitely interesting and hadn’t occurred to me – Amon as an allegory for white guilt, Unalaq as a radical, destructive equalist (I like the way he puts it “Unalaq wanted to free Vaatu because the only way for everything to be fair is for nothing to exist.“), Zaheer as a naturalist, and Kuvira as a control-maniac.
I can’t speak to whether or not any of that was intentional (I kind of doubt it), but I like his thought process. For me, the main problem with the villains was that each one was an extremist beyond reason, with increasingly more power, a ‘la my Dragon Ball Z complaint. The fight below made me yell at the screen.
Setting aside the fact that years (presumably) in prison have not dulled the skills or reactions of any of Zaheer’s posse, you’d think Unalaq’s kids (who have demonstrated they’re a match for Korra and her friends), Korra’s father the chief, and Lord Zuko and his fucking dragon could put up a good fight. But nope, swatted aside.
The villains in Korra are interesting to different degrees, but once you realize they’re just different variations of crazy, they become less so. There was potential for more development – between Zaheer and his cyclops woman girlfriend, for example, but these venues go relatively unexplored.
In the end, I think most fans agree that TLA was the superior series; the argument is often framed as “Was Korra a good show?” Of course there are those who preferred Korra. But all of this is largely opinion. Although I disagree with a majority of Joshua’s points, it’s an interesting conversation to have.