The bending arts are ancient practices that have been passed down for countless generations. Every now and then, people make new breakthroughs, like bloodbending or metalbending, but based on what we’ve seen of Aang’s and Korra’s training, learning to bend the elements is steeped very much in tradition. Hell, there was a whole episode in the third season of Avatar: The Last Airbender devoted to Aang and Zuko learning how to master “true” firebending, an art that seemed lost. But as I noted in my last review, the world has changed drastically in the 80 years between shows. Do these ancient arts still have a place in a more “modern” society?
“A Leaf in the Wind” addresses the question of old vs. new and, true to the world of Avatar, answers that it is not a matter of either/or, but one of balance. They both have their place in the world, even if advocates of both sides try to deny this. The episode is divided among two primary locations: Airbender Island, home of Tenzin and his family, and the Pro Bending Arena in Republic City, where a popular sporting event is played. On the Island, Tenzin tries to teach the impulsive and headstrong Korra the ancient art of airbending through meditation and non-contact exercises. Unfortunately, Korra has always been focused on action, so the meditation bores her, and when she is put through a training exercise that requires her to move through large spinning panels without touching any of them, she ends up using a fire blast to destroy them. It doesn’t help matters that failure only frustrates her, which only drives her further from the peaceful mental state needed to airbend.
Tenzin, supposedly a master of the patient art of airbending, begins to lose his patience with her, driving her to disobey his orders to stay on the Island. Hoping to finally see a live Pro Bending match, she sneaks into the arena and meets Mako and Bolin, who, based on all of the pre-release footage and statements, will become her companions throughout the series. The game represents a new style of bending, used for recreation rather than working or defense. Each team is comprised of three benders: water, earth, and fire. Because this is Korra’s show, she eventually finds her way on to Mako and Bolin’s team, and although she is clearly an excellent bender, she falters here too. The game is too structured for Korra, and when she acts in ways that would be beneficial in a fight, she is penalized in the game for breaking the rules. Old style or new, Korra’s problem remains her stubbornness and inability to leave her comfort zone.
One other important note about old vs. new is the element of air’s place in the world. Republic City is very integrated, with benders of the three non-endangered elements living and working side-by-side. Mako and Bolin are brothers, but each is a different type of bender. But with the exception of Tenzin and his three children, there are no airbenders. I started to wonder if the new balance created after the end of the war didn’t properly account for the fact that air is an endangered element. Even Korra began to question whether learning airbending was essential to being the Avatar. Of course, by the end, Korra realizes that air does have a place, and redoubles her efforts to learn it, with Tenzin realizing that he needs to be less stubborn himself and conform his training to fit Korra’s strengths.
Last night, I was out with a friend of mine, who had been invited to go see The Hunger Games, but refused. She asked me what I thought of the book, and I tried to explain that, while it had definite problems, it is still extremely enjoyable. I later expanded by writing her this:
In my opinion, much of what makes The Hunger Games good is the emotion and the allegory in theory if not the allegory in execution. Suzanne Collins wanted to write a story condemning our society’s voyeurism and indifference to violence. On the surface, she succeeds, but if one takes a step back from the very emotional and thrilling story, it’s clear that she didn’t quite think everything through. But it almost doesn’t matter because of said emotional and thrilling story. (From here, I will address some plot points, so if you don’t want to know anything, stop reading here.)
The set-up for the story is that, a few centuries in the future, some great catastrophe destroyed the United States, and from its ashes came a new nation called Panem. It was originally comprised of a capitol city (called the Capitol) and 13 surrounding districts. Life outside the Capitol was awful; people lived in poverty and barely had enough to eat, while they served as a labor force for the Capitol, whose citizens lived in luxury. The districts tried to rebel, but the Capitol won. It destroyed District 13 and crushed the other 12. As punishment, it created The Hunger Games. Each year, every district would have to offer up two children, between the ages of 12 and 18 (chosen by lottery) to compete in a televised death match. The Capitol treats the Games like a great event, and claim that being selected to participate is a great honor, a fiction that some of the districts buy into. But in reality, it’s just a way for the Capitol to remind the districts that even though they have greater numbers, the Capitol still has enough power over them to force them to give up their children to die horrible deaths.
Where this breaks down is Collins doesn’t do enough to show how the Capitol can do this. It’s clear that many people hate the Games and see right through to their true nature. The Capitol needs to ensure that a significant majority buys into the fiction of the Games, otherwise they will only drive people to revolution, not enforce submission. Also, based on how life in the Capitol is portrayed, it seems unlikely that they could muster up enough strength to quell a rebellion. There are 12 districts and 1 Capitol, and the people of the districts work hard and develop skills that the citizens of the Capitol, who know only luxury, could never hope to have. On the other hand, the Capitol has lots of money and advanced technology, which the districts don’t have.
Fortunately, the story is told so well that these problems don’t immediately become apparent. The story is told from a first person perspective, and Collins does a great job of expressing all of the protagonist’s emotions. Her hatred, her fear, her desire are all very palpable, which makes the scenes in the Games arena all the more powerful. And her goal in satirizing reality TV and our culture of violence is a noble one. Why do we watch reality TV? To see people be awful to each other and/or to feel better about ourselves by seeing people whose lives are worse than our own. As a society, we also have become very desensitized to violence, and the news that multiple soldiers or “enemy combatants” have died doesn’t really shock us. (Although, based on the Trayvon Martin killing, I think it’s safe to say that the Joker had a point with his “nobody freaks out when things go according to plan even if the plan is horrible” speech in The Dark Knight.) The idea of people watching kids kill each other combines the two ideas and takes them to their logical extreme. (Unfortunately, another place the allegory fails is why people watch the Games; it is mandated by law, so people aren’t doing it because they are deranged, they are doing it because they have to.)
The book is very emotional and very gripping. Like I said, the ending was a huge punch in the gut to me, but because of an emotional plot point rather than because of a death. The story isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, but while you’re reading it, you will never not be entertained.
Seventy years after Avatar Aang mastered three of the four elements in the course of three seasons to help return balance to a world at war, we are reintroduced to the world of Avatar at the Southern Water Tribe. Aang has been dead for a few years, and the search for the new Avatar has not yet yielded his successor. The Order of the White Lotus skeptically asks two Southern Water Tribe parents why they believe their daughter is the new Avatar, and the response comes in the form of a pint-sized girl shooting fire and yelling that she’s the Avatar, and they’ll have to “deal with it.”
Yes, right off the bat, we learn that this new Avatar is nothing like Aang, just as by the end of the episode, we know that The Legend of Korra will be nothing like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Where Aang was spiritual and sought enlightenment, Korra is impulsive and hotheaded. Aang was reluctant to be the Avatar, Korra wants nothing more. Aang was worldly, Korra is sheltered. Aang began his series knowing only airbending, and struggled to master the rest. Korra begins her series knowing everything but airbending, and bending comes naturally to her. It’s worth mentioning that we see her bend fire before we see her bend water. As we learned in the previous series, most Avatars struggle with their opposite elements, and as a Water Tribe native, fire is Korra’s opposite. However, the two share something in common: They each learned of their status as the Avatar before they turned 16, which, as we were lead to believe in Avatar: The Last Airbender, was a big departure in how the Avatar was trained. With Aang, he learned about his nature early due to the clearly approaching Fire Nation war. Now though, a lot about the world has changed.
The first act of the episode evokes the previous series, beginning in the Southern Water Tribe, having Katara act as a liaison between the old characters and the new, introducing new members of the Order of the White Lotus, and showing Korra learning a new bending art. But things are clearly different than how we’d left them at the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender. For one thing, Korra’s bending masters come to the south pole to train her, rather than her traveling the world to learn the bending arts in their native nations. Many of the changes seem to be to protect Korra. Katara and the other masters state that Korra needs to be protected while she learns about the four elements, and while no reason is given yet, I am guessing it’s because airbending is an endangered art, and precautions must be taken to ensure the art isn’t lost. In addition, a comment from the wife of Aang’s son Tenzin suggests that some non-benders are getting fed up with the benders of the world. Her words suggest that she’s tired of putting up with young, out-of-control airbenders, but her tone says something else.
That sentiment comes back once Korra arrives in Republic City, the capital of the new fifth nation created by Aang and Zuko after the war. The new nation rose up from the Fire Nation colonies and was meant to be a place where everyone of the world – non-benders and benders from each of the four old nations – could live together in harmony. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of the founders, those intentions are easily corrupted with time. The balance is slipping, as an anti-bending faction begins to rise. The Equalists, as they are known, claim that they have been reduced to second-class citizens, but whether this is true remains to be seen. What we do know is that Republic City is a dangerous place, complete with a strong mafia presence, a homelessness problem (which utterly baffled Korra), and slums. What’s more, the people clearly don’t have the reverence for the Avatar that most of the villages in the previous series had. After a tussle with some mafia goons leads to extensive property damage, the cops pursue Korra in addition to the goons. And not two minutes after the words “vigilante justice” cross my mind, Police Chief Lin Bei Fong, daughter of Toph, accuses Korra of being a vigilante whose proper course of action would have been to call the police.
Republic City, and the world at large, has advanced greatly beyond what we saw in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cars, radios, megaphones, and zeppelins exist now, meaning that the world has probably moved past many of the things it relied on before. Will The Legend of Korra explore a world that has moved past needing an Avatar? Clearly, Aang and Toph wouldn’t have claimed that the Avatar should be above the law, but it’s almost certainly just as clear that neither of them would have advocated arresting the Avatar for genuinely trying to help people in trouble. Based upon the pilot, Legend looks to be a bit of a deconstruction of Last Airbender, examining how a world with superpowered and non-superpowered people could live together and how people would react to a nearly all-powerful person acting apart from any governing entity to keep the peace. This show also looks to be a lot more political than its parent; in one scene, Tenzin and Chief Bei Fong, who are both members of the governing body of Republic City, speak. It’s clear from their interaction that they really don’t like each other, but they play nice, because they know that they have to work together. These are all very good things. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a great show, and it did explore important themes and had very complex characters. But it was definitely a show about a savior uniting a world at war. The Legend of Korra looks like it will be much different, exploring a world supposedly at peace but on the brink of revolution. How do the people of this world interact when there isn’t a war creating a common enemy? How do people live their lives in peacetime?
These themes are more than enough to keep me coming back week-to-week, but that isn’t to say this episode was flawless. There was a lot of clunky exposition, especially in the scenes at the south pole, and some of the dialogue amounted to narration. (Case in point: when Korra fights the mafia thugs, the bystanders narrate the battle for the audience.) In addition, some of the voice actors aren’t too strong, but I can’t remember any characters in particular who sounded poor, so for now, this problem seems relegated to background characters. Janet Varney as Korra did a good job with her material, and J. K. Simmons as Tenzin was fantastic.
Overall, this was a strong enough opening episode. Avatar: The Last Airbender casts a long shadow, which is reflected in the image of the large statue of Aang inspiring awe in Korra, but the pilot for The Legend of Korra does enough to make me believe that even if this show doesn’t surpass its predecessor, it will tell a fantastic and original story.