Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Terrifying Implications of the Avatar Universe (No, not the one with the blue people)

Gut morgen, Internet! How is everyone this week? For me, I crossed the wrong way in front of a roving gang of physicians and got shot in the arm for steppin'. I'm still recovering from the ordeal, emotionally and physically, but on the bright side, I'm vaccinated from Meningitis. Seriously though, remember how scared I said I was of bees? I very nearly feel the same way about needles.

Pretty much the most horrifying thing on Earth to me.
In unrelated news, Company of Heroes 2 got announced and I am very excited about that and a Marvel MMO got announced in the same week and I thought that I'd be excited about that, but I find myself being less than; the designers elected to not let you create your own heroes, but pick one of the already-established Marvel characters which, I mean, there's a lot of them, over 8,000 according to this article, but still. I had kind of hoped to play my time-honored game "See how close you can get to creating a phallus-themed superhero without getting into trouble" Also, I don't know how I feel about an isometric MMO.

Now let's start shifting towards the topic at hand. I was actually kind of surprised people chose this one; I wouldn't have thought that Nickelodeon cartoons had that much sway over my readership. Clearly I was mistaken though, and happily so. This week...this week is going to be fun. It's also going to be fantastically full of spoilers, so if you think that Magic Martial Arts Cartoons are your thing, maybe hold off on this post until you've seen it. I tried to keep them to a minimum but...

Terrifying Implications of the Avatar Universe

So last month I did a post about how cartoons do not, and never did, make any sense. In it, I gave some examples of cartoons from my past that had about the same level of quality as the ones around today, and that was fine. I got to nerd out, you guys got to read about me nerding out, and there were cleverly placed photos with hilarious captions to keep things interesting. Good stuff; classic Under Review. One thing I didn't talk about though, were cartoons which had enough depth of thought and narrative that they could still appeal to me, even though I was clearly not a child anymore. In hindsight, this was probably a pretty big omission; as animation has grown to become a more artistically challenging medium, the quality of cartoons has overall gotten better, even if sometimes we have to put up with stuff like Ninjago.

Because Ninjas tested well with the kids and animating Lego people is far easier. 
Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of those shows with same the kind of forethought and deliberate design choices that let me continue loving films like The Iron Giant and while I was initially kind of embarrassed to admit that I liked it, it's grown on me to the point where I just don't give a damn anymore. The animation is fantastic, the voicework is solid, all the characters are cleverly flawed and have their own satisfying story arcs, and even the humor doesn't compromise itself, just because it's a kid's show. I still go back to the finale every now and again because it's just that awesome. 

For those of you who have never seen or heard anything significant about this show; it takes place in its own little world wherin there is are special kinds of martial arts--bending--which allow the user to control one of the obligitory four elements; earth, water, fire, and air. To keep this from becoming a total clusterfuck, a reincarnated being called the Avatar, who is the only one who can master all four elements, keeps the balance between the four styles and their home nations, each modeled to some degree after aspects of the far east, particularly China. This all works fantastically until they lose the Avatar for a hundred years and the Fire Nation decides to try their hand at world domination. Alternatively, you could just watch this.

As someone who grew up with Power Rangers and Dragonball Z, you can see why this show might initially appeal to me. This is the kind of universe which I would have obsessed over and pretended to live in as a kid. Hell, I still think it'd be awesome; we all know that being an adult doesn't make badass stuff any less badass. There are, however some...mild concerns that I've never seen the shows address. 

Let's start with the obvious; the benders themselves. Benders are powerful. Like scary powerful. Throw-a-boulder-three-times-their-size-like-it-was-nothing powerful. Any bender of even just moderate to okay skill could easily kill you. Worse, you don't really have a chance to level the playing field. You don't train to be one, you're born one. One or both of your parents was one and if they weren't, then too bad, you get to live in a world stuffed to the brim with demigods as a mere mortal.

And I do mean demigods. 
Granted, you're not totally screwed if you're not born a bender. There are at least two examples of normal people who can hold their own pretty well in a fight. One of those two can even temporarily block bending abilities by punching certain chi points. That's great! The common man can succeed after all! Hoorah!

...Except that both of those characters were trained in combat and acrobatics since they could walk and even then, they ultimately lose to their bending opponents who weren't nearly as disciplined or well-trained. So what if you don't have the time, money, or skill to undertake a lifetime of training so you can live in a world where a ten-year-old could crush your skull with some semblance of peace? What if you're a cabbage merchant?

Cabbages are more food for the soul than anything else.
What if you work every day of your life to produce the best, tastiest, greenest cabbages and sell them at an affordable price to make an affordable living. For all intents and purposes, cabbages are your life, right? You wake up every day on your cabbage farm, then once a month or so you go into town and try to sell as many cabbages as you can so support yourself, your lifestyle, maybe even your family. 

Then the Avatar and his friends fall out of the sky.

Now your cart and your entire stock is ruined. You're pretty much guaranteed to go hungry unless you pick up those dirty, destroyed cabbages off the ground and eat them yourself. But what are you going to do? Ask them to buy all the cabbages? A new cart? The waterbender could make you choke on your own fluids, the airbender could probably pull all the air out of your body and make your lungs collapse, and the earthbender? How can you really expect to give orders to someone who can do this:

These are kids, by the way; I can't stress that enough. The main characters run the gamut from 12 to 16 and time and time again prove themselves to be more dangerously capable than entire companies of trained soldiers. It's not like there's some strict code of honor either; characters throughout the series misuse and abuse their power to take what they want by force, bully others, or even just cause havoc for the hell of it, including but not limited to the entire Fire Nation.

Speaking of the Fire Nation, let's talk about the Fire Nation Army. Something about them that was always apparent but never got brought up was the fact that there wasn't anyone in the army who couldn't bend. Not just that, there wasn't anyone in the army who couldn't firebend. If you couldn't spit flames from your hands, but still wanted to serve your country then you were pretty much out of luck. There was always administration; not much firebending required to do paperwork, but that's hardly the same, now is it? 

Consider for a moment the fact that the Fire Nation government restricts people from certain positions based on them having a firebending lineage. Even their leader is called "Fire Lord" and is supposedly just about the most powerful firebender of the lot. Nevermind being a lowly-but-contented cabbage merchant, not being able to bend relegates you to second-class citizen status. 

Then the Fire Lord goes a little crazy and decides to drive the other three styles to extinction so that firebenders, and only firebenders, ruled the world and holy shit guys, firebenders are like Nazis if Nazis were all human flame throwers.

Much like the Nazis, they also had the best uniforms.
Consider what it would be like to live in a world with superpowered Nazis in a World War that lasted a hundred years and everyone was a Jew. That's what living in the Avatar universe would be like, if you were anything but a firebender.

Then finally there's the idea of bending itself. Magic nature powers give you a lot of really horrible, horrible murder options. Let's break it down. Waterbenders obviously bend water. Humans are 70% water. Especially powerful waterbenders can bend blood, but only on the full moon because having direct control over a person's circulatory system wasn't creepy enough. Presumably, the restriction is due to the fairly small H20 content in blood, though I really couldn't say. You know what other part of the body has a lot of water in it all the time though? Your stomach. Imagine all of that water in your stomach being whipped into a razor sharp edge, right out of your belly. Even better, Waterbenders can freeze and unfreeze water at will because science. What if someone didn't just pull all the water out, but froze it inside of you? Now you've got a two pound hunk of ice giving your innards frostbite. 

Firebenders have the obvious "BURN EVERYONE ALIVE" card but then there's also the "Asphyxiate you by eating up all the oxygen around your face" card and the "set your lungs on fire" card not to mention the "Boil your skin" card. 

Earthbenders control earth but that's a misnomer; what they really control is minerals. There are no "Just rocks" or "Just dirt" it's always a composite of minerals. The really badass ones can even control metal, metal just being a really refined mineral. You know what your bones are made of? Calcium. A mineral. According to earthbenders, everyone has brittle bone disease. I don't think I need to add anything else there. 

Then finally there's airbenders who...actually are just mostly harmless. I think about the worst an airbender could do would be to pop you, but that's just about it. Airbenders are kind of cute that way.

Airbenders are like red pandas; red pandas can try to be scary, but no one's ever going to say anything besides "D'aww, look at how goddamn cute he is!"
Now I've spent most of this article bitching about how much it would suck to be accidentally born into the wrong family and not have bending powers. Truth is though, life doesn't get a whole lot better with them. Just like there aren't any non-benders in the Fire Nation Army, I don't recall seeing any firebending civilians. Like, ever. The one guy from the show who decided he didn't want to be in the army anymore was branded a Benedict Arnold-level national traitor who has to live in hiding as a hermit. That being said, it stands to reason that if you're born a firebender but don't want to fight or, God forbid, don't support the war, then you're shit out of luck. Put on your spikey armor and pray you don't get Zuko detail.

Don't let the scruffy hair and pleasant greeting fool you, this kid was nothing less than an on-the-job hazard. 
As for the other bending styles, assuming that bending wasn't strictly forbidden where you lived, society pretty much obligated you to train yourself up into a fighter. That part actually kind of makes sense; as I said earlier, there are kids with powers strong enough to do serious bodily and structural damage. When one of your stupid human tricks is crushing skulls, it would make sense to make sure you know what you're doing with it. Hell, in the very first episode, one of the characters accidentally fractures and shatters an iceberg. A whole iceberg. Why? She got pissed at her brother. 

This isn't helped along by the tendency of earthbenders and waterbenders to build their houses out of the stuff they can control with their minds. How many times a year do you think the Earth Kingdom police force has to dig crumpled bodies out of piles of rubble because someone lost their cool in a domestic dispute? What if, like our cabbage merchant from earlier, you didn't have the time or money to get training? Hell, what if you just weren't good enough to get into any respectable school? You'd have to live every day of your life knowing that if you got too angry or excited, you could kill someone, or even yourself by reflex alone. 

Here lies Bume, who died after an unfortunate post-Jenga celebration
Ultimately, the Avatar universe falls prey to the same kinds of problems the X-men and other superhero universes have; being the only one with superpowers is awesome, but living in a world of superpowered people is significantly less awesome. In a move that I was totally caught off guard by, the series kind of realized this and in what I guess you could call the sequel series, Legend of Korra, you start to see non-benders get all upset that they're not as cool as the people who can shoot fire out of their nostrils, going so far as to lead a revolution that seems to so far act as sort of a central focus to answer a lot of the very same questions I just posed. So hats off to you, Avatar creators. You guys can stay. Ninjago guys; you're on notice.

Thank you, goodnight.

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