Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Trouble with Villains: A review of Legend of Korra

So, despite everything and probably just due to my attachment to Avatar: The Last Airbender, I have persisted in watching The Legend of Korra. I try not to go all nit-picky over cartoon shows, but when I consider the following and praise the creative team behind this show has, I feel that something has to be addressed. I’ll start by saying that the animation and production behind the show is top notch. The voice acting and music are wonderful and, at least aesthetically, this show remains a joy to watch. The same cannot be said for the writing. So here we go…

In the first season, we had a villain called Amon who spearheaded a movement called the Equalists. They claimed that every single war and hardship the world had seen was directly or indirectly the result of warring benders, who get privileged positions in society and industry. This claim is objectively true: if there were no benders, there would not have been such wide-scale devastation, and most figures of authority are indeed benders. Now, instead of having at least one sensible equalist character who just wants to see sanctions and reforms put in place to limit the amount of privileges that benders get and level the playing field for non-benders, we basically get a stereotypical angry mob, an Amon-cult, wherein Amon takes people's bending away and hyperbolises like a baptist preacher. To add insult to injury, it turns out Amon had bending after all and he was evil because daddy issues etc. Once he's defeated, the whole equalist movement is somehow discredited and conveniently disappears overnight. But hey, don't worry! We've got a muggle president now! See? No bias! Never mind that he's a gullible idiot.
With Book One, the dilemma presented was purported to be no longer simply good vs. evil, as in Aang vs. Ozai. We had a complex political issue here: equality and privilege. However, by writing the season the way they did, the writers not only made equalism have a point, but basically dropped the hot potato and reverted back to the earlier, safer dichotomy. Amon was just evil. Don't question it, kids.

Book Two saw an even lazier return to that dichotomy, by having Korra's uncle and corrupt politician Unolok turn into giant evil demon man and battle it out Godzilla-style over the city. Nothing much else of importance happened, aside from a terribly written love triangle sub-plot.

Now, Book Three has just finished, and saw the writers inexplicably try to address the thorniest of subjects: anarchy and terrorism.
A group called the Red Lotus was introduced, represented by four characters which – either through design or accident – had more charisma and appeal than the four main protagonists had over the whole 3 seasons.
Their agenda is as follows: create a world without world leaders or national borders, where every man and woman is the master of his or her own destiny. This is said by the group’s main guy Zaheer and is the very heart of any basic anarchist philosophy. Some may see it as utopian, others as romantic. It’s a philosophy I happen to strongly agree with.
 Now, at no point are these red lotus members presented as hypocrites, like Amon, or generically corrupt like Unolok. They are sincere in their beliefs and genuinely care about each other as friends and lovers. This presents a problem for the writers: how can they make these people look evil?
 Thus, a return to the Legend of Korra’s trademark tactics: when all else fails, be lazy.
What do the writers have the anarchists do? They have them murder a world leader, the Earth Queen, on screen.

 As misrepresentations of anarchy go, this has to be one of the biggest doozies. All that was missing was a moustache to twirl, a lit bomb and a cape. Now I’m not denying that there are trains of anarchist thought that support murder, specifically of authority figures. Similarly, I don’t deny that there are self-proclaimed egalitarians who just want to get rid of their oppressors violently (Amon and equalists). What I cannot stomach, is that this is the only representation of anarchists we are shown in the Avatar world. Within the lexicon of the show, anarchy now equals terrorism and murder. Their legitimate – or at the very least thought-provoking – ideals are pushed aside. Zaheer is just crazy, kids. Don’t question it.
 But it doesn’t end there. Because of the decision to show tender, human moments with the members of the Red Lotus, it seems as if the writers are trying to have it both ways: these are the villains. You’re supposed to hate them, but also kind of feel sorry for them, I guess? What was the point of showing that Zaheer and the firebender P’Li are deeply in love, if her death – she’s murdered by Lin’s sister, by the way – is barely shown and casually glossed over and forgotten in the space of a few minutes. The death of the Earth Queen – a loathsome character – is shown in all its grotesque glory, and presented as the ‘worst thing to happen ever’ as it leads to, you guessed it, angry stereotypical mobs taking over the Earth Nation capital and burning it to the ground in approximately 30 seconds flat. There are three murders in this season (I forgot to mention how near the season finale's end, Mako quickly murders the water-bender Ming-hua by electrocuting her): gone are the days when you’d have a main character abhor violence or just try to find another way to save the world without having to kill people. Now violence is a tool, a means to an end… but hey! That’s what happens when the writers dig themselves into a hole and are too lazy to find a better or more original way out of it.
Of course, many have defended the show, saying that it’s not intended for kids, but for the adults and teenagers who watched Aang’s series. Fair enough. But are teens and adults any less impressionable than children. Does that excuse the disastrously poor writing and fundamental misrepresentation of political and philosophical ideas? I think not.

I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll finish with a thought: for a season entitled ‘change’, there seems to be very little, and none of it for the better. The writers still seem incapable of writing any kind of conflict besides a very basic good vs. evil, and thus drag any misguided attempt at ‘shades of grey’ depth back down to the simplest black and white. The show remains essentially conservative in its ideology and structure, despite all attempts to suggest otherwise, both within the story and outside it. Until I see some real change, in quality, I think I’ll give up on Legend of Korra.
 I’d recommend Steven Universe. That show is fantastic.
Thanks for reading.

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