"Why am I so bad at being good?": the Encouraging Wisdom of Zuko

As the world ticks by another March 31st and I celebrate a special birthday, I will take the time to ask a deep-sounding and important question: how does one be a good person? There are so many complications to this question that make it nearly impossible to answer. The largest and most immediate may be “what is my definition of good?” Indeed, ‘good‘ is not a static word in the English language. Nearly any act, from saving a kitten to taking a life can be viewed as ‘good.’ So, where to start? Also, doesn’t this post have something to do with Avatar: the Last Airbender?

Yes, and there is a reason for starting the post with such a board question. As I have mentioned in past character analysis, the best art includes characters that can teach real life lessons. My post on Iroh focused on how he dealt with tragedy, my post on Azula discussed how the tragedy of her life came about and could have been avoided. Well, if we’re talking Fire Nation complexity, we gotta talk Zuko.

Zuko, for those out the who don’t know, is the Fire Nation (bad guy) banished prince. He was meant to be the next Fire Lord before speaking out of turn cost him his home and his title. He was cast out to wander the world in search of the Avatar with only one ship of men and his uncle (Iroh) to help him. Another way to describe Zuko would to be to liken him to Hamlet. I’m basically saying that he has daddy issues and difficulty making up his mind. Also, not the most cheerful guy to be around:

Typical Zuko response.
Typical Zuko response.

At the beginning of the series, Zuko is an antagonist. He chases the Avatar with single-minded focus. After all, according to his father, capturing the Avatar is the only way to restore his honor and the only thing that will allow him to return home. Wow, right? He must have done something really bad to get banished in the first place, right?

Turns out the only thing Zuko did was speak out of turn… and in protest of some troops being sent on a suicide mission. As a result, this happened:

Yeah: holy sh*t. Zuko’s own father burned half of his face off… just for speaking out of turn. This gives you an idea as to what kind of childhood Zuko led. He wasn’t raised by loving parents, he did not have a stable environment in which to grow, he did not have many friends or allies who believed in him. In short, Zuko did not come from the house where most storybook heroes are raised.

Zuko did have a happy childhood with his mom... until she was exiled.
Zuko did have a happy childhood with his mom… until she was exiled.

We all like to think that we’re good people on our own, but the proven fact remains that environment is crucial in child development. It can be an unsettling question to ask: “If I were raised by serial killers, would I view killing as wrong?” Well, Zuko was raised by a killer. Ozai (Zuko’s dear old daddy) essentially arranged the death of his father to further his own politcal career. I’m going to guess that morality talks were not an often occurrence in Zuko’s childhood.

As such, is it such a wonder that he began the series as a ‘villain’? No, the incredible achievement comes in his being a protagonist by series’ end. Of all the characters who transform throughout the series, there is none who grows as much as Zuko. The more incredible fact is that Zuko accomplishes this transformation largely on his own. Yes, Iroh is a powerful positive force for change, but he never forces Zuko to do anything.

There, that’s as forceful as Iroh ever is. Zuko does not rely on his uncle to question him. He is a constant judge of his own emotions and actions. After every major action, there is a reflection. This is one of Zuko’s most positive qualities as it allows him to learn and grow through everything he does.

“Zuko: For so long I thought that if my dad accepted me, I'd be happy. I'm back home now, my dad talks to me. Ha! He even thinks I'm a hero. Everything should be perfect, right? I should be happy now, but I'm not. I'm angrier than ever and I don't know why! Azula: There's a simple question you need to answer, then. Who are you angry at? Zuko: No one. I'm just angry. Mai: Yeah, who are you angry at, Zuko? Zuko: Everyone. I don't know. Azula: Is it Dad? Zuko: No, no. Ty Lee: Your uncle? Azula: Me? Zuko: No, no, n-no, no! Mai: Then who? Who are you angry at? Azula: Answer the question, Zuko. Ty Lee: Talk to us. Mai: Come on, answer the question. Azula: Come on, answer it. Zuko: I'm angry at myself!”
“For so long I thought that if my dad accepted me, I’d be happy. I’m back home now, my dad talks to me. Ha! He even thinks I’m a hero. Everything should be perfect, right? I should be happy now, but I’m not. I’m angrier than ever and I don’t know why!… I’m angry at myself!”

This awareness, this willingness to look inward and critique is so important for growth. For contrast, Azula never reevaluated her actions. Everything she did was right because… she did it. No one can ever be perfect so it is important to be able to look back and admit mistakes. Yet Zuko’s greatest ability is not his awareness, but his determination to continue to improve himself.


Let’s go back to the serial killer scenario. Even if you still found killing to be wrong, would you ever realize your family was in the wrong? More than that, would you ever act to stop them? Zuko does. He turns on his family, he turns on his father; the man who was pinnacle of authority.

Damn, that takes courage. A large detail not to ignore is that Zuko never distances himself from his family. Yes, he believes the Avatar should kill his father, and he does label his father “a monster,” but Zuko still calls the man ‘father.’ He never separates himself from the people who were so cruel to him. Is there a level of forgiveness there? Probably not, but it is good to see that no sense of superiority comes with Zuko’s change. He is never so high on himself to think he is perfect.

It could be argued that Aang was great because of his childhood and being raised by the Air Nomads. Katara may have found a lot of her strength and caring from her mother. Toph may even be her contradictory self only to spite her parents. Zuko… Zuko is the man he is because that is the man he chose to be, regardless of the negative and positive forces in his life.

Katara mocks but that is actually really impressive.

When asking how to be a ‘good’ person, that might be the answer. Look at all the forces in your life, and then be the force you want to be, since it is always possible.



Sequels We Didn't Need: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

In 2009, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller brought Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to the screen. The film told the charming story of Flint Lockwood and how his weather-to-food invention changed his life and the lives of those around him. Using visual, vaudeville-style humor and endearing character development, Lord and Miller were able to bring a soul to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs that elevated it beyond a mediocre 3D effects fest. It is a great little movie and worth a watch to anyone out there who hasn’t seen it (and still has enough of a child’s wonder left to appreciate food falling from the sky). Fast-forward to 2013 when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs returned to the screen. The aptly named Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. It is a sad realization to understand that Hollywood’s response to anything successful is this: make more until it isn’t. Sequels are just an inevitability these days. As audiences, we can only hope that they’re good. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2… is not such a sequel.

Wait, what went wrong? It is such a dynamite concept! I mean, food falling from the sky – that’s at least eight films right there…

3 could be about the evolution of food people and 4 could be about them leaving Earth to find their own planet! And then you have a trilogy of fighting food aliens! Brilliant.
3 could be about the evolution of food people and 4 could be about them leaving Earth to find their own planet! And then you have a trilogy of fighting food aliens! Brilliant.

Yeah, for anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, I will just say that it ends without the feeling that there is something more to tell. Certain movies, like Back to the Future and the Incredibles, close with a tease: the promise of more exciting adventures to come. Flint Lockwood’s story was done at the end of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. He had grown up, realized that he didn’t need to prove himself to everyone when the people who mattered already supported him. The weather-to-food machine (yes, I’m aware it has a more creative name) is destroyed and life returns to normal. There and back again: adventure complete.

Things literally ended with sunshine and rainbows.
Things literally ended with sunshine and rainbows.

That is not to say that all sequels to complete stories are bad. Look at the Toy Story trilogy: each one of those is a complete adventure on its own. Yes, they use the same characters but there is no overarching plot. It is just three separate toy stories that work really well together. So Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 was not dead in the water. It even gained a fun life in its new idea: a Jules Verne-style island of living food. Sort of a next mutation phase to Flint’s invention.

Where Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 falls off is its continuing character development. Here in lies one of the greatest pitfalls for sequels. You can always tell if a sequel is driven by writing or by marketing. For instance, in a sequel driven by writing (Toy Story 2), not every character returns from the first movie. There is no desire to create a “hey, do you remember how cool this was last time?” moment, since the story has enough to tell on its own. In a sequel driven by marketing, everyone comes back regardless if they have anything to contribute to the current story. Case in point:

This guy.
This guy.

Brent was a character who had a purpose in the first movie: he was the guy Flint Lockwood wanted to be. He was popular and people liked him. The first film was also clever enough to showcase the failings of Brent’s type of “popularity” (no one really cares about him as a person, just about one thing he did) and use it to teach Flint what true acceptance was. In the sequel… he’s just there. Really, there isn’t anything that he does that is vital to the plot. I love Andy Samberg but… yeah could have done without him.

The real failing though is with Flint Lockwood. Like I said, his journey in the first film was one of acceptance. He felt like he had to prove himself and didn’t realize that he was already cared for. There was an evil mentor figure (the Mayor, voiced by Bruce Campbell) who led Flint along: pushed him to do more than he was comfortable with, to betray his own instincts just to satisfy others. Luckily by the end of the movie, Flint knows better. He is not looking for acceptance from the wrong places anymore and knows that there is more to life than pleasing everyone. Well, good thing that’s over and done with… right?

Certainly this will never happen again.
Certainly this will never happen again.

Wrong. The sequel re-does that same character growth. The new villain, Chester V (voiced by Will Forte) is essentially the Mayor from the first movie. Wait, no: he’s Flint Lockwood’s childhood inspiration… wait, I thought that was his mom? No matter, rather than evolve Flint – the film regresses him back to a place of insecurity that is well, boring. We already saw that movie.

And it happened again.
And it happened again.

This writing decision prevents any of the other characters from growing as well and basically keeps the movie in an unnatural holding pattern that exists solely to move the plot along. There was potential here as Chester V comes off in the vein of Steve Jobs. A more clever film would have examined the idea of selling scientific advancement for profit vs. knowledge for the good of all mankind. Sadly, this is what we got.

So if you haven’t seen the first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, do yourself a favor and give it a watch. If you have, liked it, and want to see more: watch the original again. The sequel is just the same story… that, like a joke, isn’t as great the second time that you hear it.

Also Sam is a non-character in the sequel. I mean, to be fair she's already been a love interest so what more is there... right? Sigh...
Also Sam is a non-character in the sequel. I mean, to be fair she’s already been a love interest so what more is there… right? Sigh…