With The Legend of Korra set to officially debut in a little under a week I have been going down memory lane with Korras predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show originally ran from 2005-2007 completing 3 seasons and 61 episodes. Looking back it’s kind of shocking that it has taken half a decade for a sequel to be made.
My introduction to Avatar didn’t happen when the show originally aired. I was 14 back in 05 and at the time and Nickelodeon had lost much of its coolness from the late 90s to early 2000s, the same was happening to Cartoon Network. My tastes simply weren’t in the realm of cartoons the History Channel was my cable TV home.I did still watch cartoons but they were old and newer stuff was cheap anime crap that wasn’t really memorable.Now I had heard of the show being a band kid I essentially had a microcosm of high school society as friends and was tangentially aware of the show and still never bothered to really watch it even though most of my friends swore by it. It wasn’t until the summer after graduating high school (2009) that I really watched the show.
That summer though it was either go hang out with friends as they prepped to go off to some University or chill at home and play videogames and watch copious amounts of TV.Than one day I was going through the guide and noticed NickToons had about 3 episodes of Avatar the Last Airbender in a row and with nothing better to do I watched it all...and then some more.Needless to say I quickly dominated my family's Netflix queue and within the span of about a month had watched the entire series.
Despite taking film studies classes I can’t really put into words what Avatar dose so right. The writing is good the animation was good I actually cared about characters in a 22 minute show, which is pretty hard to do. The show makes numerous martial arts and cultural references one full episode is practically Shane. All of those things are what good shows do though.So what is it?Of its 61 episodes I can say I really dislike 2, Boy in the Iceberg and Great Divide of those two I would still watch Boy in the Iceberg the Great Divide, not so much.
Spring is happening that means rebirth and Appa is getting a new coat. The Chase marks the return of the gang after Zuko Alone had no mention of them what so ever. With the recent addition of Toph everyone is once again in a getting to know each other phase, which is confrontational. This is only made worse when something is chasing you ”All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,”
One of the best things about Avatar are its short one liners. Even with serious stuff going on around them the gang is still making quips to each other about lack of sleep,sleeping arrangements, who the hell is chasing us.
The first half of the Chase plays out a lot like Steven Spielbergs Duel (1971) with the gang constantly being driven away by this mysterious machine that no matter what seems to find them.As they are pushed back more and more the sleep depervation is shown not only with the typical bags under their eye but the animation begins to become more cartoony and wavy. Sokka begins to look like he belongs in Adventure Time not Avatar. Tophs independence isn’t going meshing well with the team which leads to the logical split before Uncle Iroh dose his wise sage thing.
After realizing that Toph was right the gang bathes Appa and the episode transitions from Duel to a spaghetti western with Aang finding a rather convenient ghost town.Things turn into a Mexican standoff between Azula,Zuko and Aang all staring at eachother. Their triple threat match doesn't last that long but it gets shows some fundamental differences between Azula and Zuko. When chasing Aang into a house Azula is caught off guard by the lack of floor but manages to regain her footing and change tactics Zuko on the other hand does what he always does and rushes in head first without bothering to look down.Even though Zuko and Azula both want Aang they spend more time fighting each other with Aang dodging everything in the middle. Shootouts don’t last long and soon the gang is back together and so is Iroh and Zuko.with Azula cornered.
Like a couple minutes before Azula is able to change tactics and do the one thing none of them can do,shoot lightning. The target isn’t the Avatar though its Iroh providing her with enough time to vanish like all good villains seem to. Mortally wounding Uncle Iroh at this point was quite a shock since for the longest time he has been the sage of the show the idea of killing him off was a bit shocking.
Even though you are told 60 times throughout the show that there is a war going on it’s easy to forget. For one the main combat is over and the Fire Nation is pretty much in control. That puts this war into a gurillla phase.In Jet the gang meets one such gorilla leader.
From the start Jet is a unique episode, everything is given a red tint since the majority of it takes place in this dark red maroon colored forrest.Sokka takes center stage like he did in The Warriors of Kyoshi constantly shown to be the smart one not buying any of Jets charms.
His instincts tell him that the gang shouldn’t fly since Appa, being a giant flying bison and most likely the last one of his kind sticks out like a sore thumb. Instead walking should be their main mode of transportation. Though a boring mode of transport it is a smart move until they have the misfortune of walking right into a Fire Nation campsite. Quickly surrounded and outgunned they are saved by the titular Jet and his band of freedom fighters.
This Jet is cool cat. He has a piece of grass constantly in his mouth and has hook swords,a weapon normally used in Chinese martial arts. Did I mention he has a pretty sweet tree house as well. Jet has all the swagger and magnetism of a leader that draws in followers like Smeller Bee and Longshot.With fellow orphans and refugees he now rules them Peter Pan style, harassing the Fire Nation village nearby.
The thing about Jet though is he is evil Peter Pan. He has a tree house and young followers while still acting like a bit of a kid himself. Having lost his parents to the Rough Rhinos at a early age Jet has a blind hatred for all things Fire Nation. His master plan to rid the valley of Fire Nation is to blow a damn and literally wash everything away Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom everything.Thats mass murder and by far the evilist plan we have witnessed up to that point in the show. But Jet is a good guy he has just lost his way something Sokka acutely points out.
The animators do a great job in showing the Tarzan like fight between Aang and Jet as they play a game of keep away with Aangs glider. In a documentry about the show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko mention having action without violence. This is a great is example of a setpiece with actually let in the way of violence, yet the episode still deals with the threat of mass murder.
All of these things makes Jet one of the more interesting side characters and episodes in Avatar. Its to the shows strength that they are able to make interesting characters in 20 minutes and leave the audience wanting more.
Early on the The Puppetmaster starts off more like a episode of Scooby Doo with talk of a monster kidnapping people but quickly turns into more of a dark fairytale.The gang is discovered by a nice, yet creepy old lady who gives them a place to stay.
This creepy woman is Hama, she runs a little inn and otherwise seems harmless but looks a lot like Yubaba from Spirited Away. When you learn about her past as a waterbender from the Southern Tribe the Yubaba reference makes sense.Like Jet she has been deeply affected by the war. While in prison Hamma develops “bloodbending” with the full moon enhancing her powers she is able to control living creatures. And she wants to teach Katara the secrete.
I liked the amount of dramatic irony in this episode. Katara is as doe eyed as ever finally meeting a fellow waterbender from her tribe that she doesn't notice what's going on around her. The scene in the meadow of Fire Lilies where Hama kills a wide swath of flowers to get water is one of the most beautiful and depressing images of the show. Even during the final battle with Hama the pair are ripping the water out of everything obliterating trees in a instant.So much death and destruction from one of the calmer bending arts and characters.The battle sticks out as one of the better fights of the series.
Hama like Jet has been blinded by hatred for the Fire Nation. Professing a maxim of “get water at any cost” and “fight the fire nation everywhere” ssounding more like Emperor Palpatine than a kindly old lady. She also bears a certain resemblance to the Sith Lord with all those wrinkles in the moonlight.
The final battle in the woods is one of the shows tensest scenes. The realization that Hama is the kidnapper and constantly framing her in a close up face shot turns her into a very evil character.Her controling Aang and Sokka adds some tension that other action sequences lack.Than forcing Katara to bloodbend in the end was a great win lose situation for the show.
The Boiling Rock takes place during the Zuko and friends section of book three. Being the most recent edition to the crew and having chased them across the world, a simple getting to know you episode like Tophs wouldn’t have worked. The previous episode had him making nice with Aang and now its Sokkas turn. How does he make nice with him? Help him break into the Fire Nations supermax prison of course on a rescue mission that isn’t really that well planned out o course.
In a world with people who can bend the elements it makes the idea of prisons hard to imagine, how exactly would you control them. We got our first look at a prison in Imprisoned, the earthbenders are removed from earth and put out on a giant metal barge in the middle of the ocean. In The Puppetmaster the fire nation does the same thing but with water for the waterbenders. But what about firebenders? They just make the fire. Well in that case you send them to the Boiling Rock a prison in the middle of a lake which is on top of an active volcano and the only way in or out is a gondola.
Prison breaks are a lot like heists when it comes to film and tv. They require a certain amount of reverse Deus Ex Machina to be effective thrillers. You have a plan something has to get in the way plan B goes into effect and it snowballs from there.This is the perfect adventure for Sokka to have with Zuko, he is the groups master planner. Only for the most part Sokka appears to be playing it all by ear instead of sticking to a strict time table.
Sokkas whole reasoning for going to prison is the guilt over what he did to his friends during the invasion by leaving them behind. They aren’t there, instead he finds Suki making her first appearance since book 2. Unfortunately they didn’t go for a “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper” moment and their reunion plays out how you would expect it to. Sokkas dad,Hakoda is eventually transferred to the Rock as well defiant as ever.Reunited with his father they hatcha sure fire escape plan this time.
Even though this is Sokkas mission with Zuko the former Prince gets a lot of character time. His attempts at channeling Uncle Iroh pay off after multiple failures with his don’t be afraid to fail speech. The interrogation scene with Mai is also among one of the best in the show. Zukos ability to make her trust him even if she doesn't believe in what he is doing is something that wouldn’t have happened before he left her.
With everyone ready to escape Sokka and Hakoda hatch a simple plan, capturing the Warden during a riot.This sort of thing could have led to a elongated chase sequence of sorts.Instead we get some Spider-man like moves out of Suki. We aren’t robbed of a good fight though since Azula and Ty Lee aren’t far behind.Seeing Azula jet herself up the line was a nice touch. Of that fight scene though Ty Lee and Suki going at it stands out more than Zuko and Azula throwing fire at each other.
The real action comes from Mai "Saving the jerk who dumped me”. Mai turns on Azula realizing she loves Zuko more than she fears Azula. The look on Azulas face as she screams “No, YOU miscalculated! You should have feared me more!” is only matched when Ty Lee also turns on her. For someone who is all about control having her two closest “friends” chose someone else over her is a killing blow to her sanity.
The Boiling Rock compared to previous multi episode arc actually feels big. Previous two part episodes felt only connected thematically and relativly normal.This one actually pulls off the feeling of epicness.
With the previous episode The Storm we were given the hint that Zuko and Aangs journeys were perhaps ment be more than hunter and hunted. The Blue Spirit soundly tells us they are meant for more.
Blue Spirit is used to turn Admiral Zhao into the main evil of the show while keeping Zuko still a threat. The recently promoted Admrial Zhao is in full on hunt the Avatar mode much to the dismay of Zuko, who needs to deliver the Avatar to his father and regain his honor. Jason Issacs was well cast as Zhao who gets to flex his Colonel William Tavington charm with a bit of Malfoy thrown in.
The introduction of the Yu Yin archers was excellent. Their chase of the Avatar while short gets them over as a far deadlier foe than anything in the show so far. It’s unfortunate than that we don’t see them after this..
The main reason this episode is so great is the titular Blue Spirit. Introduced in the opening scene his demonic smiling face constantly photobombs everywhere he goes as it infiltrates Zhaos fortress.The pacing and cinematography of this sequence is great.
But getting in isn’t as hard as getting out. The on the fly tag team nature between Aang and the Blue Spirit is a treat to see. With Aang throwing out wind blasts to stifle falls while the Spirit cuts off spears. Using the Avatar as a helicopter was a inventive way to get around. The real quicker though is at how quickly the team up ends with the Spirit scissoring Aangs neck with his swords after Zhao tells them he needs the Avatar alive.
The final scene is among the shows most poignant. Aang discovers that Zuko, his enemy is really the person who for the most part saved him. Sticking around till Zuko wakes up he tells him a story about his friend Kuzon and how much trouble they would get in and that he was Fire Nation.Than wonders if they too could be friends only to get fire thrown at him a second later. The sincerity in Aangs voice was spot on.
The Blue Spirit has what all great Avatar episodes have a mixture of humor at the right times a stellar action set piece and than character moments that actually get you to care.
I am a sucker for vignettes and anthologies, one of my favorite movies is Paris, je t'aime or Paris I Love You for the non french speakers.Most Avatar episodes are linear in terms of plotting with the driving force of Sozins Comet pushing everything forward. So it’s a nice change of pace that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have two episodes,Tales of Ba Sing Se and Appa’s Lost Days that don’t follow that format and break up the linearity of it all. How many shows would do something like this? Better yet how many kids shows would cut their 30 minutes in to 6 totally non related chunks?
Not all of the tales are that memorable. The opener with Toph and Katara having a girls day out was nice it just didn’t have that extra bit that some of the other pieces had. Same goes for Aangs tale while it was defintaly something Aang would do it was forgetable.
The heart of this episode is in The Tale of Iroh. Uncle Iroh is the old wise man of the show gently guiding Zuko on his journey. We get to see Iroh do that and fix all the problems he comes across from fixing flowers to showing a mugger the error of his stance.The thing that gets me everytime is him singing “Brave Soldier Boy” to the image of his dead son on his birthday. The refrain that he wishes he could've helped him to is a dagger. Here is the dude that helps everyone but couldn’t save his own son.
This isn’t the Iroh show and Sokka is up next. Sokka gets into a haiku battle with the leader of a poetry club.This isn’t a epic rap battle of history but there is some great back and forth and makes haikus seem way easier than they appear.Sokka has been the comedy relief for the entire show and for once he actually comes off as cool and not just the funny man.
Like Sokka Zuko finds himself in some uncomfortable positions, a date. Throwing old tall dark and brooding on a date turns this vignette into a romantic comedy. Zuko is forced to lie and embarrass himself while still being utterly tense and unwilling to have fun.The Prince dose unwind towards the end letting himself have fun for just a second and then its gone. Seeing him let loose for a second is a turning point for his character.
The Tale of Momo flows right into Appa’s Lost Days. Largely a chase we see Momo wonder Ba Sing Se looking for Appa. The great thing about both episode is it lacks spoken dialog.Dee Bradley Baker and the animators really humanise the crazy animals in this show.
For a show with a built in time limit stopping everything for an experimental episode was a big risk.Even if the main plot of the show wasn’t advanced it let the viewers see the characters in unique situations than the villiage of the week.
Everyone loves the Empire Strikes Back.Which is a bit odd since our heroes lose everything appears to be lost and the bad guys have all but won.It’s a bit of a downer.The Crossroads of Destiny and The Guru is Avatars homage to the Empire Strikes Back.
The majority of Season 2 the gang has been one long strike back by the Fire Nation. The gang is constantly on the losing side of things.They lose Omashu and Bumi,Iroh is nearly killed,Jet dies the Kyoshi Warriors are captured and Appa is missing for nearly half the season.All of this done by escaping by the skin of their teeth.Not exactly the fun times from season 1.Than when Aang gets the chance to finally master the Avatar state he pulls a Luke Skywalker and runs off to Ba Sing Se after a vision of Katara in danger.
After Zuko is captured he is sent down to share a cell Katara underneath the palace.Together they have the sexually tensest scene of the show.Katars offer to cure him with her magic moon water and of course something blows its lid once Aang and Iroh arrive.
Having Iroh tell the Prince to choose good, that he is finally ready for it with his recent metamorphosis comes off a little hamfisted and to knowing. All Zuko cares about is restoring his honor, even though Iroh has been slowly showing him that one can redeem himself and doesn't need the approval of others making the case that the Fire Lord=bad doesn’t necessarily make the gang=good in Zukos mind? All he cares about is restoring his honor and right now his best option is capturing the Avatar.
Azula runs into Aang and Katara and the pair ready to fight and then BOOM Zuko fireball in the middle of everything.For a brief moment it looks like we are going to get a triple threat match again The editing where no one is quite sure if Zuko will choose Azula or Aang and Katar is long and tense. Even with Irohs speech about choosing good Zuko still isn’t ready for it siding with the quicker gratification of finally being reunited with dear old dad and his honor.
The battle is one of the bigger ones for the show. Seeing Katar become a water octapus as she smashes Dai Li agents and Azula was cool way of showing off waterbending.For a good chunk of the show all we see waterbending wise is tiny cuts and here we see someone basically become a monster and rampage through everything.
I’m calling the the Empire Strikes Back of Avatar we are still lacking a clear element. Someone has to be Han and die. Aang seeing the futility of fighting finally unlocks his chakras and we get to see Avatar State Aang but not for long since he is shot by lighting in the same way Iroh was in The Chase. Now killing Iroh would be one thing but Aang that’s a better cliffhanger. The severity of the situation isn’t lost on the animators who draw Aang and Katar in a Pietà with Katara as the Mary.
Now of course Aang isn’t dead Katar still has the magic moon water and Aang gets a sweet scar out of it. Now him and Zuko have something to talk about.Once again the gang has escaped by the skin of their teeth but “The Earth Kingdom has fallen.” and they have lost.
Villains in general are always more interesting than the hero. Villans break the rules and normally have some terrible past that has turn them to evil. Heroes are good and to quote Spaceballs “good is dumb” its to easy to be good and so less interesting.So with The Beach we get a look at our 4 main villians who uncharacteristicly are on a vacation.
This isn’t a John Hughes movie though. Other than Zuko the characters haven’t been rounded out enough and couldn’t fit into some archetype. Ty Lee and Mai while intersting physical threats haven’t been molded much beyond that.The one character that dose fit into a archetype though is Azula and she stands out here. Viewers get a birds eye view of inner workings and by the end of it might even feel a little sorry for her. Her complete lack of social skills, her megalomania and sociopathy stop her from playing a simple game of volleyball or talking to a boy.
Some of the funnier quotes from Azula include “That's a sharp outfit, Chan. Careful. You could puncture the hull of an empire-class Fire Nation battleship, leaving thousands to drown at sea,...because it's so sharp.” and
Azula Your arms look so strong.
Chan Yeah, I know. [He flexes his muscles and they kiss.] You're pretty.
Azula Together, you and I will be the strongest couple in the entire world! [Creates blue fireballs in her hands.] We will dominate the Earth!
Chan [Freaked out.] Uh... I got to go.
The groups dysfunction in the “normal world” leads to a nice cathartic, rather Hughes like bit of sharing on the beach.We get a nice bit of back story about Ty Lee and Mai. Ty Lee joined the circus to get a sense of self identity and Mai has just been repressed all her life to care about anything.The star is Zukos frustration and guilt about betraying Uncle Iroh.Since coming back hsi attitude has been grumpy, persumptive and short.He is finally home and conquer he has his “honor” restored he should be fantastic but things aren’t great like he remembered.The only person he has to blame for that is himself.Azula knows and accepts that she is a monster her only problem is her own mother rightly thought the same which is all said in deadpan not carring at all about what just happened for anyone else.
This episode is juxtaposed with Zukos memories of Ember Island back when he was a kid before his father scared him and his sister became completely unhinged. His realization that the only person he has to blame is himself as a important turning point for Zuko
I haven’t even mentioned the gangs B plot which involves the gangs encounter with Combustion Man. The encounter is a fun fight but Combustion Man is only interesting as a physical threat.There isn’t anything else thats interesting about him. The idea of throwing a Nemisis style enemy at the gang could lead to some good fight sequences and even some tension but Combustion Man is just a poor mans Azula in the end. I almost wish they had done what Zuko Alone and not even include the gang in this episode.
There are many ways to my heart. One of those ways is to get Ron Perlman to be in whatever you are doing.
Both Aang and Zuko continue their mirrored paths by learning about the history of the war. Roku takes Aang through his life showing how he and than Prince Sozin were actually the best of friends before they became bitter old men. Zuko at the behest of his Uncle reads the final testament of his great grandfather Fire Lord Sozin, narrated by Ron Perlman, in order to better understand himself.
We see the pair grow up and apart from one another as friends tend to do. This is strained once Sozin assumes the throne and like all conquerors simply wants to spread his cultures happiness. Roku rightly shuts down this possiblity but Sozin is undetered and just pushes it back a bit.Sozins early invasion of the Earth Kingdom is noticed by Roku who quickly shows off he is not be triffled with leaving the King in the ruins of his palace and their friendship. Roku lived out the rest of his life on a island that happens to be a volcano and is forced to battle it while other escape. Sozin arrives and initially helps his old friend but once the opportunity arises he leaves his friend to die parting with “Without you, all my plans are suddenly possible. I have a vision for the future, Roku”.This recasts the Fire Nation genocide of the Air Nomads as Rokus failure not Aangs. Seeing that it boil down to a power struggle between two lifelong friends forced to face their destinies humanises the rest of the Fire Nation.
Angered at the end having learned nothing, as Zuko is one to do on the first try returns to Uncle Iroh.It is there that Iroh reveals that he wasn’t talking about his fathers father Sozin but his mothers father Avatar Roku.The conenction between Aang and Zuko is now perfectly clear and Zukos destiny is revealed, he can atone his families sins by helping Aang defeat his father.
The Avatar and the Firelord fills in an important gap in the Avatar lore all while narrated by Ron Perlman.
Zuko Alone is unique among the 60 episodes of The Last Airbender. Aang and the gang are never mentioned and Zuko takes up both the A and B plots.
The A plot sees the series further fuse east and west by making numerous homages to John Ford westerns and Samurai films.The opening sequence is nothing more than long shots of Zuko riding in a lonely barren desert.
Writer Elizabeth Welch Ehasz uses the western Shane(1953) as a framework for the rest of the A plot.Zuko becomes the archetypal lone wanderer coming across a ramshackle town ruled over by small time thugs parading around as protectors.After a brief run in with the thugs Zuko is helped by a boy to his pigcow/chicken/sheep farm , where he helps fix things up for room and board.
This Shane plot is contrasted by Zukos memories of his childhood and his mother all of this well his father scarred and banished him.Even as a child Azula was spitting image of Angelica Pickles, only more psychotic and could shoot fire.We learn how Ozai usurped his brother Iroh though it came with a price. After suggesting that Iroh should lose his claim to the throne than Fire Lord Azulon forces Ozai to kill his own son to know his brother's pain. This of course doesn't happen and Zuko is haunted by what exactly happened to his mother. At first I thought Ozai killed his own wife instead of his son, which is pretty heavy for a kids show looking back im not sure that's exactly what happened. Only that Azulon is dead the next day and Ozai ascends to the throne.What happened to her has become a running joke for the show.
Zuko Alone climaxes with a old west style showdown between Zuko and the Earth Nation thugs.He is forced to firebend to defeat the thugs though and reveal himself to the onlookers. He proclaims himself the heir to the Fire Nation even though they do not believe him.This marks a turning point for Zuko, he FINALLY does the right thing even though he gets plenty of stern looks as he drives off into the sunset like Shane and all the other nameless wanderers.
In a little over 20 minutes Avatar The Last Airbender manages to use the plot of Shane and turn Zuko from annoying emo kid into legitimately interesting character.
You can see the first 2 episodes of The Legend of Korra free on iTunes or just wait till April 14, this Saturday and watch it on Nickelodeon at 11 am.