Remembering Avatar

There’s always a bit of a nervous feeling when you rewatch something that means a lot to you, especially if you haven’t seen it in a long time. There’s that lingering fear that maybe it wasn’t really that good, and you were just too unsophisticated to realize it at the time. You should never let go of a good feeling of course, even if you feel different now (AKA why I’m not too hard on Sword Art Online, even now), but it’s nonetheless harrowing to face a potential change in something you love. Of course, the work itself never changes – only you do.

But forget all that pseudo-philosophical claptrap, let’s talk about Avatar!

Avatar, mercifully, is still good. But at the same time, not quite as I remember it. So as I power my way through a Netflix rewatch, I thought it might be interesting to document my thoughts on this show that I only watched once before, around ten years ago. Now that I’m equipped with my superior future art mind, who knows what wise insights I may glean?

Avatar Book One

Oh it’s actually not that great, huh?

Starting back from episode 1 is a bit of a surreal experience. You remember the character development, the heartbreaking story beats, the amazing animation. Why does everything look so… old? What’s up with the aspect ratio? Was the picture quality always like this?

I can’t say for sure when Avatar gets to where we remember it being, visually, but it’s probably around the time that the story catches up, too. It took about three episodes to get back into the swing of things, I found. It’s not at its best, but you at least feel a little less weird for sitting in front of your computer screen watching children’s TV.

Speaking of children’s TV, that’s going to be something of a pattern going forward when it comes to this show’s limitations. Almost everything negative I have to say stems from the fact that it was a show airing on Nickelodeon to an audience of eight to fifteen year olds. The one that hits you in the face right away is the episodic format. In book one, a huge portion of the episodes are “B-Plots” – episodes that do not directly tie in to the primary story. To Avatar’s credit, it has some of the better B-Plots – every single one of them (other than that one) advances the story or characters in some meaningful way. But at the end of the day, you’re still left wishing for something more relevant to happen. My personal least favorite one was probably the one at the desecrated Air Temple, where Aang’s legitimate grievances about the destruction of his heritage are more or less dismissed out of hand by the end.

Nonetheless, you start to get a feel for what made this show so memorable. While the art doesn’t quite hit its plateau until book two, it starts to look much better around the halfway point. And the B-Plots do a good job of getting the characters moving, even if they don’t really hit the road until later.

The finale is easily the standout. Despite feeling a bit rushed, the final payoff is worth it – I still listen to the music from when Aang merged with the ocean spirit. It’s this eerie, ethereal mix of majestic and terrifying, an emotional complexity that the show hadn’t come close to achieving up to that point. If I’m making a list of top ten Avatar moments, this is probably the only one from book one that I’d even consider.

Avatar Book Two

Now this is the Avatar that I remember! From the beginning of book two the parallels between Aang and Zuko are suddenly extremely apparent – something that I missed entirely back in the day. On the first episode, they both grapple with betrayal. In the episode “Bitter Work”, they’re both trying to learn something that’s unintuitive to them. But then that old episodic problem rears its head again, but paradoxically, it actually turns into something of a strength.

A major limit of the episodic structure is that the development of the main characters is somewhat slave to it. Because they’re the heroes, they have to be able to deliver a good message to all the kids watching at the end of each episode. This can result in some arcs that feel really awkward and stunted. Notably Aang, after Appa gets lost, spends a whole episode mad, until he learns to not be mad. Then he spends a whole episode emotionless, until he learns to not be emotionless. It’s all very robotic.

Zuko, however, is under no such obligation. While Aang can end Bitter Work having overcome his mental block, Zuko ends it on top of a mountain, yelling at God. This means that his progression is much more freeform, and it’s no secret that he’s the star of some of the best moments of book two. Zuko Alone remains a masterpiece, and his back and forth with Azula is consistently entertaining.

Near the end of book two, we’re introduced to Guru Pathik, then… immediately un-introduced, along with his entire storyline. The whole thing about chakras is really interesting, but it seems like an idea that they attempted to cram in last-minute, realized that they couldn’t handle it, then swiftly forgot about. What’s crazy is that I feel like it could have been incredibly relevant in the finale, possibly even giving the final reason for Aang not killing Ozai, beyond his own personal values.

Avatar Book Three

Book one was was decently fun with spots of genius by the end. Book two was good with big chunks of genius scattered throughout. Book three starts great, then hits pure genius halfway through and stays there until the end.

The Puppetmaster is one of those episodes that makes me stop and reflect whether I’m just an inherently negative person. One of the things that I like most about this episode is its bleak, heart breaking ending. That’s something that will come up later, the fact that I tend to really like or at least respect sad endings. Am I weird? Or is there more to it than that?

I think what actually attracts me to sad endings isn’t so much their inherent qualities and more the fact that in order to exist, they almost always exist as a pure expression of the artist’s vision. A lot of happy endings can feel contrived, but someone who is confident enough to end on a downer usually has a solid grasp on how to deliver catharsis in a negative outcome.

Not that book three doesn’t have its share of positive endings, of course. All of the Zuko field trip episodes remain fantastic, with the best being the Southern Raiders, of course. I’m probably gonna write more here but honestly I’m itching to write about Korra.

Korra Book One

I once heard a friend say that he dreams of one day creating something as good as Avatar, the sign of which is that no matter the merits of what he makes next, like Korra, it will be universally hated for paling in comparison.

Not that I don’t think Korra is imperfect, because it sure as hell is, but it’s always going to be fighting an unfair, uphill battle. So I’m going to switch tones a bit here, mostly defending what I think Korra did well, and of course pointing out what didn’t.

What hit me in the face immediately is that this is the best the Avatar franchise has ever looked. As someone who was caught in a tragic accident several years ago resulting in the amputation of all of my self-esteem and thus now mostly watches anime, I’ve developed a bit of a standard for what general anime and anime-like shows should look like. And book one honestly blows those standards away. You can easily forget after watching a bunch of seasonal garbage that characters are allowed to move and emote when they talk, and Korra has that in spades. I don’t think you can even fully appreciate this if you don’t watch much animation, but it’s such a breath of fresh air. And the lighting, THE LIGHTING. Gorgeous.

Character-wise, I love Korra herself. She’s about as perfect a follow-up to Aang as you could come up with, his polar opposite in every way. Aang just wanted to be a kid, Korra just wanted to be the avatar. He’s spiritual, she’s not. He struggles to get stronger, she struggles to find the strength inside herself. That last one is critical. A lot of people who criticize characters (mostly female ones, let’s be real) for being too powerful compared to previous iterations often completely miss the point of what their characters are supposed to be. It’s not about raw power any more. This is a different journey.

The rest of team avatar is… a mixed bag. I appreciate Bolin so much more this time around. Even when the show doesn’t know what to do with him, he’s a precious sweet cinnamon roll who deserves so much better than Korra. Asami kinda varies, I think it’s hilarious how we get that spurned over the shoulder look from her for like three episodes in a row, but she had some really good moments with her father. Mako is sort of the weak link. He works well enough as a hunky boy love interest in book one, but he’s no Katara when it comes to filling that role. I’d have a harder time explaining him on a personality level than any other member of the cast.

A lot of people complain about the love triangle business in this season, but I personally found it… mostly fine. I’m always down for some light back-and-forth interpersonal conflict, and romantic comedies can bring that in spades. The whole thing is mostly over and done after one episode. Knowing who ends up with who, though, makes the whole thing extra funny.

Overall I’d say the main criticism I can level at this season is that it can’t seem to properly maintain its grittiness level. It obviously intends to be grittier than the main series, including that frankly out of nowhere murder-suicide at the end. And yet, for the majority of the show, the writers effectively use “having their bending taken away” as a story stand-in for character death. It feels like they honestly wanted to kill some characters off, but network regulations kept them from doing so.

Korra Book Two

One of the things that I hate most about internet nerd culture is the conflation of anti-fanservice with bad writing. The biggest example of this is with The Last Jedi, where people were so desperate for a boring, by the numbers retread of the original trilogy that they were enraged when the movie deliberately went against that, almost as if basic narrative subversion and disruption of the status quo are basic tenets of storytelling or something. Not to say you can’t just dislike the story they’re telling, but there’s a difference between that and hating the fact that Disney didn’t contrive a reason to drag three old actors into a story that’s supposed to have moved on from them for some “reunion”.

If I seem bitter, it’s because this attitude has infected a lot of properties, Avatar chief amongst them. Not that I don’t think that book two isn’t profoundly flawed, and full of great ideas that don’t reach their potential (the proverbial Last Jedi of Avatar seasons), but so much of the criticism I see is rooted in blind fanboyism that I feel compelled to set the record straight.

Now I don’t want to get all conspiratorial, but a feeling that I couldn’t shake for the first five or so episodes was that someone behind the show hated Korra herself. The setup, on paper, is quite good, and ripe for some fantastic interpersonal conflict that plays directly off of the flaws and immaturity of Korra in a way that doesn’t backtrack on her development from book one. Despite how far she’s come, she’s still fiercely independent to a fault and has problems with authority. This allows Unalaq to swoop in and tell Korra exactly what she wants to hear, offering her important knowledge but also putting her training into her own hands. Her departure from Tenzin and Tonraq makes perfect sense. Then the high level of conflict in her life is, potentially, volatile ground between her and Mako that could endanger their relationship.

But then you start watching and everything goes all wrong. The scenes with all the authority figures mostly go off without a hitch, but every scene with Mako is a lurch. Korra becomes wildly inconsistent, demanding contradictory answers out of Mako with every encounter and becoming massively angry every time he doesn’t respond correctly. Even after cooling off and apologizing, she keeps doing it! Did… did one of the writers break up with their girlfriend while making this season? I’m not saying its out of character for them to clash, but something about her portrayal in this portion of the show feels all kinds of wrong.

After that awkward first act, the season starts to hit the road again and feels a lot more like Avatar. The Wan episodes are, of course, the one part of this season that no one could hate. This time around I’m particularly enchanted by the art style change, which makes all of the backgrounds look like classical Japanese paintings. Who the hell was that fire sage lady though? Was that Azula? Or just some random old lady?

But when we talk about book two, discussion inevitably falls to the ending. Particularly two parts of it – the anti-fanservice, and how bizarre it gets.

The bizarreness I… honestly can’t defend all that much. Obviously I have no problem with unrealistic stuff – I like Jojo, I can’t get too caught up in this – and animation is a medium for exploring the weird and offbeat. But we’re deep enough into this franchise that there’s an established acceptable level of weirdness. We’re free to push it, which is why I was fine with the end of book four, but this was all too much, too fast, and I think they learned from that in the next season.

But then there’s the anti-fanservice. Raava was (temporarily) destroyed, and Korra’s connection to the past avatars along with her. Permanently. And to hear some commenters on the internet describe it, you’d think that the creators physically reached into the world of the show and murdered these past avatars. Everyone’s so… hurt. They act betrayed. And that strikes me as a misdirected reaction. These are emotions that you’re supposed to feel, but you feel them towards Unalaq and Vaatu, not Brian Konietzko and Michael Dimartino. This blending of fantasy and reality has become a ubiquitous enough phenomenon that I don’t think we can dismiss it out of hand anymore.

Geez, I can already feel this topic spiraling WAY out of hand. But in brief, I think with the advent of online fandoms and big franchises, some people develop an attachment to fictional worlds as an eternal, perfect status quo. Those that are in deep enjoy fan art or even fan fiction to their heart’s content, forever existing in the state of the story that gave them these fond memories in the first place. And so many franchises cater to this feeling, creating a never ending comfort zone that can be uncomfortable to leave. But that’s not what story telling is about. And this attitude is one that I feel pushes art towards stagnation. I’m sure there are many other explanations for this mindset, as it existed before online fandoms, but it’s a toxic force nonetheless.

Korra Book Three

Book Three is generally considered to be the peak of Korra, and with good reason. What most people mention is the interesting villain team and high stakes, which I mostly agree with. Zaheer and his anti-team avatar are certainly entertaining to watch. They evoke pleasant memories of the Phantom Troupe from Hunter X Hunter, with how much their personal friendships are emphasized throughout the battlefield. It also feels like the show has finally settled on an appropriate grittiness level, generally keeping in the slightly-matured Avatar style but when it breaks out the on-screen death, it feels earned.

A more abstract merit is that it feels like the overall moment-to-moment quality has been improved. The animation dip from book two is largely overcome, though it still doesn’t look quite as great as book one. The characters have been developed enough that interaction between them is consistently engaging and hilarious. The fight choreography is also fantastic, particularly in Zaheer’s scenes. Tenzin’s big fight with him is an all-timer.

What gripped me most, though, is that Korra felt more like a real avatar – a legitimate hero – in this season than ever before. In book one she was still, to steal a phrase, a “half-baked avatar in training”. Book two was a bit of an in-between period, where she had more direct responsibility but was awkward at handling it, kind of like your first job after college. And this isn’t a problem, as stories looking at how someone performs at responsibility before they’re ready can be really engaging.

But in the finale of this season, as Tenzin thanks Korra for saving the Air Nation, I was really surprised by just how… in awe of her I was. Her selfless actions over the course of the season, particularly when she gave herself up to save the airbenders, felt like something that would be put down in the history books as one of the greatest achievements of her tenure. Despite all the damage caused, the most underappreciated aspect of this season is Korra’s maturation into a true avatar.

Not to follow the cliche review structure too much, but I do feel obligated to point out the one thing I didn’t like about book three, and no one is more surprised to hear it from me. I think Zaheer, particularly his ideology, is more of a weak link than people realize. Not so much in anything that he says, but in how the story handles it. Korra villains – well, really just Amon and Zaheer – have this weird thing where they have completely legitimate grievances but any path to engaging with their ideals just sort of falls apart. For Amon, it was that he was a total fraud and also a horrible terrorist that burned the city. For Zaheer, besides the fact that he’s a murderer, no one ever really debates him other than that one conversation with Korra. He’s like “the president and the queen really suck, right?” and Korra’s like “yeah I guess” and he’s like “right so we should kill them” and Korra’s like “what no” and that’s basically the last we hear of it. From then on, they’re fighting him as normal.

This is the trap that you always have to avoid with “good guys gone bad” villains. Unalaq, surprisingly, gets away from it a bit, as Korra decides to go along with his plan of keeping the spirit portals open. But as we move on to Book Four, the writers make a surprising decision to throw this whole good guy villain shit in the trash.

Korra Book Four

And it worked out fucking great, holy shit.

Never underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned fascist to give your villain role the oomph it needs. I remember when this season was airing, I was bracing myself for whatever monstrous thing Kuvira was going to do to corrupt her seemingly innocuous actions up to that point. Now that I’m a bit older, I’m seeing just how, for lack of a better word, YIKES her behavior is straight from episode one.

Not that this means she’s unsympathetic or unlikeable. In fact, part of what I think makes Kuvira the best Korra villain (yeah I said it) is how likeable she is. She has the capability to be eminently charming and can quickly make you forget just how bad her aims are. Real fascism doesn’t wear the face of terror when it can hide its intentions, if the situation demands it.

It’s for this reason that book four barely edges out book three as my favorite Korra season. Book three is more consistent overall, but it’s the villain, messaging, and bookending that really make the fourth season. Spawning from a story about fighting the imperialism of old, we’re ending with a story about fighting the imperialism of new. It’s pottery, it rhymes, etc.

This uniquely modern villain complements the overarching question of whether the world needs the avatar anymore as it moves into a new age, which in turn is intrinsically connected with Korra’s journey over the course of the entire show. Unlike Aang, her identity and self-image has always been tied up in being the avatar, and one thing that I appreciate is that it’s not just a single issue that arises with this. It repeatedly comes up, primarily in relation to whether she can do her duties and how she can live up to the world’s expectations.

I’m finding that, on a rewatch, I’m a bit more forgiving towards the inherent ridiculousness of the giant robot – but only just. Primarily, it passes a rule of cool test, as well as another test that there isn’t a TVTropes name for that I’ll call the rule of interesting. The first is that, well, giant robots are fuckin’ cool. I’m willing to suspend more disbelief if it’s something that’s inherently entertaining. The second is that it’s an interesting narrative device. More than an entire episode is fought fighting this mech, engaging with its various defenses with all manner of tactics. Its overwhelming force puts the characters in more and more extreme situations, showing us more of what they’re made of. Stretching the lore is, in my opinion, an acceptable price.

The final item of discussion is, of course, one of the more controversial ones – Korra and Asami. “Forced” is a word I see thrown around a bit, which if I’m being generous is an overreaction (if I’m not, it’s masked homophobia). I simply can’t see that adjective applying for something that was, at best, heavily implied in the literal final seconds of the show. The buildup was slight, yes, but it was definitely present, and arguably traceable to earlier seasons. It was pretty obviously decided upon later rather than sooner, but in all honestly I’m willing to tolerate more for the rare feat of portraying someone’s love life as something beyond a crash course towards a single destination.

There’s also the fair point that the creators might have wanted to do more, but were held back by network regulations and the ever-throttling tyrannical hand of Nickelodeon. The show was sadly left out to die in its final season, though I have to say the production values stayed pretty steady despite that, other than the higher use of CG for the mech suits in book four. It never reaches book one levels, but it’s well above average by anime standards.

And there we have it – the Avatar franchise. I close the seventh book content that it’s all still good, warts and all. Maybe not as perfect in some spots as we remember, but better in other spots than we thought. The question and hope that always lingers is whether we’ll get another. My answer to such questions is usually no, as I prefer a property’s good ideas to be carried on into a spiritual successor rather than milking the property. My answer here is… still no, but I think Korra proved that these sorts of continuations can be done, and they can be pretty great, if they’re willing to explore new ideas and piss off a stagnant fanbase in the process. It probably won’t be as good, but it can still be something great.

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