Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bending I

I'm a huge Avatar: The Last Airbender fan. This is something that I'm not ashamed of and I'll gladly shout it from rooftops, provided they're very tall rooftops, preferably in remote locations. Seriously, though, I like AtLA. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the show, thinking about the sequel, thinking about the universe it exists in, and a lot of time anti-thinking about the movie. What movie? I didn't even know M. Night Shyamalan made movies.

Bending is naturally the biggest element of the show, the thing that tends to draw the audience in and give them something to latch onto. It has a certain quality that is difficult to define, that superheroic quality so typical of comic books, cartoons and video games. These carefully fleshed out abilities, these elaborately staged mechanics that set the stage for ever more elaborate and bizarre fights, and bending is born gloriously from it. But bending is different, too,  far removed from the explicitly combat-oriented abilities of, say, the Teen Titans' Starfire or Dragon Ball's Goku. Its genetic and cultural implications, the motion and form, it creates a world that feels organic.

 It's that departure from combat-optimization. Bending definitely lends itself to combat, but that's not all it is, and the show endeavors very hard to illustrate that. Waterbending, airbending, and earthbending are all introduced to the viewer in the first season of AtLA not with combat, but practical, everyday abilities. Airbending is almost completely about traveling and flight. Waterbending is first used to fish. Earthbending to open doors and deliver mail. Firebending, the art used by the show's villains, is used mostly for martial purposes for a long time, revealing its use as an everyday tool only as the show deepens the complexity of the Fire Nation and its portrayal of the Fire Nation. These of course aren't the only ways that bending is used in practical ways; the show constantly reminds us that these powers belong to people who exist to do more than just fight. If you can think of a way that a bending discipline is used aside from fighting, write it in the comments. 

In a way, it reminds me of Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, from the Fantastic Four. Creating interesting circumstances where powers are different from the standard "they are powers that exist basically to allow the creator to market the hero" sensibility makes for the best worlds, I think, although some of the X-Men did the "powers as curse" thing better. It just goes to show you the way that thinking about something that appears in an industry like comics or cartoons in a very serious way, and figuring out how to differentiate yourself, taking the metatextual route will probably be more rewarding than trying to get more creative in a content route.

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