‘The Legend of Korra’ Book 3 Review: “Enter the Void” / “Venom of the Red Lotus”
The best way to stop an anarchist is to allow his or her plan to backfire.
If the hero can’t shut him or her down with brute force, if the villain’s motivating world views veer a little too close to sound logic, then it’s all about going along with the plan until it blows up in someone’s face. Emotion overtook Zaheer’s methodical planning; Sure, he jetted off like Neo in the Matrix in the final moments of “Enter the Void,’ but when his one true love P’li kicked the bucket in an epic duel with Lin and Su, the Red Lotus leader lost his cool. It was only a matter of time. His controlled chaos couldn’t hold its own against an extended family willing to sacrifice themselves. Love engulfed the hatred driving his plans. Zaheer didn’t believe in the power of collective empowerment, where individuals choose to become one of many. What a thrill it was to see powers combine to tornado him in the butt.
Team Avatar’s future looked grim at the tail end of “The Ultimatum.” But this was Team Avatar. Of course they would figure It out! (While sadistic heartstring-pullers, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino still live for that there’s-still-hope-in-the-world upswing.) Reminiscent of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender”s end battle, Team Avatar’s plan to take down Zaheer swiftly iterated into a multi-tier effort. Korra would turn herself in atop Lahima’s Peak, Mako, Bolin, and Asami would free Tenzin and confirm the release of the airbenders, Lin and Su would dangle off the cliff, ready to swoop into action, and Tonraq, and Naga and Pabu would chill back at Zaofu, acting like the most adorable animal sidekicks the world has ever seen. Korra puts trust in Zaheer, her way of reckoning with a man who makes a little too much sense, but it all goes to hell when the imprisoned airbenders turn out to be Ming-Hua’s disguised water arms. The heat is on — specifically, the fire Korra immediately blasts into Zaheer’s face.
Skillful scripting maximizes the intensity of the plate spinning fight sequence. Just before the confrontation, we see both Team Avatar and the Red Lotus preparing for the inevitable. This will end. It calls for goodbyes. Korra’s are brief and sweet, a testament to Konietzko and DiMartino’s three-season foundation. Korra can hug Mako, hold for a second longer than we might expect, and there’s a rush of mature emotion. These two love each other, even if it’s not — and may never be — romantic love. Zaheer’s au revoir has equal gravity. Introducing P’li as the head honcho’s love interest was like instant coffee character building. “Enter the Void” sweetens the relationship with P’li’s heartfelt admission: “Deep down, I knew you’d find a way to get me out, just like you saved me from becoming that warlords killing machine when I was a girl. You’ve shown me what true freedom means.” Not even their height difference could corrupt that moment.
Take a deep, deep, no-evil-airbender’s-gonna-suck-this-air-outta-me breath: Tenzin lived! When Asami frees him from confinement, the Airbender master is barely beaten. Zaheer had more pressing matters than to take his life, it seems. And certainly when the kidnapping plan erupts into an elemental cagematch, the thought of killing off Korra’s Obi-Wan never crosses his mind. “Enter the Void” puts its head down and runs to the finish line. Korra’s enchained moves recall physic-defying Chinese acrobats. Having not seen the Avatar in action for most of the season, the episode lets explode on screen like water behind a crumbling dam. There’s a comic book splashiness that Studio Mir gets away with. Lin and Su swinging through flames, Tonraq slamming his ice dagger into a million slow-motioned bits, or Zaheer’s first flight — the action builds furiously without skimping on the painterly framing. Even blink-and-you’ll-miss it moments hang in the air because of their visual stamp. Su trapping P’li in a headcage moves at the accelerated pace of the battle. But it registers. The magic of animation.
Many speculated that Zaheer’s story could carry on into the in-the-can Book 4. There were plenty of plot threads to tie up. The double feature finale scoffs at the idea, ballsy enough to add revelations as it swells. Bolin’s metalbending was a will he/won’t he, perfectly executed misdirection for the eventual epiphany. No more is Gahzan’s lavabending just a savvy extension of the earthbending skillset. It’s Bolin’s identity too. He can be somebody. Zaheer’s own growth spurt shocks, even with a season’s full of allusions. Maybe it’s just countless hours spent devouring ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ but Zaheer’s untethering feels like a proper tip of the hat to anime history. If they were going to find a way to hit kaiju battles, they’d eventually introduce flying.
“Enter the Void” plants an intriguing seed that could set up Book 4 (and no, it has nothing to do with the randomly namechecked Zaofu cop Kuvira): After Zaheer kidnaps Korra, Kai returns from magical perfect-place-perfect-time land, and Team Avatar prepares to descend upon Zaheer’s lair, Mako’s detective nose smells a scent: “There must be more Red Lotus members than we thought.” Hmm.
“Venom of the Red Lotus” turns out to be quite literal. Zaheer’s master plan is to provoke Korra into Avatar state and poison her with the liquid from ‘Prometheus.’ If he can kill the Avatar lineage, he can restore “balance” to the world. Someone give this guy a hug! In a cavern eerily similar to the Bhanti Tribe’s spirit bathhouse from Book 2, Korra seethes in pain as the metallic goop consumes her life force. Death revives her enemies: Hallucinations of Amon, Unalaq, and Vaatu appear, urging her to give in. The sequence plays like a mythological ‘Fear and Loathing’ drug trip. Terry Gilliam would be proud of the episode’s intrusive close-ups.
Team Avatar arrives to the scene just as the Red Lotus prepare to wallop Korra into next Tuesday. There assistance isn’t completely required; Avatar State Korra breaks free of her restraints like King Kong in Broadway theater. She slams Ming-Hua, sends a wave of lava back at Gahzan, enters Rage Mode, and literally breaths fire her final combatant. Korra doesn’t even bother taking off her chains before blasting off towards her opponent. She’s angry. You’re not going to like Korra when she’s angry.
Studio Mir’s blend of 3D and 2D animation for Korra and Zaheer’s aerial battle is remarkable. Twirling around characters as they zip around the sky, finding pockets of steadiness in a whirlwind fight… it’s everything rapid ‘DBZ’ fans wished they were in for each week. ‘Legend of Korra’ teaches us the importance of a medium shot. With Hollywood hardwiring our brains for shaky cam, close-up action that covers up non-fighter actors, or goes as wide as possible for scenes of mass destruction (and CG galore), animated action allows directors to frame exactly where they want to for maximum impact. The sky battle is coherent because of this detail, but it works elsewhere too. Asami gets a glorious power glove attack. Mako’s encounter with Ming-Hua can dance from hand-to-hand combat to the waterbender’s signature octo-pose to a blissful moneyshot, Mako finally electrobending his way to safety. Beats throwing a toaster at the water assassin.
Much like her scuffle with UnaVaatu last season, Korra’s fisticuffs ends with an interference play by Jinora. It may not play as well if the character wasn’t so darn likeable. She has a flirty new boy friend, a dad who respects her for who she is, and a society willing to follow her lead. Jinora is what we hope every girl can be, as long as we stand back and let them. Any Deus Ex Machina claims can go shove it — Jinora deserves to save the day again. In “Venom,” she huddles her fellow airbenders to conjure a whirlwind, keeping Zaheer locked into a prison of air long enough for Korra to slam him to the ground. Making it a true team effort, Su rushes to Korra’s aid to metalbend the poison out of her body (maybe she’s not a Zaheer insider after all…). “You’re too late!” Zaheer screams, wishing the venom of the Red Lotus had that kind of staying power.
Book 1 ended with a tearful triumph. Book 2 raised a giant question mark. Book 3 trickles off with bittersweet elegance. A few weeks after their showdown, Korra remains debilitated by the poison. She’s like Tom Cruise in ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ minus the scraggily beard. Asami can only dress her up so nice. Bags under her eyes, a broken soul behind her eyes, Korra is climbing back from near-death. Konietzko and DiMartino say it all with illustration.
The Red Lotus activity pervades through the world like 9/11 paranoia. When President Raiko greets Korra back to Republic City Dispatch, there’s a political tinge: “I’d like to officially welcome you back. Thanks for taking down those Red Lotus terrorists!” The government still doesn’t get it, why the regicidal Zaheer still had a point. It’s like stepping on Korra’s broken toe. She squirms in her wheelchair. Raiko’s second point adds to the post-attack fear: With Korra out of commission, who will step up as protector of the world? Tenzin provides the temporary solution. The Air Nation will hit the road, traveling and assisting anyone in need of their help, much like current-day Toph. Old Tenzin may not have approved of the plan, but he has a new master by his side.
In the episode’s final moments, Jinora receives her tattoos in a gorgeous coronation ceremony. Even Korra sheds a tear. There’s hope for this out-of-balance world yet. The future is unknown and that’s finally OK. Korra and Team Avatar don’t need to be in control because they believe in and rely on each other to solve problems. They’re an actual team. They’ve embraced change.