‘Legend of Korra’ Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino Talk “Korra Alone,” Book 4 and Beyond
'The Legend of Korra' said goodbye to fans at New York Comic-Con 2014 with a final panel and screening of Book 4's second installment "Korra Alone," filling in the gaps of Korra's heartbreaking three-year struggle after Book 3 finale "Venom of the Red Lotus." We had a chance to speak to series creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino just before the panel to discuss everything from bringing Korra's journey full circle, to lingering Book 3 questions, and the franchise future.
I was lucky enough to be the first reporter either 'Korra' creator had talked to for the day, while DiMartino himself had never even been to New York Comic-Con before. And though "Korra Alone" had not yet screened (you can stream the episode on Nick.com now, and read Matt Patches' full review), Konietzko and DiMartino were happy to discuss Toph's return and saying goodbye to the franchise, as well as what they might have missed being able to cover with 'Korra's final season.
Both men cleared up a few lingering Book 3 questions and fan inquiries, admitting that they wouldn't yet return to the 'Avatar' franchise for a bit, even if Nickelodeon were game to.
Book 4 brought us three years into the future after Korra's fight with Zaheer, partially to get Korra back to fighting strength, but also for storytelling purposes. Was anything lost to the time-jump that you missed the opportunity to cover?
Bryan Konietzko: Nothing! I thought it was fun.
Michael Dante DiMartino: Yeah, I don’t miss a lot. There’s plenty of stories that you could have told in that time period, but people always complain about the filler episodes. It’s a little bit three years of filler, but there’s cool stuff that the Airbenders were doing I’m sure, but I’ve never looked back . I love doing the time jump thing too, I always love when other shows do that.
What were the most difficult stories to write in Book 4?
MDM: The “Korra Alone” episode, that definitely has a very serious tone to it. There’s lighter moments throughout, too, but we really wanted to deal with Korra’s recovery in a realistic way, and not just “oh, three years later, and she’s fine!” You know, really show how hard it was to get even to the point that she’s at in the first episode, where you can see, she’s still not totally back to herself. And structurally, that episode’s a little different, where you’re doing time jumps between the past three years, and what’s going on in the present-day story, so that was a trickier episode to write, and make clear what was going on.
BK: Mike wrote it, so he might be a little humble. I think it’s our most sophisticated story structure, in terms of jumping around different times, and I thought Mike handled it well. It was very clear, and it’s really effective, but the network was freaked out. I think for a kid’s show, it’s a bit more advanced, more sophisticated cinematically in its jumping around in time. Without chyrons telling you when this took place, you have to rely on where you are in the story, and what she looks like, I thought it was brilliant. We just had a little party with some of the crew members, and it really resonated with everybody. We see it so many times in post, you get a little detached. So I would say it was our most difficult episode to convince the network about, but I think it’s one of our best.
I'm sure you guys have to keep tight-lipped, but what can you tell me about Toph's return?
MDM: It happens in episode 2!
BK: We like it. It’s fun.
Zaheer's ideology culled from a bit of Buddhist Anarchy, while Kuvira acts as a "Great Uniter." What historical influences did you draw on in crafting 'Korra''s villain arcs?
BK: With Kuvira, it wasn’t a specific dictator that we had in mind. That was the sort of villain archetype we hadn’t had yet, at least not really at the forefront of the story, a military dictator. It was something I know that I personally was excited about, and we hadn’t quite done, so it worked out. The anarchist thing wasn’t based on any one specific historical thing, but just as these political ideologies, or philosophical ideologies attracted us for their distinct flavor.
MDM: We learned some interesting stuff about dictatorships, and how a lot of them would begin in the way we have Kuvira’s story, where they were given power during a time of chaotic disruption, and it was a temporary power.
BK: Emergency measures, we did learn the history of it. A dictator came from a temporary “okay, you can do whatever you want," because it’s such an emergency, and then you’re supposed to give it back. Historically, they rarely did that. We liked that, so we definitely took some pages out of history.
Settle something about last week's premiere for me. Was Kuvira magnetbending the bandits onto the track? Is that the next variant on earthbending?
BK: No, she was just metalbending.
MDM: Like when she pulls the people together? Yeah, it’s more like bending the pieces of metal.
BK: We never talked specifically about magnetbending, but I always did think of that as a sort of magnetic move.
I think since Varrick had talked about magnetism last season, with the payoff to come in Book 4, fans wondered if Kuvira might have developed a new form of bending.
BK: It was more just metal, she has these bands of metal on her outfit, and she bends it off.
MDM: The Varrick stuff had more to do with the technology. The train is based on a mag-lev train, so they’ve been using that kind of technology.
BK: And our idea for the more streamlined mecha suits was that they were using a magnetic power source, but we don’t know how they’d really work.
Given your affection for sad endings, what can you tell me about Tenzin's survival last season? It felt like every sign pointed toward killing the character off, but you pulled back in the end.
BK: It’s so funny! I never thought of that.
MDM: We never talked about killing Tenzin off.
BK: It never came up! We weren’t trying to fool the audience into thinking he was getting…the whole thing of the Tarantino-esque panning away was just because, well, we can’t show the full beatdown. It wasn’t to imply he was dead, but I started seeing those reactions right away.
MDM: It was to give him and Bumi and Kya a big action sequence toward the finale, because in those finale episodes there’s always so much going on. We kind of have to eliminate characters who could be in play, without killing them. They were all injured for the final battle.
BK: I guess we underestimated the reaction to the Earth Queen being taken out, that really shocked people. I think they thought “Oh man! This is like ‘LOST,’ anyone can die!” Like any main character could die, and we just didn’t anticipate that. It’s not that I can’t believe people believed that, but we definitely didn’t see that coming. But that’s fine, it means that people thought it was possible, and were on the edge of their seats, so it’s cool.
Does that mean stakes are higher for the final season, and main characters really could die?
BK: Everyone dies, ‘Game of Thrones’ style. There’s a wedding, and blood…
You revisited Aang where you could, Katara and Zuko popped up over time, and now Toph. Why is it Sokka never got any love in the backstory department?
MDM: It’s kinda ‘cause he died. Bringing back the old characters is fun to do, but there has to be a specific story reason why they're back, and not just because “Oh hey, Zuko!” Just hanging out for no reason.
BK: Sokka had passed away, and we only have 12-14 episodes a season on Korra, there’s not a lot of room to have history lessons, and exposition and stuff. I guess we have to leave some fodder for the future comic books that keep coming out!
Did it sadden you to say goodbye to some of the 'Avatar' history when Korra severed the link to her past lives?
BK: Not at all! I thought it was a good limitation for her. Not that we thought people would be happy about it, but that was another one where I wasn’t anticipating such an emotional response from people. We didn’t do it to troll anything, but I liked that limitation for her. When you have a fully-realized Avatar, it’s like Superman, and how do you make that interesting?
MDM: For me, talking about her arc again, it is kind of about her figuring out who she is as the Avatar on her own, her independent spirit, and stuff like that. Even though she wouldn’t have chosen that path, she is a little bit on her own the way the first Avatar was, so it comes full circle.
How do her depression and physical limitations this season affect that?
BK: It plays a factor, because she doesn’t have this huge crutch to lean on, that countless Avatars before her did. Limitations are good, and difficulties are good to come up against, you find out who their true character is.
Given that you guys are stepping away from the 'Avatar' universe after this, how do you plan to cleanse yourself of the franchise and start a new project?
BK: It’s a little early for us to announce any of that, we’re lining it up right now. Definitely planning on taking some time off, getting back to photography, music. I’m going to teach for a little while.
MDM: Do a little traveling, relax for a bit.
If Nickelodeon were interested in returning to the franchise sooner rather than later, given its rabid fandom, where would you land on that? Would you sign off on someone else in the creative chair?
MDM: I don’t know that they have any plans to do such a thing, but we still love the world. I’m sure they would talk to us about it, I would hope, before decisions were made. Have to cross that bridge when we got there.
BK: There’s no talks about it right now. Just like when ‘Avatar’ ended, it’s a big endeavor and we need a break, and they’re kind of like, “Okay.” I don’t think they’re clamoring to make something right away, especially in light of all the fumbling it on air, and online and stuff. Everyone involved is ready for a little break. Or a big break, I don’t know.
Have there been any talks with Dark Horse about continuing 'The Legend of Korra' in comics, like you've done with the Aang gang?
MDM: That’s always a possibility. They’re still mainly focused on Avatar Aang, and Zuko, and those characters, so there’s a few more volumes of stories coming out. But certainly if people keep reading those, I’m sure there’ll be some discussions about doing Korra ones too, I imagine.
BK: Yeah, but there’s two additional full arcs of ‘Avatar’ coming up, with Gene Yang and Gurihiru doing the art, and us overseeing. There’s a lot going on in the comics, but nothing for Korra yet. Personally for me, when we finish the series, it’s done. it’s cool that people are still interested and wanna keep catching up with the characters, but I don’t want to think about it right now.
Kevin Fitzpatrick is the wordbending TV editor of ScreenCrush, an avid alliterator, and has won absolutely no awards. You too can bend words with him over the Twitter.