Monday, December 16, 2013

My disappointment with the Legend of Korra, Book Two

I loved the first book of Avatar: the Legend of Korra, so I didn't have to think twice about ordering the second book on iTunes. Unfortunately, the second book fell flat in many ways. There were some good moments, but overall the second book was a disappointment.

Spoilers below the cut! They're lengthy. Sorry, I needed to get this off my chest.

I will start with what is probably the worst aspect of the book. The characters are all suddenly jerks to each other. Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, and Lin spent the first book learning to trust each other, and now suddenly all that is thrown out the window.

One of the most satisfying relationships in the first book was between Korra and Tenzin, where they both learned to respect the other. Now suddenly Korra learns that Tenzin, not Aang, was behind the decision to keep Korra from the outside world for most of her life, and instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt and trusting that his heart was in the right place, she abandons him and takes on her uncle Unalaq as a teacher instead. Hadn't Korra already seen how much Tenzin cares about her?

Korra isn't the only person who is suddenly moody with little provocation. In one infuriating scene, Mako goes to Bolin to ask for his help, and Bolin completely refuses to help his brother, and for no better reason than that Bolin would prefer to relax and soak in his hot tub. These are two brothers who grew up on the streets with no-one to rely on but each other, and suddenly that relationship is worth less to Bolin than a soak in a hot tub?

I still feel bad for Bolin, though, because he spends almost the entire second book providing goofy comic relief. The worst are the times when he is interacting with his new girlfriend-of-sorts, Korra's robotic cousin Eska. Eska and Desna are twin brother and sister, and they look almost indistinguishable from each other. Both are powerful waterbenders and almost completely emotionless, with a few notable exceptions. Bolin's relationship with Eska seems to consist of her abusing him for comedic purposes, but it felt uncomfortable rather than funny.

After the first book concentrated on developing characters, some of those characters are barely in the second book. Asami generally follows along with the group as an ostensible member of Team Avatar, but she does not have much to do. She is trying to rebuild her father's company, but the story never delves into what that means to her. Lin Beifong is even worse off. She was one of my favorite characters in the first book, and she barely appears in the second. And I hope you weren't hoping for more scenes with General Iroh, because he has an even smaller role than Lin.

The second book's title is Spirits, but the way the spirits are presented makes it feel like not a lot of thought was put into how the spirit world should work. The spirit world functions as a sort of dream realm, where weird animal-like creatures live. These spirits sometimes turn bad and start attacking people.

All of the spirits in Avatar: the Last Airbender were unique and, more importantly, neither entirely evil or good. For instance, while Koh the Face Stealer was undoubtedly dangerous, Aang treated it with respect and gained valuable information from it. While Wan Shi Tong, the Great Library's guardian, seemed like a wise and calm creature at first, it lost its temper and became a dangerous monster when it found that Team Avatar had taken a scroll from its library.

Conversely, the spirits in Book Two of Korra seem to have two "modes:" their normal mode, where they are pretty much good, and an evil mode, which makes them become scary-looking and vicious. At some point we hear about how dark spirits represent chaos while light spirits represent order, and the world needs both to survive, but the plot of the book ignores that philosophy in favor of a much more simplistic approach where the dark spirits are bad and the light spirits are good.

Perhaps the writing was so poor because, while every episode in the first book was written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and directed by Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu, the second book was written alternatively by Tim Hedric, Joshua Hamilton, and Michael Dante DiMartino (without Bryan Konietzko) and directed by Colin Heck or Ian Graham. I don't know which of them is to blame, or if the blame should be shared all around or not applied at all, but I can't help but feel that the change in roles may have had something to do with the drop in quality.

To compound the problems with the story and the writing, the animation is substandard for the first half of the book. Unlike the previous book, which was entirely animated by Studio Mir in Korea, the first half of book two was animated by Studio Pierrot in Japan. Their animation is clearly lower quality, most noticeably in scenes where characters are talking and absolutely nothing is moving but their mouths. It was unnerving to see a show that once had such beautiful animation reduced to unblinking, waxen faces with chattering mouths.

The animation picked up in the second half of the book, where Studio Mir resumed its animation duties, and the writing got a little better, too, with more focus on Tenzin and less focus on people being angry all the time. There were some good parts to the book, like some unexpected cameos from old faces and anything to do with Tenzin. I even liked Bumi and Kya, Tenzin's brother and sister, who came across a little flat, but with some hints that they have room to develop in coming books.

I still care about these characters, which may be why I was so unhappy with this season. I still want to see what comes next. The first book of Korra was so good, and of course all of Avatar: the Last Airbender was top-notch, so I know the creators have it in them to make something great. I just hope they rediscover what that is.

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