Why Netflix’s Arcane should be your next box set
James R | On 03, Jan 2022
Arcane: understood by few, mysterious or secret. If using that adjective for the title of a Netflix series isn’t enough to turn you off, the fact that it’s based on a video game is bound to do the trick. But this animation set within the League of Legends universe is not only a surprising, thrilling watch – it’s also accessible to anyone, whether they know what a MOBA game is or not.
The series is a tale of two cities: the well-off, in-power Piltover and the harsher undercity Zaun. In the former, two young scientists are experimenting with the idea of using science to rediscover the forbidden power of magic. In the latter, orphans Vi and Powder are unwittingly on the fringe of a gang war. That’s all you need to know to get started, and that binary structure makes the whole thing brilliantly simple, and emotionally effective – it’s a tale of two sisters, as well as two cities, and keeping that bond (and conflict) at its heart makes for an engaging, gripping watch.
That simplicity pays off repeatedly throughout the nine-episode first season (split into a trio of three-episode segments). Rather than deliver a huge chunk of laboured exposition that we have to process, the complex lore is shaped by the straightforward story, which makes the world-building feel effortless.
And so we follow Vi (Hailee Steinfeld) and Powder (Ella Purnell) as they each up without parents. Attempting to rescue their adoptive father, Vander, things go awry, setting the course for their own paths through what’s to come. Hailee Steinfeld is immediately likeable as Vi, while Ella Purnell balances vulnerability and anger, as Powder tries to reach beyond reasonable boundaries to make things right.
On the other side of the fence, Jayce (Kevin Alejandro) and Viktor (Harry Lloyd) are an equally potent double act, with Harry Lloyd capturing the naive, honest intentions of the well-meaning student and Kevin Alejandro conveying a blend of curiosity and a callous ambition that makes Jayce an intriguing as well as intimidating figure. The point at which they invent Hextech – a niftily named fusion of magic and technology – is a jaw-dropping moment that’s full of awe but also trepidation.
That mood lingers as the series continues, with the two strands of the story bonded together by unintended explosions and calculated concoctions – it’s a fantastical adventure that’s bubbling with potential peril (Episode 1 sets the tone with the introduction of magical substances that give users monstrous abilities). Rather than present a portrait of heroes and villains, it’s a maze of compromises and consequences, with the story less one of building up a world and more about how people, both unwittingly and unwittingly, tear it apart.
The pacing isn’t dizzyingly fast, but the momentum is superbly sustained by the link between narrative and action – both in terms of characters’ decisions and, well, action. The set pieces are beautifully presented thanks to well-choreographed combat that promises real, tangible stakes and the gorgeous visuals, which blend 2D and 3D animation to striking, unique effect. With short enough episodes to zip through the whole thing in a weekend, and an Imagine Dragons theme song to top it off, the result is one of the most unexpected TV treats of 2021 – and won’t prove arcane to anyone.