Arcane: League of Legends
Created by Christian Linke and Alex Yee
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Purnell, Kevin Alejandro, Katie Leung
Video-game adaptations rarely rise above dismal, yet Arcane is at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes! Many in the industry are taking detailed notes from this show in order to better adapt content in the future. Ten years from now, we may look back on Arcane as a cultural forefather. (Update 7/22/23: Arcane: League of Legends is already considered the standard bearer in the industry for animated adaptations.)
Many disparate groups of people hit me with the “You have to watch this!” mantra regarding Arcane–video-game fans, animation lovers, nerd-culture tastemakers, TV critics. Not until my own brother sat me down and held my eyes open, however, did I consume the first episode.
Piltover is a city at a turning point. It’s citizens are cosmopolitan, and its industries make it a ripe transportation hub. Beneath its gilded towers, however, lies The Undercity, colloquially known as The Lanes. There, poverty and crime run rampant, ruining even the most savvy street urchins.
Trying to better the city is Jayce Talis, a charismatic young scientist who must become a dealmaking politician if he’s to forward his magic-based technology. Trying to destroy the city is the techno-terroist Jinx, an unstable genius haunted by her past decisions and being further warped by her craven mentor, Silco.
When Jinx steals Jayce’s latest tech, which promises to make magic more accessible and dangerous than ever, his house security guard, Caitlyn, teams up with Jinx’s estranged sister, Violet. Can Violet stop her sister? And if she does, will the fallout force Piltover to collapse beneath the weight of its corruption?
Yes, but you may not appreciate it until episode four. Once I watched the first episode, I felt conflicted. This show pushed almost all of my personal geek buttons—Art Deco, superfluous steampunk gadgets, neon bars with shady patrons—yet I wasn’t lapping up the show, much less binging it.
Upon completing episode four, though, everything clicked, and I fell in love. Why, though, did a show practically tailor-made for me take half a season to connect? I believe it’s because of the plot structure. Episodes one through three explore the doomed relationship between Violet and Jinx (then called Powder) as well as Jayce Talis’s emergence as magic Steve Jobs. Only during episode four do the characters’ drives and motivations become clear. During development, a prudent story editor could have suggested making episode four the pilot, then breaking episodes one through three into flashbacks. This advice, however, is the definition of armchair criticism; I have no knowledge of the day-to-day process Arcane went through to get to my screen.
The plot structure, along with occasional puzzling soundtrack choices, is my only issue with this series. Conversely, Arcane: League of Legends has so much GOOD to offer: a lovingly crafted world, stellar direction, above-average voice acting, and a timely class-warfare theme. Heck, they even have a narratively engaging, non-gratuitous sex scene! Eat your heart out, The Witcher.
I haven’t, but two of my friends who played the games have said the show was “everything they could’ve hoped for.” I also wonder if prior experience with the franchise satisfies the narrative problems of the first three episodes of Arcane. My friends were familiar with the characters and their motivations, so the problems that I had may have stemmed from my newcomer status.