This Is No Korra-Nation

July 14, 2012

Avatar: The Legend of Korra – Welcome to Republic City (game screen shot), April 10, 2012. (Harryhogwarts via Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because image is only being used to visually identify the subject.

I wish that this was only a pun. But, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender spinoff The Legend Of Korra was only a legend in their own minds. It’s not that Korra’s first season wasn’t a good one. It’s that Korra could not possibly live up to what was the greatest animation series of all-time.

Any fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender couldn’t help but be disappointed with the first season of Korra. First, it took four years for them to bring Korra to Nickelodeon, and a full twenty months after they released the first stills for the new series in August ’10. They wasted two of those years making the terrible live-action The Last Airbender (2010) as directed by M. Night Shyamalan (see my “The Last Airbender, or Shyamalan’s Cynical Egg?” post from July ’10).

Korra, Avatar: The Legend of Korra (artwork), October, 2011. ( Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as image is only being used to identify blog subject.

So Korra was behind the 8-ball already when the show officially launched in April. Then the first episode began, exploding through waterbender Avatar Korra’s growing-up years in about three and a half minutes. That opening scene set the tone for all twelve of the first season’s episodes. One could sort of justify the rapid pace of Korra because she’d already mastered three of the four elements and because the spin-off had moved seventy years into the future, and a somewhat modern one at that. But the pace left little room for character development and the clear-cut personality distinctions that made Avatar: The Last Airbender the ultimate experience.

It took three episodes for me to find a good-and-honest scene that produced a personality quirk (see Bolin as a poor man’s Sokka here) and a hearty laugh. You got no sense of how Tenzin became part of Republic City’s council, or how tension-filled his life must’ve been as the responsible son of the great Avatar Aang. The elderly Katara appeared in a couple of scenes, and there was no attempt to explain the intervening years between the end of the Hundred-Year War until the last couple of episodes. Even then, these were fleeting scenes in a fast-paced, let’s-get-Korra-to-the-Avatar-State season.

The sheer lack of an attempt at authenticity with Korra, though, was what I found most disappointing. Seven decades into the future with modern technologies would create cultural tensions for sure, but it certainly wouldn’t wipe out the traditions of the four nations, even in Republic City. That, and only flashes of the spirituality that was completely infused in Avatar: The Last Airbender, made Korra a poor facsimile for whatever tensions between tradition and modernity that the main character faced in the first season.

I plan to watch Season 2, assuming that DiMartino, Konietzko and Nickelodeon plan on putting out a second season of Korra now that Season 1 is over. But I’ve lowered my expectations for the new series, especially if the creators intend to continue to rush through plots. It was as if Avatar Korra was on an out-of-control 2 Subway rumbling through Midtown Manhattan, about to flip over and derail.

I’m Not Happy Feet (or Ted Williams)

February 21, 2011

Happy Feet Big Dancing Scene Screen Shot, February 19, 2011. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as screen shot is of low quality and illustrates the subject of this post.

Happy Feet Big Dancing Scene Screen Shot, February 19, 2011. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as screen shot is of low quality and illustrates the subject of this blog post.

Remember that homeless Black guy who kicked off our new year a few weeks ago through the power of YouTube and some folks who recorded him and his golden voice on their smartphone? Yeah, how could any of you forget, really? Ted Williams had a whirlwind ten days, as thirteen million people watched the YouTube recording, companies and individuals offered him jobs and money, his family came back into his life. And then, of course, Williams became violent, relapsed into drug use, and is in the midst of rehab — again.

But it all started with his YouTube performance for the good folks of voyeur America. The whole incident made me cringe from start to finish. It also made me think about something that has always bothered me about race in America. Why? Especially since the video surfaced a man who’d been on a downward spiral for three decades? Because it seems that in order for a Black person to be taken seriously in this society, we have to perform like trained seals in order to get the attention we need and deserve.

Ted Williams, Columbus, OH, January 3, 2011. AP. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and use as subject in blog post.

This isn’t about some metaphorical relationship between excellence and success, or displaying intellect at school and in the world of work. No, this is actually about giving a performance, acting, or as the older folks would say, shuckin’ an’ jivin’, or hustlin’, to grab the attention of mostly Whites in high places. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it also is mostly not good. For it also seems that many of us must experience hardship, prison, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness in order to get attention in the first place.

That’s why it pisses me off when hearing about journalists shadowing the homeless in order to learn about life on the streets. Or when writers sit down with a homeless man or woman to learn about their ironic life story. It also bothers me when I see lists of the “50 Most Successful X” and the “100 Most Innovative Y,” knowing before I read one word that the only Blacks who made these lists were entertainers (I include professional athletes in this category, by the way). It’s disheartening to know that, for all of my writing ability and intellect, the only way I’ll likely be as successful as I hope to be will be by delivering a performance that allows Americans — mostly White — to be voyeurs of my life beyond my words and deep thoughts.

It all came together for me in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode  (Season 2, Episode 4) “The Swamp,” where Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh sit at the side of the road in an Earth Kingdom town begging for change. One man forces the once proud general to dance for a gold coin — “Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner,” the man says. It speaks to shameful classism — or, at the very least, a sense of class and race entitlement — that we in this country engage in every day.

So, here are a few more thoughts. I look at Ted Williams, The Soloist with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, even the Pixar/Disney movie Happy Feet (2006) — which me and my wife made the mistake of taking our son Noah to see (he didn’t like the movie, by the way) — and see lots of shuffling across a floor for the attention of Whites (and some people of color) in high places. Do two million penguins really need to tap dance ala Savion Glover in order to get attention from White scientists trying to save life on this planet from our global warming ways? No, but Blacks have had to literally tap dance for food and spare change in the exact same way.

I felt this way in grad school and at various times throughout my career. That I needed to sing, dance and do flips and cartwheels to make myself stand out for my middling White professors and supervisors. It would explain why some of them would ignore my grades, papers and awards to ask me if I could palm or dunk a basketball — out of the blue! Or why a muckity-muck at the Academy for Educational Development would walk by my office, notice the PhD on my name plate, and say, “Wow! You have a doctorate! I thought you only played softball!” I said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ve been working here for three years, just so I can play on the organization’s softball team.”

We ignore those suffering the most, whether because of race or class or gender or a combination of the three (or more) until they do something that impresses us. That’s when they deserve a chance, at least from the perspective of those laughing at them. And that’s shameful, demeaning, and yes, racist and elitist in a very specific way.

The POTUS and The Last Airbender

December 8, 2010

C-SPAN Video Player - President Obama News Conference on Tax Cut Agreement Screen Shot, December 8, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because screen shot is of low quality and is only intended to highlight the subject of this post.

In a post I did during President Obama’s campaign run (see “The Avatar State” post, July 22, 2008), I dared to hope that the then energized candidate and senator would be a bridge that would work across the divides of race and ideology. Much like the main character of my favorite animation series of all time, Aang of the Avatar: The Last Airbender. But unlike Thomas L. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), I don’t purport to have a special wisdom about how he can do this.


And like the animated series, Obama’s run for president also came to a successful end. For both the creators of the series and our beleaguered president, it was time for the big time. For one, it was the opportunity to do a live-action, big screen movie to introduce the epic nature of kids embarking on a journey to save the world to a larger audience. For Obama and his group, it was the chance to govern based on the ideas and ideals that they communicated successfully to nearly 67 million voters.

Unfortunately, both have disappointed, and not just a little. James Cameron managed to wrest away the very title of the movie — Avatar — from the Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, even though his movie was merely a dream at the time that series had begun in ’04. That, and settling for M. Night Shyamalan as director turned The Last Airbender into an irrelevant movie that hurt the brand, while inadvertently helping Cameron’s Avatar make money-making history.

Poor Noah Ringer as Aang of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender Screen Shot, December 8, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because screen shot is of low quality and is only intended to highlight the subject of this post.


The Obama Administration also began conceding its brand within weeks of reaching office. They say that governing dilutes the rhetoric of campaigns, and even hopeful me maintained enough jadedness to realize that. Yet to see how quickly Obama and his administration moved from action on the stimulus bill to a bunker mentality on virtually everything else was a bit distressing. The picks of Larry Summers, Peter McNickol of Ally McBeal fame — I mean Timothy Geithner — and Arne Duncan to be pillars of his economic and education teams should’ve been signs. That the Obama Administration would look after corporate and rich people’s interests before it would look out for mine. That there would be little fighting for the ideas and ideals of his campaign.

Only yesterday afternoon did Obama decide to flash anger at liberals and progressives. To be truthful, some of them have been bitter and overly critical of Obama’s decisions almost from day one. But to paint all of those left of center with the same broad brush, as if we all “have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.”

It’s a nice sentiment. Except that the president doesn’t seem to understand the difference between compromise and capitulation. As David Gergen put it on CNN yesterday, while Obama may well be right in heading off political opposition from the Tea/GOP group looking to hold Americans and him hostage, his execution of this from a communications standpoint was terrible.

We’re approaching the midway point of his first — and possibly only — term in office, and Obama has yet to take a serious stand on any principle he campaigned for in ’08. I’m not speaking as a liberal or

"Sozin's Comet, Part 4" from Avatar: The Last Airbender Screen Shot, December 4, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because screen shot is of low quality and is only intended to highlight the subject of this post.

progressive here. Just look at his memoirs, his speeches and campaign promises, even the speeches and pressers Obama gave in his first months in office. Now, some of this is the result of real compromise. But after nearly two years, those compromises look more and more like concessions for the rich and corporate, and less like compromises to protect the poor, unemployed and underemployed.


Like the poor kid who didn’t have a chance in heaven to measure up to the character Avatar Aang in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, it looks as if President Obama is having a hard time measuring up to his forty-six-year-old self. But hopefully, like the animation version of Aang, the real Obama will find his way. He needs to take a stand on something important to him and us, and do it with the bravado in which he ran on. So that even the folks who wouldn’t vote for him if God asked them to will at least get out of his way.

The Last Airbender, or Shyamalan’s Cynical Egg?

July 1, 2010

I’ve been reading the reviews. On HuffingtonPost, by Roger Ebert, on Twitter and so on. I’ve been watching the previews since December. I’ve read all of the articles about casting and race (see my post “Racebending Avatar: The Last Airbender” from April 2009). As of midnight in New York and L.A., the movie has finally arrived. And for most fans of the greatest animation series ever, The Last Airbender‘s DOA, SOL, and FUBAR, all wrapped into one. M. Night Shyamalan, who hasn’t done a great film since Shyamalan and Mark Wahlberg, 2008. Licensed with Cc-by-sa-2.0Sixth Sense in ’99, should’ve used all six of his senses before agreeing to wield a cleaver to a show based on multicultural authenticity and a sense of humanity only matched by its revealing humor.

The truth is, this isn’t all Shyamalan’s fault. Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, sold their movie rights and creative direction for this movie so easily and cheaply. They may as well have been the McDonald brothers selling what’s now McDonald’s to Roy Kroc back in 1955. The producers of the film and Paramount Studios should be shot with a turkey for letting a live-action film based on an animated series — which almost never works out — make it to a CGI board, much less a screen.

But even with all of that, the picking of mostly White actors to play multiethnic roles was horrendous. The making up for this by making all of the actors playing Fire Nation characters — the bad guys — Maori and South Asian was another sign. Not at all dissimilar from the constant complaints about Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the last of that long-running franchise. The special effects of fire and water-bending — not so special, in the words of Beavis and Butthead. And 3D effects? Huh? Really?

Avatar Aang, Back Turned. Screen Shot, Avatar: The Last Airbender

This shows how cynical the world that controls what we see and hear is. They think that the consuming public is so stupid, our kids so demanding, that they can serve us slop out of a garbage can with a fungus-covered plastic spoon, and then expect us to like it. It’s still a world in which our heroes and villains must look and act a certain way, our appreciation for anything not overtly American gets thrown out of a window, our need for the bombastic more important than our need for the authentic.

The real jaded-ness here, though, is that The Last Airbender wasn’t made with fans of the animated series in mind, the majority of whom are teenagers and adults. No, this movie was made for the five to ten-year-old set, the ones who may or may not have seen the Nicktoons replays of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But even the kids who have seen the series cannot appreciate the layers of complexity in the show, the richness of the characters, or the overall dialogue of the series. That’s what folks like Shyamalan are counting on.

My son was asking about The Last Airbender this morning, because he thinks that it’ll be like the animated series. Soon to be seven, Noah has a more thorough understanding of the series than most his age. But he doesn’t know how bad this movie is. If I’m pushed to or if he begs, I might take him, if only to show him how a good series can be turned into a horrible film. Then I’ll ask Shyamalan to give back his salary for making such schlock.


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