Netflix Op-Ed – Why Everyone Should Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender

Not to be confused with the terrible live action film. Or the other live action film with blue cat people.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony, each possessing some citizens who had the ability to control, or “bend,” their respective elements. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and two children from the water tribe, Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena), discover a young boy trapped in an iceberg. It turns out that this boy is Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), the most recent reincarnation of the Avatar. He was frozen for a century, during which time Fire Lord Ozai (Mark Hamill *Applause*), the new head of the fire nation, has been slowly attempting to dominate all four of the nations, having wiped out all of the Air Nomads, the benders of the Air nation, except for Aang. Together, the three set off to try and save the world. They are pursued by the Fire Prince Zuko (Dante “Rufio” Basco) and his sweet-hearted uncle, Iroh (Mako *May He Reign Forever*), as they journey through the water, earth, and fire nations. They are eventually joined by the blind Earthbender Toph Beifong (Jessie Flower) and opposed further by Zuko’s sister Azula (Grey DeLisle).

Also, they have Appa, the flying bison, and Momo, the winged lemur. They fly and are cute.

END SUMMARY

While I always have a soft spot for Disney and have to admire the number of good series that they have put forth over the years, including now, they have sometimes played it too safe. Even during the 80s and 90s, when Disney shows dominated the afternoon cartoon lineup, most of them were, in retrospect, pretty formulaic, from the stories to the characters to the art style. There were exceptions, of course, like Gargoyles, but for the most part they all kind of looked the same and felt the same. You could tell they all were cut from the same cloth. Then there was Nickelodeon, who due to starting out by importing cartoons from multiple different cultures, decided to take things in another direction with Nicktoons. If you can remember this far back, think about the fact that the same studio made the gross and shocking Ren and Stimpy, the slice-of-life Doug, the surprisingly lovable Rugrats, the brilliant and dark Invader Zim, and the zany Angry Beavers. If I’ve missed one of your favorites, sorry, but my point is that all of those shows were massively different, from tone to art style to audience, but Nickelodeon was willing to give them a chance. Avatar was no different, in that it was completely different.

Just saying, variety is the spice of life.

Taking inspiration from anime for its art style and Wuxia martial arts films for its fighting sequences, Avatar forged a world that was simultaneously easy to understand and yet so complex that it kept you wanting to know more about it. Part of that was that it always blended together different storytelling elements and artistic styles while still celebrating and honoring what made each of the originals great. Each of the four nations was inspired by a real life culture, with the Water Tribes being based on Arctic tribes, like the Inuits, the Earth kingdom being based on Imperial China, and the Air Nomads being monks based on Tibetan or Shaolin Monks. The Fire Nation’s a little harder to nail down, but I think that’s because as a conquering empire, they’ve blended a ton of cultures together. Despite the fact that characters from each of these nations work together towards a common goal, their cultures are always respected and honored for their own unique traits. Given that the central villain in the series is an empire trying to destroy everyone that isn’t them, it’s safe to say that the concept of respecting other people’s heritage was going to be a central theme of the show, despite how much of a minefield that can be.

Also, everyone loves tea. It’s universal.

Part of what makes me love Avatar was that as the show went on, it stopped trying to give definitive, easy answers to issues. For example, a character seeks revenge on the person who killed their mother, but finds out that the murderer is just a pathetic coward. They decide not to kill the murderer, because he’s not worth it, but also refuse to ever forgive him. And that’s just where it stays. Sometimes you can’t force yourself to forgive someone. You can stop letting that pain dictate your actions, but that doesn’t mean that you have to pretend that things can ever be right. That’s not a typical message for a show like this and the show is filled with them. There are messages about overzealous dedication to a cause, dealing with abuse, nationalism, and a major one about propaganda. Also one about coping with your girlfriend becoming the moon, but that’s not super common.

There’s the obligatory environmental episode, of course.

Rather than ever start to devolve into simpler, Flanderized versions of their characters, Avatar constantly kept building more and more complexity into them. They actually keep growing to the point that in the third season, towards the end of the show, there is an episode that lampoons how much more basic they were at the beginning. To that end, I do have to warn you that some of the earlier Avatar episodes are a little weak. Honestly, I don’t think the show gets going until episode 12, “The Storm,” and that is a long time to wait. I can’t even tell you to skip them (aside from “The Great Divide,” which everyone should skip) because they all set up for stuff that pays off later. However, it is absolutely worth a little bit of boredom to eventually find out what this show grows into. 

It’s on Netflix right now, at least for a little while, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: How to Hate Your Protagonist

So, per Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB and Metacritic and every other rating thing I can find, this is the lowest rated of the movies Edgar Wright directed (granted, it’s still favorably rated). There are a couple of reasons for this: It’s got a lot more jokes that require specific outside knowledge, it’s based on an indie comic that wasn’t even finished at the time, and it’s much more styled towards a particular culture. But, more than that, I think it’s that people didn’t know exactly how to feel about the main character.

ScottPilgrim-1Cera.jpg
To be fair, he doesn’t seem sure either.

SYNOPSIS

This movie takes place in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada. However, even compared to the normal Canada, this one is particularly odd in that it obeys “video game rules.” 22-year-old bassist Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen “Watch GLOW” Wong). One night, however, he sees Amazon delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rollerblade through his dreams before meeting her in real life. He starts dating her, but doesn’t break up with Knives.

ScottPilgrim-2Girls.jpg
Admittedly, they’re both amazing.

When Scott plays at the Battle of the Bands with his band Sex Bob-Omb (Members Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill)), he is attacked by Ramona’s ex Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who tells him that, in order to date Ramona, he has to defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes. Scott is revealed to be an amazing fighter who ends up defeating Patel. Scott finally breaks up with Knives, but she blames Ramona and vows vengeance. Scott then tricks her second evil ex, Lucas Lee (Chris “You know who I am” Evans) into defeating himself, defeats her third ex, Todd Ingram (Brandon “You know who I am, but a little less” Routh) by tricking him into drinking cream which leads the Vegan Police (Clifton Collins, Jr. and Thomas Jane) to remove his “vegan powers,” and defeats her fourth evil ex, Roxy (or Roxie) Richter (Mae “Her?” Whitman) mildly pornographically.

ScottPilgrim-3MoneyShot.gif
I regret nothing.

Scott and Ramona have a fight, leading her to dump him. At the next Battle of the Bands, however, Scott and Sex Bob-Omb are pitted against Ramon’s fifth and sixth exes Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Shota and Keita Saito), who they defeat, earning Scott an extra life. It’s then revealed that the Battle was sponsored by Ramona’s seventh ex, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), who she has now gotten back with. Scott quits the band when they sign with Gideon.

ScottPilgrim-4Katayanagi.png
I’d go to more concerts if this happened.

After a pep-talk (consisting of “finish him”) from his roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), Scott resolves to win Ramona back and heads to the Chaos Theater, where Gideon and the band (now with Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) are. Scott challenges Gideon but is defeated. He then uses his extra life to try again, this time being honest and mature about everything he’s done, finally defeating Gideon. He’s then confronted by Nega-Scott, who ends up being a nice guy. Ramona starts to leave, but, with prompting from Knives, Scott goes with her, walking into a doorway to somewhere new.

ScottPilgrim-5Ending
The doorway to somewhere.

END SYNOPSIS

Unlike the Cornetto Trilogy or Baby Driver, this movie was actually based on an existing property, the excellent Scott Pilgrim comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Because of that, a lot of the plot elements were kind of locked in, although they were adapted to film by Wright and Michael Bacall (21 Jump Street). A big thing is that the comic series wasn’t over at the time the movie was being made, so they had options as to how to end it. Unfortunately, they picked an ending, then found out that they’d picked the opposite of the comics and also the one that the audience didn’t like, so they reversed themselves. In the alternate ending, Scott actually picks Knives, which is weird because that’s basically undoing a lot of the growth of the film.

ScottPilgrim-6Vol6.jpg
To be fair, Akira wasn’t done when they made the movie, and it’s amazing.

Now, again, this is the lowest rated film by Edgar Wright, and the main thing I think people don’t like about this movie is that Scott Pilgrim is not a great guy. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the last volume of the comic series, which hadn’t come out yet. It’s a bit more explicit there, where it’s pointed out that much of the comic is just from Scott’s viewpoint and accepting the objective truth of what he’s done to people in the past allows him to finally realize that he’s a dick. In this movie, the realization isn’t as pronounced and is basically accomplished as part of a montage, which kind of hurts our appreciation of his growth.

ScottPilgrim-7PowerOfSelfRespect
Even though it’s LITERALLY A LEVEL-UP.

It’s not really abnormal to have a protagonist who’s a bad person, tons of movies have done it, but it’s the kind of bad person that Scott is. Scott’s really just kind of a selfish asshole who doesn’t realize it. He dated Kim and treated her so badly that during the movie, she doesn’t even break her gaze most of the time. She constantly insults him and when he claims to be offended, she seems skeptical that he’s even capable of caring what she thinks… which he usually ignores and moves on.

ScottPilgrim-8Kim.gif
Kim doesn’t think well of him.

He doesn’t have a job, he mooches off of Wallace, he doesn’t have any aspirations, he dates a high-schooler despite being 22, and he cheats on her the minute he finds someone else. Unlike Shaun from Shaun of the Dead or Gary King from The World’s End, Scott doesn’t really have that many redeeming qualities. He’s cowardly, he’s not particularly loyal to his friends or his band, he’s not even that funny. You’re just not supposed to like him. At the end of the movie, we even meet “NegaScott,” who is revealed to be, if anything, slightly nicer than regular Scott, meaning Scott is actually the evil twin. But, since he’s played as being somewhat adorable, a great bassist and fighter, and is the protagonist, you find yourself naturally kind of wanting to like him, so the movie is kind of confusing your feelings. I think that turned a lot of people off.

The point of Scott’s journey isn’t actually to be a better person in the heroic cycle where he ends up completely different and changed by the journey at the end. Scott’s story is just him realizing that he needs to change and accepting that he isn’t the awesome person he thinks he is.

ScottPilgrim-9Apartment.jpg

Meanwhile, Ramona is portrayed pretty straightforwardly. She’s not a great person either, but she’s more honest about it and doesn’t like it. She even tries to keep out of other people’s lives to spare them her the trouble of dealing with her. However, she’s not much braver than Scott, trying to run or hide from any issue, symbolized by her ever-changing hair.

ScottPilgrim-AHair
And they’re the colors of the three goddesses of Zelda

Since I’m apparently doing characters, I will have to pause and say that I think this is among the best supporting casts ever placed in a film. Yes, most of them seem like exaggerated caricatures, but it’s a video game world inside a comic book, that’s actually nailing it. I particularly love Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, who manages to be both supportive and also undercut Scott’s bad habits constantly. The villains also carry sufficient weight, particularly given that most of them are only on film for a few minutes.

ScottPilgrim-BWallace.jpg
I didn’t make an Igby Goes Down joke. I’m proud of me.

Now, to get into the most impressive part of the movie, the style. Since Wright was following the comic, he didn’t get as much control over the plot and characters, but more than made up for it in his choices of music, costume, and settings. The amount of effort put forth in the film is ridiculous, with almost every shot having some sort of secondary meaning.

ScottPilgrim-CXes.jpg
This after he’s beaten two of them.

The biggest one is probably the style of the villains. Each one is given elements that reflect what number they are in the league. Matthew Patel appears to only have one eye due to his hairstyle and has one chevron on his shoulder. Lucas Lee uses stunt doubles and has a 2 tattooed on his neck. Todd wears a 3 on his shirt and loses due to his third strike violation of Vegan Law. Roxie fights Scott in a club called “4” and is defeated by “foreplay.” The Katayanagi twins have an amp that goes to 11 (5+6). Gideon’s fight is filled with sevens. In contrast, Scott wears a shirt saying “zero,” drinks Coke Zero, and draws zeroes when he’s nervous.

ScottPilgrim-DGideon

The transitions in the movie are impressive, with the characters constantly shifting from scene to scene, often in one fluid motion, which makes it feel more like a comic book or a video game transition. Likewise, there are a ton of quick-change cuts that almost feel like the character just changed their equipment rather than getting dressed. Even a lot of the actions have visual cues, ranging from motion lines to outright verbal sound effects.

ScottPilgrim-EFight.png

The music in the film is amazing, as you would expect, but the sound effects are also perfect. In a sitcom scene, they play the Seinfeld theme. In a bathroom scene, they play the Fairy Fountain theme from The Legend of Zelda series. Video game sounds are repeatedly used to punctuate actions, including the famous “KO” effect from VirtuaFighter.

Overall, I love this film. It’s got great re-watchability, it’s visually stunning, and, mostly, it’s one of the only movies that actually feels like a video game, far more than any video game movie.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.