Reversing retrofuturistic technology tropes with The Legend of Korra

21 May

Good Monday, readers. I’m going to have to apologize again for the delay on my review of The Avengers. Getting prepared for and attending Steampunk World’s Fair made writing blogs a bit difficult. Plus, watching my new favorite television show made me want to change my next topic.

Earlier this year, I decided that I was finally going to start watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. Mostly because I have been hearing about the series for years and wanted to finally see what everyone was talking about, but partially because I REALLY wanted to see The Legend of Korra and the completionist that I am wouldn’t let me watch the new series without seeing the old.

Desire to see The Legend of Korra aside, I massively enjoyed Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was great example of the power of animation. It was emotional and heavy, but it still managed to include a lot of life’s natural humor within it’s books as well. The action was well done, and getting to know the characters was like getting to know a group of friends. Aang’s journey to becoming a fully realized Avatar wasn’t just a story for children. It was a story that was timeless at any age.

It didn’t hurt for me that the series was a little bit Steampunk as well. It wasn’t as overt as some series. Most of the world of Avatar had been set back technology wise due to the Hundred Year War, but there was still a nice range of technological advancements that benefited benders and non-benders alike. My favorite example of this was ‘The Northern Air Temple’, where Aang returns to one of the air temples to see that a group of refugees with flying machines has taken over living there. This is the beginning of the Gaang’s  relationship with The Mechanist as well as an interesting take on adapting technology in a world based on bending of the elements and how to use said technology against those who would use it to destroy. It’s a common trope in Steampunk and Retrofuturistic works that the antagonists are at the technological advantage and it’s up to the protagonists to use their skills to defeat them, be it their own inventions, wits, or powers. But it’s a trope that works if it’s done right, and I think Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to balance that question of advancing technology fairly well.

(WARNING: What follows will include some SPOILERS for the two most recent episodes of The Legend of Korra. Proceed at your own risk.)

Flash-forward 70 years to The Legend of Korra. After the Hundred Year War, the world is less divided. So much so that the United Republic of Nations was formed as a place that the world could live in harmony. This causes a spike in the technology that was used by the Fire Nation and the Resistance to create a world where bending and technology have come to co-exist completely. Firebenders work lightening in the power plants, metalbenders help enforce the laws of Republic City, and the world’s main sport is a confluence of bending and tech. This, of course, leads to a technological have and have not situation between Avatar Korra and the battles she has to fight. Except this time, the ones that have the technology are the ones that have been repressed by the bending co-dependence.

You see, a large part of the “Antagonists Have the Technology” trope in Retrofuturistic fiction is that it’s mostly in the hands of the repressors. It happened in The Hunger Games with the Capitol keeping the Districts away from the technology they had as much as possible, and it definitely happened during Aang’s time as the Avatar. How often did we see Aang and his friends have to fight off a Fire Nation tank, War Balloon, or Drill? We even saw Sokka, Suki and Toph take out a whole fleet of flying war machines that were going to help Ozai destroy the Earth Kingdom in the final episode.

But here in The Legend of Korra, it’s especially emphasized that the ones with the technology that could cause danger to the city are the rebels who want to take out the bending piece of the equation. While ‘The Aftermath’ showed that this technology was being provided by Hiroshi Sato, the richest man in Republic City, it’s still being dispersed to rebels of all classes. It’s being given to people who aren’t seen as valuable by some people in the city due to their lack of bending, and are willing to put the balance of the city and others in danger in order to put everyone on the same level. Basically, for once, the antagonists are regular people who just happen to have access to electric gauntlets and platinum mechs that can’t be bent by the police.

The fact that Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino decided to reverse the common trope in this way just emphasizes a certain point in the war between Republic City and the Equalists. That there is a certain discrepancy between benders and non-benders in the world of Avatar and it’s only emphasized by the fact that so much of the jobs and technology in the world depend on benders to use it. While not all benders are like this, there are certain benders that will abuse their powers and abilities to get what they want and it has only been made worse in the years between Aang’s death and Korra’s arrival in Republic City. Now it’s Korra’s job to fight against those who want all benders taken out of the equation for the actions of few. Coexistence is not an option for these people any more, despite the fact that taking benders away from Republic City will upset the balance of it. It opens the door to how Korra has to consider her fight, how she will recognize the privilege she has as the Avatar, and how she will find a way to bring peace back to the city that has desperately needed its Avatar since the death of Aang.

Sadly, we have two weeks in between this episode and the next episode, but hopefully we’ll begin to see how Korra will begin to approach this fight and carry on the legacy that Aang left behind.

My Avengers review will come this week, but I’ll also be looking at the ladies of the Avatar universe as well. Why? Because why not.

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Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Steampunk, Television


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