The Ending of The Legend of Korra Season 2, or Let’s Talk About Setup

With the recent conclusion of season 2 of Avatar: The Legend of Korra, I’ve seen a number of complaints that a lot of the finale seemed to come from “out of nowhere.” Notably, the two aspects fans appear to take issue with involve Jinora and Korra herself. While I have my own issues with the writing, characterization, and pacing of the series, I find that Korra set up the pieces in fairly obvious ways which make me find it so surprising that people are accusing the show of employing Deus Ex Machinas.

Before I go on, obviously there’s a spoiler warning here.

First, in regards to Jinora, she was shown throughout the second season to have a strong connection to the spirits. When Tenzin rescues her, she disappears as a spirit separated from her body, then reappears during Korra and Unalaq’s fight still as a spirit, and uses her strong affinity for the spiritual realm to locate and draw out Raava’s diminished being from Vaatu where Korra (who is not as spiritual as Jinora) could not. There’s no need for an elaborate explanation as to “how she did it,” except perhaps that one needs to remember that neither Raava or Vaatu can truly destroy each other and that there must always be the tiniest fragment of one in the other. Yin and yang and all that.

Second, when it comes to Korra I find that people think that Korra as a giant blue spirit somehow didn’t make sense or work as a part of Korra’s narrative. When Tenzin explains to Korra that before people bent the elements, they bent the energy within themselves, it’s a callback to the The Last Airbender and how Aang learns how to energybend from the last lion-turtle. Korra’s spirit has become imbued with that very same energy, and it’s no coincidence that the shade of blue that Korra’s spirit becomes in order to fight Vaatu is the same blue that can be seen within Aang when he takes someone’s bending away.

The other crucial component of Tenzin’s explanation is that Korra needs to find within herself not Raava but her own spirit, the very core of who she is. This giant spiritual form of Korra wears her standard outfit instead of the coat she came in, showing that this is her default self-perception, but what’s even more notable is the way that Spirit Korra fights. Rather than doing any sort of elaborate bending moves or showing any signs of formal training, Korra is a brawler at her roots, and there’s probably nothing more indicative of this than the fact that giant blue Korra performs an Argentine backbreaker on Vaatu/Unalaq. Korra from the very beginning of her show is portrayed as a very direct, confrontational individual, and though her spiritual side is lacking, by the end she is able to connect to it in a way that suits her, a way which strengthens her identity.

I think the other elements of The Legend of Korra Season 2 are more contentious, but I hope that people critical of those two aspects of the show look back and see that they were not so sudden after all.

The Legend of Korra and the Conflict of Fighting Styles

Avatar: The Last Airbender was an enormously popular show, but its sequel The Legend of Korra has been a bag of mixed opinions among fans. Although there are many reasons for this discontent towards the new Avatar, including the writing, characterization, and the different format (seasons are shorter), the one that I find most intriguing is the general complaint that the quality of the fighting went downhill in the transition. I find that it speaks a lot to the difficulties of creating a sequel which is trying to progress the world of its story, to change its status quo, but also maintain the status quo which brought fans to it in the first place.

The Last Airbender exhibits Wuxia-esque action scenes, informed by many classic Chinese martial arts styles (waterbending is tai chi for instance), which gives the fights in the first series an overall grandiose quality. Movements are elaborate, meant to evoke a sense that the very motions benders take are part of what give them such mystical strength.

The Legend of Korra, however, involves much more straightforward uses of bending. Here, amidst the large population of Republic City and the popularity of pro-bending, the manipulation of the elements comes across more as a sport, a structured system within the bounds of the law (though still easily abusable in its own way), much like what judo is to jujitsu. Gone are the classical gestures and poses, replaced by simple and direct actions.

Given that the new series is meant to take place 70 years after the original and highlights how a number of social and technological developments have impacted everyday life, it’s clear that the less majestic qualities of “modern” bending are meant to also be a sign of this change. Even when I mentioned that on Twitter, however, one of the responses I received basically said that it didn’t matter if there was a story reason for the change, if it’s less fun to watch then that’s the end of it.

Certainly the guy had a point, and the new type of fighting could be seen as a kind of downgrade, but of course this depends on your definition of what a good fantasy martial arts fight scene should be like. Contemplating this aspect of individual perception, I’ve come to realize that perhaps part of the difficulty The Legend of Korra faced in its bending was that it had established a way of visual presentation which captured the hearts of fans in the previous series, but then tried to fight against the very entrenchment of accepted visual style they created. The wuxia style in The Last Airbender is one of the many reasons the series garnered fans, defining for many what “cool fight scenes” are meant to be, and to remove that aspect is to undo in their eyes the very identity of Avatar‘s combat.

Essentially, if fighting in The Last Airbender is classic Chinese martial arts, then fighting in The Legend of Korra is modern mixed martial arts. Though I can’t say to what extent the fanbases between Avatar and MMA overlap, the disagreements over the style in Korra remind me a lot of the arguments I’ve seen concerning MMA as an optimized style ideal for the very sport it created and fostered, a scientific approach to what has for a long time carried an almost metaphysical connotation. Though effective, neither modern bending nor standard MMA look “pretty” by the standards of fans of the more classical styles. Consider that good old question of  MMA: “why are those fighters humping each other on the ground?” Probably if The Legend of Korra were less modern Ultimate Fighting Championship and were more like the first UFC, which was meant to be a clash of various martial arts styles from Karate to Greco-Roman Wrestling, then perhaps it would have found greater appeal.