Dec 02, 2021
9 mins read
Warning: Although I don't believe in spoilers, it is difficult to discuss specific flaws and highlights of the show without mentioning certain scenes which may give away plot developments. I’ve done my best to disguise specifics but I recommend reading this article only if you have seen the series already. Since it is not a review but an analysis that should be obvious. Thanks for your understanding.
Thankfully I've never played League of Legends. It's not the type of game I'm interested in, so I have no understanding of it's quality. In fact, the only standard I have to judge it by is the scandals of the company who own it, Riot Games, and the deluge of fan art I see online. As a result, I hate capitalism and I'm already a fan of some of the characters. Ahri is utterly fantastic, for someone like me who sees themselves as a bit of a kitsune anyway, but I know nothing about her or any of the others. However, Riot seem to have this covered as they are proving to be remarkably talented at producing media related to the game. A number of their characters, including goddess Ahri, released catchy Kpop songs under the group name KDA, and they were quality songs with visuals beyond most regular Kpop groups. Now Riot foray into television with Arcane; an origin story for a few of their characters, I gather, and the results are just as, if not closer to, perfection - even if, like it’s main protagonist, it’s a little scuffed and bruised.
If you've been on social media, you've probably already seen how much this has blown up so I'm not going to talk about that. I’m more interested in how a game company showed two unrelated entertainment channels how to do their job better by example. It really is remarkable. We don't see Lady Gaga making top tier video games, or Steven Spielberg painting the next great manga. Maybe by holding it under a microscope we can figure out what hex-tech makes it sizzle.
By far its greatest strength, despite the amazing animation, is that Arcane treats all of its characters as a main character. This is in no small part to the incredible detail put into emotion of the characters in the show. It might also be a product of having such a rich gaming lore to fall back on, but since I’m about as knowledgeable in that department as an ant is in intergalactic socio-politics the less foot I put in my mouth the better. Such a policy of character equality is something which every story should do nonetheless. We have back stories, focus, stakes, emotions, dark night's of the soul for each of them. Moreover, there really are no bad characters here - in either sense of the word. We completely understand all of their motivations and decisions. The emotion shimmers in their eyes, tears their frowns into screams in some quite unhinged reactions. In fact there are some beautiful sequences that just show character reactions and yet tell so much of the story at the same time. I'm thinking particularly of a wounded character whose reaction changes to each staple she administers to her wound in one of the best scenes of the series. Nuanced and detailed, there’s also back story when we needed it to sympathise with them through it all. It works so well that by the final episode I realized that I liked the main "bad" guy. As a person. That in turn elevated the story beats that followed. The final twists became all the more believable and, in point of fact, a natural conclusion of events, and that’s how stories should feel. We are so used to shoe horned endings and formulas followed that we forget this. Luckily true art will stand out amongst that. An added bonus is that no matter which character is your favourite, they get enough screen time. There was a whole storyline I didn't really care for, but I didn't mind watching it because I understood the characters so well and I was drawn by the attention to detail in the writing and the animation. It's extremely hard not to be invested. Imagine if you liked every character in Game of Thrones as if they were your best friend. That's the level of achievement here, because it is, very simply, a Y.A. Game of Thrones. Some characters are a little way-sided through the story but their contribution remains remarkable. For example, one character is clearly set up to be a buddy/love interest in a good cop, bad cop pairing, but their agency vanishes as soon as they give up their signature weapon to save a life. They then adopt the damsel role for the rest of the show to stay relevant and it was a disappointment for such an attractive character, who deserves and would seem natural in a heroic tale of their own. They single handedly work out most of their enemy's plans before anyone else has any idea there is a kingpin at all. However, that is all abandoned so they can be the emotional lynch pin of the final dilemma. I'd consider this biting criticism if there wasn't such care and diversity demonstrated in the show.
Riot games really made an effort to be progressive, and in touch with what the audience wants and expects. As I may have inferred, there's sisterly love, fatherly love, gay love, and characters of many different ethnic groups present, all treated with exceptional, if not equal, depth. The main romance in the show is between two women, with the hetereosexual relationship being reduced to a couple of scenes. Straight baiting at it's best. Particularly when one of the couple is strongly hinted to be bisexual. Seriously, just browse the twitter reactions. It’s so gay.
Like a cherry on the cake, the writing has other strengths. With any reading or TV experience you can spot the tropes a mile off but Arcane goes out of its way to offer some surprising twists and developments. For instance, it’s pretty obvious from the beginning that a certain character dies to advance the plot but exactly how it happens, to what extent, and what else occurs alongside is the surprise. The writers understand you’re looking for something fresh and add detail and twists to get a these surprises. This is key, because as we know there are no new stories under the sun, only how they are told. Tired predictability? I know it not. The end result is it smells fresh. Mmm tomatoes. There's even a couple of scenes that I genuinely didn’t know what to expect and the cliffhangers never felt fabricated, helped in part by the next episode never starting directly at its solution.
Is it all good? I’ve mentioned a couple of minor points but ironically, for a series that is based on an action game with lots of fighting, it's the action that needs the most work. I’m no fighter but when it comes to action films I’ve watched martial arts movies, anime and western action since I was 8 and as thinking about something is equal to 50% of the physical training (true science, look it up) I can say there's no flow to the fighting, and that’s a problem. It often pauses to look cool, but the pauses are in strange places that really break the momentum. Sometimes moves and positioning are unclear and it doesn't carry the emotion anywhere near as well as the character scenes do. Fighting is it's own language and those responsible for Arcane's really need to watch more martial arts movies or hire an expert. Furthermore, several times there were big build ups for the fight scenes and then the brawl was too short and uneven to deliver the payoff. The greatest example would be the scene when a character walks into the bar to find the villain. Big build up. The regular action. The dancing guy putting on the music. A stranger walks in in the background. Everyone freezes like in cowboy movies. The dancing guy finally notices and we see clearly it's the hero we expected. Then the henchwoman orders everyone to leave. Classic tension building. But the fight that followed was over way too quick and disjointed. The character stake a break when they've only just started. Attacks come from illogical angles. Compare it to this action scene by the master, Jackie Chan, or any well choreographed fight scene where you can really feel the flow of the fight, and the flaws of Arcane will be more obvious. The series is fine at the very slick and quick action poses, but for extended combat they need a lot of work. Still, everything make sense and its easy to tell the outcomes. One of the best things is that the fights are not overdone. They come so rarely that each one has a big impact, even if it is executed roughly, and each character is changed by the process. It's all part of the raw emotion that bubbles throughout the whole series. Tiny character moments and additions add so much to the story as a whole that they really sell the world even in the painted (super cool!) style of animation. It’s such a delight that you can easily forgive these flaws.
There are other weaknesses but it's a mixed bag of underused characters and underdeveloped scenes. Things like how the show made a big deal of bringing a character back to life through the underground substance that monsterizes people, almost a whole episode in fact, but other than some glowing eyes and them dodging a bullet in the last scene of the show, there was no pay off. The process didn't seem to affect their emotional or mental state. It was just a flashy resurrection bit. Nothing was made of any physical enhancements. It did however, lend some considerable weight to the cliffhanger of episode 8, which again took me by surprise with a satisfied thrill.
All of these, however, are nitpicks on what is the best TV I saw this year, and that I have seen in a long while. That’s hard to say in the year of Squid Game, but perhaps it is only because I can't bear to rewatch that show (heartbreak I know thee), while I will watch Arcane many times to enjoy its sumptuous art and character development — in much the same way that I am still listening to KDA on repeat…. The Baddest do what the baddest do…