Full disclosure, I have near-zero knowledge of League. I play Runeterra a lot, but that would be like saying I’m a Warcraft loremaster because I play Hearthstone. In essence, I’m going into this show blind, and will be judging it on its own merits, so if you’re interested in Arcane but not a League fan, or a League fan looking to know if Riot has successfully shilled me their game, keep reading!
What’s The Premise?
Arcane is a 2021 animated series from Riot Games, and is the first fully fledged series set in the League of Legends universe. The show will be split into three weekly acts, with the first act coming out on November 6, 2021.
The first act focuses on siblings Vi and Powder, who manage to eke out a living doing oddjobs in the seedy underbelly of Zaun. Topside is the grand city of Piltover, and after a robbery gone wrong, tensions between Zaun and Piltover start to bubble.
From the get go, I am sold on the premise. The first act excels in setting up this new world for a new audience, and I never once felt lost in exposition. It’s great at showing how this world operates through it’s characters and backgrounds. Arcane handily passes my “is every still a wallpaper” test because every shot is gorgeously crafted. The contrast between the rundown, junkyard aesthetic of Zaun versus the sleek modernity of Piltover is brilliantly laid out. It immediately establishes the conflict in ideology and class between the two locations.
The aesthetic for the characters is also great. Everybody is stylized to an extent, but there is a distinct grunge to everybody. No character looks “perfect”. You see scars, wrinkles, and dirt in pretty much every character, and it helps ground an otherwise fantastical setting. Though clearly “cartoonish”, the artstyle evokes realism by exaggerating the features we most remember about people. This makes the characters feel much more real than if they were done “photorealistic” while still keeping that larger than life aesthetic.
The story so far isn’t groundbreaking, but it doesn’t need to be. A premise of class tension with the poor, scrapyard punks versus the rich, technologically superior caste has always been fun when good characters are driving the plot. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the gang, shall we?
[Minor Spoilers Ahead]
The running time of each episode is at an impressive 40 minutes, which gives us plenty of time with our characters. Our main sibling pair is Vi and Powder. I love the dynamic between these two siblings. You can tell from the first scene that Vi has had to be strong to protect her sister, and does her best to teach those same qualities to Powder. The tragedy that befell their parents may be classic orphan hero affair, but they do the trauma justice from the first strikingly harsh scene.
What strikes me the most is how emotive this show is. Facial expressions are hard to do in animation, but Arcane pulls it off. Any show that goes for the ugly cry for their main characters and nails it gets a huge plus from me.
Vi is an intensely determined person, and this is shown most clearly in her eyes. Whether you’re her friend or enemy, there is almost no reasoning with her once she has set her mind on something, and it’s great how she shows all that through her actions and expressions.
In a sharp contrast, Powder is timid and jumpy. She tends to second-guess herself, and her small frame means she can’t participate in fights like the rest of her gang. Nevertheless, she does her best to prove herself, but she rarely gets the chance to due to her nerves. Vi does her best to protect her regardless.
She does show an interest in technology, as we see with her constant attempts at weaponizing her “Mouser”.
Claggor and Mylo are also great side characters. Mylo may look like Junkrat’s nephew, but he acts as the cynic of the group and is often the one to act cautiously. Claggor, despite all odds, surprised me by not being the comic relief character. It’s annoying that whenever the “fat kid” is in a gang, they are often portrayed as bumbling, constantly eating, or nerdy. Claggor is a character all his own, being mellow and the “muscle” of the group without being dumb. Nobody even brings attention to his weight throughout the first three episodes, and honestly, I gotta hand it to the writing team for that. It shows that the team valued characters over cheap gags.
The father of these four misfits is Vander, who also acts as the leader of the Lanes, as their section of Zaun is called. He’s gruff and mild-mannered, but we get snippets of his past as the episodes go along. It’s clear from his interactions with the temperamental Vi that he wants a better path for them than what he had done. Of course, he doesn’t go so far as to dissuade them from crime, but he does value their safety more than any potential gains. The tension of the first act comes from his struggle to stay a strong leader but protect his adopted children.
The B-plot of the first act focuses on the unfortunate victim of Vi’s failed robbery, Jayce. He is our only POV character topside, and he acts as our eyes into the world above Zaun, which has its own fair share of imperfections. His experiments are kept close to his chest, and his arc is clearly setting up big things later. As for Jayce himself, he is an ambitiously stubborn young man, who has dedicated his life to his experiments. Surprisingly, this doesn’t affect his social skills that much, and the first time we see him is walking home with a friend. His story is one that is best left unspoiled for the moment, but rest assured, he’s a solid character.
The main antagonist, so far, reveals himself at the end of the final episode. I legitimately don’t want to spoil too much about him in this section, because his dynamic with a certain character drives the most dramatic moments of the first act. All you gotta know for now is he’s really sneaky and sinister.
Everything Else I Like Before The Spoiler Section
There is at least one action set piece every episode, and they’re all pretty great. The action is slick but brutal. Every hit has impact and there’s a viciousness to every fight. People stumble over themselves, get hit while hitting others, and nobody leaves a fight unmarred. It’s a great way to keep the stakes high for our heroes and make them feel vulnerable.
I love the opening with the stone statues of all the major characters. Again, not the first story to do this, but I’ve always liked the mythical feeling it gives to the series, as if someone is telling you this epic tale over a campfire. This particular rendition of Enemy by Imagine Dragons is also appropriately epic.
Speaking of music, it’s pretty standard action fantasy fare, with the exception of original songs with full-blown lyrics. These often act as “mini” music videos whenever they appear, and they are used sparingly but brilliantly. One particular sequence in the end of Episode 2 set to the song Our Love is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. The melancholy tones contrasts beautifully with the somber events that transpire on screen, with characters showing development through actions alone. I would link it, but I want you to experience that sequence for yourself. It’s one of the things that sold me on the show’s storytelling.
In conclusion, Arcane Act I is a great entry point into the world of League of Legends, giving the audience a fantastical new world without holding your hand through its dirty streets. The characters are all solid, the narrative is engaging, the music and animation are awesome, and overall, just watch the dang show!
Now for the fun part!
So, there’s actually only two things in particular I want to talk about. The villain, Silco, has an amazing monologue about drowning that I just can’t do justice with words, but I will try. His speech about the duality of drowning, of the low whispers of the deep telling you to fade away, and the violently loud clawing of your mind to live, is just breathtaking. The serenity of the vast, blue waters inter-cut with the violent thrashings of survival is brilliantly edited. It gives the character much needed, pardon the pun, depth.
The other thing I want to talk about is the ending sequence of Act I where Vi makes a daring rescue of Vander after Silco kidnaps him. It’s an incredibly intense scene, with all our heroes struggling for time to survive.
Vi’s fight is interspersed with Mylo and Claggor’s attempts to find an escape, every hit cutting to Claggor breaking off more wall, or Mylo making more progress with Vander’s restraints. Each hit Vi takes is brutal and costs her precious energy, as she is the only one capable of defending her loved ones.
During all of this, Powder has been left behind by Vi, and she feels more powerless than ever. Her screams of despair and crying are heartbreaking, but we know Vi made the right choice. There’s an uncomfortable reality to the way Powder hits her head as she cries. Still, Powder can’t help but feel that she needs to help. The fear of losing everyone she cares about paired with her own feelings of inferiority give her the courage to chase after them anyway.
This all crescendos to the most shocking scene in an animated show I’ve seen all year. After great effort, Mylo unshackles Valder and Claggor breaks open the wall to freedom. At this moment, Powder is praying for her bomb to save her friends from an incoming mutant banging at their door.
Powder, after all her efforts, all the buildup of her failures and cowardice, pulls of a successful bomb.
And it all comes tumbling down.
All the while, Powder smiles, believing that she had saved everybody.
This scene is a beautiful sequence of tragic events.
This entire sequence is a deconstruction of the usual cliche of “cowardly kid saves the day against all odds”. Powder was an amateur and incredibly young, and it shows in all of her interactions. Her first scene is being saved by Vi after attempting to do parkour by herself. During the fight with the thug kids, she runs away instead of staying put like she was told, out of fear. When the enforcers arrive, she is the one who almost falls and gets caught. All throughout the show, we are given clues to her “being jinxed”, but she’s actually not. For all intents and purposes, the way she acts in the show is realistic. People around her, all her life, have seen her as vulnerable, or worse, dead weight. The one time she tries to help, it ends horribly because she played with powers well beyond her understanding. A scared kid can’t just get over her fears and save the day. In the end, her attempts to save her friends only sealed their fates. This is a fantastic tragedy to start the rift between Vi and Powder.
I love how the first act of the show ends on such a downer note. I am impressed at how hard this story goes, pulling no punches with the consequences of each character’s failures. Though I know this is a prequel, and that some character’s fates are still present, the show is just so good at engaging you in its narrative that you forget all that. In the moment, you find yourself shocked that a main character just killed two of her friends, and it was all done in an attempt to save them.
I’m excited to see where Powder and Vi’s story will go, and you can be sure I’ll be talking about the second act once it comes out.