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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: The Legend of Korra – Book 2: Spirits

Book 3: Change of The Legend of Korra just began airing this week, so it's only fitting that I have finally gotten around to reviewing Book 2: Spirits. In this second season of the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra and company are doing fine. Mako has joined the police force, Korra is working on Airbending full time, and Bolin... well, things kind of blow for Bolin, because he's stuck with a now much reduced pro-bending team. Tenzin has been relieved of his duties as a councilman following the establishment of a presidency in the United Republic of Nations, and now gets to spend more time with his family. His brother and sister, Bumi and Kya, are hanging around with him too, much to the airbender's chagrin. So, I suppose that everything is fine and dandy in the world of Korra... Yeah, ha ha, no. Korra and company decide to go to the South Pole on vacation, when Unalaq, Chieftain of the Northern Water Tribe, shows up and decides to mentor Korra in spiritbending. Korra, who for some reason is acting like a self-absorbed jerk like she was at the beginning of the last season, rejects Tenzin as her teacher and decides to train under Unalaq. Meanwhile, her father, Tanroq, is none to happy with any of this. What's the point of all this? I'll give you a hint: Unalaq isn't exactly a good guy, and he's got designs on getting power through opening a portal to the Spirit World. In a word, yeesh.

In the previous season and in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Spirit World was something of a mystery. There wasn't much clarity on how exactly it worked, or how to get to it. Aang usually went to it in moments of crisis or on the eve of important battles (as brilliantly lampshaded by Sokka in "Sozin's Comet Part 1: The Phoenix King"), but it was never really explored in depth. It's not easy to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, retaining the Spirit World as a source of mystery and suspense to be milked for a long time is the easy way out, but it's not the best way. Greg Farshtey of Bionicle once spoke of what he called the "Sizzle and Steak" rule. He said that presenting a really cool concept like Bionicle or the Spirit World made for a good attention-grabber, and also for a great story. However, the "sizzle" could only be maintained for so long before you had to produce the steak, that is, the fulfillment of the story. If you kept the sizzle going for too long, you could potentially burn the steak. In this case, the Spirit World is taken off the metaphorical grill a little haphazardly. It's not burnt per se, but it's about to fall off the plate. What I mean is that the topic of the Spirit World isn't treated with the mystery or reverence it deserves, with little time being devoted to exactly why what's going on is what's going on now. By that, I mean random spirit-monsters showing up to randomly fight Korra and company. Don't get me wrong, the Spirit World sequences have lots of the pop kung fu wisdom we've come to expect from this show and its predecessor, not to mention mystery and suspense, but it wasn't done in quite the way Airbender did it.

Another problem with Book 2: Spirits is the large cast. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we had the power trio of Aang, Katara, and Sokka, with the supporting characters and nominal villains of Zuko and Iroh. Toph and Azula were introduced later, not to mention the large ring of supporting characters. Here, we have Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, Pema, Tenzin's kids, Unalaq, Bumi, Kya,  Eska and Desna, and Varrick, plus Tonraq, Vaatu, Raava, Wan, and a handful of others. The regular cast has been doubled, but there's not nearly enough time to flesh them out more, and characters that totally deserve more screen time are kicked to the periphery, such as Lin Bei Fong, Iroh II, and old Katara.

It doesn't help that the characterization of these people is all over the map. Korra seems to have gotten Iron Man 2 Syndrome, in which the character, at the beginning of the second installment, totally rescinds her previous character development. She's an arrogant, self-absorbed jerkaholic. Small wonder she likes Mako so much. Thankfully, character (re)development kicks in about halfway through, and she's once again new and improved. Also notable in the area of character development are Tenzin and Bolin. Tenzin spends the entire season struggling with dredged up sibling rivalry issues with Bumi and Kya, while at the same time trying to live up to the legacy of his father, Avatar Aang. His arc manages to to come to a more satisfying conclusion than that of last season, which includes a deepened understanding of his relationship with Korra. Meanwhile, Bolin finds himself shoved to the sidelines as Korra is busy PMSing, Mako is brooding, Asami is engaging in shady business deals, and Tenzin is... on vacation? (Seriously, Tenzin could not have picked a worse time to tour the four Air Temples. They just had the first free elections in a world occupied by four hereditary monarchies, for goodness sake.) This allows Bolin to strike out on his own and be a hero in his own right, culminating in the pretty cool "Night of a Thousand Stars."

What does this season get right? Obviously, the show is visually gorgeous. Studio Mir and Studio Pierrot did a fantastic job animating the series, though of particular note is "Beginnings" Parts 1 & 2. These episodes show the origins of Wan, the first Avatar, and demonstrates a whole different artistic style. It's a very inventive tactic which harkens back to a similar effect used in the flashback portions of the dismal Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 1 episode "The Great Divide," only this time it was used on a much larger scale, with better execution, and a far greater result. In addition, the voice acting is superbly done, with Janet Varney, J.K. Simmons and the rest bringing out the characters and emotions in a worthy manner. I could go on to praise the sound, cinematic style, music, and other such things, but I will refrain, having no real, trained knowledge of such topics anyway. What I'm trying to say is that, technically speaking, much like the 1989 Batman film, there is nothing wrong with this show.

However, as visually beautiful as this particular season of Korra is, I still have some complaints about it. Sure, it's entertaining, but it is imperfect, falling far short of the standard set by Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even by Book 1: Air. My two main problems with Book 2: Spirits, similar in nature to the problems with aforementioned 1989 Batman film, are with the plotting and the villain. The plotting is a bit strained mainly because of the aforementioned spotty characterizations, but there are other factors. The plotting itself is torn in too many directions in the first half, and too few in the second half. We've got the Unalaq's Evil Plan plot, the Tenzin family vacation plot, the Korra and Company's Spirit World Adventures plot, the Asami and Varrick shady business deals plot, Jinora's Spirit World Adventures plot, the Tonraq's rebellion plot, and the terrorist bombing plot. All of these are resolved or blended together by "Night of a Thousand Stars," but then the second half tries to balance all of these characters doing one thing at once, and inevitably a few get left out, namely poor old Asami.

In the context of all this, we run into an even bigger problem: Unalaq. Bruce Willis once said that a story is only as smart as its villain. A story requires conflict to be interesting, even if there is no plot (see Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain). Therefore, the conflict, and thereby the plot, comes from the villain. This principle is called the Law of Bruce. In regards to this principle, Unalaq does fine, in that there's plenty of conflict. However, when we finally are given the scope of his plan, we aren't really given the whys and what-for's of his plan. Why does he want to unlock the spirit portals? Why does he want to merge with Vaatu? Why does he want to plunge the world into darkness and chaos? Why?! In a sense, Unalaq is just another crazed dictator who wants to rule the world who also wants to be Heath Ledger's Joker, and that's been done to death, resurrected, cloned, and then slaughtered all over again. At least Firelord Ozai was menacing and cool. Unalaq is just another villain, and Vaatu is almost as bad, though only less so because his entire shtick is based on being the manifestation of evil and chaos, so there's motivation for you.

In sum, while The Legend of Korra - Book 2: Spirits is admittedly entertaining and action-packed, it needs a bit of work. It's visually stunning and still pretty darn good for its genre, that genre being children's cartoons, but it's barely half as good as its counterpart from the original series, Book 2: Earth. The character arcs are sloppily arranged, the plotting is clumsily done, and the entire reason for the season's secondary villain doing his thing has a lot in common with a real life conspiracy theory which posits that a coalition of arms dealers worked to initiate the First World War. This is only fitting, given the historical tone the series is striving for, but I do wish they would have gone with real history. Korra continues to please, and I have high hopes for the next season, but I can't help but wonder if we could be getting something better. It was fairly good, but also disappointing.

RATING: 7.5/10

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