Review: "The Legend of Korra - Book Two: Spirits" Blu-ray (Mostly) Does the Thing
Book 2 of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra feels like a big good news/bad news joke. I am thankful that it exists at all, if only for being a long-form action cartoon when most other networks are retreating from the format, and for its distinctive female lead character. Like its predecessor, Avatar the Last Airbender, I also greatly appreciate the respectful appropriation of Asian culture, re-mixed to create a world that’s rich and deep and avoids the usual European elements that form the basis of nearly every other fantasy franchise. At its best, this season of The Legend of Korra is an awe-inspiring epic: a gripping, addictive drama that runs on a personal level and scales all the way up to its major, universe-shaking final threat. It also showcases some of the most textured, subtle, and fascinating characters on TV today in any show, live-action or animated, and fields complex answers to profound questions with great skill.
Unfortunately, at its worst, this season of The Legend of Korra also falls flat with inconsistent characterization; some of the flattest, most one-dimensional characters the Avatar universe has ever fielded; bungled teen romance subplots; and a few too many plot twists that do little but draw out the series longer. This season of The Legend of Korra can also manage to jump from the good side to the bad in the blink of an eye. While marathoning the entire season with the recently released Blu-ray set makes a lot of the long-game structure clearer, it does little to smooth out some of the season’s roughest edges.
This season is an exceptionally poor start to the world of Avatar and Korra; if you haven’t seen either, I’d suggest starting earlier. At the end of the first season of The Legend of Korra, Korra had finally managed to master Airbending and defeated the anti-bending threat of the Equalist sect in the Jazz Age metropolis of Republic City. At the start of Book 2, Korra is returning home to the Southern Water Tribe for an annual festival, standing with her father Chief Tonraq to meet with the chief of the Northern Water Tribe, Tonraq’s younger brother Chief Unalaq. Unalaq’s ominous warnings about the Spirit World out of balance with the real world soon come true, as dark spirits attack Korra, her father, and her mentor Tenzin, son of the last Avatar Aang and the only Airbending master left in the world. Tonraq and Tenzin are both shocked when Korra spurns their guidance and training in favor of Unalaq, whose bending was the only thing capable of pacifying the hostile spirits. However, it doesn’t take long before Unalaq reveals darker intentions, beginning with a military occupation of the Southern Water Tribe. Before long, Korra has started a civil war among the Water Tribes, but before long, all of existence itself is under threat.
There are a lot of things to like about this season of The Legend of Korra, starting with its startling sense of ambition combined with some of the best animation on American TV today. Magic martial arts fight sequences have always been a strength of Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, but there are also marvelously small, subtle, and beautiful moments of animation throughout this season. The most visible example is the tale of the first Avatar, a young man named Wan living in a far-flung era when people and spirits lived together in the world, though not always in harmony. The two-part episode is rendered in a deliberately flattened style that evokes Chinese landscape painting, complete with ink-paint backgrounds and highly stylized, non-representational effects. These elements of the human world are mixed with a menagerie of spirit beings straight out of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, all of whom come to vibrant life, especially Raava and Vaatu, the central spirits of Light and Darkness. The episodes are absolutely beautiful, reminding me a lot of the works of Te Wei and the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Add in yet another distinct musical personality courtesy of the Track Team and you get some exceptionally fine television that’s firing on all cylinders.
This season of The Legend of Korra also introduces Varrick, a mercurial businessman from the Southern Water Tribe who may be the Avatar franchise’s most fascinatingly ambiguous character yet. At first, he seems like an oddball combination of Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs, and Andy Kaufman, and his flamboyant animation is matched by John Michael Higgins’ enormously entertaining vocal performance. I hesitate to say he grows depth in the traditional sense as the season goes on, but he is certainly not all that he seems to be initially, and proves to be a fascinating addition to the cast. He is certainly the one who gives hope and purpose to Bolin, the dimmer Earthbending brother of Korra’s boyfriend Mako; and to Asami, the industrialist daughter of one of last season’s villains and romantic rival with Korra for Mako’s affections. The audience is kept as baffled and off-guard by Varrick as the characters on the show, and I truly hope we get to see him return soon. Other wonderful new additions to the cast include Tenzin’s brother and sister, Bumi and Kya, who nicely capture different aspects of their parents’ personalities and whose affection and sibling rivalry is one of the more entertaining aspects of the season. Some late season twists also bring back some familiar faces, some good and some bad, but all pleasant and entirely fitting surprises.
Unfortunately, the upsides to The Legend of Korra Book 2 come with non-trivial downsides, most of which center on the core cast. While Varrick becomes more interesting as the season goes on, Unalaq actually becomes less interesting the more we learn about him. He’s a disappointingly flat, one-note villain by the end of the season, whose only purpose is to be taken down as the season’s Big Bad. This is especially surprising considering the nuance that the first season of The Legend of Korra gave its major antagonists, while Avatar the Last Airbender gave Firelord Sozin understandable motivations for his monstrous actions and even managed to give interesting textures to a character as overtly evil as Azula. Disappointingly flat caricaturing also marks two Republic City’s detectives whose major purpose is to make Mako’s life miserable as he investigates events in Republic City that are fanning the flames of the Water Tribe civil war. These two detectives are blithering idiots played more for comedy, but Chief Lin Beifong (sadly sidelined this season) accepts their word too easily over trivialities. This makes her look unduly idiotic as well.
More seriously for Mako, watching the entire season in a short span of time reveals exactly how superfluous he is in the grand scheme of things. He and Korra are separated early in the season, after which he has no impact on her subplot. He is similarly ineffectual in the subplot involving his brother Bolin. His involvement in Asami’s subplot undermines her character, turning her into a damsel needing rescue (in both cases, from men). The only thing he does this season is live a charmed life as the object of affection for the series’ two main female characters, Korra and Asami, when he does precious little to deserve either character’s attention. It’s even worse when he manages to treat both even more poorly than he did in the last season. If he were shunted off-stage in the first or second episode, I think this season would have been better for it. As noted, Bolin and Korra’s plots would be largely unaffected, and Asami would have had much more to do than have men to bail her out and drive things. It’s especially disappointing to see Asami treated so trivially when Avatar built its reputation in no small part on interesting, dynamic, and active female characters like Katara, Toph, and Azula, and this entire series is predicated on puncturing conventional wisdom about female leads in action series.
Worst of all, Korra herself suffers from serious problems in her character arc. While Korra grew and changed significantly in the first season of the show, at the start of this one she seems even more petulant and immature than she did before. The creators have stated on multiple occasions that Korra has season- and series-long character arcs, but she seems to have been artificially regressed at the start of this season. It’s as if her struggles and failures last season not only failed to teach her any humility, but gave her even more arrogant swagger, making her less sympathetic right off the bat. The creators have cited Aang’s unpleasant behavior in the middle of season 2 of Avatar as comparable, but there was a clear inciting incident that triggered that behavior, making it something we could empathize with. He was also 12, so his behavior was more understandable in light of his unfinished emotional development. Given his unique circumstances, it’s also easier to envision how the inciting incident would have an outsized effect on him. Korra can make none of these claims, and the justifications provided by the crew in commentary tracks on these Blu-rays is plausible, but also out of left field because we get no hint of any of that background. This is in sharp contrast to Bolin’s bad behavior once he falls under Varrick’s sway instead of Mako’s; the first season established Bolin’s poor sense of judgment in episode 3 when he’s fallen in with gangsters mere minutes after striking out on his own. By the time Korra is making public death threats to a standing judge, she’s moved from being appealingly cocky to an irrational bully. It gets even worse later when she channels her inner Jack Bauer, and I really wish pop fiction would acknowledge the many, many reasons why professional military and intelligence interrogators don’t use Jack Bauer’s methods (to the point where the show earned a visit from active-duty military and FBI interrogators to ask the producers to tone it down). There is enough ambiguity and uncertainty in the situation that make her choices difficult, but it feels like her behavior is written to create the situation rather than the other way around. Her behavior (and thus her story arc) improves immeasurably once the season passes the halfway mark and her quest truly starts in earnest, but it’s very hard feeling much sympathy for her before then.
As a final note, this season seems to suffer a bit more from pacing issues. Part of it might be the near-overwhelming number of subplots running throughout the season, combined with several trips back and forth between the real world and the Spirit World. The three episodes that form the finale feel longer than they need to be, even if they do provide a suitably epic final confrontation to cap off the season.
Most of the criticisms above would be acceptable on their own, but taken in total, they drag the series down in ways that are impossible to ignore. They’re also even more frustrating in light of the many, many things that the series does right this season. On balance, the good parts of The Legend of Korra Book 2 outweigh the bad, but there’s a lot more trouble in this season than there has been in the past.
There are no complaints about the Blu-ray presentation of The Legend of Korra Book 2. I don’t see any problems with the 1080p video presentation, and the 5.1 DTS-HD audio packs real punch during the season’s many action sequences. As with the Book 1 release, most of the bonus features are on the Blu-ray, with the real treasure being the commentary tracks for all 14 episodes in the season. Series co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko participate in all of them, with co-executive producer Joaquim “Dr. Not Just About the Fights” Dos Santos appearing on many of them as well. Other participants include series writers Tim Hedrick and Josh Hamilton; Track Team members Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman; supervising producers Lauren Montgomery and Ki-Hyun Ryu; and directors Ian Graham and Colin Heck. All the commentary tracks make for fascinating listening, with little dead air and a ton of behind-the-scenes information about the series (in between some genial goofing off with each other). Some of this material gets recycled for the shorter featurette “Inside the Book of Spirits,” making it less essential if you’re willing to sit through the commentaries. Two other featurettes, “Kindred Spirits: Tenzin’s Family” and “Feuding Spirits: Korra’s Family” are OK, but don’t really communicate anything that isn’t already visible on-screen. “The Re-telling of Korra’s Journey” is a 30-minute highlight reel from the first season to refresh your memory (or, in a worst case, get familiar enough with the show and its characters to start this season cold). Finally, 15 episodes get “scene bendings,” which show the animatic reel for key scenes. It’s always fun to watch the animatics for fans of the medium, and I’m struck at how closely the final animated footage matches the animatics in this show.
The Legend of Korra Book 2 isn’t bad, but it is a noticeable step down from the first season and from Avatar the Last Airbender. In the end, the journey is still worth it, despite whatever rough edges this season has.