Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bending the Rules

Legend of Korra's second series ended this week with a pretty great double episode, but it brings up something that we really need to talk about. As such, expect massive spoilers from this point on.

It's been obvious for a while now what this series was leading up to. They revealed that the Avatar was created by the melding of a human and the Spirit of Light, they introduced an equal and opposite Spirit of Darkness, and they had a human working with and trying to free that spirit. There was only one logical place this setup was going: a Dark Avatar.

When, sure enough, Korra's pantomime-villain of an uncle merged with the evil spirit Vaatu, his eyes burning with the familiar (yet evil) power of the Avatar State, it looked like this finale was going to be epic.
And it was epic, insofar as it became a giant-monster fight for some reason. That harbour battle (weird bit with Jinora not withstanding) was probably the perfect ending for the series, with Korra finally connecting with her spiritual side and learning to cope without the Avatar State. But the preceding fight, where the two opposing Avatars clashed as equals, felt lacking somehow. Something was off, but I couldn't quite figure out... wait, why is Unalaq only bending water?
Oh. Oh no.

The problem - and it took me far too long to realise this - is that the word "Avatar" no longer means what we think it means.

For three years, Last Airbender opened with Katara's voiceover saying, "Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them." When you say "Avatar", that's the definition that comes to mind. That's what the show and the world it created were about. Naturally, it's the same definition that comes to mind when you say "Dark Avatar", too. But, as this finale made painfully clear, that's not what it means any more.

We've been told from the beginning that the Avatar was also an important spiritual figure - the Bridge between Worlds. This series of Korra, Book Two: Spirits, aimed to explore and focus on that side of the character, which is admirable because its not something we've really seen before. This all came to a head in Beginnings, a big two-part episode set ten-thousand-years in the past, which showed us the origins of the first ever Avatar.
I explained last month how I found Beginnings both wonderful and deeply problematic - but this finale, and the way it treats the Dark Avatar, shows that the problem is much worse than I thought:

Beginnings, and this whole second series of Korra, actually separates the spiritual and physical aspects of the Avatar into two different things. The Avatar is no longer a spiritual being who can bend all four elements - the Avatar is now a spiritual being, and also someone who can bend all four elements for totally unrelated reasons.

The worst part is that "Avatar", as a word, now only seems to refer to the spiritual, glowy-eyed part of that equation. The physical part - the bending all the elements part - does not fall under that umbrella.
Wan, the first Avatar, could bend all of the elements before he became the Avatar. Every Avatar since has inherited this skill from him as a side-effect, but it actually has nothing to do with being the Avatar. In theory, there's no reason the Avatar should necessarily be a bender at all.

In practice what it means for the story is that when Unalaq, a waterbender, becomes the Dark Avatar it has no effect on his bending. It doesn't grant him the power over all four elements, as any sensible person might have expected it to, because that's not actually what "Avatar" means any more. Unalaq is still just a waterbender, albeit a very strong one with glowing eyes.
After a whole series of building up to this ultimate villain, Korra's equal and opposite - the yin to her yang - is nothing of the sort. He's just another super-bender, like the Firelord or the bloodbenders from last series. He may be an Avatar in name, but he certainly doesn't feel like one.

If this new definition of "Avatar" had already been established - if Beginnings had occurred in a previous series - then fine. They'd be stuck with it and they'd have to work around it, with their Dark Avatar limited to just one element. But it wasn't! This series was all planned together as a whole - meaning they chose the Dark Avatar as the villain, and chose to substantially weaken that villain by redefining "Avatar" at the same time. That means it must have been a conscious decision to make things work this way - and it's a decision I do not understand at all! It utterly cripples this finale, and it undermines the rest of the show.
Unalaq is supposed to be a dark mirror of Korra herself, showing us how easily her powers could be used for evil, and how devastating that would be - but that powerful theme is lost because he doesn't actually have her powers. Plus, far more importantly, their fight would have been so much more awesome if Unalaq had been using all four elements. As it was, the battle was far too short and offered nothing we hadn't seen before. It was disappointing, basically, when there was absolutely no reason for it to be.
I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the fight. It was fun, it was dramatic, it was exciting. I just didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as I could have.

This whole thing makes no sense to me. I don't understand why you would even include an evil Avatar if it's not only a version of the Avatar we're unfamiliar with, but not even one we'd associate with the word. Calling him that sets up certain expectations and, in the case of most viewers, I'm guessing those expectations involved bending more than just water. When he didn't do that, what else could we feel but disappointment?
They could have called him something else - the Dark Vessel, say, or the Dark Prophet - and then there would have been no problem. But no, they called him "Avatar", which instantly brings four series' worth of baggage and expectations with it. Unalaq simply doesn't live up to those expectations. It's like they made it disappointing on purpose.

From the perspective of the writers, I cannot fathom the reason for any of this. They chose a potentially incredible villain, with thematic weight and a plethora of elemental powers; then they stripped him of those things, keeping his name but not much else. In doing so, they've forever bent the meaning of the mythology's central concept - they've entirely changed what it means to be the Avatar - and I don't see a single upside to any of that.

On the other hand, from an in-universe story perspective, I understand the reason all too well. What exactly is the reason Korra can bend all the elements, where Unalaq cannot? Why, it's because of those bloody lion-turtles. It always is.