Lessons From…Batman: The Animated Series

A few years ago, my friends gifted me seasons 1 & 2 of Batman: The Animated Series for my birthday. They know me very well because this television show is, in my honest opinion, quite frankly one of the best programs ever to have been put on television.

Yeah, it was the 90’s, so maybe the animation isn’t up to your modern standards, but trust me when I emphasize the amazing awesomeness of this show. It was a great Batman iteration with legitimately well crafted, fully realized characters and interesting, complex narratives. You must see this program before you die, and after re-watching a few episodes this weekend felt like writing on it. As always SPOILERS ahead.

Almost wish I could do this to myself to rewatch the incredible Batman: Animated Series again with no info.

Almost wish I could do this to myself to rewatch the incredible Batman: Animated Series again with no info.

So modern pop culture has been inundated of late with various variations of Batman, most notable the blockbuster Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. But most of the interpretations tend to be hyperbolic and utterly without nuance focusing on the violence, toys, or seeming insanity of the character. For some reason, the animated series have always done a better job of truly exploring the Batman and his world than the films or live action franchises.

Not a lot of nuance in Christian *gravely voice "Swear to Me"* Bale.

Not a lot of nuance in Christian *gravely voice “Swear to Me”* Bale.

The best part of any superhero is the rogue’s gallery, aka the villains that are truly considered the greatest enemies that the hero faces. For Superman his rogue’s gallery consists of Darkseid, Lex Luthor, etc. For Wonder Woman, Morgana, Ares, etc. would make up her arch nemeses. For Batman, the obvious choices are the Joker, Bane, Two-Face, Catwoman, etc. However, what really makes worthy villains and enemies is when they go beyond simple caricatures and inform the audience and public about the true nature of the hero. This is never more apparent than when examining the villains and rogues of the Batman: Animated Series universe.

They look dorky, but they are really bad ass.

They look dorky, but they are really bad ass.

Batman is not supposed to be a near invincible brute who can pummel any foe into submission or acquire a new toy for when the occasion calls for it; he is supposed to be a force of hope and salvation for the down trodden and weak, a victim of unfortunate circumstances who wants nothing more than to ensure his tragedy is no one else’s. His charity and goodwill does not stop at the people of Gotham as he extends himself unto his enemies as well. Pretty much every episode involves one of Batman’s nemesis at the forefront with the narrative revolving around them. However, it is not some foolish story about money or simple vengeance. Instead, we, through Batman, are encouraged to empathize with and understand the villain’s motivations and true nature. There are never excuses for their actions, but there are reasons for them. In essence, villains and enemies, basically anyone, are fully realized individuals worthy of empathy, understanding, and dignity. Honestly, look at virtually any episode and you will see this; from Mr. Freeze to Catwoman to Penguin to Harley Quinn to even Joker, they all have intrigue and humanity.

Seriously, watch Heart of Ice and try to not shed a tear. It's only possible if you're a monster!

Seriously, watch Heart of Ice and try to not shed a tear. It’s only possible if you’re a monster!

Beyond the villains, Batman himself is treated like an actual person and not some poor excuse for a plot device. He legitimately struggles with the notion of living a dual life and trying to genuinely find a balance between the two. As well, he actually uses his money for charitable and scientific endeavors that would in theory benefit the people of Gotham instead of, you know, blowing up the major railway system and never fixing it *cough* Fuck you, Batman Begins *cough*. Early in the series, there is an episode where Bruce Wayne, under the influence of fear gas by Scarecrow, worries over the legacy of the Wayne name and whether his family would approve of the trajectory of his life. It is a great episode because we see more than just the mask but the man beneath it who at times suffers at the cost of wearing it. Superheroes are both the hero and the human underneath the costume; ignore one and you lose half a character along with intrigue and possibility. Most of us are more than one thing and we risk our happiness and sanity; ironically, much like Batman.

Truthfully, I could go on and on about this amazing show, but frankly you should explore its awesomeness on your own because it really is the best presentation of Batman, his enemies, and the true core psychology and heart of the Batman mythos and universe I have ever seen.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

P.S. For one last taste:

 

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Lessons From…Legend of Korra Finale

I have written on Legend of Korra before, but considering the amazing final season, and the last few episodes in particular, I felt it only right to speak on it again. Obviously there will be some SPOILERS as I will be referring to events in the final episode, so you have been warned.

Yup, it's back mofos!!

Yup, it’s back mofos!!

So, first off the last scene, or really few minutes of the episode, has been discussed, dissected, and analyzed by many others, some more qualified than I to speak on media, so I will not be focusing any of my efforts on it. I will say that it was impressive on Nickelodeon’s part, and I fully understand why it chose not to go further than what was shown. As well, it was a logical and organic development. That’s all I have to say on the ending scene and I will also leave this along.

Still say Kami or Asorra is a better name than Korrasami.

Still say Kami or Asorra is a better name than Korrasami.

As one of the linked articles mentioned, both Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender had massive appeal with, and beyond, the intended children audience of Nickelodeon. I was watching the finale and thinking this is what this show has been building toward. After the less than stellar (being nice) first season, Korra has been on a steady rise and this finale was the culmination of said work.

It was the first episode where I felt like I was watching the continuation of the original Avatar series. Not to say that Korra was bad; simply it was something different and at times seemingly unclear as to what kind of show it was trying to be. However, throughout the series, there was the underlying potential and glimpses of what could be. Of course, as I continued to watch and rewatch the series, I began to wonder why this show so popular, moving, and effective. Why did I, and the audience, care about this world and these characters?

This thought kept bumbling around in my head for several days until I arrived at a Eureka moment, at least for me. The show is extraordinary because of its ensemble and the fact that it is actually treated like an ensemble. Hear me out before you leave.

In both series, the main conflicts revolve around the main characters Aang and Korra in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra respectively. However, the rest of the casts are fully developed three dimensional characters with their own agendas, desires, and plans. At times, they conflict with the main characters and at other times they aid them, but it is always clear that there are different voices and “actors” being presented.

What is illuminating is that the narrative does not suffer or try too push toward one particular direction. Every person gets their own time and story and purpose beyond ‘keep the hero on track’. This is apparent in the final seasons and finales of both shows. Each character of the “Avatar Team” got what they really wanted and desired be it purpose, redemption, victory, peace, or something more tangible. Hell, even a few of the villains got their heart’s desire along with the heroes though not as clean cut or easily.

The characters were flawed and made huge mistakes at times as people do. Even better, there were no easy fixes. Each character struggled to be better than they were even the heroes. Frankly, both shows were the best written, acted, and had some of the best characters ever seen on television. I strongly believe that had to do with the writers treating each character like a character and not a trope or plot device to further a story.

So, how does this semi-long rant and expulsion of words lead to a lesson? Well put simply, in order to make something great everyone gets a turn and serves a purpose. Both in fiction and real life, everyone has a story and goal. Some will be great while others will just be a chapter in the overall story, but every person, place, and thing has some significance. It is something to keep in mind and really take to heart in the coming year.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

Lessons From…Avatar: The Last Airbender

I have written about this awesome cartoon previously to some extent. However, I felt that Avatar: The Last Airbender merited its own lesson and post. Frankly, it deserves several novels worth of study and examination, but I’ll leave that for another time. There are three seasons worth of story to mull over, but I will be focusing on the season 2 finale split between “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny.” As always SPOILERS ahead.

Was not kidding when I said I would start using this for all spoilers.

Was not kidding when I said I would start using this for all spoilers.

These last episodes are the culmination of Team Avatar’s (Aang, the Avatar; Katara, Master Waterbender; Toph, Master Earthbender; Sokka, Master Tactician and Strategist, seriously) plan to stall the dominion and conquest of the Fire Nation (main bad guys of whole series). They managed to bring the Earth King to their side and have a powerful ally against their enemy. Having finally had a much needed victory, the team members decide to separate and deal with their own individual issues. Toph goes to make amends with her family. Katara and Sokka go off to find their father whom they have not seen for some time. Lastly, Aang goes off to see a guru who can help him gain control of his ‘Avatar state’ granting him unimaginable power and abilities.

Ignore the scarred fire guy for now.

Ignore the scarred fire guy for now.

While each member faces obstacles and challenges on their journeys, the focus of this post is on the titular character, Aang. His training happens immediately upon meeting the guru. Unlike his previous lessons toward becoming the Avatar, the guru focuses on the spiritual and mental aspects of being the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. As with the bending, the teachings of the guru are based on Eastern traditions and philosophy. He discusses the concepts of chakra and opening pathways to fully express one’s power and internal ability. As well, how emotions and attachments are affected and influenced by these pathways and the effects of opening them fully.

The guru continues to teach and train Aang until they arrive to the final lesson. In order for Aang to be able to freely enter the Avatar state, he must surrender all his Earthly attachments as the Avatar state is a full spiritual manifestation. Of course the problem with this is that Aang has many physical connections he is unwilling to let go of, particularly Katara. In fact, it is partially because of this realization that Aang leaves the guru without fully learning how to wield the Avatar state. It is not until his friends and loved ones are in danger that Aang finally decides to let go of all his attachments and enter the Avatar state to save everyone.

This is the definition of OTP.

This is the definition of OTP.

Further complications arise before the end of the episode and Team Avatar manages to get away though not completely unscathed. However, what stands out to me is that the idea of sacrificing what one holds most dear and literally letting go of the emotional ties we share with others as a necessary and possibly positive thing was discussed in a freaking children’s cartoon on Nickelodeon. This story was told on the network that pays the bills with a humanoid sponge creature. Is that not insane to anyone else?

Even better, there is no clear answer. Aang does not want to surrender his ties to Katara, but he sees no other option to rescue everyone. Yet in a way, it is the very ties he has to surrender that make him perform such a difficult action. As well, the fact that he is almost killed immediately after entering the Avatar state further complicates the question of whether or not he did the right thing.

Which brings us to today’s lesson: Progress, in whatever form you define it, requires sacrifice. In Aang’s case, he had to let go of his love and attachment to reach new heights. Most of us will never be asked to pay such a price. Still if an exchange was required, what would be willing to give up to move forward? Who would we leave behind and forget to get to where we want to be? How much sweat, blood, and tears would we shed on our journey to that summit we strive for?

I genuinely have no answers to those questions because I have not arrived at such a crossroad yet in my life. Still even now I see friendships diverging as we take different paths. Relationships fracturing due to different goals and ideals. Hobbies and activities that I once cherished falling to the wayside as I learn what I really want to accomplish and work toward those desires.

Regardless of your dreams and path, sacrifices will be made and tough choices will lie ahead. If you want to move forward, something will have to be left behind. In some cases, like in Avatar, there will be some way to ensure the best outcome, but in many others your choice will be final and you’ll have to live with the results. So, the question goes from “What are you willing to sacrifice” to “Can you live with the sacrifices you made” which really is the only question that ends up mattering.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

Lessons From…Legend of Korra

Somehow I have managed to write for several months on this thing without mentioning Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. I don’t know how this travesty was able to happen, and I deeply apologize for my failings. Both these show are some of the best television your minds could ever handle, and that they happen to be cartoons makes that fact that much sweeter. Seriously, go now and watch these shows. I mean, first read this and then go, but still make sure your eyeballs see the glory of the bending.

"There is no element. You  are simply bending yourself."

“There is no element. You are simply bending yourself.”

Honestly, I could write several dissertations and teach a nearly infinite number of classes from what can be gleamed from this series, but I don’t have that kind of time and I assume you do not have that level of patience. So, instead I will focus on the first episodes of the newest season/arc (sadly the last one) of Legend of Korra. As always, SPOILERS ahead.

Might start using this as a warning for all "thpoilerss."

Might start using this as a warning for all “thpoilerth.”

Each season of Legend of Korra is presented as a book in a series with each one having its own theme. It is similar to the break up of season in Avatar: The Last Airbender with each of its own season being called books and focusing on one of the elements Aang had to learn. This is no accident and is rather clever on the part of the writers.

Aang never really wanted to be the Avatar, the bridge between the spirit and physical world and the one person who can bend and master all the elements of the given universe. He was content to be a child but destiny had other plans for him, and the world needed him to become its savior and protector. There is a hundred years of war and oppression without the Avatar’s guidance, power, and ability to administer balance. Every Avatar before Aang accomplished this in different ways, but ultimately that was what the Avatar provided. Accordingly, The Last Airbender is Aang’s journey in both learning to become the Avatar and accepting what this means. He must learn how to wield the elements and abilities of the Avatar while deriving the lessons each nation and bending art has to bestow. Thus, each season/book is named after the element he masters during that period.

Korra, on the other hand, has no qualms about being the Avatar. Since childhood, she has had an affinity and talent for bending all the elements, save for air which is the name of the first book/season. It acts as a transition for the audience and show. However, once Korra masters air bending, the focus is not on her progression as the Avatar but on what the Avatar is supposed to do in the rapidly changing world. Essentially, Aang’s story was about becoming the Avatar while Korra’s is about what it means to be the Avatar.

Not the only noticeable difference between the two.

Not the only noticeable difference between the two.

Which brings us to Season 4, aptly titled “Balance”: Episodes 1 and 2. Last season ended with Korra severely injured from mercury poisoning and unable to walk. However, there was also a vein of hope as the Air Nation, and Air Benders, which had been wiped off the world for over a century was restored through Korra’s intervention. As well, the spirit and physical world have been rejoined, so you have spirits freely roaming and occupying the physical (human) world. Perhaps, even bigger than this is that the leader of the Earth Nation, one of the two largest nations on the planet and the main provider of metals and ores to every other nation, has been assassinated leaving the Earth Nation in utter chaos. The world seemingly has never needed its Avatar more, and she is out of commission for roughly three years. This absence and the events that transpire during bring up certain questions for both Korra and the world she inhabits: What does the world do without its Avatar? Is the Avatar even necessary anymore in this new world? What does the Avatar do without the purpose of saving the world? And perhaps most importantly, who is the Avatar if they are no longer the “Avatar?” While Book 4 explores these concepts and questions, they are established in the ending of Book 3.

The perfect dichotomy in this scene just adds to the heart breaking nature of it. Forget being a good cartoon, this is just incredible television. Anyhow, in this scene Jinora is a force of nature. She is the heart and soul of the Air Nation rising like a phoenix, or in this case a bison. She has just saved the Avatar, managed to defeat the evil Zaheer, and unified the Air benders. On the opposite spectrum is Korra at her weakest and most vulnerable. She has barely survived her encounter with an assassin and has been paralyzed due to mercury poisoning. To add to all this, she has just heard her former mentor, Tenzin, basically say that the Air Nomads will fulfill the Avatar’s duties while she is recuperating.

No! You're crying. Shut up!

No! You’re crying. Shut up!

So, what does this mean for Korra? Does this mean that her entire way of life, purpose, and destiny are no longer correct or necessary? Basically her entire identity has been completely turned around and inside out. Of course most of us will never have such a burden or fate of being responsible for the well being of the world, but the uncertainty and fear of losing who we believe ourselves to be and no longer knowing what we are meant to do is surely a common concern.

Like all good stories, Legend of Korra does not provide any easy answers and that does not seem to likely change for its final season. Considering the likely “villain” that is being propped up, Kuvira, there seems to be several conversations/discussions around inherited versus obtained, fate versus work, nature versus technology, and the people versus authority. These juxtaposed dichotomies are the very arguments and debates we are still having and they are perfectly represented in a children’s cartoon.

Like I said, there are no simple answers provided by the show as it wants, and respects, the audience to have a dialogue. However, the show provides a guide in one of Korra’s developments and differences from her previous Avatar incarnations. She is the first Avatar to no longer have a connection to her past lives. She can no longer ask them for advice or depend on their experience. Instead, Korra must decide things completely on her own based solely on her experience, intelligence, and what she has learned. That is the core of today’s lesson: Only you can truly decide what the answers to life’s difficult questions are. You may be wrong, right, or neither, but you must choose and live with the consequences. Your identity may change, your role in life might disappear, your entire idea of who and what you are may disappear, but only you can decide what that means and what to do with it. It is not easy and probably won’t be pretty, but it is one of the few undeniable rules of the universe.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.

P.S. WATCH LEGEND OF KORRA!