I have never played League of Legends.
I never plan to play League of Legends. I can’t fully describe what kind of game League of Legends is. It’s playerbase has long held the dubious distinction of being among the most toxic in the entire gaming community which further alienates me from trying it.
Yet, it has crafted a new Netflix animated series and its first season is the best thing I’ve seen all year. It’s one of the best animated productions I’ve ever watched. More than anything else expected to arrive in 2022, Arcane‘s second season has rocketed to the top of the list. I wasn’t even aware this show existed until a week ago.
There is only one other adaptation of a video game property that is worth a damn and it’s also from Netflix: the recently concluded anime of Castlevania. For more on that, check out my review of its fourth and final season alongside Invincible’s first. Some would also include the anime adaptations for Persona 3 and 4, but having not fully watched those I’m not at liberty to judge.
Arcane is a tale of a city split into two, facing class strife that relates to a certain Charles Dicken novel: the rich elitist side of Piltover and the poor, mostly underground district of Zaun. Tensions boil over and the poor underclass rises in resistance but is crushed by the ultimately more powerful upper class, their power maintained by the brutal enforcers. Two little girls lose their parents in the strife and one of the resistance leaders, Vander, emotionally broken by the result of his rebellion, takes them into his custody.
Their names are Vi (Violet) and Powder. Vi tries to restrain her vengeful fury at the literal upper class with trying to keep the loved ones that remain alive. Powder wants nothing more than to do right by Vi, her adoptive father and the other orphaned kids that come into her life.
Their surrogate father Vander is trying to keep the peace with the aboveground as best he can but his extremist former best friend and surrogate brother Silco changes everything. Their mutual bad blood puts the orphaned children in harm’s way by way of Vander getting kidnapped and being used as bait for his kids. Vi and Powder’s rescue attempt goes spectacularly wrong in a way that neither of the brothers would have wanted. One brother dies, the other left to grieve.
Powder, under Silco’s wing, takes on the name of Jinx following the horrible incident she caused and in turn begins her journey into becoming one of Piltover’s most feared residents. This is further spurred by the poor girl never really being right in the head, even before the tragedy that ripped her original parents from her. The brokenness of the world she lives in further shatters her mind and forms her into a new nightmare. One I can never fully hate in spite of the terrible things she will come to do.
As for Vi, she is taken into custody by the enforcers following that same catastrophe Powder caused and spends the following years hardening her body and her spirit, yet still trying to never forsake the better angels Vander tried to keep within her.
Vi is freed from prison years later by the enforcer Caitlyn, who is investigating a crime related to her sister’s new anarchic life. Unlike the enforcers Vi grew up despising, Caitlyn wants to be a genuine keeper of the peace, no matter what class you are part of, all the more striking considering her own background, but more on that later.
During the time the sisters spend apart from one another, an aspiring young scientist called Jayce teams up with a handicapped, like-minded inventor called Viktor and together they advance Piltover’s technological prowess centuries forward through the successful harnessing of magic into utilitarian purpose, the “Arcane” if you will.
Years later, Piltover has become a nexus for the world commercially and culturally through the Hexgates, basically teleportation made manifest. Jayce is the symbol of a new era. But can that new era really come into being on the rotten foundation of the old? Can Jayce’s good intentions for all stay that way as he enters hesitantly into the political game that led to Piltover and Zaun’s mutual animosity?
Arcane‘s first season is a beautifully tragic beginning to a story of love(of more than one kind), family, duty, honor and technological innovation with the fear that it musters. It will make you laugh, cry, leave you in awe and apprehension. It’s incredible art design is bolstered by an animation technique seemingly derived from the technology that powered 2018’s amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. It’s mixture of 2D art and 3D motion is mesmerizing.
It’s such a cliché but, yes, Arcane really is a painting come to life.
You can and likely will get swept up in what much there is to appreciate visually alone from the nine episode-long first of hopefully many expertfully made seasons. To say that expectations for video game-to-TV/Cinema adaptations has suddenly gone through the roof is an understatement.
What makes Arcane much more than a pretty face is that it has a complex yet never complicated narrative, all centered on how a sisterhood’s deterioration sets in motion events far graver than anything its world, called Runeterra, has ever seen before.
It’s ripple effects coming from decisions made from its all too human, flawed characters give it a feel to something akin to Game of Thrones though comparatively less adult, but no less mature. For one, the sex scene here would be agreeable to a PG-13 rating, if only just. It’s violence, much harsher than the game it’s based on hovers between PG-13 and an R, often landing between one or the other. What makes the violence hit so well as to elicit either a “Hell yeah!” or an “Oh s**t!” is how the animation exudes emotion brilliantly.
The facial expressions in and out of fighting often felt more real to me than real life. Sadness, rage, despondency, horror, desire, shame, guilt, hope and happiness are colored in splendidly through the French animation studio Fortiche.
The voice acting is also indispensable to Arcane’s success, as well you would hope. Hailee Steinfeld must have the best agent in the world right about now as on top of perfectly voicing Vi, she also voices Spider-Gwen in the aforementioned Into the Spiderverse and portrays Kate Bishop, Clint Barton’s probable replacement as Hawkeye in the now streaming Disneyplus series of the same name.
Elia Purnell’s portrayal of the adult Powder/Jinx is just as compelling, maybe more so. Jinx is clearly inspired by both the Joker and Harley Quinn, arguably as a fusion of the two. While her voice can recall Harley at times, her personality and heartbreaking descent into deeper madness is more similar to the Joker. Rather than being an anarchic force that just wants the world to burn, Jinx was once someone simpler, less destructive.
Again, she might’ve always had some type of mental illness lying beneath the surface, but a less brutal, sorrowful childhood would have at least made her someone with a chance for an untroubling life, especially living among loving people.
In spite of still having people that love her, her mistakes and the mistakes people make in responding to her errors, namely from Vi, unleash her inner psychosis. As Jinx, Powder becomes schizophrenic, finds it difficult to empathize with those that aren’t in her immediate circle of loved ones which in turn make it easier for her to blow up innocents with her colorful collection of explosives. She loves explosives all their own and has found a quite unhealthy outlet for that obsession, pushed by her loving but still corruptive third father Silco.
A concept that I love Arcane for exploring is the nature of relationships, both paternal and intimate. How the result of those relationships can be just as healing or damaging as a decision made by a politician or a crime-lord. As stated above, Silco does actually care for Jinx as an adoptive daughter in a way that is actually heartwarming. But it can’t act as excuse for the terrible lessons and lifestyle he instills in Jinx, all tied up in his vengeful designs for Piltover.
His ends justify the means outlook on how to get the downtrodden people of Zaun free of Piltover is often indistinct from his desire to exact pain on others for what he himself suffered. The classic dilemma of the revolutionary-minded: is it for revenge or justice? You can’t really have both in the end.
This is in reflection with major characters and their own familial ties. Jayce has loving and well adjusted parents who never discouraged him from seeking to technologically uplift Piltover into a new age. He also has a more argumentative but still caring mentor-apprentice connection to Heimerdinger, the adorable yet stately scientist who also acts as a co-founder of Piltover and a member of the city’s council.
Caitlyn (voiced by Katie Leung, Cho Chang from Harry Potter) has two distinct relationships, which are for myself the most investing of the bunch, save for Vi and Jinx’s fraught sisterhood. Despite coming from an aristocratic family, with her mother part of the council, she wants her title of “Noble” to be more than just a title, she wants to be noble full stop.
Against her parent’s wishes, she joins the city’s Enforcer police and shows herself to be a great detective which in turns sends her on a journey which brings her into Vi’s life as well as allow the sisters their reunion. The friendship she effortlessly strikes up with Vi in their search for Jinx is clearly evolving into something that’s more than friends. The subtext between the two is barely subtext from where I’m standing.
This is derived from how in League of Legends the game, the dialogue between the two as playable characters was brimming with hints of something more occurring between the two. I would be surprised and a little crushed if Season Two doesn’t all but completely affirm what was always there. It doesn’t hurt that the chemistry between Steinfeld’s Vi and Leung’s Caitlyn is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Some of the best visual storytelling comes in how you can read so much in how the characters facially express themselves. A certain look that Vi gives to Caitlyn in one episode is where silence being golden most certainly applies.
Another romance subplot also works more in its subversion of expectation than anything else, and based on how the season ends, it’s a romantic arc that seems almost certainly doomed for tragedy. As Jayce rises in prestige amongst Piltover’s higher ups, he meets Mel Adarda, another of the council members and the one that is most interested in his designs for the future being fulfilled.
She comes across in how she interacts with Jayce as a Lady Macbeth-like femme fatale, often whispering and coaching Jayce in how to push forward with his plans for implementing magic as a tool for civilization. Much to my pleasant surprise, Mel herself is not the straightforward, manipulative dame you would think she is.
Her own background shows her as someone with a benevolent, altruistic side. It’s that side of her that got her banished to Piltover from her people due to concerns that it would make her a weak eventual ruler of her country. The relationship she begins with Jayce also reveals her as someone who does care for Jayce in truth in spite of the seemingly seductive tactics she uses for her own ends. Maybe because want she really wants in the end is what Jayce wants. Less a deconstruction of her archetype but a defiance of it.
There is so much more to the characters, their motivations and the placement they are given in the infernal game over Piltover’s, Zaun’s and perhaps the world’s future. What matters is that everyone, including those I didn’t have the time to mention, have a place in this world in its machinations. Few if any characters feel as if they don’t really belong in the story unfolding before us.
That was a trap that Arcane’s creators could’ve easily fallen into considering the huge number of characters to draw from, not to mention the characters newly introduced through this show. League of Legends has champions, which act as the characters players choose to control in the game. As of now, the number of Champions numbers over a hundred. For the first season of Arcane, Riotgames (the developer of both the game and show) and Fortiche had to carefully consider who among that vast roster was to play a role in this take on LOL’s narrative.
I seriously doubt every champion will appear as a character in the story to come, it would be a terrible choice. As they have now, they should only include characters that contribute to the wonderfully realized tale they are building. It’s less obligation and more necessity when it comes to Arcane’s choice of who is and is not up for screentime and that is wisdom that is often ignored when adapting anything that includes a large cast.
As you would expect, I read up on the video game version of the characters featured in Arcane and was surprised at the great number of changes made to those characters’ background and narrative purpose. Some have entirely new arcs that are distinct from what Arcane is doing so you can view this show as inspired by the world and story of the game, but not a direct adaptation of it.
The fandom has thus far been strangely not enraged by these big narrative changes, perhaps won over by how simply great Arcane comes across in its own telling. It’s an alternate history of the world of Runeterra that has echoes of the original story but is not whatsoever beholden to it. It gives newcomers and veterans of LOL’s world something fresh and excitingly unpredictable.
Speaking of exciting, Arcane’s dramatic moments are some of the best I’ve seen from something in the post GOT world. Moments that left me anxious, terrified by potential outcomes that seemed borderline inevitable. The cliffhanger ending is one of the greatest I’ve seen possibly ever as it leaves me wanting to watch season two immediately.
It’s a saddening, shocking season ender that left me basically dead quiet as the credits rolled, just trying to process that what had happened had happened. No matter where you fall into exposure with regards to its source material, to not call this fantastic television would be a straight up lie, with the potential to be even greater down the road.
Arcane inspires intense optimism that so much more can come of adapting video games into another medium. It frankly leaves me mad that we are approaching the 30th anniversary of the first, awful adaptation for a video game: Super Mario Bros, and only in the last couple of years have we seen successful attempts by people who cared and had the talent to back up their enthusiasm.
In the same year as both Arcane‘s arrival and Castlevania’s conclusion, we also had lackluster or simply bad new attempts at bringing beloved franchises to a different medium. Last April’s Mortal Kombat ( though not without its moments) and this month’s tepid Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Arcane’s subsequent release with the latest “attempt” at a decent RE movie only highlights what we have been missing so badly in the translation process.
An important step is to not pander relentlessly to fans of the original material. To a fresh-faced consumer of something League of Legends related, it was pleasing that I never once felt that I was watching a moment explicitly meant to cater to fans looking for a reference or easter egg. In spite of there being clear callbacks, namely through the characters gaining clothing and equipment like in the game, it felt like it was natural to the plot’s own progression, rather than just “Oh, it’s from the game, better include this.”
It makes Arcane feel welcoming to the lay viewer, not needing to know a single thing from anything before its release. It can honestly be enjoyed separately from the viewpoint of being based on a game. At times, I forgot it was based on a game and even better, I didn’t care.
As has been breathlessly commented on in recent weeks, Arcane is the new standard for properly and imaginatively translating a video game into a new medium. Not that there was much standard at all save Castlevania. It leaves me eager to see if other prospective filmmakers and animators take notes on what Arcane did to not shoot itself in the foot.
Let it lead hopefully to a new wave of adaptations that finally give the relatively young artform of interactive entertainment a new lease on life. To appreciate the world and characters of those games for those without the time, patience or ability to experience them like I do.