Arcane: Beating Already Unbeatable Expectations
A review of "Arcane," Netflix's smash-hit animated series
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Six years in the making and carrying the daunting expectations of a Riot Games’ “League of Legends” spinoff, anticipation for “Arcane” has been impossibly high. Rather than fall short of such a high bar, however, “Arcane” exceeded expectations, putting it on record as one of the most popular animated series in recent history. The show even surpassed Netflix's recent hit, “Squid Game,” cementing its place as the most-watched series on the platform. And for all the hype it’s accrued, “Arcane” certainly delivers.
The show premiered in a unique format, released in the form of three acts, each comprising three episodes. Rather than detract from the plot, watching the show one act at a time keeps viewers captivated. Act one introduces viewers to Piltover, a city divided in two, with each side living in stark contrast to the other. At the center of the story is a street gang composed of kids whose attempts to escape constant oppression serve as the catalyst for impending war between the divisions. Act one only sets the stage for what is to come, and does so incredibly effectively, taking the worldbuilding already present in “League of Legends” lore and expanding on it in a manner that thrives on the silver screen.
One of “Arcane”’s marks of brilliance is how well it tells its story to audiences that don’t have any prior knowledge of the game behind it. While League players will certainly find countless easter eggs and bits of obscure lore, the average viewer is still presented with an incredible plot, beautiful visuals, and nuanced characters. The story is not overly complex but has elements that everyone can appreciate, whether they came looking for blood-pumping action sequences or a heartfelt tale about family.
“Arcane” should be commended for more than how tangible a story it tells. Creators Christian Link and Alex Yee masterfully address various real-world themes in ways that advance the plot without feeling forced. Act one ends with the original gang having been cut down to just the two sisters, Vi and Powder, and following the act two timeskip, they are transformed into entirely different people. In particular, Powder is so haunted by her disastrous actions and her sister having apparently abandoned her that she adopts a name used to embody her failings: Jinx. This transformation, a literal representation of her descent into insanity, is only accelerated by the new paternal figure in her life, Silco, the show’s primary antagonist. Their relationship, abnormal as it might be, brings out genuine emotions and serves as just one example of how the show’s characters feel grounded despite being set in such an outlandish universe.
Just as present in acts two and three is the concept of social inequality, which is woven into every aspect of Piltover. From the beginning, audiences are made aware of the Topside’s contempt for the inhabitants of the Undercity, reducing their actions to criminal without acknowledging that their lives necessitate such acts to survive. “Arcane” allows viewers to develop complex understandings about its characters, further emphasizing the impact of these extreme inequalities and the consequences of class divides. Viewers are able to relate to these characters and contextualize characters' struggles within the real world, opening yet another rabbithole to fall into while watching the story unfold.
In addition to the series' political takes, “Arcane” boasts a visual experience that few other shows could hope to achieve. This is largely due to the show’s beautiful art and direction––every frame could serve as a convincing computer wallpaper. "Arcane" walks a fine line, maintaining a charmingly cartoonish quality without sacrificing any depth within the messages it aims to convey. Moreover, these visuals are just as—if not more—brilliant when set to motion. Every fight scene is polished; the colors are bright, the action is fluid, and the viewer is always kept on the edge of their seat while waiting for the next blow to land. The same could be said for the entire show; one can hardly finish one episode without feeling the need to watch the next.
“Arcane” is a series that truly fits anyone’s bill for an entertaining watch. It is a prime example of superb art and animation, coupled with interesting commentaries on relevant political issues, all of which play out through some incredibly nuanced characters. The show is already confirmed for a second season, which is set to arrive in two years, and for which expectations are higher than ever. If Riot's first attempt at an animated series is any example of their prowess within the medium, season two is certain to be well worth the wait.