Thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "Enter the Void"/"Venom of the Red Lotus"

At the start of this season I wondered how Bryke and Co. would handle with coming back after ending on such a huge blockbuster finale. Would they attempt to once again top themselves with sheer scale or would they make the right call and attack the personal lives of their heroes. Change is the latter option attacking Korra on the most personal level and ending on a bitter sweet victory, in true Spider-man fashion even when you win you still lose.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. The hero is captured by their enemies and is slowly being lowered to their end. It’s a cliffhanger trope from classic serials to 60’s Batman. Send the audience away on the edge of their seat, and back to it the next. As the Red Lotus, now with their own foot soldier characters in the same garb as the White Lotus only with red trim, apply the titular venom( I guess it was Mercury) to Korra’s body I couldn’t help but actually think that our lead was in mortal danger. In the moment I felt fear and was consumed by the product on my screen which is quite the task for someone like me who has a habit of constantly thinking about the more formal aspects of what I’m viewing. And why shouldn’t I be? The second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender ended in Empire Strikes Back fashion with Aang mostly dead and our heroes on the run with the Fire Nation standing tall and near unstoppable.

I’m working on a couple of other things and it has me to considering why more often than not we consider a sequel better than the first film. Now my thoughts aren’t totally formed on the manner but I think it comes down to having an already established cast of characters and visual language to communicate with, using past iconography to reinforce present danger. Delrious from the posion, Korra hallucinates her captors all morphing into past enemies. Zaheer’s face breaks to reveal Amon. Ghazon becomes her Uncle Unalaq. And Ming Hua transforms in the Vaatu, a character I thought for a second was actually speaking to her since that’s kind of what he does. The revelation that Unalaq was a member of the Red Lotus felt a tad awkward but using him and past villains communicated the mortal danger of the situation beautifully. It also reminded me how everyone in this series wants to kill the Avatar.It’s kind of rote to have someone want to kill the Avatar (or any hero) constantly, but in the case of Korra it’s the only thing that I think really fits. Korra so identifies herself as the Avatar that to take that away or have her be the one it all ends with is rich dramatic soil making you actually believe they’d somehow kill the lead of the show (as irrational as it is).

Even if Book 3: Change didn’t end like the previous series second season, it was a victory still achieved at great cost. Korra, still recovering two weeks after the final encounter, stuck in a wheel chair. Korra may not be mostly dead but she has taken great damage. As President Raiko foreshadows in the background, we still don’t know how many more Red Lotus are out there and the Earth Kingdom is in chaos. The good guys still won and that bitter sweet as it there is a new air bending master in town: Jinora. She will help lead the new Air Nation as the reclaim their nomadic roots and I guess become like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu or Jedi equivalents.

Towards the end of their interview on the Nerdist Writers Panel, Ben Blacker asks them what’s next after Book 4 is finished. Perhaps more Avatar? Neither Bryan Konietzko nor Michael Di Martino say no decisively, attributing the gravitational pull of their creation as eventually bringing them back. But in their words they think they’ve taken the action adventure animation thing to the limits with the budgets and production available. After watching the Dragon Ball Z, Man of Steel, Matrix fight between Korra and Zaheer it’s very easy to believe they have gone to the limit, the fact this fight stands out after this has been a season of just fantastic action set pieces is surprising.

There is a 20 second unbroken flying shot in there that while not as sumptuous as True Detectives long take is truly beautiful. The animation on a weightless, flying Zaheer is fantastic. Flying without a prop and making it look good is such hard thing to produce animated or live action. Credit deservedly goes to executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos and the animation department. Konietzko called it a “herculean undertaking, and he had some help cleaning up a few of the scenes by Owen Sullivan (on this one) and Shaun O’Neil. If you didn’t already know it, Joaquim is a force of nature when it comes to action animation!” Unless Netflix or Amazon co-produced their next Avatar project (or other action adventure project) I doubt they could top themselves, not that I would turn down more of such a consistently well produced product like Legend of Korra.

Book 2 of Legend of Korra as a whole is much stronger than the component pieces but even than I was still nervous going into this season. To say the series has rebounded is an understatement, producing what may be the best in the series run. Even with the extracircular drama about leaks and moving time slots and a sudden move to digital none of that matters because this season of Legend of Korra was amazing.

Here’s to hoping Book 4 is just as good and that it isn’t exclusive to smart watches.

Bits At The End

Seriously go listen to the Bryke interview on Nerdist Writers Panel, a conversation about the creative process the impetuses for doing Avatar how to pitch but not pitch and something about a live action movie that happened (weird I don’t remember that).

Ok calling it now Kuviar is a Red Lotus member, you don’t just name a character and reference them twice for no reason.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com andcomicweek.com

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Thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "The Ultimatum" - All the World's a Stage and We All have a Part

Written by Joshua Hamilton Directed by Colin Heck

“The Ultimatum” is clearly the second part in a 4 part finale, if it’s meant to be in the tradition of four part finales or not. Being this second part means “The Ultimatum” is very much a table setting with everyone moving into place but not quick enough to actually effect change. Even when it is obviously mechanical (the whole trip back to Zaofu) there are enough little moments that make one think just a bit.

As bending brothers, Mako and Bolin, walk through a chaotic upper ring, passed a looter with a pot on his head and panting under his arm, guards joining the looters promising they know where the good stuff is. You kind of think this dosen’t look so bad. The long shots that intro “The Ultimatum” of upper ring show it burning and appearing to be a war zone, on the ground level looting is occurring but the peasantry (or at least the peasantry we are shown) aren’t lynching the aristocracy and worse. This is what happens when a repressive force is removed, it creates a power vacuum and people take advantage of the situation. The people are taking back “what is ours” in a forceful manner but that happens in all revolutions. Saying it could’ve been worse seems pat but I’m not overly concerned with the chaos, it’s all just a correcting fire that will restore balance eventually. Partly due to the mixed messages found in these opening moments. On one hand Ba Sing Se is in chaos but on the ground floor the peasantry are having a ball and looting is played for laughs, the lack of an aristocrat in this section leaves the overall morality ambiguous.

Any sort of ambiguity on the riots for our bending brothers ends in another moment of contrast seconds later. Bolin reiterates what it is Zaheer wants them to do (find Korra and deliver the message). All they need to do is somehow get out of Ba Sing Se and journey into the desert that stretches for thousands of miles. The brothers walk out of frame, and the episode cuts to a far high angle shot of the two brothers as PJ Bryne finishes the line about the desert. A chaotic Ba Sing Se is revealed to stretch the entirety of the frame and then some. Creating a visual scale for both the Earth Kingdom capital and to viewers who can’t imagine the desert what that too will look like. Almost instantly Bolin realizes the folly of describing what lies before them as “easy”.

These two moments that comprise the opening scene is roughly 90 seconds but gets across gravity of the situation effortlessly with contrasting visuals. The morality of the rioting is thrown aside, as Mako says that isn’t their fight, but as the POV characters the series shows the gravity of the situation according to them and amoral as it maybe it is certainly an obstacle.

After saving their newly found family, Mako and Bolin eventually make it to Misty Palms Oasis (after a near silent and still search) because everyone needs to meet up. Zaheer’s ultimatum is simple: Korra can give herself up or else he will destroy the newly created Air Nation. It isn’t exactly a surprising one and also reminds everyone o right, they still want the Avatar for something… Turning herself in is an option Korra considers as everyone rushes too Zaofu and than the Northern Air Temple.

In considering her options, Korra goes through an abbreviated redux of Aang going to his past lives for counsel. Korra is of course cut off from her past lives, but not the Avatar State, and instead runs into everyone’s favorite dues ex advices giver: Uncle Iroh. It’s an appearance that on a mechanical level expedites everything and darn it seeing Uncle Iroh is just a treat. The sagely Uncle points her to Zuko, who became one of Aang’s most trusted advisors later on in life. It’s her past life through a second hand source. Zuko dosen’t exactly says anything new or helpful, hitting on typical superhero trope of the greater good versus personal needs. Really the only reason I’m writing about this is the reaction shot animation when Korra says she talked with Uncle Iroh. If I could make a gif of that moment, I would. Zuko’s reaction to it is a moment of profound emotional affect only works as a viewer of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Somehow in those brief frames of animation it felt like Zuko basically melted at his Uncles name. It’s these smaller character moments that dominate the second act of “The Ultimatum”. Mako and Bolin’s Grandma in particular becomes just the zaniest Grandma ever which normally would be comedy that felt out of place but as this is the darkest before the dawn section of the story it’s needed.

Pull the Feels Lever guys

The Red Lotus make it to the Northern Air Temple first and quickly round up everyone. The action set piece from “The Ultimatum” may not be among the seasons best but there is still awe to be found. In particular the solo fight between Tenzin and Zaheer, the air bending master gets another Tenzin is a BAMF moment after not really doing much last season. Two air benders fighting is a style of combat we haven’t gotten to see before and like any good fight scene it tells audiences what’s really going on. For the better part o the season there has been talk about how Zaheer, even if he is an airbeding otaku, became a master of a long dead artform so quickly. His battle with Tenzin clearly shows there is still much to learn as he is the only Red Lotus member to meet any sort of resistance. Bumi’s fight with Ghazan and how smartly it is transitioned into by going from the background to foreground of the frame may be one of the best transitions in a team fight this series has done.

Eventually though it’s all for not and not even Tenzin can take on four opponents at once, not that it stops him from trying. “As long as I have breath, it’s never over” is a dark mirror to the Earth Queen’s death. The firing squad staging and slow quasi-wipe via panning to the wall also make it a legitimate moment that #TenzinDies won’t just be a joke Devindra Hardawar makes.

Two episodes left.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com and comicweek.com

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Thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "Long Live the Queen" - Well With a Title Like That

Written by Tim Hendrick Directed By Melchior Zwyer

The climax to Legend of Korra Book 1 Chapter 10, “Turning the Tides”, features Lin Beifong being stripped of her bending by Amon. The way the sequence is structured tells the viewers young and old what is really going on. This isn’t simply taking someone’s bending away it’s spiritually killing them, robbing them of their identity in the process. That sub text isn’t new; Amon’s previous display of power on the triads had the flair of a public execution, except we didn’t really care about those mobsters. We love Lin. The finale to the first book would drop this subtlety and to a degree beauty for cold and sudden death. A murder suicide between Tarrlock and Amon, a surprisingly dark moment for a series up to that point hadn’t explicitly shown death much less murder suicide. It was sudden and had no need for the sub text of Lin’s scene it certainly wasn’t beautiful.

“Long Live the Queen” finds a freighting best of both worlds scenario for its second act cliff hanger: Zaheer sucking the air right out of Queen Hou-Ting’s lungs and using that to make a bubble and slowly suffocate the Earth Kingdom monarch. It has the artistry of the Amon sequence and the bluntness of the other scene. As the Queen falls to her knees, the camera zooms in on her exasperated face, her eyes are becoming red and blood shot, veins beginning to burst. The camera hangs on that face just long enough for her and audience to realize she’s about to die. Programming this in the Nickelodeon schedule is looking harder and harder. This isn’t yet another abduction attempt by Zaheer as part of some greater super villain styled plan to get everyone together just the intimate, calculated, and efficient murder of a head of state. Zaheer makes good on his promise.

The murder of Queen Hou-Ting is by far the darkest act of violence this series has done. She may die off screen but that’s tame compared to director Melchior Zwyer showing us the moment of grace on Hou-Ting’s face right before. It was a human moment for a character who was a cartoonish villain. It has been a while since I watched her previous episodes but her face was very stretched and caricatured compared to her previous appearance.

The first season of Legend of Korra finished the same time as The Dark Knight Rises and the comparisons that could be made between the two on an aesthetic level was obvious. So much so that someone made this excellent faux TV spot mash up for the series. Zaheer’s proclamation that Ba Sing Se has been freed from the tyranny of the Earth Queen, and Ghazan’s subsequent display of power - knocking down Ba Sing Se’s mighty walls – resembles Bane’s “Take Control of Your City” montage. Of course we don’t get to see any sort of French Revolution styled rioting from the masses upon the aristocracy, just radio reports that Ba Sing Se is in chaos.

With the revelation surrounding the Red Lotus’ anarchist/anti-state ideology there has been much discussion over how you can empathies, if not root for Red Lotus. This is just an example of how antagonist should be written and with the blatant murder of the Earth Queen (no matter how righteous Zaheer and Co. believe it) firmly now puts them in the role of villain (but I don’t think they mind that title). Ultimately who is “good” and “bad” comes down to a matter of perspective. With the Legend of Korra being told from if not hers some abstracted version of Korra’s perspective Zaheer and the Red Lotus are the “bad” guys because they act as the antagonistic force against her protagonist force. Even if this was a story told from their perspective they wouldn’t be heroes either, more like anti-heroes though perhaps a bit more romanticized. With their roles cast, it is to this series credit for consistently finding the humanity within these characters and engendering some sympathy for the devil. This empathy isn’t created by them going on some monologue about how they’re life was rough and they chose a darker path. It is these little human moments, like Ghazan’s “really” reaction to Zaheer and P’Li’s reunion as they drive away. Or in this episode it’s when Bolin guess 2 out of 3 things correct about him and Ming-Hua. The brief awkward moment between the lava and water bender as Bolin guess at some connection between the two, sharing an awkward moment together before being ripped back into their roles by Zaheer. These are the “bad guys” as Mako likes to remind us. They’re just as quirky as our good guys, but with a bit more grit.

The series slow burn on Bolin’s eventual moment of metal bending is an obvious but fun arc for the character. Besides giving it to him now wouldn’t have worked with the episodes plot and most importantly taken away from some more PJ Byrne comedy, of turning Bolin into the most popular than disappointing prisoner on the cell block. With the limited time for these episodes and the precise nature of animation, I’m consetnely amazed at how much character and one off moments of humor they find and highlight over more traditional plot driven fair. You didn’t need the fellow prisoner who hasn’t seen his family in four years for the episodes plot to function and it’s time that could’ve been used to make Korra and Asami’s thread resemble Jaws 2 even more. Finding humanity and little moments is what makes this show great (on top of many other things). These are the things we remember it certainly isn’t the plot. It’s the crying face of Bolin after Korra kisses Mako for the first time. Or Naga scaring Lin before licking her much to the chief of polices displeasure.

Here we are at the end and it’s only now that I think of Korra and Asami – who pictured out of context appear to be ready for some Sunstone-esque fun. Sadly we don’t get to see Asami find her inner John McClane and crawl through air vents but she does get to save everyone by building the sand sled that takes them and airship crew to the safety of Misty Palms Oasis. Of all the threads this episode, this was the one that is the most obviously meant to begin the end game. With Korra and Asami meeting up with Tonraq, Lin, and Zuko who are just hanging out at a bar waiting for them to show up. In another show, their thread would have been fodder some Jaws antics.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.comorcomicweek.com

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Thoughts: Batman: Assault on Arkham - Yahtzee!

Directed by Jay Oliva Ethan Spaulding Written by Heath Corson

The two most recent DC Animated Features, Justice League: War and Son of Batman, are generally seen as either middling products or misfires. Both films, Son of Batman due to a poor script and War due to being too faithful to less than interesting source material devolved into bing-bang-boom plot driven features that didn’t service character. Batman: Assault on Arkham is by no means a character piece but it leverages the production limitations found in these features(tight budget of 76 minutes) to service and play with its set of characters better than the previously mentioned and other features. Assault on Arkham tells a rollercoaster ride of a Suicide Squad story in the process. Even when it becomes a bit of a Batman story at the end, it’s the right price to pay for something involving the Suicide Squad.

L-R: Harley Quinn, Black Spider, Deadshot, King Shark, Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang

The Suicide Squad is perhaps one of DC’s finest creations. Rebooted by John Ostrander in 1987 as part of the Legends event, the team (sometimes called Task Force X) became a rag tag team up of villains, often B grade or lower, under the command of Amanda Waller and sent on impossible missions that the US Government can’t officially be linked to. Who’s going to miss Punch or Jewelee anyways? How dose Waller keep some of societies worst under control? A bomb planted in their neck, with her finer on the trigger. If they survive, they get time knocked off their sentence. If they don’t it doesn’t really matter anyways.

The Squad is at its best when it is part Dirty Dozen and Mission: Impossible with an ample helping of dark humor. Because, o yeah, by the end of every issue someone is going to die! This is pulpy story telling greatness which is why the squad has gained a cult following and consistently appears in DC’s non-comic properties.

Unlike the Dirty Dozen, the squad members: Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang, Black Spider, and King Shark, are all established villains within DC comics. The Spider is perhaps one of the deeper cuts. Their established nature allows writer Heath Corson to just let established personalities play off one another either coming to blows or forming short ephemeral bonds during the moments when things aren’t falling apart around them.

I hate calling something “fun”, it’s a vaguely specific adjective that easily means different things to different people. But that is what Assault on Arkham is: fun. Playing into its pulp B-grade status, directors Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding give Arkham an exploitative flair. Little things like introducing each squad mate with their own title card (real name and code name) in a synergistic moment that communicates what it is each member can do and their personality. Or the anime style multi celled close up reaction shot of the squad as they have their first confrontation with the titular Batman, uniting everyone across space in a single emotion: shock and awe.

Amanda Waller has another job for Task Force X, forcibly repatriating new and old squad members into her service. The Riddler, Edward Nygma, has done something to cross The Wall and such aggression will not stand. But like all things Amanda Waller related, it isn’t always that clear cut. Given the plot heavy nature of this feature (meant in the best way possible), that’s all that should be said about it.

What is perhaps the most surprising and interesting aspect of Arkham is the amount of violence and sexuality found in the feature. Sure Flashpoint Paradox had a sustained shot in which you looked through the head of a character via a bleeding bullet hole, most deaths occurred just off screen. And it wasn’t all that “wet”(read: bloody) which is often the deciding matter on what is PG-13 and R according to the mysterious beast that is the MPAA. Arkham is pretty wet with seeping bandaged wounds and objects sticking out of bodies. This is to say nothing of the several moments and sustained shots in which head is removed from body…and that body continues to twitch. Violence has paradoxically never been that big a deal with American ratings board, it’s sexuality that becomes the hot pass to an R rating. This makes the several moments of explicit partial nudity surprising, a first for this line of products. Gladly more often than not, these moments are ones that affirm a female characters power and the simplicity of men when exposed to a pair of breasts. This in turns makes the moments when the camera firmly focuses on Killer Frost, Harley or other characters well defined rears feel even more out of place, gratuitous, and unnecessary.

Per usual, Warner Bros. Animation has pulled together a solid cast of voices. The most surprising of which is Giancarlo Esposito as Black Spider, his post Breaking Bad work continues to intrigue me. CCH Pounder’s return as Amanda Waller is fitting and makes me wish for the return this Waller to DC continuity (or at least the assumed film universe). Neal McDonough’s Floyd Lawton caries the film as the straight man of the group. With Greg Ellis providing plenty of off color humor as the surely and inferiority ridden Captain Boomerang. Through sheer force of will, Hynden Walch’s Harley Quinn nearly steals the film as the certifiable henchwoman. Walch and Troy Baker (Joker from Arkham: Origins) both do an excellent job imitating the iconic voices of Arleen Sorkin and Mark Hamill that I thought that’s who it was at times.

Batman: Assault on Arkham is an item that stands apart from the DC animated features line with its dark humor, sexuality, and pulp. Even though it is technically apart of the Arkham-verse it feels like just another Suicide Squad story, even when it becomes a Batman movie towards the end.

Bits At The End

  • Seeing Batman's eyes under the mask was really weird to me for some reaosn.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com orcomicweek.com

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BATMANBATMANBATMAN: Begins(2005)

A man dreams of bats, terrified of them more than the various criminals he shares a cell with in a Bhutanese prison. Henri Ducard offers this man, Bruce Wayne, the chance to join the League of Shadows and fight injustice with true justice. In the mountains Wayne confronts and masters his fears and returns to Gotham City. The city is in shambles. Corruption rules it top to bottom with no one brave enough to fight back. Wayne has a plan to give the few good people of Gotham a symbol to rally behind and in the process becom an urban legend.

When we last left the Batman franchise it was dead, murdered by Joel Schumacher and his Bat nipples. The franchise lay dormant with various attempts to get a new film made every couple of years. In 2003, Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan to direct and new Batman film, David Goyer joined on to the writing staff soon after. Nolan had previously made a remake of the Norwegian film Insomnia. Nolan and Goyer wanted to show Batman in a grounded reality that would allow people to actually care about the title character.

A little over a year later Nolan began filming in Iceland. Nolan doesn't do anything revolutionary or deconstructionist with the superhero genre in Batman Begins, he simply takes the time to explain what goes into becoming a superhero so when things become epic at the end we accept them.

Until the release of Batman Begins in 2005, no one really bothered to explain what goes into becoming a superhero. The heroes simply were. The X-Men were born different. Superman came from an alien planet. Hellboy was demon spawn. The closest thing that came to explaining it was Spider-man (2002) which didn’t ponder the questions and went more for an emotional push. Batman Begins spends the first half of its runtime making Batman and finally going full superhero in the final act.

The first 30 minutes deals with the journey of Bruce Wayne overcoming his fear so that others may feel his dread. Numbed by the loss of his parents and angry at the justice system, Wayne travels the world going deeper into the criminal fraternity. Eventually finding himself in a Bhutanese prison, ironically on charges of theft of items from his own company. He is pulled out of this abyss by Henri Ducard who claims to represent Ra’s Al Ghul and offers to train him to become a member of the League of Shadows. In the mountains Wayne learns ninjitsu and how to become more than just a man. This section explains Batman’s ability to take out multiple enemies and his ability to just disappear.

Refusing to give up his compassion for “true justice” Wayne escapes, returning to Gotham for the first time in 7 years. He plans on saving the city like his parents had by giving the good people of Gotham a symbol to rally behind.

How did Batman make his suit though? In the second act Wayne begins working for Wayne Enterprises. With the help Lucius Fox he acquires the necessary materials to become Batman. All of the things he forms his suit out of are treated as believable, slightly future technologies. He goes through revisions. It grounds what Batman can do taking away the more gimmicky Bat gadgets the series had become so fond of. We see Wayne hand making his batarangs. The lack of flashy gadgets puts over Batman as the weapon not his gadgets.

This all culminates in the docks sequence in which Batman disrupts the final drug shipment Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) was bringing in. The sequence doesn't play out like your typical action movie or superhero films. It is more akin to the slasher genre in terms of style. You hardly see Batman, merely the implied presence of Batman. Thugs are pulled into cargo boxes quickly. Lights are going out. Men run scared randomly firing their submachine guns. The camerawork and editing add to the tension with plenty of quick cuts and claustrophobic close ups. The first time we see Batman take on a group of thugs we actually hardly see him take them. The scene is filled with shot reverse shots of Falcone’s shocked expression as his men are manhandled by a blurry black figure. Finally Batman takes out Falcone proclaiming himself to be Batman.

This foundation building in the first half of the movie makes the final act all more thrilling. We saw Wayne put the suit together, confronting his fears. Now his former teacher Henri Ducard reveals himself to be Ra’s Al Ghul intent on finally putting Gotham City down. With what? A fear toxin that will be dispersed through the air via water vaporizer. When you say it like that it sounds comic booky and stupid. Yet in the context of Batman Begins it makes sense. We are told by Fox that Wayne Enterprises had various military contracts and the fear toxin is based on the blue flowers that was used to drug Wayne in his final test. These are believable extensions of the foundation made stronger by the character work done on Bruce Wayne.

I commented in my Batman(1989) essay that Gotham City was “once a glorious place. The glory days are clearly over”. Same goes for Nolan's Gotham. . .or should I say Chicago? During the early flashbacks we are shown a Gotham before the depression, in particular a very shiny Wayne Tower. Instead of leaving it up to the viewers to decipher, we are explicitly told numerous times that Gotham was that “shining city upon a hill”, and it clearly isn’t anymore. We are also told of and see how the Wayne family tried to save the city through charity and leading by example. They do ultimately save the city with their deaths;, the rich finally shocked into action. Using Chicago as Gotham City gives everything a feel of authenticity. Seeing graffiti on the streets and an slimey underground all appear natural within Chicago. Burton might have given Gotham city a unique, feel but Nolan's Gotham feels real. A character unto itself instead of a set.

Bruce Wayne has been an uneven character on screen. I’ve complained that he is either not used enough or is used enough but too little to characterize him. Bruce Wayne is a well known individual, for someone of his celebrity the world should be “too small for someone like Bruce Wayne to disappear”. In telling the origin of Batman, Begins shows all the facets of the Wayne character. On one level you have the brooding Batman persona taking up much of Wayne's nights. This must be counterbalanced with an alter ego of its own. This leads to Wayne adopting a stereotypical playboy appearance, Bale drawing on his time as Patrick Bateman in that mask. This is contrasted by the numbness and disillusionment Bale shows in the first 30 minutes of the movie as he trains with the League of Shadows.

Some actors were better Bruce Wayne's, like George Clooney and Keaton. Others were a better Batman: Val Kilmer. Christian Bale gives a wide ranging performance and is the best actor to play both Wayne and Batman. Bale gets the chance to show both Batman and Bruce Wayne and the struggle to balance the two. The previous actors were relegated to ridge moments of either Batman or Bruce Wayne with Bale the lines blur.

One man can not simply become a legend on his own. Nolan surrounds Bruce Wayne with a support staff of recognizable actors. In other films these roles would have been played by unknowns, except for Gordon. Alfred, Gordon and Fox are Batmans support system and even though they are ultimately supporting roles they are vital to the creation of Batman. Subliminally seeing Morgan Freeman,Gary Oldman and Michael Cain all under Christian Bale helps put Bale over as the star. Bale while critically loved for his acting in Machinist, American Psycho and Shaft, had hardly any star-power compared to that trio.

Commissioner, or in this case Sergeant Gordon, is no longer a throw away cameo appearance: he is an actual character. He becomes Batmans man on the inside of the police, his partner. Bruce Wayne is too high up in society to really notice Gotham’s rot, despite it being mentioned to him constantly. Through Gordon we naturally see a grungy, dirty Gotham city. As a simple beat cop we empathize with Gordon's plight of being a good cop in a corrupt town.

Michael Gough might of been the only constant across the previous Bat franchise, but there is something just right about seeing Michael Caine as Alfred. Admittedly the Alfred found in the four previous live action films was nothing more than an extended cameo, with a couple of one liners. The Alfred found in Begins comes is the other half of Wayne's surrogate fathers. Despite his ward coming off as crazy Alfred supports Wayne no matter what and is there to provide support and counsel, chastising Wayne for his numbness and disinterest in the Wayne legacy while providing sound advice. Caine manages to command the screen yet never overshadows the real star, Bale.

Where does Batman get all his cool gadgets? For the longest time those gadgets simply were and it was assumed they came from Wayne Enterprise. Begins answers the question by introducing Lucius Fox to the Bat family. Fox becomes Waynes “Q” supplying him with prototype gadgetry to fit all of Waynes needs. Morgan Freeman even looks like he is having a bit of fun. Fox and these other characters are supporting roles but they are important ones in the creation of the Batman.

I have much maligned the female leads in the Batman franchise. Either they are there to look hot, Nicole Kidman, or under developed and forced into romance angles out of genre convention, Kim Basinger and Michelle Pfeiffer. The only lead in a Bat film that I enjoy and that actually adds to the move is Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) from Mask of the Phantasm. The live action Bat franchise finally gets a strong female lead in the form of: Rachel Dawes.

Dawes isn’t your typical love interest. On some level she does work as a love interest, but she is more than that. Dawes is her own woman, an assistant district attorney who is trying to do the same thing Batman does. Discounting the past friendship they share, these things also would make her understandably appealing to a character like Bruce Wayne. Other than Alfred she is Bruce's only friend. Many of these women are there to entice Bruce into having a “normal life” and by the end of the movie they come to an understanding. She becomes the light at the end of the tunnel, his reward for all the sacrifice. The romance angle between the two is also underplayed predominantly: they are just platonic friends who are going at different speeds.

Katie Holmes is probably the weakest part of this movie. Despite having just gushed about how “Dawes is her own woman.” she does end up in a typical damsel in distress moment. The casting of Holmes also doesn't fit like the rest of the supporting roles either.

I have lamented the overstuffing of villains in Batman films. When it came out, the fact that Begins would feature both Ra’s Al Ghul and Dr. Jonathan Crane the Scarecrow raised concerns that this would again be overstuffed. Quiet to the contrary Begins balances the two perfectly. It is clearly established Ra’s Al Ghul is the real big bad of this movie, Scarecrow is merely a messenger in fact they never share screen time together.

The Scarecrow isn’t very threatening: he has “respect the mind's power over the body” and with his gas becomes truly terrifying. The Scarecrow persona is used sparingly. We see Dr. Crane more in a suit and tie doing dirty work for Carmine Falcone, whispering of the greater evil on its way than with a ghoulish mask gassing people. Cillian Murphy does a lot with a little. He is able to come across as detached and psychotic never going into mania. Like the pawn he is the Scarecrow is quickly dealt with minimal effort in the end.

Ra’s Al Ghul and his League of Shadows was an interesting use of the rogues gallery. Ra’s isn’t made in Gotham, he is from the Far East. He doesn't care about revenge or money he sees himself as a cleansing fire, a natural balance.

Writer David Goyer commented on the complex nature of the character "He's not crazy in the way that all the other Batman villains are. He's not bent on revenge; he's actually trying to heal the world. He's just doing it by very draconian means.”(1).

As the head of the League of Shadows, Ghul wishes nothing more than to bring Gotham back into balance by destroying it. Liam Neeson never overplays Ghul making him a mad terrorist from True Lies. No. Neeson plays Ghul as utterly sure in his righteousness. The hammiest line he utters is “time to spread the word. And the word is – panic!”. This is a welcome change to the cackling villains previously seen in Batman films.

Ra’s Al Ghul becomes a surrogate father to Wayne while he is trained in ninjitsu. He offers him a path out of the abyss Wayne had fallen into.When he finds Wayne, he is numb to the world. He vaguely wants to kill Joe Chill but never gets the chance. Alfred is the caring father, Al Ghul is the demanding father that Wayne is trying to impress. He trains Wayne into his greatest disciple only for him to refuse his offer at the final moment. This makes the battle between Ghul and Batman more personal, a battle between master and student. The other villains despite attempts never challenged Batman on that level.

With spot on casting and time spent laying a foundation for which to build on, Christopher Nolan had made one of the best superhero movies for its time. A star-studded supporting cast gave audiences familiar faces as they witnessed the journey of Bruce Wayne from a jail cell to Gothams dark protector. Giving the hero the right villains to combat made the action feel more personal while previous villains felt more important than the titular character.

Christopher Nolan's drama-over-style approach worked as Batman Begins was released, becoming one of the bigger critical and commercial successes for the superhero genre. With his attempts at realism and grounded take on the character Nolan had revitalized the franchise. In doing so, Christopher Nolan became one of the more well-known directors in the industry. Christian Bale broke out as a bigger star leading in several movies after Begins. The pair worked together again in The Prestige before returning to Gotham City for the inevitable sequel entitled The Dark Knight.

Recomended Reading

Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon by Dr. Will Brooker

Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman by Dr. Will Brooker

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Thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "The Stakeout" - From a Certain Point of View

Written by Michael Dante DiMartino Directed by Ian Graham

In this new digital age, I must report my viewing experience on nick.com was pretty good. The lack of Nick on Roku or Chromecast support meant I had to plug my laptop into the TV, which is the first wordlist of first world problems. There are some quibbles to be had. The video player either lags or due to the player running at 30 as opposed to 24 fps, either option creates a slight ghosting effect for the animation when characters move. Using the player is also a bit of a pain, scrubbing for a specific time often led to jumping to the next or beginning of an act. Which would mean I would be subjected to some commercial (or three), I never saw a commercial during the act breaks which is odd. I don’t run AdBlock either. Not to complain about the lack of commercials too much, as a user of FXNow and Hulu from time to time, not being bombarded with the same Audi ad three times over has made Nick one of the better legal online viewing experiences.

We Need a Cook

“The Stakeout” once again plays with two distinct tones. Acts 1 and 2 turn into another case of mystery solving with plenty of comedy, Naga gets her own animated bit of physical comedy this time. Act 3 drops all of that and pulls the political and action lever hard. These multiple tones and the hard shifts in between reminds me of South Korean cinema, a national style that goes through a spectrum of tones scene to scene or just beat to beat. I’d recommend The Host as a good example.

Bolin’s “lamp shading” the undercover crime motif his and Mako’s thread finds themselves in, was perhaps, a bit much. As joyus it is to hear P.J. Bryne instante come up with a new persona, Ting-Ting an ex-United Republic service member on a quest for vengeance, it turned Bolin into Abed from Community. Legend of Korra is at its best when it isn’t consciously reflexive, putting in some visual gags and references for the audience – like the Bruce Lee nod in the middle of the episode – to catch but not have its characters call them out. What was Mako’s new back story? He doesn’t need one, he’s a cop.

It bares repeating how well these past two episodes have reestablished Mako as a good and useful character, by simply showing him being good and competent at his job. Detective Mako is the best Mako (now where is my Mako Noir fanfic?!). Asami even gets her own moment of competency after being in the background for several episodes.

Returning to the Shady Palms Oasis is a nice touch. The desert oasis is alive with the spirits, one just sits in the water cool as a cucumber. The density of spirits continues the trend of humanity not yet fully accepting their new neighbors. It’s highly likely the oasis is a very spiritual place and they are naturally drawn to the place. The inhabits however are not as in tuned, they and the Avatar shoo the spirits away making them appear more nuance than sign of balance or something.

And then there is the third act, the giant exposition dump by a monologuing antagonist. Normally this would be something I hate, such an obvious bout of exposition this late in the game, clearly poor writing. Only it kind of isn’t, Zaheer and Korra’s conversation in the spirit world is all the things mentioned but episode writer Michael Dante DiMartino contextualizes in an natural, reasonable way. They are in the spirit world and thus without bending, there is no need for aggression and Zaheer needs to keep her there so the rest of the Red Lotus can capture a weakened Avatar in the spirit world. It’s also about time Bryke and Co. showed some of their cards, perhaps as a means to better get a lock on our viewing signal. This was a mythology dump too but it’s one that better informs our characters turning the Red Lotus from antagonist by their action to rebels with a cause.

Previously I had theorized that the Red Lotus were like Hydra in the MCU, a secret society within another one bent to undermine it for their own selfish gain. It was an assumption that was mostly right. The Red Lotus are a secret society and a splinter faction of the White Lotus. They do not however want to rule the world and dystroy the Avatar, like super villains. Their creed is that of anarchism and they possess the will to bring it to bear with violent action, all in service of their true goal of restoring balance and freedom to the world making a utopia in the process. Korra has Another antagonist fighting for equality. And suddenly the casting of Henry Rollins makes much more sense.

Shout Out to Genki Sudo

The Red Lotus blossomed after the end of the Hundred Year War, after the White Lotus came out of the shadows and publically helped the Avatar and the national governments. Xia Bau, founder of the Red Lotus, formed this splinter group as a means to counter this new found balance, with the end goal being that of anarchy: the end of the nation state and true freedom for the entire world’s people. As it turns out Unalaq was a member of the Red Lotus and it was his idea to kidnap a young Korra. Captured the Red Lotus would bend the Avatar to their purposes and use her as a tool to destroy the worlds governments, not the first time someone wanted to use the Avatar as a military tool.

Once again someone wants to use the Avatar as a tool and not as a person, yet another instance that underscores this series long arc for Korra as a struggle for her own agency free of the Red or White Lotus and the past Avatars.

With all of this revealed several historical parallels jump immediately to mind. The Red and White distinction between orders match that of the Russian Revolution of 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and company, the Reds, over through the Czarist Government represented by White. Zaheer and his team were imprisoned much like the exiled Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The Earth Queen now bears resemblance to the Russian Czar with the United Republic and its President representing western democracy and capitalism.

Korra calls this plan to eliminate the nation state chaos a synonym for anarchy. The end of the nation state and its institutions is an interesting idea. Zaheer believes that balance will be found in the chaos, “the natural order is disorder”. With the end of the nation state, a new equilibrium would be achieved undoubtedly. Anarchy as a means to achieve equality however doesn’t seem all that practical. Freed from the state we would splinter and make our own contracts with one another but like all social theories, ideology doesn’t allow for human greed and ambition to enter the equation. In the disorder, new leaders would rise, not all of them just (if such a thing exists) with only the only checks for power being revolution or an outside force the feasibility of corruption is high.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The scariest part of this sequence isn’t the knowledge that at the very moment Team Avatar are in grave danger, Mako and Bolin holding off Ming-Hua and Ghazan and Asami taking Nagga and Korra’s body away. It’s how similar Korra and the Red Lotus’ actions are. Visually director Ian Graham constantly frames Zaheer and Korra on the same axis in wide shots or uses the branches as seen in the image above to unite and frame them together. Simple shot reverse shot editing and using cinematography to match action further unites these two characters as two sides of the same coin.

“You’ve had to deal with a moronic President ad tyrannical Queen, don’t you think the world would be better off if leaders like them were eliminated?” Zaheer questions Korra. Violent action is something Korra is quite familiar with, muttering earlier in the episode, and not the first time either, how much she’d want to punch the Earth Queen in the face next time they met. Wither her thoughts verbalized, Korra is rendered speechless. They have more common ground than she’d care to admit.

Ultimately though, Korra is a superhero and that means an inherent trust in the system in place to a near idealized level. Just because Korra is a superhero doesn’t make Zaheer and the Red Lotus super villains. They are revolutionaries, making them inherently antagonistic but not truly villainous. As Zaheer points out Unalaq went into business for himself and became the Dark Avatar and thus a villain. For true villainy to take place selfish action must be taken. Zaheer has shown a commitment to near selflessness in name of his revolutionary cause; he’s just a man marching to a different beat.

Bits At The End

If you’d like some reading, the Ursula K. Le Guin novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

You can read more about Anarchisim here

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com or comicweek.com

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Thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "The Terror Within"

Written by Joshua Hamilton Directed by Colin Heck

“The Terror Within” torrential pacing and Scooby Doo hijinks continue the level of quality Book 3 has achieved. As with “In Harm’s Way”, the action heavy front half would make it easy to not really pick at things besides gushing (once again) over the quality of Studio Mir’s animation. Writing “The Terror Within” off as an action episode would, however, be disservice to the lots of little moments peppered in between the action.

Book 2 was plotted in such a way that plot points and the lore workings of these points were barely made clear episode to episode. It was opaque in the way Game of Thrones season 2 was this vast yet formless epic. It was only in totality that the form took shape and real appreciation could be had. Book 3 hasn’t stopped keeping secretes and lore from audiences or Team Avatar, we still know next to nothing about the Red Lotus (a name only figured out via HTML scraping and Episode Titles) motivations – only that it’s a lava bender, combustion bender (glad to finally have a name for that), Ming Hua, and led by Zaheer who spouts ancient Air Nomad mysticism in between lying and flying on his glider. The mystery of their motivation though isn’t nearly as annoying due to Book 3 tighter writing and use of 2 part episode arcs in the first half. Book 3 is able functioning as a television series, providing closed arcs by the end of an episode, making for an enjoyable viewing experience and allowing the Red Lotus’ phantom menace to be just that: a mysterious antagonistic force. For now that’s all the story of Book 3 requires and so that’s what they are.

The Red Lotus Strike

And what an awesome force for action they have been. First with each team members individual prison breaks, and now with the first attack on Team Avatar and Zaofu. It’s gotta be the fact it took place in a dome. Surrounded by Suyin’s family, Team Avatar, and a smattering of not totally useless guards the action has a fair amount of dynamism for what boils down to something out of a cover based shooter. Not that cover dose anyone any good since P’Li can apparently bend her combustion(?) shots. After the floor turns to lava, Lin and Suyin decide to attack from above providing a small sequence reminiscent of the excellent attack on the Pro Bending Arena with high flying theatrics.

As awesome as the action was it would be weightless if it didn’t also highlight Bolin and end the arc from “Old Wounds” and transitioning to the next plot smoothly. Bolin was kind of lost in Book 2, sure he had his “Movers” plot but in comparison to everyone else it felt like an afterthought and dumbing down of the character. Bryke and Co. have firmly reestablished Bolin is the Bro of Bros via his budding relationship with Opal and now his attempts to learn metal bending. Exploring Bolin’s insecurities in this and previous episodes is incredibly natural for a character with such bravado and during the attack it’s up to him to take the shot. Getting Opal out of the picture for now is a good call, adorable as it was it got a little cloying towards the end. Sending the love birds out on a dual homage of classic romance: “We’ll always have Kale” referencing “We’ll always have Paris” and then Opal feeding him the wrap (off screen) which might actually be the most sub textually sexual moment in this series and reminiscent of Now Voyager’s end.

Betrayal is a hard thing to handle, it’s will always be taken it personally. Making Suyin’s actions in light of one of her people turning into a rat are to a degree understandable. It dosen’t make them any less ruthless. She throws the Fall Guy Guard up against the wall, ready to take some extra judicial punishment on him now, with nary a though towards procedure. The way she talks about making those who betrayed the Clan pay is also pause for concern. For all her talk about how the Earth Queen is an outmoded governmental construct she’s acting exactly like Hou-Ting. When combined with her actions at the end of the episode, letting Team Avatar escape the city and hunt Aiwei, it starts to seem like something is up with Suyin. It’s another link a long chain of characters using the Avatar to their own ends by flattery and agreeing with them. That said, Suyin could easily be another Asami, a character everyone thinks and expects to be evil but isn’t.

As fun as it was to see the story turn into an episode of Scooby Doo, Pabu gets to be rather anthropomorphic this episode, there is an on the nose quality to the dialog that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Adding Varrick to the mix did add a reflexive quality and in an investigation what else would you really talk about. At the very least it reasserted that Detective Mako is the best Mako (and someone should really write Noir Mako fan fic). Maurice LaMarche delivery of “You have no idea what’s coming Avatar…” was appropriately freighting. We don’t know what’s coming but that hasn’t stopped Korra and Co. running head on into it.

This is of course the final episode that will be aired on Nickelodeon the channel. The remaining episodes will air on Nick.com, Amazon, Xbox, and others according to the statement on Korra Nation. It’s an abrupt but not unexpected change, Bryan Konietzko talked about it during the recent SDCC panel. The adverb “smooth” rings the most, it was a sudden change and not exactly a smooth one. It looked sudden and without coordination with Bryke, having creators post chibi art with text boasting that the show isn’t canceled! just looks slapdash. Nickelodeon for the most part has done a good job hooking into this fandom via the tumblr an social media but it also doesn’t really treat it like a proper television series with press releases and the like because as the creators said, this isn’t really Nickelodeon fair. Nickelodeon has been treating the same as its other shows and well their demo isn’t plugged into the internet quite like this. So why would they do anything differen?

Hopefully the move to digital is a good thing and it’s an excuse for Nickelodeon to experiment in that area or looking at licensing deas ala what CBS dose with Under the Dome and Extant with Amazon Prime. Korra would be perfect for Amazon Prime, a niche but large audience and content that can be listed under “kids” and normal stuff.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com or comicweek.com

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Thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "Old Wounds"/"Original Airbenders"

Written by Katie Mattila Directed by Ian Graham

“Wana know how I got these scars?” was a horrific question in The Dark Knight because it was a question everyone would want answered; every scar has a story (just look at Arrow). Often used as signifiers of villainy or as a reminder for a past transgression, scars instantly add to a character on top of just looking cool. Giving one to Lin only made her more interesting. As soon as Lin Beifong appeared in Legend of Korra, a surely, job oriented, barker her was none too pleased at the Avatar’s presence, Bryke and Co. had something special. She swung around like Spider-Man with the attitude of Wolverine and had a sweet facial scar to boot. Lin Beifong had a past that was hinted at and illuminated sparingly but all that mystery made the character even more legendary.

Giving Lin her own episode, paired with a Tenzin centric episode following, is the kind of thing I would have expected from the previous series. With 22 episodes to write they had plenty of time to fill and meander about. With Book 3 Korra’s writing has hit a great synthesis of main seasonal arc and the kind of great one offs that made A:TLA great. The series has managed to introduce a wide range of side characters and is now starting to flesh them out (Bumi, Lin among the top) in more ways than great one off sequences.

Lin’s acupuncture induced flashbacks are short but give a great idea of what it was like in the Beifong house. Lin already an officer arrives to find Suyin skipping school and hanging out with some less than savory individuals. It’s their brief interactions with each other mostly Lin saying “You’re wasting your potential” and Suyin mocking her for being a cop that get to the heart of the matter. Their relationship echo’s that of Azula and Zuko. One sibling desperately trying to please their parent the other not trying to at all and always getting favorable treatment by just being “perfect”, from Lin’s perspective. Suyin isn’t perfect though as the next flash back reveals how Suyin driving the getaway car for her hoodlum friends (who were working for the Terror Tirade) and how she gave Lin those pair of facial scars.

After Lin captures her sister, Toph’s daughters place their mother in an impossible situation. Unable to afford having a daughter in prison, she banishes Suyin (putting her speech about running away last episode into new light) and covers the whole thing up. This was the breaking point for their family and made an old festering wound inside Lin.

16 years later all that festering finally bursts with sister attacking sister. Lin normally the hero is here portrayed more as the antagonist even though she is the protagonist of the piece. The Republic City chief projects all her bitterness and self loathing on to her sister and blaming her for their mother’s retirement a year later. Despite Suyin once again stating that her and Toph worked this all out years ago. It’s that inability to let go that makes Lin such a good police chife though, it’s been encoded into her ever since she became a cop. There is no trusting people anymore, once someone has dabbled in criminality they are forever tainted even your own sister. Without fighting her sister, there would be no way for Lin to square the contradictory messages being sent.

This isn’t to imply that Suyin is completely innocent. I think she has changed for the better but Zaofu feels like the new aged Ba Sing Se: Truthseers “there are no secrets in Zaofu” and protective domes that fold up during the night. The biggest red flag being Varricks occupancy, played for comedy audiences know he’s the worst kind of villain: a business man.

Parenting is hard (duh) on both sides of the equation (double duh). With an episode showing the effects of ax parenting and holding gurduges, Bolin and Opal opening up and admitting to one another their fears of failure and disappointment was a sweet thematic accompaniment. Look at them opening up and supporting each other, it’s adorable as all get out.

With “Old Wounds” healed, Korra may have told one of its best mini arcs. With the two part structure for the season, by all apprences, the fact they have fractured these arcs is annoying. At the sometime it makes me want to watch next week’s episode.

Written by Tim Hedrick and Directed By Mel Zwyer

“Just because they can airbend, doesn’t make them Air Nomads”. Pema counsels her flustered husband, in what seems to be the largest speaking moment for the Maria Bamford voiced character. The air benders wife hits the nail on the head of this season’s central point: the ability to do something does not automatically make you a part of that something. The new airbenders out of the Earth Kingdom were of the Earth culture first and no ability to blow wind severs that connection.

With this new found ability does come the possibility that they could become a part of something new and form a new Air Culture. They just need a connection to this new surrogate family they find themselves apart of; Tenzin just fosters it poorly. This is, on its face another Tenzin isn’t the best teacher episode but it shows why it is he isn’t the “best”. Culture is the shared traditions and customs by a group of people, the colloquial use of “Duder” GiantBomb for example. The problem is, the Air Nomad as a society has been extinct for 170 years locked away in books and Aang’s memories. With only a single unit as the keeper of its cultural flame and only two links into the chain, that connection is lessoning. Tenzin is not his father, he doesn’t have Aang’s memories of a vibrant populated Air temples. The only connection to it that he had was his Father’s lessons, the books, and fellow air acolytes (who are treated in this show more as background filler than participants). These few connections leave Tenzin with his cultures histories as his main link to this nebulous idea, making him more of a knowledgeable liberian than authority on interaction.

This lack of shared experience in a sense has turned Air Nomad culture into something resembling the Catholic Church. Aang and his family are the preachers and gateways to applicable Air Nomad knowledge. Tenzin reads to his flock from a good book - the history of some Air Bender 90+ day fast – with his pupils looking at him disinterested or as if he is speaking a different language. He just proselytizes in such a tone deaf manner. The character model for Tenzin isn’t the most articulated piece of the show but J.K. Simmons earnest line reading, evoke the image of a man just jumping around wondering “Can’t you see how cool this is?”, and everyone else looking at him like he is a crazy man.

Calling the new airbenders “recruits” really is the most appropriate term, and due to the arc from episodes 3-4 gives the word a dehumanizing weight. “This is just as bad as the Earth Queen’s prison” Kai bemoans after running the obstacle course. At the start I compared the new airbenders to Mutants in Marvel Comics but now with them all situated at the Northern Air Temple, they resemble Jedi. When will they get to go and visit their families? What is the return policy? I know this is Korra’s show but if there could be just a season spent on rebuilding the Air Nomads like this that’d be cool.

Dogmatic as “Original Airbenders” sounds writer Tim Hedrick and director Mel Zwyer use this disconnect to lean into Tenzin as a comedic presence; turning the oft befuddled monk into a drill master after a pep talk from Bumi to great comedic effect. Waking his “recruits” early and pushing them to their breaking point so that they may be remade into true Air Nomads. “Original Airbenders” also features a couple just nifty sight gags, like Kai sliding into the rest of the group once his name is mentioned.

It’s interesting to see Kai outside of the watchful eye of Bolin, who was used more as a way to signal to the audience that this guy is good. Now constantly paired with Jinora their relationship is both adorable and with much potential for hubristic folly. With Kai prodding Jinora that she should have her air tattoos already, a not totally untrue statement but it just creates images of “The Deserter”. Even without Kai that idea that Jinora is ready for her airbender ink would’ve come up naturally anyway but now that there’s a boy involved o bother.

“Original Airbenders” feels like quintessential Avatar: The Last Airbender, “Bitter Work” (S02E09) in particular. Well structured with a mixture of natural and long developing conflicts that eventually lead to crisis, action, and in this case hints of the beginning of a new Air Nomad culture, and resolution. In particular the act 2 act break—after the reveal of the Bison Pocher clad in BISON PELT was executed wonderfully—,immediately conjuring within me wonder and belief. That this was the end of the episode and the possibility that Kai and JInora would get their own seasonal ‘C’ plot for the remainder of the Book. Book 3 in general besides the obvious parallel of it being more of a road show feels like the best parts of the previous series, aged up.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com orcomicweek.com

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thoughts: Legend of Korra Book 3 "In Harm's Way" "The Metal Clan" - Familes Surrogate or Oherwise

With Nickelodeon essentially burning Legend of Korra off I'll just be doing a single 2 episode post with each episode broken up via their title card. Unless there is like a denoted two parter or something that would make looking at these seperate units as a whole.

“In Harm’s Way” prison break start where Zaheer, Ming-Hua and Gohzan break P’Li out of her icy cell was a rousing action set piece that isn’t the typical start for episodes of Korra or predecessor A:TLA. Action set pieces are more typically used in the third act as a mean to resolve plot. Starting “In Harm’s Way” this way made me wonder if perhaps diplomacy might be used to resolve the remainder of the 22 minute episode. Nope, true to its name characters are constantly placed in places of harm bookending the episode with a pair of prison breaks. Team Avatar and the Frightful Four aren’t that different.

Studio Mir’s animation style gives this series a vibrancy and life that shined through when viewing Studio Pierrot episodes. There is constant movement within the frame, something that is difficult when producing 2D animated products. This constant movement shines more in the small details: character blink from time to time, there are little twitches in the midground. As Bolin recaps episode 3 to Korra, he takes on an expressionistic and anime appearance before collapsing in a heap. It’s a moment of artistic license but it creates a visual truth to go along with P.J. Byrne’s vocal performance thus giving the appearance of life. These small moments may add up overtime but Studio Mir more than pulls of the large set pieces. I could watch animation for Ming-Hua swinging from place to place or climb up the cliffs of insanity. The tracking shot of her swinging from the ice spikes created by Eska and Desna was fantastic. Her water arms also appear to be always in motion.

Giving each bending discipline a distinct style and base created a visual language. As the prisoners practice air bending under the watchful eyes of the Dai Li, it is apparent very quickly that they don’t bend like traditional air benders. They are bending like an earthbender, a heavy stance with slow heavy movements. Kai is the only one who acts like a leaf. The retracting dolly shot as the airbenders try to block the disks is a small highlight for me. It was a nice touch focusing on the Dai Li agents feet getting slowly pushed back by the airbenders, interrupting their base and preventing than from bending.

In my recap for “The Earth Queen” I called what the Earth Queen was doing “impressments” which was not the best word. What I should have called it conscription like Bumi said, as ruler of the Earth Kingdom she has the right to conscript citizens for the army. Obviously the Earth Queen does not see newly found abilities and changing ones citizenship. Her warning to Korra, that breaking these new airbenders out is an act of war isn’t really brought up again “In Harm’s Way” or “The Metal Clan” but it is a threat that will hopefully be carried out creating another villain to contend with. But who would she attack, the nonexistent “air nomads” or the real prize, the United Republic? The latter seems more likely given she’s already voiced her displeasure and Lin with her Republic airship helped get the airbenders out.

My reaction to the first Deus Ex Jinora was almost one of laughter, adding a nice bit of Christian imagery to something that already looked like homage to Neon Genesis Evangelion was too much. Things grow easier to take with repetition so Jinora just astral projecting her way to finding Kai isn’t too bad and they checked its power level. Mako dropping the Lake Laogai reference was a nice call back to the old series. Almost expected to see Jet’s body floating in the water. It’s interesting that Jinora says here technique is really some high level airbending and some spiritual stuff, but that’s just a little nod that makes you go “hmm” and nothing else at this point.

Tenzin’s tearful reaction to the recently freed airbenders deciding to join him was well earned. It also helps how lush the coloring of the sunset scene was, there was a 90s warmth to it. “In Harm’s Way” is an action packed episode that caps off the two part Ba Sing Se story and feels like the show is trying to achieve the scale of season 2 but without the opaque reveals.

Directed by Colin Heck Written by Michael Dante DiMartino

On the run from the Earth Queen, Team Avatar continues searching for new airbenders despite the protests of Chief Beifong. This time, they receive word that a new airbenders has appeared in the city of Zaofu, home of the Metal Clan. One of the more interesting things to see in Korra is how Bryke and Co. go about bridging the gap in time, at times logically extending it – the modern metropolis/nation of Republic City – or updating known quantites – Ba Sing Se which only seemed to get dirtier. The metal city of Zaofu appears more like a fusion of these two schools and something else entirely. The old style found in the modular rings that separate section of the city and the modern in the lotus flower inspired shells that pull up around said rings creating a protective barrier. The whole place looks like it was designed by Apple. Which is to say nothing of its inhabitants everyone is wearing metal, guide Aiwei has a nose to ear chain/piercing, one of Suyin’s sons makes abstract art and looks like Skrillex (I thought he looked more like The Dark One from The Promise). As Suyin tells Korra later on the episode she and her architect husband made this place and it feels like something from a main vision.

Suyin Beifong - Matriarch of the Metal Clan

“The Metal Clan” serves as our first real chance to learn the backstory to Lin Beifong, via the introduction of her (half) sister SuYin Beifong voiced by Anne Heche. Korra co-creator Bryan Konietzko described her performance as “cool, classic, Old Hollywood quality to her voice which suits the time period really well” and that is largely my reaction Heche’s performance in the episode as well. She’s quite and not in the old wise person kind of way but in an assured confident way. It’s the opposite of Mindy Sterling’s Lin who is all thunder and furry. Therein lies the drama for “The Metal Clan” the fractured relationship between Toph’s daughters. So far Book 3 appears to be structured in 2 part stories which due to airing 3 episodes at once is now fractured, it’s the kind of little thing that will drive me mad.

Suyin is the opposite of her sister, a self described rebel she left home at 16 and traveled the world. Journeying abroad she sailed aboard a pirate ship, joining the circus, living in a Sandbender commune for a time. Before realizing she was really searching for a family, so she made one and a city to go with it. Suyin is a women marked by her freedom where as Lin is totally defined by her job, even if costume changes would not be an issue Lin Beifong would likely still be in the police metal. Lin’s reaction to being surrounded by her sisters everything borders on contempt and bitterness. I’m interested in seeing the reaction to Lin here, it’s very “Korra” in that she hunkers down and projects onto everything and just wants to fight.

The return of familial strife is Bryke and Co. bread and butter and also features are second iteration that our heroes are not perfect. The line that stood out most to me wasn’t the fact that Lin and Suyin never knew their fathers but that Toph was never there for them giving them plenty of room to find themselves while she was busy playing cops and robbers. Leading each daughter fighting for their mothers limited attention. It is however amazing that Bryke made Toph a single mother, there is no concrete knowledge on Toph’s marital status but it isn’t common to have a show (much less one on Nickelodeon) featuring the challenges of single motherhood. Which isn’t to imply it can’t be done, my Aunt raised my cousin on her own rather well.

As it turns out the new airbender is Suyin’s daughter Opal and she is adorable. The kind of obviously adorable that makes this sudden Bolin-Opal relationship feel badly reflexive. I’m not a person who gets invested in “shipping” and find most of that stuff poorly handled, so hey, maybe I’m just a cynical guy in this area. Opal is however our first new airbender that isn’t a part of some disenfranchised peasantry class. Opal can do anything she wants with her parents money away from the guise of the Earth Queen most likely. Making the call for her to join the rest of the recruits in at the Northern Air Temple a nice variation on past questions of cultural identity by really introducing a strong family tie. The first potential recruit was a family man but that sequence was more to raise the questions of just what is being asked of them. Suyin’s reaction to the idea of her daughter leaving to live in an Air Temple is what I’d expect out of the rich business class, able to just make or procure whatever it is they need. In this case enlisting Korra to teach Opal.

Dancing Air Bison

Simmering sister rage aside, “The Metal Clan” is a tranquil episode especially compared to “In Harm’s Way”. Suyin’s reveal as part of a dance troupe was beautifully choreographed; the metal bending flower was smooth and peaceful not heavy and segmented like typical earth bending. Korra and Opal’s training session is calm and relaxing, their matched movements reminiscent of the Dancing Dragon. Even Zaheer’s trip through the spinning walls is treated as a thing to behold.

Perhaps now that Zaheer’s bald appearance matches Henry Rollins more the voice sounds even better. The Frightful Four have separated as Zaheer infiltrates Air Bender Island as a means of getting closer to the Avatar right under everyones nose and to read more by Guru Lahyima. Finding a pendant with a poem written by the Guru in Tenzin’s study “Let go of your earthly teather/Enter the void/Empty/And become wind”. This sounds a lot like what Jinora told Kai about her astral projection – high level airbending with some spiritual mumbojumbo. Perhaps Guru Lahyima’s key to weightlessness wasn’t true physically but spiritually, letting him cross between the physical and spiritual realms. Zaheer doesn’t get a chance to ponder or expose to a tired Ikki for long thanks to Kya realizing who he is. The particulars of this “how” is unclear it seems like she just recognized him not she was aware he was escaped.

Their requisite fight is typical Korra action. It was nice to see Kya kick some ass and not just be the healer type.

Bits At The End

CRAZY Theory Corner: Zaheer is a “failed” Air Acolyte, that’s how he knows so much about the Air Nomads. Also the Frightful Four kill Sokka (yea that makes me sad).

So is Where in the World is Toph the new Zuko’s Mom?

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com or comicweek.com

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Thoughts: The Bridge "Yankee" - Hybrids, Drug Cartels, and Grief

The various levels of duality found in the The Bridge could be enough to make some kind of meta-Community styled comedy: two showrunner, (ostensibly) two leads, settings and so on. As with its two settings - El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico – The Bridge season 1 was very much a two separate entities in the same body. On one hand you had the spine of the season yet another genius serial killer with a message plot (in a time when that was starting to really wear thin) headed up by Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir’s Sonya Cross and Marco Ruiz respectively. The other hand is what Grantland’s Andy Greenwald dubbed the “Weird Bridge” the stories set in the periphery with characters like odd Coyote Steven Linder(Thomas M. Wright), Charlotte Millwright(Annabeth Gish) and journalist odd couple Daniel Frye(Matthew Lillard) and Adriana Mendez(Emily Rios) both of whom are now regulars. These formless and introspective sections clashed with the very generically structured main plot. In between the production of season one and two co-showrunner Meredith Stiehm left to return to Homeland reportedly after disagreeing on the direction of the series going forward, leaving Elwood Reid in charge. In interviews Reid has affirmed an interest in the “Weird Bridge” and by the first episodes near center less and many threaded start, the “Weird Bridge” will be the focus of things.

Television can never truly change until the moment before it ends. So, as with the first episode of the series, bodies are coming across the borders. Cartel lawyer, Monte P. Flagman(Lyle Lovette) is shown hazily, driving to a housing development and upon near slipping into the pool of blood just across the threshold, everything comes into focus. Observing the display of carnage, which is perhaps the most blood The Bridge has really shown, with a quite amusement. The practitioners of this and other violence in “Yankee” appear to be a pair of cartel workers, accountant and possible hitwoman Elanor Nacht (Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente) and her unnamed heavy, who was none too pleased about driving around in a hybrid car. At least they aren’t the typical serial killer ilk and their actions do reverberate in the end to Cross and her fellow El Paso lawmen. Discovering said hybrid car driving in circles, blood splattered window unnamed heavy dead at the wheel and dogs head sticking out the window.

As the stars of the series, Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir would normally be the center of the show and they largely are but “Yankee” has a lot of setup to get done with first. “Yankee” writer Elwood Reid sets Cross and Ruiz on paths forcing them to deal with past grief. Cross, who is more than likely somewhere on the autisms spectrum, understandably doesn’t deal with the idea that the man who killed her sister and in a mentally handicapped state thanks to Wade is dying. After having what is the equivalent of a meet cute in this world with his brother Jack Dobbs manages to find some physical relief and perhaps an equally wounded party to those murders. As Cross begins “foreplay” each party begins to wonder if this is “weird”. Yep, it’s pretty weird but not totally unique in terms of fictions ability to just have random sex occur. These sequences portend more than accomplish and are carrid by Kruger’s acting which has appears less overt and purposely mannered though this could be due to finally acclimating to her performance. Cross maybe more obviously incapable at expressing emotions but Marco Ruiz is just the same if not worse, unable to deal with the downward spiral his life has taken.

In the Shadowlands

Cross’ quitter struggle pale to the very real danger Marco finds himself in. His comrades know they saved Eva, putting him in a precarious spot. During a drug raid (that appears to actually only turned up bodies) one of his own men tries to murder him. His would be assailant blends into the masked chaos of the raid, making one wonder if this wasn’t all in Marco’s head. Now officially divorced from his wife and seemingly cut out of his children’s lives, Marco is unmoored. This allows Bichir to continue to beautifully express the broken grief of his character but the note is beginning to wear a bit thin.

It isn’t all blood and gloom thanks largely to the Matthew Lillard as “functioning alcoholic” (now that is clearly all in his head) reporter Daniel Frye. Who when he isn’t poking fun at Brian Baumgartner (The Office’s Kevin) for being a Rush fan or interrupting Adriana’s lunch date continues the search for whomever Millie Quitana is.

“Yankee” appears to setup Cross’s driving plot at the end, the discovery of the hybrid, but largely the episode has to set things up and (re)introduce elements. It’s final images of the nude heavily tattooed body of Elanor Nacht asking two passers buy help is potent. I have no idea where this season will be going, except in a weird direction. Previews for the upcoming season include a band of cartel members donning zombie(?) masks and blowing people away, the return of Steven Linder and more. In terms of scale and structure it wouldn’t be far off to compare it to The Wire, if it manages to pull off half of what that series did we’ll be just fine. If The Bridge is going to be structured less generically hopefully it will find quality thematic through lines most good episodes of Game of Thrones have.

I am Michael Mazzacane and you can find on Twitter @MaZZM and at weekntv.com or comicweek.com

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