Korra, Uncensored

The most powerful woman on television is back on television, where she belongs.

We need her, more than ever.

It’s a bittersweet convergence, as I wrote last year when Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko — the creators of Legend of Korra and its Peabody-winning predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender — signed with Netflix to reanimate their cli-fi epics. The last time Korra was actually on television, she was wrongly taken off of television.

Then she was clumsily put back on again, after her forcible removal to online only predictably turned out to be one of the dumbest idea Korra’s parent corporation ever dreamed up.

Nickelodeon’s blunder has looked even dumber as time has passed. Avatar: The Last Airbender has become one of Netflix’s most popular series.

As I wrote last year, Korra’s thankful return would eventually come, and turn out to be just as popular. That time has come.

And yet the blunders only seem to replicate: Days before Legend of Korra aired on Netflix, its creators announced they were leaving Netflix’s highly anticipated live-action reboot of Avatar: The Last Airbender. History is regrettably repeating itself: Director M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender was an unfortunate mess. You can read more about that in my interview with Shyamalan himself.

And so it is in honor of my last chat with the creators — who were dealing back then with pretty much the same corporate, creative drama as they are now — that I present my uncensored 2014 interview from Korra’s last sighting. It is an extensive, challenging conversation about Korra’s value (and devaluation) in an exponential climate crisis, when enduring mythic narratives about balancing the human and natural worlds are more needed than ever. Unlike the exploitative complacency of horrorcore, which is (still, unfortunately) dominating our culture and industry.

And it is bittersweet because DiMartino and Konietzko have created some of the most popular, enduring cli-fi programming of this globally warmed century. That they have since been dispossessed of their intertextual, rewarding creations, in a destabilized epoch where they are as popular as they were before, is a problem.

And we have to deal with it.

I’m calling Legend of Korra the greatest show on television. Care to agree or disagree?

MIKE: Well, thanks for calling it that! We’re obviously a little biased, so I’m not going to argue with you.

Do you think a bias against animation still exists in this regard? Or have we grown up enough to admit it can compete?

MIKE: I do think there is probably a too-low expectation of what a children’s TV animation program can look like and the types of stories it can tell. We’re constantly trying to push the envelope with the sophistication and depth of both the storytelling and artwork in Legend of Korra. My hope is that people who love interesting stories and entertaining TV programs will check out the show, whether they normally watch animation or not. We’ve heard many times over the years that Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra have converted even the most skeptical of viewers.

I’m also calling Korra the most powerful woman on television. And I’m not just talking about superpowers, but also her cultural power as a positive, complex heroine in a time when we need strong women.

BRYAN: You’re throwing me off with all of these hyperbolic declarations! Although I like the sentiments. It is difficult from this vantage to quantify Korra’s cultural power, especially since the audience has only seen half of her story so far. The impact of our first series seemed to grow bigger in the years after it was finished, due to reruns and digital streaming, and it still keeps finding new audiences every year. So I think it is too early to call it on Korra just yet. The response we have gotten from the audiences around the world, and the anecdotal feedback we have heard from people at signings, have both been gratifying.

Any men or women on TV who can compete with her? I’m drawing a blank. Does she get the respect she deserves?

BRYAN: I am certainly proud to add Korra to the pantheon of TV characters, which is perpetually sorely lacking in multifaceted female characters who aren’t sidekicks, subordinates, or mere trophies for male characters. The notion that she is the most potent female character you can think of and no other comes to mind, in a time when I hear there are more TV shows in production than ever before, is pretty depressing. Hopefully Korra and our many other dynamic female characters (including the new ones we will be introducing in Books Three and Four) will help inspire kids and adults alike, open doors for more main female characters in all media, and contribute to a shift in the exclusive paradigm.

Speaking of entertainment, horrorcore dominates from Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to other hyperviolent escapism. I consider this to be a symptom of the planetary crisis we’re experiencing but choosing not to accept. We can view any manner of real-time atrocities crying out for immediate attention, should we choose to change — Book Three’s title, naturally — the interconnected world around us. Horrorcore doesn’t make us want to make change, but Legend of Korra does.

MIKE: I do enjoy Game of Thrones, though Walking Dead is too scary for me! I’m not interested in horror or escapist violence at all. I’m not going to pretend I don’t watch some violent shows (Game of Thrones among them) but I have been finding myself as of late questioning why I’m watching some of these more extreme offerings. For me, as long as there is some kind of point to it all, and it isn’t mere escapism, then it keeps me coming back for the next episode. But I totally agree that today’s stories have a great opportunity (and responsibility) to help us evolve as individuals and as a society.

Do you find horror to be as cowardly as I do? Should we, like Tolkien (a vet who witnessed the horrors of WWI) seek to re-enchant not disenchant humanity and nature?

MIKE: I’m fascinated by some of the neuroscience research that’s being done on how stories affect our brains. The studies are pretty young right now, but there is some evidence showing that we are what we watch (or read). Stories really can have a positive or negative influence on the brain and our thoughts. Through Korra’s character we’re trying to show a change as she evolves from an aggressive person into a more enlightened being. Hopefully she will inspire some viewers to follow their own path of self-improvement.

Speaking of mass distractions and extinctions, Korra first two apocalyptic seasons critiqued the uses and abuses of power. The new comic even has a rogue refinery! If we pan out on that term as well as Book Three’s theme of “energy shift,” how does the show reflect our own apocalyptic imbalances — like, say, exponentially accelerating global warming thanks to too many dirty fuels and too little cleantech solutions? What does your show as a whole have to say about using and abusing nature as a resource?

BRYAN: We have a lot to say about that, especially in Book Four, so I will have to stay mum on that for now. But you can always be sure in our stories that we rarely present anything as a one-sided issue. It seems to me virtually any ideology, no matter how intrinsically benign, can be used to oppress. And any group with power, no matter how well-meaning, ultimately corrupts and ends up exploiting its advantage to some extent. Mike and I are interested in examining how different characters act on various sides of these issues. We have always put the quest for balance at the center of our storytelling, whether it is the struggle to find it within one character, between a character and society, between disparate cultures, or between humans and their environment.

Book Three builds philosophically on Book Two’s premise: What happens when balance between the natural world and human influence (nervous climatologists are now calling it the Anthropocene) is finally achieved? Imbalances, of course — despite all the airbender rebirth.

MIKE: Okay, first let me look up “Anthropocene.” two minutes later) Ah, got it. One of the biggest questions running through Korra (and to some extent Avatar: The Last Airbender) is how do you balance humanity and modern technology with nature, spirituality, and tradition? I try to do it in my life everyday. It’s not easy. Technology definitely has a seductive lure and it’s easy to get sucked in. And at the same time I love to be out in nature, away from all that. Is the solution to totally unplug and live off the grid? Maybe on an individual level, but it’s impossible on a global scale at this point. I wish I had an answer to ultimate balance in the world, but alas, I do not. But I do have an idealistic belief that there is some version of the best of both worlds, meaning we can live with and benefit from modern technology without letting it run our lives, while also maintaining healthy relationships with nature and our fellow humans.

How does Book Three tear down what came before, and what will it rebuild this season?

MIKE: Book Three doesn’t really tear down anything, as much as it evolves the Avatar universe to the next phase. After writing Book Two, we didn’t want the Avatar world to return to the status quo. Harmonic Convergence needed to cause a dramatic and permanent shift. In a way, the return of the Airbenders is the planet self-regulating. It sensed the nations were growing too far out of balance and the energy emitted during Harmonic Convergence allowed this lost power to return to some select people.

And while we’re on the anxiety of influence, how do you manage to assimilate your own — everything from anime to Ghibli to Tony Jaa to Lucasfilm to Tolkien — to create a world so astounding and lasting? Mechanical reproductions are supposed to degrade as they replicate.

BRYAN: As for the question of influences, Mike and I, and all the great people on the Korra crew, just work from the heart. We put a lot of ourselves and what we love into our creations. We wear many of our influences on our sleeves, but we try not to focus only on the superficial traits of those inspiring projects. It is one thing to love Miyazaki’s films, but at a certain point as a creator, you have to set that aside and go after the feeling that stuff gives you, to examine the same fundamental issues.

Going more meta, why the wait? Why the sudden announcement? Why three episodes at once (not that anyone’s complaining)? Why do I get the feeling this labor of your love is as turbulent in reality as it is in narrative?

BRYAN: Man, this is the most entertaining and simultaneously difficult interview I have ever done! We just make the show, which is, as you sensed, an incredibly difficult endeavor. The network is obviously in charge of its promotion and release. Some plans shifted around and they saw a window of opportunity to make Book Three a prominent feature for the channel this summer, which we are happy about. Not only will the premiere be three episodes, but every Friday after the 4th of July will feature two new episodes, 8:00 to 9:00 pm. That is something we never had the opportunity to do consistently because we were always finishing the episodes rather close to their air dates, even back on Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first half of Legend of Korra was a bumpy ride on the production side of things, but with Books Three and Four we really caught our stride. So we actually have enough episodes in the can for the network to air them in these mini bundles. Mike and I are deeply pleased with how Book Three turned out, so the sooner it’s released the better.

Shows like Avatar and Korra are foundational postmodern mythologies that work on multiple levels for many demographics. Why does that sound easy but seem hard?

BRYAN: For making these types of shows for the “four quadrant” demographic, our not-so-secret recipe has always been to make sure the show is something we would like to watch, something worth all the time and energy it takes to make it. Luckily Nickelodeon has given us a great platform to do that, and people all over the world have connected with it. We try not to water down the content. When I watch a show, I want to feel like it is coming out of someone’s head, not out of a boardroom.

Is this the end? Is that all she, I mean you, wrote? Don’t say yes.

BRYAN: Legend of Korra will wrap with the finale of Book Four. Just like Aang’s journey came to a close in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra’s arc will reach it’s conclusion then. One of the things that make these two series so potent is that they are designed to end. TV series get stale when their main objective is to run indefinitely, which just results in watering down the plot and drawing out the character arcs too long. Korra is here now, she’ll kick your butt, and then she’s moving on with her life. Deal with it!

Legend of Korra, Reanimated