Leading up to the release of Netflix’s Arcane, I saw no hype or buzz around it. Even the trailers went under my radar. This is probably because I was not invested in League of Legends, the video game that the show is based on. But not long after the animated show debuted, something happened. There was a lot of buzz around the steampunk-inspired show from a critical point of view, some very strong word of mouth saying that the show was actually really good. But considering the praise the show has been getting, I figured I’d give it a try and see if the show works from the point of view of a non-fan and as a television series in general. Am I ever glad I did.
Arcane is broken up into three arcs of three episodes, which allows the story to be told over multiple years. There’s a lot to unpackaged here, as there’s a lot of nuance and story beats, but the basic concept is there is a prosperous part of the city called Piltover and an underground named Zaun. Above, society not only prospers but strives for progress through scientific discovery. It’s here where we follow Jayce, a young academic who is on the cusp of a major scientific breakthrough, one that could bridge the gap between science and magic. His fate will be altered thanks to the involvement of those from the undercity, namely Vi, her sister Powder and their friends, Milo and Claggor. They got a tip from a source that there are riches to be had in Jayce’s apartment, and being from the seedier and impoverished undercity, they jump at the chance to make a good profit from the topsiders, who live in their ivory towers.
That’s the inciting incident but the show is so much more than this. It’s far more nuanced and layered than I was expecting, especially considering this is a video game adaption and those usually range from bad to awful. But like Castlevania before it, Netflix seems to understand that video game adaptations can’t just be action and set pieces, which is often mistaken in being the defining feature of video games due to the interactive element. In narrative-driven games, we get so many complex stories through the many hours of quests and cinematics that the medium has been overlooked as a place to get quality narratives in the past. That’s changed a lot in recent years, but when it comes to adaptations, filmmakers or studios have often sided on the side of action and lore, rather than character. This is a tale about ambition, family, discovery and greed. The further I got into the show, the prominent theme of “at what cost” rang throughout each and every plot point. For Jayce in particular, I was reminded of Oppenheimer building the atom bomb. His colleague and partner, Viktor, can be quoted at one point in the show saying “in the pursuit of great, we failed to do good”. That line not only rings true for their arc, but for many of the characters in this show. While the fascination with discovery is certainly one element of the show, poverty and gang wars in the undercity have reached such a point that open war with the upper city is at risk and discovery is the one thing that seems to be steering politics.
But it isn’t just a wonderful story at work here. Arcane is full of character though. Every character feels layered and real, whether it’s Jayce and his desire to learn and progress, to Vi and her crusade against Silco, the crime lord, to her sister, Jinx, the mentally unhinged wildcard of the show and Caitlyn, the enforcer thrown into the middle of the conflict. Even Silco, while being a ruthless and cruel crime boss, is also one we can sympathize with in more than one capacity. Bringing this all to life is the excellent voice acting, from Hollywood names like Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Purnell, Katie Leung and Kevin Alejandro to animation and video game voice talents like Jason Spisak and JB Blanc. All the characters have clear motivations, backstories and ambitions and it makes them feel very real, despite being animated.
Speaking of animation, holy crap is the animation amazing. French studio Fortiche was hired by Riot Games to bring this world to life and they did so in such a creative and artistic way. I’ve not seen animation so awe-inspiring since Into the Spider-Verse. The animation combines traditional 2D animation, something that’s sorely missing in theatrically released films I might say, and combines them with 3D elements. There are also unexpected cinematic techniques applied to the presentation, such as depth of field of focus and more diverse camera angles to make the presentation feel that much more cinematic.
Another great part of Arcane is the lack of heavy exposition that plagues most blockbusters these days. You have to be paying attention while watching Arcane, as there is a fair amount of visual storytelling going on to help us understand the characters and the world more. You’re expected to keep us as an audience member, but as a result, the world feels so alive and rich. This feels like such a real world, to the point where I didn’t want to leave it. In terms of the animation contributing to the narrative, the visual representations of Jinx’s fractured mind proved to be a fascinating and horrifying element of the show.
If I had to nitpick about something, it’d be the use of modern contemporary music during the action scenes. It made some of the scenes feel a little too much like a music video for me and the modern tone clashed with the steampunk visuals. The score, however, was top-notch.
In the end, Arcane did the one thing I didn’t think possible. It’s not only a show completely accessible to those unfamiliar with the source material but elevated the source material and made a wholly immersive and riveting video game adaptation that puts narrative and character first. The show ended with a cliffhanger but a second season is confirmed to be in production. That’s a good thing, as Arcane is without a doubt, the best television series I’ve seen in 2021.