The Sad Ending to the Avatar Universe

No, I’m not talking about anything having to do with James Cameron.

The sequel series to Avatar: the Last Airbender ended last month. The Legend of Korra enjoyed a finale that many critics and fans loved, with some calling it “the best series finale of 2014.” For my part, I initially was not a big fan of Korra‘s final episode. While I liked the events of the finale, the – everything that happened – portion of it, I was disappointed in the ‘how.’ It just all felt rushed. From the two-minute “forgive me ’cause I’m an orphan” speech by Kuvira to the sudden and controversial final moments between Korra and Asami, I walked away feeling like the season could have really used another episode to explain and flush out the resolution.

We get it Kuvira, you did not have a great childhood. That really does not justify your basically being Hitler this season.
We get it Kuvira, you did not have a great childhood. That really does not justify your basically being Hitler this season.

I actually began writing a post that was dedicated to exploring the resolutions in “The Last Stand,” but my research compelled me to drop it (at least for now). The reality is that something far sadder than a series finale occurred last month. This very likely is the end of the Avatar universe, at least as far as creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino are concerned.

The two masterminds behind the Avatar universe.
The two masterminds behind the Avatar universe.

There is a reason that season four of The Legend of Korra feels like it is missing an episode. It is.

After the immensely poorly handled fiasco that was season three, Nickelodeon felt compelled to interfere again with Legend of Korra. The show’s numbers had evidently fallen (surprise, surprise; when you yank season three off the air halfway through the season and then release season four a month later with little promotion). Nickelodeon must have been losing too much profit for their liking, so they responded by slashing Korra‘s animation budget.

Konietzko and DiMartino apparently received an ultimatum: lose an episode or some of their staff would be let go. Rather than firing anyone, the two came up with a compromise: a clip-show style episode that heavily reused animation. Nickelodeon got to save on costs, no one lost their jobs, and the series did not have to completely lose an episode…

Even Varrick's hilarity could not save Remembrances from feeling really useless.
Even Varrick’s hilarity could not save “Remembrances” from feeling really useless.

Well, they still did. While “Remembrances” (as the clip-episode came to be called) is not in itself completely terrible, it is by far the worst episode of both series. Simply put: not enough happens in it. It is hard, however, to be overtly critical knowing the limitations that were faced. Nothing could happen in this episode, they did not have the money.

This means that Legend of Korra, an extremely fast-paced and tightly written story, lost twenty minutes of storytelling. Audiences can only imagine what the original, uncut, season four storyline might have looked like. Talk about treating one of your highest rated programs with complete disrespect. That would be like if HBO cut Game of Thrones set budget.

Do you really need all those extras? Do they need to be wearing armor?
Do you really need all those extras? Do they need to be wearing armor?

As if the mishandling of season three and the mistreatment of season four weren’t enough interference, Nickelodeon was apparently very limiting in another aspect of the show:

They're bisexual - you gotta deal with it.
They’re bisexual – you gotta deal with it.

Yes, it turns out that (spoilers) bisexuality is not an identity that Nickelodeon promotes. In his comments addressing the show’s ending, Konietzko handled it as politely and publicly correct as possible: “while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it.” That’s the nicest way possible of saying they were restrictive. If you are at a table with someone who has cookies and you ask for a cookie, they can be as nice as they want… while still not giving you the cookie. They can support your decision to want a cookie til the cows come home but you’re still hungry at the end of the day.

What is more troubling is the timing of Nickelodeon’s mishandling of the series. Reading the creators words on the dubbed “Korrasami” relationship (isn’t the internet just so clever?), it becomes clear that the idea of the two having a romantic relationship become much more concrete after season two. Seasons three and four were meant to be the set-up. Hmmm, now what two seasons did Nickelodeon really interfere with? I am not accusing the corporation of homophobia, but it is a little unsettling to have these timelines line up.

Suicide? That's fine, just make sure the two women don't kiss!
Suicide? That’s fine, just make sure the two women don’t kiss!

Regardless of what happened, one thing is clear: Konietzko and DiMartino have grown too mature for Nickelodeon. Who can really blame them after everything that happened with Korra? It does not sound anything like the successful partnership that occurred with Avatar: the Last Airbender. You can bet the two have a future project planned, they have said as much themselves. The sad news is: it is not Avatar related.

The two are moving on, likely to a studio or network (Netflix, HBO) that allows more artistic freedom. While this is likely a great move and I eagerly await their next series, it is sad that this is how the Avatar universe ends. There will be more comic books, which is nice I guess… but it appears unlikely that Nickelodeon will ever produce another series (after some feel that they tried actively to kill Korra) and even less likely that it will involve the two creators. This was an incredible universe that spanned two extraordinary shows. Even if its “cartoon” status prevented it from earning the acclaim of Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black, both Korra and Avatar accomplished something truly special.

It is just a shame that this good-bye tastes so bitter.

"Hey cheer up, at least Michael Bay hasn't made a movie about us yet."
“Hey cheer up, at least Michael Bay hasn’t made a movie about us yet.”

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About that Ending: Mass Effect 3

I know, I know: beating a dead horse right? Who hasn’t talked about the ending of Mass Effect 3? Few video game stories last year were as widely discussed. From the overwhelming negativity at the initial ending(s) to the lessened reaction to the Extended Cut to the few people out there who were satisfied all along, everyone who played the Mass Effect trilogy has something to say about that ending. But, like most well-thought out reactions out there on the internet, it was instantaneous. Everyone had something to say THEN. What about now? It’s been a year and the game has changed in that time. Bioware added four single-player DLC (downloadable content) packs, three of which were targeted at changing the experience of the ending: Extended Cut, Leviathan and Citadel (not to forget From Ashes, which was available day one). So playing the game today, with this content installed, yields a vastly different experience than we received back on March 6, 2012. Having recently replayed Mass Effect 3 with all of this content, I have formed a new opinion on the ending(s) and surprise, surprise: I like it.

Warning – Here Be Spoilers

For those of you who don’t know, Mass Effect 3 concludes the story of Commander (insert first name here) Shepard. In the game, Shepard unites the various species of the universe against the apocalyptic force of the Reapers, a race of mammoth sentient machines bent on exterminating all advanced civilizations. Pretty damn epic, in other words. The Reapers are a great threat, with their larger-than-life presence they seem almost invincible… almost. The game ends with the final battle, Shepard confronts the main antagonist of the story (the Reaper AI manifested in the form of a child) and either destroys the Reapers, controls them or merges all organic and technological life into a new infused state of “technorganic” being. People (myself included) had problems with this.

So let’s start with one of the largest factors in the ending: the main antagonist. Christened “godchild” by angry fans, this creation felt like a walking deus ex machina (plot device existing solely to nicely tie up the story). Really it was a valid criticism. At the time there had been no other mention of this being at any other point in the trilogy (aside from an absurdly minor mention in Mass Effect – like Codex level obscure). In addition, Mass Effect 2 and 3 had been, up until that point, establishing a Reaper known as Harbinger as the main antagonist (the Illusive Man, despite being Martin Sheen, doesn’t count). Harbinger appeared to be the largest Reaper, head of their fleet and, possessed a major grudge against Commander Shepard. In other words: pretty good villain material.

Despite a strong physical presence at the game's climax, Harbinger feels very absent from Mass Effect 3.
Despite a strong, physical presence at the game’s climax, Harbinger feels very absent from Mass Effect 3.

Instead we got this guy:


I’m not going to get more into the reaction, there are already plenty of articles on it. Needless to say, people don’t like it when you introduce a new villain in the final minutes of the game who appears to have power over everything and all the answers to all the questions in the universe. That was a bad move by Bioware (and EA). Good thing is, they fixed it. While Harbinger is still absent, the DLC pack, Leviathan, establishes the lore of the “godchild” fairly early on in the game. The Catalyst (godchild’s official name) was an AI created by the Leviathan, an ancient race of super evolved beings. The Catalyst was created in an act of hubris, from the Leviathans believing themselves above every other organic race in the universe. So they created an AI program to help “balance the equation” with all the other AI-organic life conflicts in the universe. As you can guess, it didn’t work out so well for them. The program went rogue and created its own radical solution. As for the fate of the Leviathan, well, take a look at the last surviving member:

They were recycled into the first Reapers... done against their will by their own creation.
They were recycled into the first Reapers… done against their will by their own creation.

This greatly enhances the thematic value of the ending. Throughout the trilogy, the struggle between AI and organic life has been a central issue. There are multiple cases: the geth vs. the quarians and the creation of the character, EDI, being the two prime examples. The Leviathan DLC transformed an abrupt appearance into the conclusion of a theme, with the player’s Shepard being able to pick the resolution. In addition to this sequence, new dialogue options were added with the Catalyst by both the Extended Cut and Leviathan dlcs to allow for a fuller, more believable conversation.

With the “godchild” problem at least addressed (you can still find Bioware’s antagonist decision to be a poor choice but at least now it makes sense), a large section of the ending is improved. Another major issue was the lack of variety in the ending. I can remember reading, before Mass Effect 3 came out, that there were 16 different endings in the game. I was very excited – until I saw the original ending. Basically there are three variants: Shepard causes a massive explosion in every ending, it can be red, blue or green. Everything else (with the exception of very small details) plays out exactly the same. Doesn’t sound like 16 different endings to me. Thankfully, all of that was addressed in the Extended Cut DLC. Are the endings still similar: yes. Are they now different enough to be enjoyed and have the player choices felt: yep. So that’s two problems down.

Let’s end by talking about the Citadel DLC. This might be my favorite part in the trilogy overall. A large complaint with the Mass Effect 3 ending was the lack of character closure. Shepard is separated from his/her crew for the final confrontation and many players (myself included) felt that they didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to the characters they had come to care about. Now there’s this:

One of the main goals of the Citadel DLC is to throw a fun party for your crew. I'm not kidding.
One of the main goals of the Citadel DLC is to throw a fun party for your crew. I’m not kidding.

Bioware showed incredible care and intelligence in the release of this  DLC. Of all the endings in Mass Effect 3 (the entire game is itself just one giant ending), this one feels the best. Players now have the ability to relax and have fun with their Normandy crew before it’s time to say good-bye at the end. The Citadel DLC is not driven by plot but by characters and that shows an essential of storytelling: the best stories don’t rely on their plots alone to be interesting.

Is the ending of Mass Effect 3 perfect: not by a long shot. Yet it is now satisfying enough that I didn’t feel cheated or let down in the final minutes. While Mass Effect 3 is overall the weakest game in the series, the blame for any storytelling shortcomings  should not fall solely upon its shoulders. Indeed, despite being the overall best game in the series: Mass Effect 2 is the entry where the story seriously miss-stepped (the fact that a player can skip Mass Effect 2 entirely without missing any significant plot development is not a good sign). So if you were a fan of the trilogy but didn’t like the ending fist time through, do yourself a favor – get the DLC and experience it again. Except for Omega, I’m not kidding, stay far away from that waste of downloadable content.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

About that Ending: Iron Man

So I still haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet (probably tomorrow) but over the weekend I did get a chance to sit down and rewatch one of my favorite superhero films, the first in the current-trilogy, Iron Man. Released back in 2008, this film is essentially the origin story of the beloved superhero. We see Tony Stark, at the beginning full of arrogance and naive pride, transform into the still cocky but responsible hero known as Iron Man. In case it still needs to be said: I’m a big fan of this film. To me it is an origin movie second only to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, that’s how much I enjoy it. However this film, like the vast majority of superhero origin movies, has a real problem in its last act. As much as I love Iron Man I got to say that the last twenty minutes or so is really not that good. In case you’ve never seen Iron Man but would still like to, let me warn right here: spoilers to follow.

All right: we’re coming up to the climax of the film. Tony Stark has completed the Mark III suit and become Iron Man. Everything is starting to look up: he has a mission, his life has purpose, he is battling to regain control of his company, he knows who his friends and enemies are… yeah, time to fight Jeff Bridges in a giant robot suit. Yes, great! Wait, what?

Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane (aka Iron Monger), Tony Stark’s second-in-command at Stark Industries. He is the film’s chief antagonist. A profit-driven man of power, Stane does not share in Stark’s desire for an ethically moderated Stark Industries. Also noticeable (and justifiable) is Stane’s disgust toward Tony Stark’s cocky boy-genius attitude. While Tony is the face of the company, Obadiah does a lot of the interior room work so he feels more than a little bitter towards his boss. Yeah, basically it all comes down to: Obadiah Stane wants to kill his boss. We can all sympathize (to some extent) with that.

Bridges does an excellent job playing a two-faced business man.
Bridges does an excellent job playing a two-faced business man.

The reason I am getting into this character as I feel the largest problem with the ending originates at the mishandling of this antagonist. Throughout the film, Stane is set up as a ruthless business man. Here is a guy who uses his corporate power to get what he wants: namely money. He doesn’t care who he sells weapons to, he just wants their dollars. So essentially Obadiah Stane is driven by greed, an appropriate vice for anyone of stature in the business world. This is where Bridges makes the character shine. The audience can see how Stane’s mind works. His motivations are understandable and his methods (up to the end) fit his character. Then he decides to put on a robot suit and punch Tony Stark.

"Hmmm, how cool would I look if I wore this?"
“Hmmm, how cool would I look if I wore this?”

Stane is not a hands-on guy. In an earlier scene when he is confronting a Ten Rings terrorist, he brings armed men to do his dirty work for him(these are the terrorists he also paid to try and kill Tony Stark at the beginning of the movie). This action is very inline with his character. Like his shady business practices, Stane operates from the shadows. Well he does up until the point where the movie needs a fight scene. Then he has to put on a suit.

This is always really frustrating to see in superhero movies and one of the reasons why the formula feels old. Superhero movies, origin superhero movies in particular, do not always need an ending fight scene with a big villain. When it works it’s great but when it doesn’t (and in case anyone is still wondering, I classify this movie in the “doesn’t” category) it drags the whole film down.

What also really irks me is that screenwriters Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (that’s 4 people who couldn’t write a better ending) knew that the action was out of character. This becomes obvious with Pepper Potts’ line: “Obadiah, he-he’s gone insane!” As a writer, let me tell you how the use of insanity works with characters. When you need a character to do something that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, there are two easy options to make this possible: insanity and dream sequence. Now a dream sequence final fight might just be the most laughably bad idea I’ve heard of so the writers for Iron Man decided to go with option A.

Sup, I'm in a suit now.
Sup, I’m in a suit now.

Both approaches are lazy. This movie is 126 minutes long, there was time to establish the character of Obadiah Stane in any way that they wanted. They did, they did a great job creating a sleazy business man villain and they should be commended for that action. Problem was they also needed a fight scene. So instead of rewriting the character in an attempt to reconcile these two differences and develop them in a real and organic way, we got essentially this happening on screen:

Business man? Meet homicidal rage robot.
Business man? Meet homicidal rage robot.

So yeah, I have a problem with the character development of Obadiah Stane. Now let’s talk about the fight itself. It’s kinda cool, I especially like it when Stane keeps picking up cars and whacking Tony around with them. It’s not the best choreographed fight in the world but it works. Well up until this point:

Note how the mask is always off at the end of a climactic fight.

What follows is the constructed finale of the fight. Stane literally shoots everything else on the roof while Tony urges Pepper to throw the switch (which may or may not kill him as well). I always love scenes with the villain talking about how much he’s going to kill the hero. They are wonderfully cheesy and instantly make the audience aware that they’re watching a movie. Like why not just shoot him? Again, the writers of the movie are aware of how stupid this is: “You ripped out my targeting system… Hold still, you little prick!” That is a line delivered by Stane to Tony Stark. What this translates to as essentially an explanation as to why Obadiah Stane suddenly earned all the marksman skills of a stormtrooper. The writers know that the scene doesn’t feel real and they try to explain it away with a line. I think, if anything, it draws more attention to the construction.

But whatever, it adds to the drama right? Rest assured, the day is saved. Tony and Pepper succeed in overloading the reactor and killing Stane… what? Slow the hell down. They kill him? Just like that? Yeah, Tony Stark kills his longtime friend, Obadiah Stane. Now to be fair, Stane has tried to kill Stark several times, including at that moment but still: he’s the villain, it’s his job to be evil. And, as I highlighted before, some of Stane’s hatred of Stark is justified. I mean let’s face it, before his humbling in the cave, Tony Stark was a real asshole.

I feel like this image very cleverly sums up their relationship.
I feel like this image very cleverly sums up their relationship.

Regardless, Tony Stark kills Obadiah Stane with the help of Pepper Potts. Is it a realistic action: yes, which is why this only ranks as a minor problem for me. I find it believable that, in that moment, Tony Stark’s first desire has to be to escape with his life. If Stane dies in the process then so be it. Still the fact that there is not even an attempted reconciliation scene does bother me. Obadiah Stane has been a prominent figure in Tony Stark’s life, you think he would want to avoid killing him.

Adds a new spin to the very end. I wonder if his next words were "yes he deserved to die and I hope he burns in hell!"
Adds a new spin to the very end. I wonder if his next words were “yes he deserved to die and I hope he burns in hell!”

Now that I’ve nitpicked, I want to close with reiterating that, despite all these problems: I still really like Iron Man. It is a compelling character journey movie. Tony Stark is the main focus and the film does his character spectacular justice. It also contains a great message that promotes self-control and the difference between cockiness and arrogance. These are important lessons and it’s great to have films that do such an excellent job displaying these ideals. So bravo, Iron Man, you are an excellent movie, it’s just a shame that your finale leaves a little to to be desired.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.