‘Arcane’ blows other video-game shows out of the water

Reviews

If you’re into gaming, you’ve probably heard of “League of Legends” before. It’s one of the most popular games out there; everyone has opinions on it, good or bad, whether they’ve played it or not. Having such a big audience spelled out early disaster for “Arcane,” the 2021 Netflix show inspired by the game. After all, previous shows adapted from video games have had very mixed results. There are so many ways to go wrong, and fans were understandably skeptical. However, “Arcane” shows us that maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. The show takes the time to engage us with its characters through their designs, and uses them to further the plot and their own development. “Arcane” is a visually stunning masterpiece full of diverse and well-developed characters, with symbolic significance in every design choice the animators make and a story of parenthood that will not be easily forgotten.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, “Arcane” mainly follows Vi and Powder, sisters who live in the Undercity. They’re separated as children, with Powder being taken in by Silco, an underground crime boss, and eventually becoming Jinx. On the other hand, Vi grows up in Stillwater prison. When she’s released by Caitlyn, a police officer from Piltover, as a young adult, she goes on a mission to find Powder and reconcile their sisterhood, all whilst the rest of the political world is at odds with one another.

Part of what sets “Arcane” apart is how diverse the characters are. Unlike a lot of video-game based shows, “Arcane”’s most central characters are women. They make plot-driving decisions, they have fully-fleshed out personalities and motivations, and they have agency over their own actions. Mel is the first to vote for Zuan’s creation and everyone follows her lead, Vi and Jinx’s sisterhood being torn apart is ultimately what sets the plot in motion, and Jinx eventually chooses to fire the rocket at the Council. It’s refreshing to see female characters who influence the plot through their decisions, especially since the gaming community is notoriously male dominated. The fact that so much of the  cast is saturated with influential women subverts our expectations and provides much-needed representation.

“Arcane” also shows a queer relationship between two main characters, something that is still quite rare in mainstream media. Shows are often afraid to have queer characters because they don’t want audience backlash. Most of the time, they will simply not have queer characters, have queer side characters (that often end up being killed off), or engage in queerbaiting, a tactic where the creators will hint at characters being queer but will never actually confirm it so they can draw in an LGBTQ+ audience. Even then, stories with queer characters at the forefront mainly focus on their queerness.

However, Vi and Caitlyn are shown casually flirting with each other. Although they’ve never kissed on screen, which many consider to be the confirmation of a relationship, Vi’s iconic line of, “You’re hot, Cupcake,” seems to be fairly self-explanatory. As mentioned before, the gaming community is heavily male saturated, with a history of homophobic rhetoric as well. The fact that Vi and Caitlyn are both women who show romantic interest in each other is groundbreaking, and allows for more representation within the “League of Legends” community as well as the gaming industry as a whole. LGBTQ+ youth (and perhaps even adults) will be able to see themselves represented in popular media, helping to destigmatize queerness in modern society.

Another way “Arcane” has managed to make a home in our hearts is through the amazing animation. An incredible blend of 3D and 2D, combined with cleverly inserted symbolism makes for stunning visuals. This is shown through their use of character designs and color theory – they play into the audience’s subconscious associations with different colors to give us an idea of what to feel about each character and setting. Piltover is white, symbolizing purity, softness, and sterility, while Piltover itself is a haven for the rich and powerful, with not a single stain in sight. It’s very clearly beautiful, but it also makes us uncomfortable; we see how empty the city is, and the pure whiteness of it all looks untouched by people. Meanwhile, Hextech, Piltover’s technological advancement of choice, is blue, which is commonly associated with intelligence and calm. It’s not as sterile as the rest of Piltover, but blue is still a cold color, and we see that Hextech is still fairly detached from the people.

On the other hand, we have Silco’s drug, Shimmer, a highly addictive substance that temporarily gives people superhuman strength and speed, whilst also increasing body mass. It is colored in a bright purple-ish pink. He is an underground crime lord with dreams of the Undercity becoming the nation of Zaun, often using violence and manipulation to get what he wants, shown through the colors that make purple, red and blue. Red symbolizes passion and anger, whilst blue represents the intelligence of his schemes. Meanwhile, purple itself has historically represented royalty, showing Silco’s want for power and his egotistical views of himself as he sees himself as a hero-figure. He thinks he’s saving both Jinx and the Undercity whilst, in actuality, he elevates the good of the two and neglects or actively worsens the bad.
Most of the characters are introduced through their colors – we see Vi tied to pink and red, Silco to purple, and Piltover to white. However, Mel is different; although we first meet her at her peak, dressed to impress in whites and golds, our biggest insight into her character is through her lows. The horrifying darkness of her nightmare being painted directly above her bed is possibly one of the most important glimpses into her true nature. It hangs there, invading her space, essentially haunting her. People are most vulnerable when they fall asleep, and Mel’s dreams have infiltrated that intimate part of her life. We often see Mel’s art depicting her deepest desires, fears, and regrets – they are perhaps the biggest insight into her character that we get, since she’s so emotionally closed off for much of the show. The first vulnerable moment we get, one where she’s not manipulating or scheming, is immediately after she’s painting. She swipes red paint across her canvas in sharp, angry strokes – it’s Noxus, her homeland, one that is angry and violent and beautiful, just like the crimson she stains on the tarp. Later, after Ambessa explains why she exiled her, Ambessa finds the painting covered in gold swirls, the color of wealth, influence, and success, showing how Mel has changed and grown since being exiled.

Ekko and the Firelights, a gang of refugees from Silco’s takeover of the Undercity through Shimmer, are completely unlike the whites, blues, golds, and purples of the main political powers in “Arcane.” They associate themselves with green, the color of nature, rebirth, and growth. The Firelights themselves are refugees and heavily tied to nature and growth, with the only tree in Runeterra being hidden in their hideout. 

Nature appears to be a common theme with Ekko and the Firelights he took in – they use animal masks, representations of their wildness and their freedom. The masks separate them from everyone else in the show; it allows us, as the audience, to immediately pick them out as different. The Firelights even act similarly to the animals they wear on their masks. Ekko is smart and resourceful: he’s a hunter with incredible skill in the air, and he is relatively silent. When he wears his mask, we rarely hear him say anything, which is why it’s fitting that the image of the owl shields his features. We also see a girl wearing a crow’s mask tilting her head like a bird as she’s examining the Hextech orb.

Even disregarding the green color scheme and the connection with nature, we are immediately shown how Ekko and the Firelights are different from everything else in the show – the music in the cold-open, a rap song called “Misfit Toys,” is unlike any other we’ve heard in the show. It’s fast-paced, but not feverish like the song “Dirty Little Animals” that plays in an Undercity bar. It sounds like a challenge – to Piltover’s shallow perfection and to Zaun’s wild apathy. Even the name tells us that the Firelights are different.

In a show with so many contradictions, Ekko is both a wild card and the perfect neutralizer. While most characters fall into a category of either Piltover or Zaun, future versus past, Hextech versus Shimmer, Ekko chooses none of those. He creates his own community, a refuge from the factions controlling Runeterra: the Firelights. He chooses to focus on the people he can help now. While we occasionally see him talking about things that happened in the past or things that could happen in the future, he is often centered on things that can help people in the present. Between Hextech and Shimmer, he chooses neither – he creates his own technology, floating skateboards that are high energy and unlike anything else in the world of “Arcane.” Heimerdinger points out that it might not be the most efficient, but Ekko tells him, “It’s not enough to give people what they need to survive. You have to give them what they need to live.” His focus is centered around the people – whilst we see other characters in the show caring for their citizens, they all do it through big political moves without the insight of regular people. Meanwhile, Ekko is shown through his actions helping others on the ground and being in the moment, something completely unlike any other political group in the show.

Unlike Ekko, Jinx’s personality isn’t meant to balance out the plot – instead, they took her character in “League of Legends” and manipulated it to fit who she is in the story of “Arcane.” In the original game, Jinx is a classic manic pixie dream girl. She’s attractive, energetic, slightly childish, and crazy; her appearance and personality (or lack of one) seem tailor-fit for the male-gaze. However, in “Arcane,” her beauty is never really acknowledged by the show because it isn’t necessary. She doesn’t use it as a weapon; she doesn’t even seem to focus on her appearance that much at all. As for her energy and child-like behavior, those are remnants from her past. She was so heavily traumatized as a kid that her mental state had frozen her to a point before that event occurred, when she was just a happy-go-lucky child. She sits in Silco’s lap, she drinks juice with a fun straw, she approaches people with her hands clasped behind her back like a toddler approaching an adult – all signs that she’s essentially an overgrown kid. Her innocence and energy aren’t cute or appealing; they’re highly disturbing. She’s sad and insane, and it’s because her mind is constantly warring with itself: the traumatized teenager told to kill and blow things up to further her father’s dreams of a nation and the scared girl who just lost everything and everyone who ever loved her.

They’re at odds – these two versions of a girl, trapped in the same body. Even Jinx’s skin shows signs of this; almost everything about her has changed, but her hair is still in overly long braids, almost like she’s never cut it. Blue cloud tattoos float over her arms and stomach, just like the blue smoke from the flare Vi had told her to use if she ever needed help. In a way, she’s still Powder. It’s a brilliant detail that “Arcane” adds to give us a little more insight into her personality through her character design, showing how she keeps her past in the most vulnerable parts of her but protects herself with the clothes and guns and bombs she’s created since her most traumatic experience.

“Arcane” also uses interactions between people to tell us more about characters. Parent-daughter relationships are a main focus of the show, with the central conflicts stemming from the lack or presence of such a relationship. Mostly, we’re shown fathers, with Vandar and Silco being the most prominent figures. Vandar is focused on the past and all the mistakes he has to correct or avoid repeating, and we see that sentiment reflected in Vi – she wants Powder back, and is desperate not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Meanwhile, although Jinx is at first haunted by her past, at the end of season one, she chooses to focus on the future that Silco wanted. Caitlyn, on the other hand, is like Grayson – focused on making sure both sides are at peace and willing to cooperate with whoever will let her do that. In Grayson’s case, that was Vandar, but in Caitlyn’s case, it’s Vi. 

The use of relationships and characters to build the plot while the visuals build the relationships and characters allows “Arcane” to intrigue us at every turn. It immediately sets itself apart from other shows in its genre with its diversity, something both incredibly important and refreshing for the audience. All in all, the first season of “Arcane” was outstanding in every way, and I’m sure we’re all eagerly waiting for the next installment.