“Love and legacy are the sacrifices we make for progress.”
(This review is mostly spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this.)
The infamous video game adaptation curse. I mentioned this so-called curse back in my Mortal Kombat review, saying how the film surpassed all other video game film adaptations simply by being average/above-average, with how low the bar is. That bar is now currently on its way out of this solar system, thanks to Arcane, the animated Netflix show that serves as an adaptation/prequel to the online game League of Legends (you may have heard of it, it’s kind of an indie game). Even though films like the aforementioned Mortal Kombat and Sonic the Hedgehog have helped to chip away at it, Arcane slams the final nail into the coffin of the video game adaptation curse with a bevy of unprecedented positives. From completely decimating stereotypes and preconceptions about what the medium of animation can do, to striking the perfect balance between originality and fanservice, Arcane is a diamond in the rough that’s leagues better than anything else that’s currently out there.
Based on the lore behind the massively-popular League of Legends game, Arcane isn’t a direct adaptation or prequel to the events in the game, but a completely original and new story set in the universe of the game (a fictional land called Runeterra). With League of Legends not having much of an explicit chronicle behind its massive cast of characters (each character has little biographies that lightly hint at a connected narrative but that’s it), this gives Arcane the rare opportunity for an adaptation to freely create a new story that leads up to the game without worrying about overwriting what’s already been written. It’s this freedom that allows for Arcane to introduce its incredibly expansive world and the history behind it without piling on exposition-heavy dialogue or scenes, opting to simply show the passage of time in subtle and identifiable ways (a tavern changing ownership over the course of several episodes, statues and landmarks evolving and being built, the population of cities increasing, etc.). Much like how Star Wars dropped us into a vast galaxy that felt like it was lived-in for eons before the film began, Arcane trusts its audience to fill in the gaps and doesn’t coddle them by over-explaining. This also works in favor of casual viewers who have never touched League of Legends (like me!), as it doesn’t have to worry about adding on mountains of details and plot points that the game’s story may have already covered.
Arcane has a fairly simplistic plot, with one that mainly revolves around class tensions and social unrest between the utopian city of Piltover and its adjacent “undercity”/borough of Zaun, where citizens scrape by and live in harsh conditions under the daily threat from Piltover’s Gestapo-esque enforcers. The show’s plot is split into two parallel storylines, with one following Piltover scientists Jayce and Viktor as they attempt to harness magic and witness firsthand the societal cost of rapid technological advancement, and the other following Zaunite sisters Vi and Powder as they navigate a brewing gang war with ramifications that spill over into Piltover. Even though all of this sounds staggeringly complicated, with so many moving parts and the show jumping between two distinct narratives (not to mention a time jump), Arcane stays firmly rooted in simplicity thanks to its insistence on sticking with the two intimate storylines and the characters involved in them, helping newcomers and casual fans stay engaged while also remaining chock-full of Easter Eggs and nods to the game for hardcore fans. In addition to this, Arcane‘s nine episodes are split into three clear-cut acts, encouraging viewers to not binge the show and take their time, even if the episodes themselves are no longer than 45 minutes each.
One of Arcane‘s many strengths are in its main cast of multilayered and complex characters, who you either love to root for or love to hate, with all of them being well-written and contradictory in realistic and human ways. The four main characters of Arcane all bring something unique and fresh to the table, whether it’s Hailee Steinfeld’s Vi (top picture) and her layers of toughness over deep emotional scarring, Jayce (Kevin Alejandro, third picture) and his relatable but misguided arrogance, or Silco (Jason Spisak, fourth picture) and his intense and uncompromising drive to make Zaun independent from Piltover. But it’s Ella Purnell’s Jinx (second picture) who steals the show, an unhinged yet vulnerable dynamo in the vein of DC’s Harley Quinn, who is simultaneously the most sympathetic and ruthless character in the show. Purnell seamlessly switches between Jinx’s unbalanced energy and Powder’s (Jinx’s former self) nervous shyness with frightening accuracy and pathos, helping to make Jinx a standout among an exceptionally strong and unique bunch of characters.
Arcane‘s secondary characters help to round out and complement the main cast well, with Jayce’s partner Viktor (Harry Lloyd, top picture) serving as a muted and supportive presence to his brash counterpart, more intent on keeping the peace rather than following in Jayce’s determination to mend unfixable problems. Meanwhile, the kind and compassionate Caitlyn (Katie Leung, second picture) is an excellent foil to Steinfeld’s Vi as the two of them investigate the undercity, with the two of them playing well off of each other in a more caring version of a buddy cop partnership. Finally, the manipulative and conniving Mel (Toks Olagundoye, third picture) provides a necessary window into the politics of the Piltover storyline, wrapping Jayce around her finger and further embroiling the two scientists into her schemes.
Of course, Arcane‘s story, worldbuilding, and character work isn’t all the show is, as it also features some of the best action in any animated property ever. With animation that breathes and moves like a living thing (more on that later), Arcane‘s fight scenes and set pieces demand your full attention, and for good reason. By implementing live-action camera angles and movements like having blood or dirt hit the “camera lens”, or long takes that track a fight through multiple areas, Arcane creates action that seems almost freakishly realistic while unabashedly being an animated property. In one scene, the camera will be floating weightlessly and smoothly, and then quickly transition into a kinetic and frantic shaky-cam brawl, where you can almost feel the camera operator moving in and around the combatants. Punches and kicks shake the screen and a good-sized amount of slow-motion helps to give Arcane a kind of cinematic flair that’s absent in so many other animated films or shows.
As I already mentioned, Arcane‘s exquisite animation is where it truly makes the leap from simply exceptional to staggeringly astounding, with the best pure animation since Into the Spider-Verse. While Disney and Pixar’s animated films are always gorgeous and polished to perfection, they play it safe and rarely get experimental (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), something that Arcane and French animation studio Fortiche attempts with great success. The unique art style that they implement here, with a heavy use of matte backgrounds and 2D shading merged with 3D character models, helps to give Arcane a blended, almost paint-like dreaminess, with action sequences adding modern effects and CGI into the painterly backgrounds. To top it off, textures and forces of nature like fire, water, or smoke, are all rendered in 2D with fewer frames, and against the matte painting backgrounds, serves to make Arcane all the more real and lifelike, while also clearly being in the realm of animation.
There are a couple caveats to Arcane‘s carefully crafted brilliance, though, as it both commands a massive budget more in line with feature films than almost every other animated show, and an immense amount of time for a single season to be produced (season 1 was in development for over five years). Still, the final product makes these restrictions more than worth it, and sustainable for a long while. Riot and Fortiche clearly intended for Arcane to be the first in an interconnected universe of shows or films, even if this one season works well as a standalone feature. Throw in Arcane‘s rating, which is something like a hard PG-13/TV-14 or a soft R (characters curse and there’s plenty of violence, but never in excess or explicitly gory, unlike other Netflix shows), and you’ve got a winning combination for (hopefully) years to come.
If I could, I’d give Arcane, Netflix’s newest animated show and an adaptation/prequel to the über-popular League of Legends game, a score higher than 10/10. But I have to keep this semi-professional, so I’ll just say this: With an intensely compelling story and cast of characters, excellent worldbuilding, and the absolute best animation since 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Arcane is a once-in-a-generation showstopper that easily has the potential to become an all-time classic with time.
Let me know what you thought of the show in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these stills or promotional art. Riot Games, Netflix, and Fortiche own all of these images!