not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
Entertainment in 2014 rarely relies on surprise. The culture at large is so conversant in storytelling conventions that it becomes difficult to create an actual surprise, and any enjoyment that derives purely from surprise is generally considered fleeting. Watching older classic movies like Psycho, which depends heavily on twists, has revealed that these movies are great because of everything that surrounds the twists- in Psycho‘s case, the creeping buildup of paranoia, the sublime Bernard Herrmann score, and of course the application of Alfred Hitchcock’s formal ingenuity to a pulpy thriller story.
But when I watch an episode of TV like “The Battle for Zaofu,” I sometimes wonder how much longer I’m going to be able to enjoy stories when I know exactly where they’re going. The answer is “at least one more episode of The Legend of Korra,” because this is a wonderful episode of television, once again proving that series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have masterful command of fantasy conventions. “The Battle for Zaofu” combines the narratives found in kung-fu movies from Kill Bill to the Karate Kid with the second-act fall found at the end of The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers (book version). It’s the point where Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite, Frodo gets put into a coma by a spider, The Bride gets buried underground, and Ralph Macchio gets his ass kicked by Billy Zabka before meeting Mr. Miyagi.
The difference between most of those moments and this one, however, is that Korra has not put herself in this position through strategic error- for one of the first times in the Nickelodeon series, she’s acting like a mature and patient Avatar, trying to solve conflicts with diplomacy and only using her fists as a last resort. Unfortunately, in another first for the character, Korra’s fighting ability is her biggest liability, and Kuvira drops her like a sack of rocks. Actually, the closest parallel here is probably with The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman goes after Bane and gets his back snapped.
The fact that I keep needing to bring up parallels with other excellent examples of this story reveals how The Legend of Korra‘s greatest asset is also its greatest liability. DiMartino and Konietzko are able to build worlds and craft narratives that stand up next to the true masters of the cinematic form. Unfortunately, their works seem to be unable to escape those comparisons, and we leave The Legend of Korra thinking not about the show itself, but all the sources from which it draws inspiration.