If your only exposure to the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender came by way of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 feature film adaptation, then I am truly sorry. I can see how that limp, bland take on creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s blisteringly entertaining animated series would steer you away from ever checking out the source material. And that’s a shame, because Avatar — a story about a world where certain people can “bend” the four elements to their will and a young Airbender named Aang who is destined to be the Avatar, who alone can restore balance to a pre-industrial civilization that’s out of whack — is everything an animated series can be. Avatar: The Last Airbender is like a cross between Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Stand By Me if it was animated by Hayao Miyazaki.
After Avatar ran its three seasons, DiMartino and Konietzko hatched a sequel, one that took place a generation later and followed a female Avatar named Korra (voiced by Janet Varney) as she struggled with an industrial age that didn’t want benders, with adjusting to like in Republic City after living a country life, with the highs and lows of young love. The first season of The Legend of Korra was a heady burst of superlative worldbuilding that was built around the civil unrest between those who have powers and those who don’t. The second season, however, got mired in its own fascination with how the spirit world — from where the Avatar draws his or her power — and the real one balance each other out. It was a bold decision on the storytellers’ part, but it wasn’t entirely a successful one.
But with this third season — at least judging by the first three episodes — The Legend of Korra has gotten its groove back. After the Harmonic Convergence of the second season finale — which let aspects of the spirit world cross into the real world, and vice versa — Republic City has become infested with massive green vines that are choking the city’s roads and buildings and no matter what Korra does, she can’t get rid of them. Worse, the Mayor of Republic City explicitly blames her for the scourge and the press follows suit. (It’s not every show ostensibly made for children that spends time talking about approval ratings.)
The one apparent upside of the Harmonic Convergence is that airbending — a skill that had been absent for decades before Avatar Aang was born and is still possessed by a rare few — has popped up in people all over the world. So Korra, her mentor Tenzin (voiced by J.K. Simmons) and her friends hit the road to find them, recruit them and teach them so, together, they could rebuild the Air Nation that had been gone for so long.
But not everyone wants to be special. Worse, not everyone should be special — especially not Zaheer (voiced by rocker Henry Rollins), a criminal who uses his newfound power to escape from a supermax prison and free his three like-minded compatriots. Together, they’ve all got murder on their minds.
Listen, I could tell you the various and sundry ways The Legend of Korra is a show worth checking out. I could say it’s telling the same kind of dense, serialized stories that children’s shows rarely attempt. I could remind you of how few female heroes appear in genre entertainment, let alone one who isn’t sexualized — and yet remains in complete control of her femininity — and is clearly the most powerful person in the world. I could point out that the animation is gorgeous and the action scenes are among the best on TV.
Instead, I will just say this about The Legend of Korra — and Avatar: The Last Airbender before it — and it’s maybe the highest compliment I can give: It’s Game of Thrones for kids.
Marc Bernardin is a senior editor at The Hollywood Reporter and has written comics for Marvel, DC, IDW, and Top Cow. He was also a writer on SyFy’s superhero-esque series Alphas. His latest comic series, Genius, will be published weekly by Top Cow in August.