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Fantasy Round 25: The Next Generation of Avatar

2014/04/25 1 comment

Avatar: The Legend of Korra is the ongoing sequel to Avatar: The Legend of Aang / The Last Airbender , which we talked about here before.  The series is being made by a team that includes some of the writers and animators for Legend of Aang and some new people.  There are plans at least 4 relatively short seasons, but only 2 have aired so far.  Having recently watched them, I have opinions.

Avatar Korra has finally found a situation where directing lots of material with bending is the appropriate solution to a problem.

Avatar Korra has finally found a situation where directing lots of material with bending is the appropriate solution to a problem.

The Good

Legend of Aang had a very extensive level-grinding aspect to the plot: Aang starts only knowing air-bending, then learns water-, earth-, and fire-bending in sequence at the rate of one per season.  And although there are some complexities to it, the Avatar’s task to restore balance to the world came down to “beat up this guy until he can’t beat up others”.

Legend of Korra has a very different plot.  Korra starts the first episode knowing all of the techniques of water-, earth-, and fire-bending.  While there is some plot around her learning air-bending, the bulk of the story addresses such things as the ethics of responding to terrorism and social unrest, the implications of a massively changed society to the role that Korra has been born into, and various complicated elements of the Avatarverse that were not addressed in the original series.  This is a great surprise to Korra, who starts the series with good intentions but a default strategy of bending-first-questions-later.  She learns otherwise quickly.

The changes to the world in the sixty years between the two series were also well-done.  In my review of Legend of Aang, I mentioned how the strict segregation of the Four Nations by element-bending skill bothered me.  They fixed that.  Most of the action in the series is centered around Republic City, where water-, earth-, fire-, metal-, and a few air-benders live and work together with a great many non-benders.  After some false starts, the city has its own local democratic government and is the central point of a new globe-spanning organization called the United Republic of Nations.

Korra in front of the Republic City skyline.

Korra in front of the Republic City skyline.

Legend of Korra is also appropriately updated from the just-post-Industrial-Revolution setting of Legend of Aang.  Rather than the thousands of years of near-stasis implied by the Avatar cycle, Republic City is now styled something like 1930’s Shanghai or New York or Hong Kong – except with bending.  There are large corporations working in cars, motorcycles, aircraft, radio, movies, bending sports, and clean lightning-bending power plants.  Many of the cops are metal-benders, a skill that was brand new during the original series, the better to deal with thieves skilled in using fast cars and chi-blocking.

And, in the second season particularly, we learn about the deep backstory of the Avatar universe.  In particular, where the giant lion-turtles that gave the Avatars and all other benders their powers come in.  Apparently, 10,000 years ago, the spirit world that was seen briefly in Legend of Aang and the world in which the humans in the story live were merged.  The humans fought the spirits, and survived only by working with the giant lion-turtles, who granted them bending (although not the ability to use it well) and safe locations for settlements in exchange for services.  The first Avatar, Wan, was a human who was cast out of a fire-bending city but kept the power that its turtle had granted him.  He survived by working with the spirits, and acquired different bending skills from other turtles by persistence and persuasion.  Then Wan interrupted an eternal struggle between a spirit of order and one of chaos, inadvertently releasing chaos and destruction on both spirits and humans.  So he partnered with the spirit of order, making an agreement to last for all reincarnated lifetimes and be a force for order and balance – in exchange for the spirit and human worlds being segregated

This gives some justification for the many thousands of years of near-stasis of the Avatarverse before Aang took the Avatar out-of-circulation for a hundred years: the spirit of order and balance was ascendent, and kept things from changing – for better or for worse.  Aang attempted to establish a new equilibrium; but the spirit of chaos gets the idea of also partnering with a human to create an inverse Dark Avatar.  Korra prevents total chaos and destruction, but only by ending a part of Wan’s compact and removing the barriers between spirits and humans.  This causes some serious changes to the world, which are to be the focus of the third season.

Two final good things about the series:

While nearly all the cast of the original series are dead (Katara takes over the role of grandmother), we still encounter Iroh, awesome mentor figure and tea enthusiast.  Apparently, Iroh has transcended the cycle of reincarnation that humans in the Avatarverse are normally subject to.  He spends his time in the spirit world, dispensing good advice to visiting humans and drinking the spirit world’s perfection of tea.  That was fun.

And, quite obviously, Korra is both an effective and complicated heroic character and also is a (young) woman.  Apparently, the show’s audience has not objected to this, and generally considers her an awesome character.  That’s good to see.  Also good to see: Korra is drawn as quite appropriately athletic for someone who spends multiple hours every day in strict physical training, and without the artificial shortness compared to the older characters that happened in Legend of Aang.

The Bad

One of the more powerful parts of Legend of Aang was the depiction of the relationship between Zuko, Azula, Mei, and Ty Lee; all nobles of the Fire Nation.  Zuko starts as the primary antagonist of the series, but does an appropriately-complicated shift of alliance from hunting Avatar Aang to helping him stop the Fire Nation from committing further atrocities.  Azula is Zuko’s sister.  In addition to fully supporting war crimes, she is physically and psychologically abusive to her brother and to her friends, Mei & Ty Lee.  Azula’s abuse of others is portrayed seriously and as the bad thing that it is, and Zuko’s and eventually Mei’s and Ty Lee’s escaping from toxic relationships with her is a key part of the development of all three characters.

Unfortunately, Legend of Korra does not treat abusive relationships well at all.  At one point in the second season of the show, Bolin, an earthbender who works with Korra, becomes romantically involved with Eska, daughter of the chief of the Northern Water Tribe.  She is verbally and physically abusive to him, and attempts to force him into marrying her.  This is treated as comedy, and as the beta-plot in the episodes that it features in.  That is massively uncool.  Here is another discussion of the problem.

Something similar applies to Varrick, trade-magnet-turned-media-mogul and conspirator in provoking a civil war within the Water Tribes.  His treachery and war-mongering are dealt with seriously, and he ends up imprisoned (although he eventually escapes).  But his horrifically exploitative and creepy treatment of his employees is played significantly for laughs.  Not cool.

The Complicated

As with Legend of Aang, there is a core group of characters centered around the Avatar, each of whom provides different skills, and the relationships between them are a major part of the plot.  We have Korra, Avatar-learning-on-the-job; Bolin, earthbender athlete and eventual movie star; Bolin’s brother Mako, firebender athlete and eventual Republic City cop; and Asami, non-bender expert driver and pilot who happens to be heir to the transportation company Future Industries.  It bothers me a bit that over the first two seasons of the show, every possible heterosexual romantic pairing of these four characters has been hinted at or canonical.  This is pushing the shipping a bit too much.  And it is also vaguely worrisome that all of the characters whose sexual orientation we know are apparently strictly heterosexual, even given the relatively small number of such characters.

Legend of Korra also addresses some complicated social issues explicitly.  Amon, the main villain of the first season, is a blood-bender who applies that skill to suppress other benders’ abilities to bend (much as Aang did before).  He exploits classism in Republic City to gain power.  Benders had used their skills to gain money/power, and then were colluding with one another to shut out many non-benders from the political process in the city.  The people thus disenfranchised were justifiably angered by this, and that anger was exploited by Amon and by various political and business leaders for their own ends rather than to relieve the oppression.  The analogies to real-life political situations are obvious.

Amon organizes a campaign of terrorism, injuring and killing many, kidnapping and removing the bending of various powerful figures who oppose him and his allies – including the chief of the Republic City police.  His eventual goal is to remove the powers of all benders in the city, including Avatar Korra.  Korra stops him by forcing him to expose his bending in front of his followers and convincing them that installing a deceiving and mass-murdering dictator is not going to resolve the social problems in the city.  He flees, is pursued by a former ally, and both are presumed dead at the end (no bodies found, but an impressive explosion at sea).

The government of Republic City is reformed in an at-least-somewhat more democratic manner; the other leaders of the terrorist campaign are tried and imprisoned; and Korra is able to restore bending abilities to people who had lost them.  But what struck me was what was not addressed in the show: the classism and social inequalities that allowed Amon et al. to acquire any support for a campaign of terror in the first place.  Simply having an election for a new president is not enough, and the social changes that would need to happen for classism to be far less of a problem would take time.  It would have been good to see the show address why terrorism happens, and how that can be avoided, as well as how to react to terrorism after it happens.

One final thought: The lion turtles have the ability to give humans who cannot bend the ability to do so, and at least one of them is wandering around the landscape.  Korra can restore bending to people whose bending abilities had been removed – can she also give that ability to others, and give bending to people who have never been able to bend?  And given that either Korra or the lion-turtle is willing to do so, why not give everyone who wants it the ability to bend whatever element?  It would have been one way to address the power differential between benders and non-benders that Amon was exploiting.

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Fantasy Round 22.6: Ghost Story

2014/04/17 Leave a comment

It’s time for another round of the Dresden Files, and this one is a doozy.

If you haven’t read this far in the series yet, don’t read this review.  The spoilers get increasingly large with time.

This is Dresden, checking out his gravestone. And there's that hat again.

This is Dresden, checking out his gravestone.
And there’s that hat again.

 

You Are Already Dead

In case you hadn’t guessed (or read the previous book), the story starts post-mortem.  Dresden has to learn his way around as a ghost.

The whole business is a mix of entertaining and deadly serious.  The reason why ghosts always look like they’re howling when they go through something?  It’s actually painful to move through objects.  Why are all the ghosts people actually notice, poltergeists?  Because only insane ghosts are capable of manifesting, being seen, and moving physical objects.  The previously seen rules about spirits being unable to cross thresholds and damaged by sunlight still hold.  Ghost dust appears again, and so forth.

However, we also learn that ghosts are, essentially, living memories — so Dresden has to relearn how to use his magics as a ghost.  There’s a lovely “oh crap” moment when he first realizes he can’t fling his usual Fuego.

That, and there’s the fact that he’s been sent back by an angel to solve his own murder.

Waldo Butters Rides Again

He’s back, and he’s still awesome.  Waldo Butters is our clever everydude.  In fact, while entirely lacking magical talent himself, he manages to end up with a couple of nice comments from Bob about his cleverness.  He helps Bob design devices that let Dresden be seen and heard by normal mortals, despite being, well, dead.

For bonus points, he and a friend pretend to be Wardens in order to stall a bad guy long enough to deal with him.  And does a pretty good job of pulling it off, at that.

Upheaval

Even though we don’t see the impacts on the mundane world, we get plenty of references to how the destruction of the Red Court of vampires has left behind a massive power vacuum.  The White Council is busy putting out a thousand brushfires, the Fomor and others are making various power-grabs, along with assorted other individuals trying to take advantage of the chaos.  I appreciate the inclusion of consequences that both make sense… and which have our protagonist kicking himself for not thinking of them.  Speaking of which…

The Ghost and the Unreliable Narrator

This is, in my opinion, one of the best aspects of the novel.

We’ve seen the use of the unreliable narrator before in the Dresden Files series.  (The most clear example being when the Queen of Winter had messed with Dresden’s mind, to prevent him from using his fire magic.)  However, this particular variant takes the cake.

The whole deal is explained near the end of the novel.  The answer to “who killed Dresden?” is… Dresden himself.  He hired Kincaid to shoot him, and then made Molly wipe his mind of what he had just done.  Why?  Because he thought that, as the Winter Knight, he would inevitably become a cold, unstoppable monster.

But, one of the Fallen had meddled, pushing him into do it, by saying seven words and making Dresden think they were his own thoughts.  So, an angel got to settle the score by saying seven more words.  (Of course, that angel was sneaky, and got Dresden to volunteer for the ghost deal.)

Regardless, Dresden has a big old “What the hell, hero?” moment.  He made a deal with the devil and took suicidal actions that damaged the sanity of his apprentice.  He’s not sure what else he would have done, but he realizes that what he forced Molly to do crossed a line.  And, in helping rescue her at the end, he helps to make that right.  A little bit.  Dresden’s help consists mostly of telling her to call the cavalry…

You Shouldn’t Have Left The Ectomancer With A Basement Full Of Wraiths

Oops.

This is one of the other aspects I like about the series — the characters are not static, and characters other than just Dresden get some pretty good character development.

Mortimer Lindquist is one of those characters.  He started out as a has-been medium whose powers had seriously faded.  Now, after a few separate appearances, he’s back to full strength as a world-class ectomancer.  He’s a small, bald and unimposing man.  He’s also really, really good at handling ghosts.

So, it makes sense that our villain would, in her hurry to try to take over Molly’s mind, forget about him.  Morty is pretty forgettable.

He still doesn’t like fights, but if you leave him with a whole bunch of wraiths… well.  If you’re a ghost, he can take you out.

The failure of the Corpsetaker is also believable.  Given the arrogance of the character and her great desire to possess someone as powerful as Molly, she overreached.  And she… overlooked a little detail.  It’s kind of annoying when a villain fails due to doing something dumb, but here, I can buy it.  Since it’s just one… small… mistake…

It’s Not Quitting Time Yet

Well, they never found the body… so you know what happens next.  He was, of course, only mostly dead.

So, thanks to Mab and Demonreach… and some mysterious magical parasite… he’s not dead.  And looks to recover.  And, with a hint from an angel, he knows that Mab can’t change who he is.  On to the heroics in the next novel!

That parasite, by the way?  I suspect it’s what’s been giving Dresden nasty headaches that have gotten a mention in a few of the previous books.  But we learn more about that in the next book — Cold Days.

Superheroes Round 11: The Winter Soldier

2014/04/10 Leave a comment

Captain America is back!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m a sucker for superheroes — especially the ones who are trying their best to be good people, as happens in the good portrayals of Superman.  This means that I also like new version of Captain America, since it’s dropped (and lampshaded) the anvilicious patriotism and swapped in some actual moral considerations.

Regardless, big spoilers follow.  Given the nice meshing of stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I may also drop spoilers for Agents of SHIELD as well.  You have been warned.

Yup, that's the Captain And no, he doesn't have a parachute.

Yup, that’s the Captain.
And no, he doesn’t have a parachute.

Read more…