I know I’m about a month late to the game, but I just finished the Netflix League of Legends series Arcane. I didn’t know anything about the game and had thought it would be similar to World of Warcraft, with all the traditional fantasy trappings that the title Arcane suggests. My assumptions ended up being dead wrong, but I’m not complaining. This is probably the best animated series I’ve seen this year since Castlevania, another excellent video game adaptation by Netflix. Have they found gold with this specific, usually doomed subgenre? Let’s dive in.
Arcane takes place in two worlds, the shining City of Progress Piltover and the grimy, disease-ridden Undercity of Zaun. Piltover is guided by a council of seven elite members of society, while Zaun is led by Vander (JB Blanc), a former brawler and rebel who now preaches peace. In the aftermath of a failed uprising, Vander adopts sisters Vi (Hailee Steinfeld) and Powder (Mia Sinclair Jenness), as well as Mylo (Yuri Lowenthal) and Claggor (Roger Craig Smith). When Vi leads the other children on a misguided house robbery mission, she chooses the target poorly, and the fallout is disastrous.
It was difficult to decide how to talk about Arcane. For the first third of the season, it seems like the main story is one thing, but then the show throws you for a loop, and I was caught entirely off guard. If you know as little about the source material as I do, I’d say keep it that way. Every plot point and character introduction was a revelation, and I never knew what to expect. I don’t have any idea how much of this comes straight from the game and how much was invented for the series, but the effect is incredible. Arcane had my interest from the very first scene of the first episode, “Welcome to the Playground.” The atmosphere and lack of dialogue say it all as Vi and Powder discover their slain parents. Vander’s body language and facial expression when he finds the girls, tossing away his fighting gloves, is just sublime.
The visuals in Arcane are to die for. This is the most unique, eye-catching art style I’ve seen since Into the Spider-Verse! In recent years, a lot of films and shows have tried to merge traditional hand-drawn animation with computer animation. The effect is usually wasted on TV shows, most likely due to budget constraints. Arcane is a masterclass in displaying the strengths of the two art forms in a way that blends well and is gorgeous rather than distracting. The character designs are also great; every character has their own distinct look and vibe. I also love the look of the creatures in this world, both the humanoid ones like Heimerdinger and creatures like Rio. Again, I don’t know how true to the game the characters’ appearances are, but they work extremely well in the context of Arcane. The action sequences are simply magnificent, packed with fast-paced fight choreography and gripping visual flourishes. The setting is a steampunk wonderland crossed with a dystopian nightmare. Piltover and Zaun look like entirely different worlds, like they came out of two separate shows. This works tremendously well at displaying the disparity between the classes and the injustice at play.
Even more important, though, is how Arcane presents its story and characters. There’s a fight scene later in the show where two characters team up to strike against the “villain.” It’s a gorgeous, exciting, masterful sequence that beautifully showcases the abilities of the two and how well they work together. However, when the dust settles, one of them realizes a terrible error has been made while the other wants to plow ahead. There’s a chilling moment when they see that one of their victims was a child; for one, this is simply the reality they live in every day. But the other drops his weapon and seeks another way. I like two things about this, aside from the gorgeous animation and thoughtful character development. What’s initially presented as a heroic moment for the protagonists is soon revealed as a shortsighted, self-aggrandizing attack on people unable to defend themselves against such technology and ability. You know Rian Johnson’s now-infamous remark about subverting expectations? This is how you do it well. Secondly, Arcane never presents easy solutions to its big problems. Every major character (and numerous side characters) has their idea of what the problem is and how to address it. Magic is presented as an option, as well as freeing Zaun from Piltover’s rule. But just as is, unfortunately, so often the case in real life, every potential solution has its own unique challenges. Arcane doesn’t preach about social injustice and class warfare; it just presents them as very real problems and explores numerous rich perspectives on them. I’ve already seen numerous people praising Arcane for the care and detail it gives each character’s beliefs, even the main villains. For instance, my dad found the season’s main villain to make the most sense from a practical perspective. This is so refreshing. Even a side character like Heimerdinger has real, fleshed-out reasons for believing as he does. But Arcane dives into the dilemmas within each line of thought, too. Having a reason doesn’t make you right, and it doesn’t mean the proposed course of action will work for everyone or at all.
And don’t even get me started on the relationships between the characters. Vi and Powder go from loving sisters, protector and ward, to warriors on opposing sides of an inevitable reckoning. Jinx and Silco are an even more interesting duo, and I wish the first season had more time to explore it. I spent most of the season wondering if Silco truly cared for Jinx at all or if she was simply too valuable of an asset for him to risk losing her support. Arcane acknowledges that love can be sincere and well-intentioned but still toxic and unhealthy in the end. I don’t recall seeing that in much media; relationships are either loving and supportive or toxic and unstable in movies and TV. But often, they’re both in real life, and this was handled exceptionally well in Arcane. Much of this is owed to the outstanding voice cast and their grounded, emotionally sincere performances. Hailee Steinfeld leads a pack of well-rounded performers hailing from the world of voice acting as well as live-action performing. I also wish the show could have shown more of Vander and Silco’s past; what drove them apart, what their brotherhood was like before, etc. I even expected some parallel to them as “brothers” and Vi and Powder as sisters.
That’s my only real issue with Arcane’s first season; I wanted more of almost everything. Even the romantic entanglements had me wanting more context and development. Thankfully a second season has already been greenlit, and hopefully many more. This is something special. I tried to avoid major spoilers here because Arcane is surprising in more ways than one. However, that’s not to say I won’t revisit it in a more spoiler-y context down the line.
If you’ve played League, what did you think of Arcane as an adaptation?
Arcane is truly something unique, especially nowadays. It features fully-realized characters, complex relationships and real problems without easy answers. The animation alone would make it worth a watch, but you don't want to miss this one for the characters and worldbuilding at play.