‘Arcane’ Season 1 Review

I wasn’t anticipating Arcane on Netflix. In fact, prior to seeing a streaming ad for it a few days after its release, I wasn’t aware of its existence. The ad in question looked like a cut scene and included the branding League of Legends. This game was not something I’d ever played or had interest in playing. I gather it’s a massive MOBA style video game with a large roster of characters and a world pieced together post hoc to support its IP. The animation in the ad was beautiful, but I had no interest in watching anything based on a video game. Adaptations of games can be divided, exhaustively, into two categories: the mediocre (Resident Evil, Need for Speed) and the unwatchably bad (Doom, Street Fighter). Sure some adaptations have their defenders (Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, etc.), but none have ever impressed me as being up to the average standard of films that aren’t shackled with the baggage of a video game. An in-depth look at what’s wrong with game adaptations is out of the scope of this review, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t going to be watching Arcane.

And then, of course, I watched Arcane. My brother suggested I watch it and let him know if it was worthwhile (a trade system we often use) and I agreed to watch an episode. On that first night I watched a second as soon as I was done with the first and within a week had finished the entire nine episode series. It’s been on my mind ever since.

What is Arcane?

Arcane is a nine episode (with each episode running roughly 45 minutes) animated series for adults streaming now on NetflixIt is set in the city of Piltover, a thriving steam punk utopia of gleaming brass and stone. It is also set in Zaun, a subcity across Piltover’s bridge, where a working class slum is growing ever more restless at their exploitation by their wealthy neighbors. The show follows a former freedom fighter who now keeps the slum’s peace and his two troubled daughters as they scrape a living together under the shadow of Piltover.

Now if any of you are like me, alarm bells are going off like crazy based on that description. The red flags could be summed up as follows:

  • Steampunk setting, isn’t that played out and cliche?
  • Fascist rich vs poor story, isn’t that also a little on the nose?
  • Generic fantasy names like Piltover and Zaun? A city setting I don’t care about? What is this, World of Warcraft?
  • 45 minutes an episode? I’m not made of time! I have kids to feed!

To these naysayers I respond, it’s going to be alright. Take a deep breath and watch as in the space of two episodes each of these concerns evaporates like a thin cloud cover. Arcane is, first and foremost, incredibly smart in how it lays out its world. The first episode features only a small handful of the main characters, while episodes two, three, and four slowly mix in the rest of the principle cast (including, in no particular order, two magicians/inventors with designs for a future, an increasingly sympathetic crimelord, a politician cast out of her warrior family, and a police sharpshooter with a sharp eye). The world, that would, if written out on paper, feel like boring lore only a video game player would love, is spooned in at just the right rate, such that new settings and revelations feel like things the viewer is anxiously waiting for, not patiently putting up with.

And, on top of all this, Arcane is smartly grounded in its relationships. The show ultimately is most interested in the relationship between its two central sisters (Powder and Vi), but each character is given dignity, motivation and an arc. By the end of the season each character has changed significantly from where we met them, giving a sense of movement and development to the whole affair. It’s a fantasy story that, like Game of Thrones before it, knows that even the largest and craziest of settings needs characters we care about to anchor it. So far, so good.

Lastly, Arcane really is intended for adults. While it’s violence, language and sex are not usually over-the-top (looking at you HBO), the show’s general maturity makes it clear that it isn’t for smaller children. In fact one of the show’s biggest strengths is how much it trusts the audience. Which leads us into …

But Why Should I Care Part One: The Storytelling

I mentioned a few paragraphs back, that Arcane’s episodes are 45 minutes apiece. This is in stark contrast to cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Clone Wars, and Justice League Unlimited. Each of those shows had to build an epic world within the limitations of a saturday morning cartoon format (and did so with aplomb). Arcane however uses its greater length to rework its pacing into that of prestige television. Characters have time to talk and interact. Action scenes can be slow or fast (more on that in a moment), and silence is used as a tool of exposition as much as dialogue. I found, when noting the flaws with the show (and there are flaws) that I was impressed that they were the flaws one encounters with a prestige show not with a children’s cartoon.

And no plot point or character is ever as stereotypical as they may first seem. Take for example Vander (the freedom fighter I mentioned before). He’s a middle aged man and former bare knuckle fighter who gave up his hopes of rebellion to take care of two orphaned children. When his eldest daughter Vi presses him for why they don’t simply revolt, he tells her that the price of violence is sometimes too high to pay even when the goals and rewards are so very great. It’s a cogent point, presented without too much sentimentality. And, it’s a point that is echoed and re-examined throughout the series, making it not a throwaway moment but an introduction of a theme.

And helping all this out is a great voice cast (with one exception which I blame on the games). Hailee Steinfeld, currently gaining a lot of attention for her work in Hawkeye, brings the same warmth, toughness and subtlety she did to Gwen Stacy to Vi . And the rest of the cast, most of whom I’d not heard of, all do admirably in not sounding like video game voice actors. Special mention goes to Army of the Dead‘s Ella Purnell who takes a character who could be a generic knockoff of one Harleen Quinzel and gives her new life and depth.

But Why Should I Care Part Two: The Animation

I cannot stress enough how beautiful this show is to look at. Remember when Into the Spider-Verse came out and everyone was agog at what 3D animation was capable of when not tethered to the disney style? This is that phenomena but for television. While the show is technically 3D, it avoids the pitfalls of shows like Clone Wars by using two dimensional effects and textures to soften the stiffness of its character designs. Special mention goes to the fight scenes, which mix slow-motion, kinetic camera movements, and choreography for something truly inspired. Frankly each frame of Arcane could be paused and hung on a wall, but that undersells a bit how the animation is used.

But again, Arcane is smart in how it uses its strengths, often showing flashbacks, hallucinations, and other oddities in a different two dimensional art styles that contrast but compliment the show’s basic style. In one memorable fight scene a cartoon flashback plays of two characters, showing how they would have fought as childhood friends, which is then contrasted with the brutality of their modern selves. People like myself often complain that the potential of animation is never going to be seen while adult western animation is relegated to Comedies. Consider this another feather in the cap of that argument.

So Those Flaws …

Right, so I’ve waxed (and waxed and waxed, seriously, who’s still reading?) about what is great about this show, well what doesn’t work? There’s a bit to unpack, but perhaps it’s best to start with the fanbase. For a contrarian like myself, it can be hard to see even a show this good hailed as being perfect by its devoted fans. And trust me, it’s not perfect.

Thanks in no small part to that beautiful animation, there can be too much emphasis placed on epic moments to the point where each episode can be near exhausting in its sincere importance. And the character/story work, as good as it is, leans heavily into melodrama. Not so heavily that it ever feels like a soap-opera, but there are times the sheer emotionality of it can be a bit too much. It’s as if the creators of Arcane were so rightfully confident in their ability to tell a sweeping, moving story, they oversell just how moving and sweeping it is.

And since technically the shows serves as a prequel to the games, there’s an occasional plot point or character reveal (especially towards the show’s third act) that is clearly meant for fans but jumps out at this non-fan as forced and awkward (think of the line “what is this, some sort of suicide squad?” and you’ll get the picture though it’s nowhere near that dire). Perhaps with an extra episode or two things could have breathed a little more and allowed the plot to wrap slightly more organically.

So do these issues really hurt the show? No, not really. I’d imagine it means Arcane may look a little silly and dated a few years down the line, but for the moment, it’s the best TV Series I’ve watched in a long time and I’d recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested.

The Final Word

It’s good. It’s really good. And more importantly, it’s entertaining. I didn’t want it to end and have been enjoying reading up on the various aspects of it ever since. In a world suffused with big IP I’m growing increasingly bored with, it’s nice to have a new one leap into focus with much confidence and quality. Give it a shot!