Movie & Television Show Reviews

A Unique Marriage Of Cyberpunk, Magic And Strong Storytelling | “Arcane: League of Legends” (2021) Season 1 Netflix Series Review

Growing up, I never got into the MMO craze, mostly because I didn’t have access to a modern laptop until 2011, and I’m not sure if my internet was even good enough until around 2015 to even support such games. I grew up in a pretty rural community where high-speed internet came late, so I didn’t even know anybody that was into them until college. 

“Arcane: League of Legends”, while based on a famous MMO, thankfully requires no prior knowledge of the game or its mechanics for you to get into it. It reminds me a lot of “DOTA: Dragon’s Blood”, another Netflix show based on an MMO I haven’t played that I liked, though I found “Arcane” to be more interesting. 

From left: Vi, Powder/Jinx and Jayce.

The show takes place in the fictional city of Piltover, which is a utopian society built on ideals of enlightenment and science, where magic is seen as almost taboo and dangerous. It has a strenuous relationship with its undercity, Zaun, who are oppressed by Piltover and are given little means to get ahead, and as such it is crime-ridden and poverty-stricken. We see in the show’s opening minutes that, years ago, Zaun rebelled unsuccessfully led by their leader, Vander (JB Blanc). We then progress to the present, where he is taking care of two of the kids that were orphaned the day his rebellion failed: Powder (Mia Sinclair Jenness) and Violet/Vi (Hailee Steinfeld), who are biological sisters. He also has taken in two boys: Mylo (Yuri Lowenthal) and Claggor (Roger Craig Smith). 

There is a time jump in the show after Episode 3 that’s about five years long, in which our cast transitions either from teenagers to adults or children to adults, and it’s impossible to properly review this show without spoiling some of what happens before the time jump, so mild spoilers ahead. 

Powder/Jinx is at the center of this show’s conflict, at times being its hero and villain.

The show’s inciting incident happens when Vi and company decide to take on a job that’s too big for them that results in them stealing forbidden magical artifacts from the residence of Piltover science academy student Jayce Talis (Kevin Alejandro), which leads to the partial destruction of the building. This upsets the truce Piltover’s enforcers (their police) have with Vander, as their transgressions demand that someone be held responsible. 

It also has huge ramifications for Jayce, who was rescued as a young boy by a sorcerer, and believes that magic can be used in conjunction with science to improve the world, though the council that rules over Piltover sees differently, and banishes him. But all is not lost, as Viktor (Harry Lloyd), a disabled academy assistant sent to confiscate his research, and who served under the lead council member and chief opponent of said research (Councilor Cecil B. Heimerdinger [Mick Wingert]), takes pity on him, and sees the potential in what he discovered. He takes a risk by helping Jayce complete his research, with hopes that concrete physical evidence can change their minds, and it’s the start to a very touching and genuine friendship that evolves into a brotherhood between the two.  

Vi is the moral center of the show.

Meanwhile in the undercity, things get complicated when Silco (Jason Spisak), an old associate of Vander that he previously tried to kill, re-emerges to take advantage of the chaos the children created, using it as an opportunity to debut Shimmer, an addictive mutagen that debilitates the user over time, but grants them short-term superhuman strength. This leads to a fatal confrontation between the enforcers, in which Vander is captured by Silco, who seeks to enact his revenge. Vander saves Vi before dying, but an unstable explosive made by Powder ends up killing Mylo and Claggor, as well as severely wounding Silco’s No. 2, Sevika (Amirah Vann), which results in her losing an entire arm. 

Episode 3 concludes with Vi getting captured and imprisoned, and Silco left with a crying Powder, uncertain what to do. And it’s a really tense moment, because up to this point, Silco has been a generic villain who is evil because he was betrayed before, hates the surface, and who takes advantage of everyone weaker than him, especially children. But in an unexpected twist, Powder hugs him and he accepts her as his adopted daughter, which further highlights his complicated relationship with Vander.

Silco serves as an excellent, complex villain.

Silco saw him as a brother and still has love for him and his cause, but he is also rational enough to realize that what Vander did to him can never be taken back, and that the two just have too different approaches to getting ahead in life, and ultimately making Zaun an independent nation. And as we progress through the time skip, we really see how Powder (who now goes by Jinx, and is voiced by Ella Purnell) humanizes him, as there is no atrocity he is not willing to commit for his own enrichment and goals, except if it involves hurting his daughter. And this creates conflict in his character, as he later reflects: “Is there anything so undoing as a daughter?”

Jayce and Viktor also do remarkably well after the time jump, as their Hextech technology — machines that can generate magic — revolutionize Piltover, especially in terms of shipping goods, which makes the council even more wealthy and as such, they heavily favor Jayce. 

Vander, the Vi and Powder/Jinx’s adopted father, is the leader of Zaun, and does his best to maintain order. He is haunted by a past rebellion he led against Piltover, in which the girls’ parents perished.

But this peace was not to last, as Jinx steals a powerful gemstone from Jayce, which sends the city into a furor, and leads to his appointment to the council, to lead their efforts to strengthen security and to get the undercity in line. He gets into a relationship with fellow councilor Mel Medarda (Toks Olagundoye), who bends his ear, and his appointment allows him to give his childhood friend and now-enforcer Caitlyn Kiramman (Katie Leung) broad freedom to investigate the undercity, which leads to her releasing Vi from prison, which creates huge conflict for Jinx, who wants her sister back despite being hurt by her abandonment. She’s also loyal to Silco, and is tortured by the fact that she killed Mylo and Claggor, who she thinks talks to her as ghosts. 

Vi is also strongly against Silco and his methods, and there is no way she will forgive him for killing Vander. What ensues is a series of alliances between unlikely characters from Piltover and the undercity, as the council slowly figures out exactly what Silco wants and why he hates them, and there is volatility and drama at every turn. 

It’s a great show, with strong visuals, compelling characters, and fantastic conflict that will make it hard for you to look away. Its lore and world mechanics are not too complex — think cyberpunk with magic elements. Anyone new to the franchise will be able to pick up what’s going on with ease, and it really hooks you once you get past Episode 3.  

Netflix really hit gold with this show. 

“Arcane: League of Legends” Season 1 gets a 9.5/10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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