Category Archives: Fantasy

Why Avatar: The Last Airbender is One of the Greatest TV Shows Ever Made

Some time ago, I made a go of watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I was in Japan at the time, and watching more anime than was probably good for me. The only Avatar episodes I could find, though, were in English. I was displeased- I didn’t want a dubbed version of Avatar. I wanted it in the original Japanese, so I could maybe actually learn something from it. I looked and looked and couldn’t find any non-dubbed versions of Avatar. It was all in English. I watched Full Metal Alchemist instead.

Later on, much to my chagrin and humiliation, I found out that was because Avatar is, in fact, an American cartoon and was recorded in English.

Earlier this month I finally watched the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved it. I know that the show has been off the air since 2008 and I’m very late to the party about this, but whatever. I feel the need to enthusiastically yell at the Internet about why I enjoyed it so much. If I had to only briefly summarize why I enjoyed it so much, I’d say that Avatar does not traffic in cliches, and is utterly original. In more detail, though:

Avatar nicely demonstrates that “fantasy” truly is limitless.

There is a depressing sameness to fantasy novels/movies/shows/games/etc. If you go to bookstore a peruse the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, you’ll most of the fantastical novels are all about medieval psuedo-Europe. Oftentimes, there are magical swords, wizards, and elves or dwarves or whatever. You know. Tolkien stuff. That stuff is fine, but it’s been played out. The very word “fantasy” implies that a book or show could be about any given thing. It could be about talking ducks or sentient rocks. It could be about a very excitable trees or pan-dimensional toasters. Anything. It’s a fantasy. The writers could go anywhere. Instead, the genre just comes back to the same magic sword stuff, and tosses some elves in there. As much as I enjoyed, for example Dragon Age, I was highly disappointed that it just recycled fantasy conventions. It was great- but it all felt a little stale. Fantasy, lots of creators seem to think, means emulating Tolkien.

Avatar gleefully says “fuck that.” It is a fantasy show, yes, but it’s a fantasy show that’s not about elf-y/dwarf-y stuff. Instead, it’s about Kung Fu. Except the Kung Fu is on fire and there are also people who can make tidal waves by using Tai Chi. One of the principal characters is a six-legged flying bison, because, well, why the hell not? Of course bison can fly. This is a fantasy world and bison can just do that. There are giant lion turtles the size of islands, multi-winged penguins, and immense badger moles who can teach you how to punch mountains. Avatar is a fantasy in that you get the impression that the creators actually, you know fantasized. It is like you are seeing someone’s immensely creative daydream on screen, rather than any kind of adherence to conventions.

What’s more, the show dispenses with both the middle ages and with pseudo-Europe. The technology level of the show seems to be around the late mid 1800s- an industrial revolution has certainly started, but it’s not so widespread that the world is completely mechanized. There are things like trains, ironclad ships, zepplins, and tanks, though they exist alongside with less developed setting elements as well.

The setting evokes Asia more than anything else, though two of the principal characters come from a culture that strongly resembles that of Native Americans. Avatar does for Asian and Native American society what fantasy has done for Europe over and over again- it stylizes it and showcases it as something adventurous and inspiring. What’s more, the Asiatic elements are not just window dressing or some kind of exotic other intruding upon a European setting- instead, the Asian and Native American elements are the setting.

(By the way- I think it’s immensely fantastic that the Avatar showcases nonwhite characters. I don’t ever want to see the live action adaptation of the show, but after watching it I can definitely understand the disappointment of fans who saw characters they loved get whitewashed. The fantasy genre has done a lot to make pseudo-Europe seem kind of badass. And, that’s fine. That’s good. Avatar, though, gave the same kind of wide-eyed fantastical treatment to other cultures, and the world’s a richer place for it. Speaking of which…)

Kung Fu!

Lots of movies and TV shows have terrible fights scenes. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with martial arts. I took fencing and Aikido in college, and learned how to handle a bokken (i.e., a wooden katana) passably well. I spent about a year, once, getting the crap beaten out of me via Pikiti-Tirisia Kali, a Filipino martial art. While I’m by no means a skilled fighter-guy, I know enough to be sort of snobbish about movie fights, and to know how actual humans would actually move if they had swords and stuff.

Anyhow, most fighting scenes in movies and TV are bollocks. Either because the parties concerned don’t know what they’re doing, or because the choreographers just want to make it look cool. I love The Princess Bride as much as any nostalgia-addled nerd, but nothing in that movie resembles actual fencing. Sure, it’s fun, it’s great, it’s a classic but… wow. You don’t actually use a rapier like that. Anyway…

Avatar‘s fighting scenes are not crap. In fact, they’re really, really good. The characters move in very natural ways, and even though the fights often involve boulders and fireballs, all of the action seems like it’s the result of actual humans moving around. It’s free of unrealistic action that pervades other media, and it certainly doesn’t have anything like this. My (limited) experience with martial arts made me enjoy the show’s fight scenes more, not less, and that’s a very, very rare thing in a TV show.

It’s funny

Weirdly, genre entertainments and comedy don’t really go together well. There are very few science fiction comedies (the Back to the Future series is the only one that springs to mind) and most fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones stick to the serious side of things. Avatar, however, actually allows for pratfalls, puns, jokes, etc. And not only that, but it’s pretty good at all of those things. The show is really, really good at comedy, and that only adds to its charms rather than diminishing the epic-ness of the proceedings. The recent season of Game of Thrones actually had a few laughs, but for the most part genre fiction (perhaps because it’s historically been starved of respect) tends to take itself pretty seriously. Avatar, however, proves that you can have a huge, sprawling (and yes, “epic” as well) fantasy and still have jokes. Humor does not detract from the emotional depth of a given piece of fiction. It enhances it. On a related note…

It very skillfully plays with genre

Lots of shows have one-off genre episodes- think Buffy‘s musical episode. Avatar is no exception. One episode of Avatar (“Zuko Alone”) is essentially a spaghetti western. There’s another that’s very similar to an 80s teen comedy. In yet another, the main characters encounter a bunch of Ken Kesey-esque hippies, and at one point there’s a haiku rap battle. The sampling of genre elements, though, does not compromise the integrity of the show. There’s not any blatant fourth wall breaking or cutesy winking at the camera. Instead, Avatar does episodes wherein it tackles given genres on it’s own terms. The aforementioned spaghetti western episode isn’t done as a joke or a parody. Instead, it’s a really, really good half hour about one of the characters feeling lost, alone, and uncertain of his place in the world. Doing up his experience as a drifting, Eastwood-esque vagabond doesn’t cheapen his character development. Instead, the show’s creators use the spaghetti western genre because it works for what the character is going through. The show samples different kinds of genres, and it often does so in a very funny way, but it does not do that to parody those genres. Instead, Avatar knows that those genres have something to offer the characters and the story, and the conventions of those modes of storytelling are appropriate for the moment.

Lastly-

Korra is how you do a sequel.

Yeah, I’ve started watching Korra. It’s fantastic, and I’m very, very pleased that it’s highly different from its predecessor. Avatar looked like it happened in the 1850s or 60s. Korra, seventy years later, really does look like it happens in the 1920s or 30s. Time has passed, the world is different, and the conflicts in Korra are different from those in Avatar. I kind of want a Fire Ferrets jersey.

I hope the team who does these shows keeps with it. I hope they make a sequel to Korra set in the equivalent to the modern day, and a sequel to that set in a cyberpunk-ish future. I hope Nickelodeon gives them gigantic piles of money with which to make television, and that they stay consistently brilliant. I feel really silly, now, about waiting so long to watch this thing. I have been utterly, totally, and completely won over. And I’m not kidding about that Fire Ferrets jersey. Someone please make that happen.

In Which I Finally Watch Grimm

It was pretty much inevitable that I was going to start watching NBC’s Grimm, but I put it off for a healthy period of time. It was inevitable because they’ve filmed right outside my home, my work, and during my commute. I’ve seen the trailers, sets, cranes, cameras, boom mics, and port-a-potties strew throughout the city. and all of it has done a lot to pique my curiosity. So, last night during an attack of Crippling Introversion I snuggled up with a mug of green tea and Hulu, and decided to finally watch this thing that has been filming in my live/work/commute space. I also kind of expected to hate it.

Many people (at least the nerds that I tend to hang out with) were comparing it to Bill Willingham’s Vertigo series Fables, a comic that has never really grabbed me. As much as I like Sandman, Transmetropolitan, and Swamp Thing, Fables has always struck me as the contrived and sillier younger sibling of the big kid comics. None of the Fables characters were nearly as well done as Spider Jerusalem, John Constantine or the Swamp Thing. While it’s clever at times, it always seemed like it was skipping the character development step by saying “Hey, look guys! It’s the Big Bad Wolf! You remember him, right? Well, he’s a detective now! Check it out!” It’s fun, but not something as mind-blowing as Sandman or as joyfully profane as Preacher.

So, when I heard that there was a series that was basically Fables (except not) filming in Portland, I kind of went “meh” and thought that I’d never watch it. Last night, though, I was surprised by my reaction: Grimm is certainly not good, but it is also surprisingly not unwatchable. At least from my vantage point as a Portland resident.

Sure, there area lot of things wrong with it. The main character detective guy is a bland cipher, the writing is stilted (at one point someone says “this is no fairy tale” and I wanted to kidney punch whoever put that in there) and the plot of the first episode is stupid and direct in the way that I imagine James Patterson novels are. (I don’t know- I’ve never read a James Patterson novel, but I assume that his books have all the subtlety and plotting of chunk of boiled mutton.)

The look of the show, though, is pretty good. Not the CGI and makeup- that’s totally average. I mean the trees and the dark clouds and craftsman style houses that are all over Portland. The show really looks like Portland, and given that my various jobs tend to all add up to “professional Portland nerd,” I got no end of joy in seeing real, live things that I recognized in the show.

(That said, I was annoyed that the addresses in the show were all fictitious, and, worse than that, did not adhere to Portland’s pretty intuitive numbering conventions. But, apparently all of Law & Order’s NYC locales are made up, so I’ll just have to deal with that.)

The one thing other than seeing my fair city on screen, was Eddie the werewolf. While the protagonist, Nick, is fairly bland, the guy who plays his werewolf sidekick actually seems to be enjoying the part and brings a certain amount of levity the performance. That, and seeing people fight with swords in a modern setting kind of reminded me of Buffy and Angel, and triggered some of my Whedon-based nostalgia buttons.

Grimm certainly isn’t good, but it could become something good. There is potential for it to be much more than just a police procedural with werewolves. It might not be the next Buffy, but it’s by no means a failure. I’d be happy to see it renewed, and continue to plaster my city all over the teevee.

The George R. R. Martin Drinking Game

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally, finally, finally finished all of the presently existing Song of Ice and Fire books. I reread the entire series this year in preparation for A Dance With Dragons. It took me a while not because I don’t enjoy the series (I do) but as much as I love it, I often got distracted and had to read something else. The characters, plot, world and story of aSoIaF are absolutely splendid, but every so often I needed to stuff something else into my brain.

In particular, because Martin has turns of phrase that he uses over and over again in a highly characteristic way. I suspect he’s doing this purposefully, in emulation of the habits of Classical poets. Most translations of the Odyssey have turns of phrase like “the wine-dark sea,” “the grey-eyed goddess Athena,” and “the Earth that feeds us all” popping up over and over again. The explanation I always got for this is that epics were initially unwritten, and repetition like this made it easier for the poet to recall giant stories from memory.

Phrases like this pop up so often in Martin that one could easily make a drinking game out of them, as well as other Martin-isms. I don’t think this is a mark of poor writing, but it is highly noticeable and occasionally does take me out of the book a bit. Seeing repeated phrases is kind of like seeing the zipper on a movie monster’s costume. Every so often, I wanted other words banging around inside my brain and I had to take a break. The next time you feel like reading giant fantasy novels and imbibing booze, try drinking every time you read:

  • Milk of the poppy
  • Little and less
  • Much and more
  • Mulled wine
  • Leal service
  • Sweet sister
  • Wedded and bedded
  • Just so
  • It is known
  • Mummer’s farce
  • Useless as nipples on a breastplate
  • Where do whores go
  • Stick them with the pointy end
  • I know, I know, oh, oh, oh
  • Any variation of “waddle”
  • Hands of gold are always cold
  • Half a hundred
  • Our friends of Frey
  • Bent the knee
  • Any reference to mail, wool, and boiled leather in any combination
  • Any reference to Valyrian steel
  • Any reference to a blade being “so sharp you could shave with it.”
  • Any reference to the Mother being merciful
  • Any reference to the Crone’s wisdom
  • Any reference to the Father’s judgement
  • Any reference to or recitation of The Bear and the Maiden Fair
  • Any reference to The Rains of Castamere
  • Any reference to Arya being “[adjective] as a [noun]”
  • Any gratuitous description of heraldry
  • Any gratuitous description of food
  • Any time characters are referred to by their sigils, e.g, “Wolves” or “Lions”
  • Any cryptic invocation of Summerhall
  • Words are wind
  • A Lannister always pays his debts
  • Dark wings, dark words
  • The night is dark and full of terrors
  • Winter is coming

And of course, you should take a big old swig from whatever you’re imbibing every time a major character dies. Or supposedly dies. Or ends their POV chapter on an annoying cliffhanger. If you do that, you will be good and drunk, and swaying from side to side.

Be advised that if you keep doing that for more than twenty pages you will get alcohol poising and then you will die.

(Did I miss any? There are probably plenty more. Also, I’m really looking forward to The Winds of Winter.)

Why Conan the Barbarian is One of the Best Fantasy Movies Ever

Conan the Barbarian was the very first R rated movie that I ever saw. I remember being at my redneck neighbor’s house and being informed that it was “kind of like He-Man.” He was sort of right- it is kind of like He-Man, except with nudity, blood, and way more awesomeness. I re-watched it tonight after over twenty years, and it holds up surprisingly well. In fact, I found it sort of incredible. I sat down expecting a cheesy movie where the governor of California tossed off one-liners and mowed down extras, and got a lot more than that. A few reasons why this movie is a masterpiece of sword-based cinema:

1: Conan, not to put too fine a point on it, has a dick.

A trope of fantasy movies and literature that I absolutely detest is that the main characters win by simply being “pure at heart” or “chosen.” What bullshit. What utter tripe. I’m not pure at heart, and neither are you. Fortunately, Conan avoids this idiotic trope, though, and we get to see plenty of the titular character and his friends having sex, drinking, buying drugs, stealing stuff, stabbing the bad guys in the back, and in general enjoying themselves. (I hate to say it, but as much as I love LotR, you’ve got to admit that Frodo and Co. really don’t have much in the way of gonads. It’s like they have glowing sacks of goodness instead of balls.)

And think about this- how many times have you seen the heroes of fiction show mercy, but then have the bad guys betray them? For that matter, villains often fall victim to their own villainy and arrogance rather than to the efforts of the heroes. None of that in Conan– there is no unwarranted mercy, and the heroes triumph not because they are good or pure, but because they are strong, smart, and willing to strategically decapitate dudes when the opportunity arises. That is something so absent from popular fiction, that I actually said “Fuck yeah!” a couple of times when Arnie and friends mercilessly mowed down the evil snake cultists.

Speaking of snake cultists…

2: James Earl Jones is fucking awesome as the bad guy.

There are plenty of bad guys out there who seem to be evil just for the sake of plot. They swish around sinisterly, wring their hands with badness, and in general remain fairly undeveloped. Not so with James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom. Jones is a charismatic cult leader, seeing him in action one can actually see how he’d be able to attract followers and keep a large organization going and growing.

Moreover, he has an awesome suit of armor and a sexy, sexy voice. And speaking of sexy…

3: Valeria is a badass.

I wouldn’t say that Conan is a feminist movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Valeria holds her own in the movie. She is, most assuredly, not detestable little femme-flower. She’s a competent killing machine who happens to have breasts. I can get behind that. Conan’s two other compatriots, a thief and a wizard, are also quite neat, enough to make any D&D enthusiast smile.

So, yeah. I liked the movie so much that now, as I’m blogging about it, I’m listening to Motorhead and grooving on the awesome slayage that is Conan. Apparently there is a remake coming out next year. I am very cautiously optimistic.