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Tons of Potential and Some Good Moments, but Rushed Plot Threads and Characterization Make Korra One Frustrating Show to Watch
on February 18, 2014
As I know that most of the critical reviews tend to be dismissed as haters hating, I would just like to get some misconceptions out of the way. First of all, I love the world of Avatar and the world that BOTH Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra present. Honestly, I still am fascinated by the blend of technology and magic the world has to offer and I genuinely find the characters of both series intriguing and riddled with so much potential, it hurts; as it is, the moment with Bumi and Aang's statue is actually probably one of the most moving scenes from both series thus far, with a concept that is honestly, really down to earth and believable, and it is well done.
Amon to this day is probably my favorite Avatar villain and the voice acting, music, and animation remain top notch. For this season, there were two main studios that worked on the show, those being Studio Pierrot (episodes 1-6, and episode 9) and the studio that animated the first season, Studio Mir (the gorgeous, GORGEOUS Beginning episodes 7 and 8 (even if you don't watch the season, those two episodes are mandatory viewing for any Avatar fan), and 10-14). If you liked the music from the first season, then you'll continue to love the sound here. The sense of humor continues to make its self known--in particular, Bolin (in the earlier half, that is) and Tenzin both are hilarious standouts, and Bumi also has some funny moments.
So, as you can see, there are positives to the season, and yet the score is still a 2 out 5. As the title of the review suggests, there are some great moments, but it is not long before the negatives make themselves apparent. So, if you are willing to take a second and look at the product objectively, here they are.
To begin, let's focus on the story.
To recap, the season opens six months after the ending of season one, with Mako now being a part of the police force (where he assures us at the beginning of the season Chief Beifong believes he might make detective soon), Bolin now trying to make pro bending work with two new, less than skilled teammates (don't expect to see them very long, since pro bending is basically nonexistent this season, and given all that goes on, this was probably a good move), and Korra is still training with Tenzin, but still has time to goof off with his children. After the events of season one, she is capable of entering the Avatar State. Anyway, before she can head off on a trip with Tenzin's family (including the now retired Bumi, who has spent his time living on Air Temple Island) to visit the Air Temples, she and the gang (including Asami) head down to the South Pole for a festival; however, once they get attacked by Dark Spirits, Korra decides to train under her more-spiritually-focused uncle Unalaq to try and stop this threat.
That, in a nutshell, is just the first episode. The other plot threads throughout the season include but are not limited to:
-A Civil War among the Water Tribes (apparently they have only one chief, which is odd, given that in the original show, they had two. Perhaps when Pakku went to go reunite with the South, he took out its own governance? Then again, they never established that the South always had its own chief . . . regardless)
-the amazing fun that is Varrick and his war mongering scheme
-Jinora's developing spiritual side
-Tenzin's and Bumi's frustrations with living up to Aang
-Bolin's budding film career in a clever callback to World War II propaganda films
-Asami's struggles with business
-Mako's police work
-the political implications of the civil war for everyone else
-Korra's attitude and feeling attacked by everyone
-Unalaq and Tonraq's dynamic and falling out
-did I mention the Dark Avatar that comes up halfway through the season? The dark spirits honestly fall by the wayside by the second episode (at least until they get into the Spirit World; honestly, especially given the ending of the season and Korra's big decision, you'd think human and spirit relations would be more prominent, but nope; outside the Beginning episodes and Wan's conclusion that spirits and humans should live separately, that's all the development it gets until she somehow concludes Wan may have been wrong for reasons that aren't apparent or logically or even character-fitting).
As you can see, that's a lot of story threads to keep balanced and, honestly, to do most of it justice, it really should've been spread out across multiple seasons, which leads us to Korra's biggest problem: it tries to resolve almost all of these in 14 episodes, and as a result, the focus is so divided that almost none of the plot threads truly leads to really a satisfying conclusion. Most of these developments happen off screen anyway, so the amount the viewer is really invested in it is minimal: the civil war happens mostly off screen--we leave once the gauntlet's thrown and we return during a raid and Korra's father and her uncle having a showdown, but honestly, we don't have any idea if they ever really liked each other--the most we see of them before the war is being bitter and snarky with each other, so instead of being a moving, emotion-riddled battle, it just comes across as generic and could've been performed by anyone and the result and character growth would've been the same.
Which leads us to Korra: Book 2's second biggest problem: character depth and growth. It becomes quite clear in this season that the characters are being used as tools more than actual characters. Now, one may argue that that's all characters are: tools to channel a story, but the key is that we're not supposed to notice that. These guys are supposed to feel real enough that we get invested in them beyond them just being nicer than the bad guy, and that their actions have lasting consequences on each other like real people.
Now, I am aware that these guys have fascinating depth potential; season one showed us that well enough (not as well as the first Avatar series did, but that's neither here nor there), and there are some standout characters, namely Wan, Varrick and Bumi has his moments (earlier on; he does save our captured heroes later, but instead of being the soldier he claims to be, he more just bumbles into it for comedic effect, which is hardly growth, especially given that the guy had mostly just been comic relief up to that point anyway)--which is a shame, because between his relationship with Aang and his worst memory/experience (as seen in the Spirit World) lay the ground work for a compelling, fascinating character that he just doesn't get to show. At least the hints are there, which is more than I can say for all the character development that happened off screen: namely, Jinora and Korra. Then there is the category where no development happens. At. All.: Bolin and Unalaq, who quickly becomes such a generic villain, it's a wonder he wasn't store bought.
Jinora's discovery of her spirit powers and refining of them are both done completely off screen--the biggest hint we get of them is her looking over her shoulder in episode 2 and noticing the First Avatar's statue; next time we see her on her own, she's already playing with spirit bunnies. Of course, then, somehow given her personality of being serious (and now apparently more spiritual and knowledgeable than Tenzin), she gets herself separated from Korra because plot convenience, and then turns out to be the chosen savior/deux ex machina at the end. It comes out of nowhere, no one ever brings it up again, and it honestly is just baffling when it happens.
Next, we come to Korra: Korra, it is clear, the writers had a bit of difficulty with her character arc, as she seemed a little too put-together at the end of book one, what with her bending back and Mako now liking her and her new ability to access the Avatar State. So what do they do? Have her yell at someone at least once each of the 3 acts in the first few episodes; they try to come up with the reason that she feels so pressured by her responsibility as the Avatar, even though before that point, they didn't show us any new responsibilities or pressure--it opens with her racing Tenzin's kids on air scooters and then she gets to chat with Mako and go on vacation with Tenzin--it's fine if that is the reason guys, just have some evidence to back it up.
Naturally, her faith in Tenzin that accumulated over the course of season one is undone in one episode and any growth that she had in season seems to have been set back in favor of jerk Korra as she keeps insisting for people to treat her as the Avatar, but doesn't actually try to stay neutral in the slightest (she tries briefly in the civil war episodes, but that goes out the window when she threatens a judge herself versus, say, cop Mako "investigating") nor does she seem to respect her friends' advice. It honestly gets to the point that when she conveniently loses her memory (and gets it back two episodes later, except for the memory of her and Mako breaking up), it feels like she was replaced with a different protagonist. Clearly something happened to her inside the beast's stomach or through the revelations Wan shows her, but we don't get to see any of it nor does she apologize for her earlier behavior at all; it really doesn't feel like anything is learned, character-wise, and when a surprise cameo tries to give her words of wisdom, she had already been acting like she had it figured out after talking with Wan, making the cameo, as nice as it was, kind of pointless.
Now we have our favorite brothers: Mako, actually, for the most part, is pretty good except for falling back into the Asami and Korra love triangle again (it feels even more forced than it did in season one); Bolin, on the other hand . . . oh Bolin. As we've established, he becomes the comic relief . . . And. Nothing. Else.
Literally, almost everyone of his character moments is humor related; to the writers credit, he has one brief conversation with Asami in a later episode, but that is quickly forgotten as we watch Lin Beifong and the men who she apparently consider Mako's superiors (who aren't even skilled enough to be corrupt cops so much as incompetent idiots, which. . . contradicts their earlier behavior, but regardless, Lin Beifong really, REALLY does not look too good coming out of this season. Likewise, this is not a season for Asami fans, as she loses everything and NOBODY notices or really acts like they care--not even her.) do something stupid. Meanwhile, character growth moments like his first girlfriend (which, to be fair, was hilarious, even if it led to one of the most hypocritical moments I've ever seen when Mako tries to give him advice about how to break up with a girl (don't expect there to be any lasting consequences from Mako cheating on Asami in season one either)) is only played for laughs for almost the whole season, up until the last two episodes where it suddenly becomes a serious plot point out of nowhere and is quickly and painlessly written off by the end of the final episode so that any lasting emotional growth or development would be thoroughly squashed out and any real emotional implications for Eska about Bolin or even her father are shrugged off with all the weight of a loose scarf.
Even him finally moving out of Mako's shadow and getting his own place is just written for laughs--Mako, his brother and to some degree, his father figure, the guy he's lived with ALL HIS LIFE, and there isn't any actual emotion beyond "hey, he suspects Varrick of being a bad guy; it's this kind of crazy I'm glad I don't have to deal with at my own place." There isn't even a grudge or any emotion about Mako spending more time with Korra and the police versus playing pro bending; Bolin is apparently okay with being a third wheel for the first time in his life, nor did any of the years dealing and working for the Triads teach him how to identify a judge--I'm sorry if I'm ranting, but this is really, really a sore subject for me.
Suffice to say the list goes on.
There are moments where the brilliance of the show shines through the cracks between the clouds, but most of the time, the characters are thrown under the bus for the mess of a plot (which has more than few plot holes big enough to ride a sky bison through them, such as to how the dark spirits were even getting through to the human world before the spirit portals were open and how Korra survived her trip in a dark spirit's stomach.) and it makes me gnaw my teeth, because we know they can do it. They have done it with the first series, but because of their insistence on these season long story arcs, they have forced themselves to squish two-three seasons-worth of story and character development into one short package and the result is, honestly, a mess that, for all its positives, forces its characters to be so out of character or dumbed down both emotionally and in their so-generously-called-romances, to the degree that it is almost insulting to both the viewers and the cast themselves.
At least it looks and sounds pretty, and the Beginning episodes are pretty awesome.