If the first two episodes of The Legend of Korra were all about situating the viewer in a transformed version of The Four Nations, than this duo is about properly setting off the main narrative machine of the season. Now that Korra is full ensconced in airbending training and Pro-bending, it’s time to have her already limited world view torn asunder by the full throated arrival of Amon.
I briefly mentioned in the last article how much the aesthetics of Korra have shifted away from the more traditional look of Avatar. Here is where that art, production, and music design all come crashing together to form a new tone for the franchise, one that’s more darkly hued, cinematic, and complex.
Beyond the obvious upgrades to fullscreen and high definition: the filmmaking on Korra is on a whole other level of execution. Not just the fluidity and expressiveness of the animation, or the intricacy of the action, but the actual use of a virtual camera to make cinematographic choices. Avatar eventually moved beyond locked shots, and occasional pans, but what’s in Korra is quite incredible. Intricate camera moves, faux lenses, and a sense of heft.
These new technical bonafides really heighten the genre elements of “The Revelation.” Where Avatar had many nods to westerns and fantasy, Korra’s world allows Bryke to dip into different forms of storytelling, and here they go full noir. Pulling out of a full packet of archetypes to further mold the world of Avatar in new and exciting ways.
Like many a good noir story, the plot here is kicked off by money/sporting troubles. Even though the Fire Ferrets qualified for the the final Pro-Bending tournament, it turns out street urchins Mako and Bolin are a little low on cash. Korra doesn’t really have much money either (though I’m sure some White Lotus guards would like to kick in) and it leads the bending brothers to pursue different paths for the coin.
Bolin decides to use his Fire Ferret Pabu (very cute) to do some street tricks, and at a local trolly station he dons a mustache to busk his way to the finals. Unfortunately some unseemly fellows come calling in the form of Shady Shin, a member of the Triple Threat Triad, and a dark shadow from Bolin’s past. He’s offering Bolin a chunk of change for a night doing guard duty, and our bumbling brother can’t pass up the opportunity. Mako, on the other hand, helps create lightning for a local energy plant.
When Bolin disappears Mako calls on Korra to help him locate his brother. Thus we trip headlong into the nightscapes of Republic City. Mako bribes some kids for info about Bolin’s location, and our duo of amateur sleuths track down the earthbender, only to find the whole place ransacked by Equalists. Bolin’s been kidnapped, Mako and Korra pursue, and we get the first truly marvelous piece of action in the series.
Korra and Mako’s little tiff with the Chi Blockers is a short and tight action setpiece, barely a minute long and mostly here to demonstrate that the skills Ty Lee had have spread far and wide. But it’s the execution of the scene that gets me so excited. Here we see that virtual cinematography used to astounding ends. The camera seems to swivel in three dimensional space around our combatants, as the actions ebbs and flows from each side of the skirmish. This small encounter highlights the exciting possibility of what the show can pull off.
Korra’s a little shocked by her loss of bending, but Mako comforts her and the two continue their hunt. It leads them back to the park from “Welcome to Republic City” where Korra confronts the protestor she met earlier, after a bit of roughing up the two have the information needed (here presented as a puzzle on the back of a flyer) to get to the titular event and save Bolin.
In the murky depths of night, and some disguises, Korra and Mako sneak into The Revelation. Where they are greeted with the would be revolutionary Amon. The masked man appears on stage with all the gusto of a professional wrestler. But Amon is the antagonist of a new era. Where Ozai was mostly a mythic figure for Aang to knock down, Amon is down among the people. Using technology and new fangled graphic design to share his message with the world. It feels notable that our first major villain is revealed through stage lights and tightly gripped microphones, he’s a performer for a world that now has a form of mass media to spread his message.
His story and actions are also gripping, pulling on an inherent issue in the world (why is there a split between benders and non-benders) and wheedling at the inherent problems Korra faces. What does the Avatar represent if they have powers beyond all normal people, can they truly understand what is needed to bring balance? Never the less Amon has power too, and in impressive bit of spectacle he takes down gang leader Lightening Bolt Zolt with a few well timed dodges and slowly, terrifyingly, removes his bending. It’s a shocking moment, one that defies all expected rules we knew from Avatar. How can Amon seemingly energybend?
The questions comes later, luckily Korra’s impulsive streak serves the group well, she causes a distraction, and helps Mako grab Bolin and get out of dodge. In one last action scene we get the bending brothers melee with The Lieutenant, an acrobatic Equalist who uses lightening rods to stun his foes. This final sequence highlights another tonal distinction from Avatar. Bending was originally created to be a non-contact form of action, but now in Korra those fire blasts and chunks of rocks are meant to smack their targets good and hard. We have moved on to stun rather than evade form of fighting.
Still Amon lets our heroes go. Again he’s a man with media savvy, and he knows that the Avatar bringing news of his power will have great impact. And he’s proven right, when Korra talks to Tenzin about what she saw the airbending master seems truly struck by the news. This is impossible, and puts him, his family, and every bender in Republic City in immediate danger.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: The cavalcade of cast members continues. Amon is given booming bravado by anime stalwart Steve Blum, most famous for being Spike on Cowboy Bebop. The Lieutenant garners a gruff growl from character actor favorite Lance Henrikson. Even lowly Shady Shin is voiced by Fisher Stevens.
- Love that the protestors loudspeaker is made of plaster. The world has advanced, but not to synthetic plastics.
- Love the many close-ups of Amon’s mask that make him an almost purely geometrical presence, with the exception of his eyes.
- The ideogram used by the Equalists does roughly translate “to equalize.”
- The removal of Zolt’s firbending is weirdly grotesque and compelling, especially seeing Amon in the gang leader’s eyes.
- The eye twitching that is paired with Amon’s power is related to his blood bending. Must imagine that the process is quite painful.
The Voice in the Night
There’s something out there. And you don’t know where it is, but it’s coming for you, it wants you. More specifically it wants you gone, or at least stripped of what makes you, you. This fear is what drives Korra in the fourth episode of the show. That Amon is out there, waiting to squirrel away what makes her the Avatar. It haunts her dreams and clouds her training.
In many ways “The Voice in the The Night” gives clarification to an aspect of the thesis I presented in the previous article. Korra the show is about how the Avatar becomes the person Korra. Here we see Korra struggle with her identity and place within Republic City. For all intents and purposes Korra understands that the Avatar is the one who can bend all four elements, bending is her identity, it’s what makes her her. That’s why Amon’s demonstration has rattled her down to her very being, he has the power to strip away her own sense of self.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that now Korra has to contend with politics of being the messiah in a metropolis. We are introduced to Tenzin’s life as a council member governing the population, and his main political foe: the squirmy waterbender Tarrlok. Tarrlok is a fascinating character because he brings an explicit political bent to how the story progresses from here. His and Tenzin’s spats highlighting a central problem that Korra faces. She can’t punch her way out of this problem, there are systems in place.
Unfortunately it looks like Tarrlok is a master of manipulating those systems. Pulling levers on the city council and using his Korra’s insecurities to his own advantage. You see he wants his newly minted Equalist hunting task force to have a bit of a sheen to it, lend it some credibility. So he seeks to woo Korra onto his side by flattering her ability and presence in the city. What purpose does the Avatar serve in this urban environment if not to keep the peace and clamp down on dissidents? At first Korra refuses, to concerned about confronting Amon, she’s retreating.
It’s something Tenzin notices, and he offers her council, but for now Korra is too recalcitrant to partake. Still there’s a call from the city for her to act. It might be from Bolin to start up training again, or from Amon crackling through the radio to taunt our hero, and eventually Tarrlok pushes it far enough to break.
Tarrlok doesn’t win Korra over by grace, but instead decides to play off her anxieties. At a ball he throws for her, Tarrlok puts the unsure Avatar in front of the press, and under the constant push of questions and flashing lights she cracks and decides to join the task force. Now Korra is a part of a morally questionable group of state actors. Going beyond normal procedures to snuff out a threat before it fully emerges. The raid on the Equalist training ground is striking in how quick, dirty, and no frills the whole thing is. None of the pyrotechnics of previous fights, just water and rocks against masked enemies.
This doesn’t soothe Korra, she knows that it’s still just a stunt, and as she is wont to do she pushes ahead without fully considering the consequences. She challenges Amon to a duel underneath the giant statue of Aang. It’s a move she quickly regrets. After not showing at the appointed time, a group of Equalists spring from the shadows and capture Korra, and she meets her fear face to face.
The final minutes of this episode are once again an amazing piece of cinematic technique developed in the show. As Korra is dragged into the shadows she briefly lights up her combatants with fire, but as the lights dim their eyes glow, and they bind and incapacitate her. Frightening stuff. Heightened even more by Amon’s threat. Offing Korra now would put him out of favor with the general populace, she’ll have to wait for the right time. She faints, flashes back to The Gaang, and is comforted by Tenzin.
She admits that she was afraid the whole time, unable to process what she saw in “The Revelation.” It’s a moment of unvarnished vulnerability from Korra, demonstrating that her physical strength is not yet matched by a full understanding of herself.
Elsewhere Mako gets into his own shenanigans. Mainly getting rammed by one Asami Sato while crossing the street. Mako’s immediately enthralled by Asami’s beauty, grace, and generosity. Inviting the Pro-bender out to a dinner date. Luckily for the Fire Ferrets, Asami is the daughter of Hiroshi Sato, the foremost captain of industry in Republic City and the primary supplier of automobiles. With Hiroshi’s open wallet, and Asami’s love of Pro-bending it looks like the Fire Ferrets will be back in the tournament.
That’s good news for the team, but fault lines are emerging. Korra’s response is chilled at Asami’s arrival, and Bolin seems remorseful that Korra won’t respond to his lovebird shtick. Indeed it looks like things might get a bit messy.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Tarrlok is given slimy elegance by Avatar stalwart Dee Bradley Baker. Of course Baker still does all the animal voices and various bit parts, but Tarrlok really lets him shine as a a full character,
- “The Voice in the Night” is one of the more evocative titles in the series, and it shares the same name as a short story by William Hodgson about man eating fungi. Don’t know if there’s any relationship between the two.
- More fun cinema stuff. The transitions from the map to the location of the raid is clever, as is the flash frames while photos are taken.
- The images of Korra on the banners at her party are taken directly from some early concept art.
- Asami’s chance meeting with Mako seems like a pretty direct lift from FLCL.
- Hiroshi turns out to be the main source of funds for the Equalist cause, and eagle-eyed viewers might be able to pick up on the connection as the same red wires used in Equalist compounds and found in Sato’s factory.