Arcane: An Analysis and Review

A psychological and artistic analysis of the hit Netflix show.


Digital Illustration by Ruby Moran

“I thought, maybe you could love me like you used to, even though I’m different. But you changed too, So, here’s to the new us.” Quote by Jinx, voiced by Ella Purnell.

Arcane is a masterpiece. Let’s discuss.

Even before the show’s opening, we see that Arcane and its world is filled with strong characters.

The first scene introduces us to one of the show’s main characters, Powder, singing on a bridge on fire. The viewers immediately sense the eeriness of the show, along with the message that this show is not filled with joyful, childlike fluffiness.

This scene takes its time showing its viewers the event taking place, and adds 2d animated elements to a 3d space, a filming choice that applies an extra dimension to the show’s look. Even the fire has a 2d look, and the viewers get to see from the first minute of the show that it takes a lot of creative freedom to successfully use the aforementioned mix of media.

Once the lullaby is over, the rest of the scene has absolutely no spoken words. 

The storytelling in this singular scene is spectacular, and the crystal clear expressions on each character seamlessly conveys each of their feelings to viewers immediately. If the characters weren’t animated to be as expressive as they are, the silence of the scene wouldn’t be as effective. Dialogue would take away the raw feelings being channeled through each of the three main characters in this scene, so their expressiveness and silence work together to create an immensely emotional product before the opening song starts to play.

Arcane is an animated steampunk action and science fiction series based on the video game League of Legends that focuses on the story between Piltover and Zaun.

Piltover and Zaun are two settings from League of Legends. Zaun is typically mentioned as the undercity, as it is a city that doesn’t have buildings and streets even nearly as nice as those in Piltover. Piltover is considered the city of progress in this world – all of the characters have much nicer clothes and homes, and there isn’t nearly as much crime or polluted areas as there are in the undercity.

The stark differences between these two cities are clearly demonstrated through shots panning over each one at separate points in the series. Zaun is dimly lit, its main sources of light being neon signs posted on rickety buildings. The people of Zaun have a reputation as dangerous criminals who cannot be trusted.

This is best depicted in a shot of Vi (Powder’s older sister and main protector) during her scene. We see Vi finally liberated after years in prison, and although Zaun is dark and dangerous, it is her home; and as the camera follows her jumping rooftop to rooftop, the viewers essentially get an unofficial tour of part of the city that she knows like the back of her hand. While Vi’s connection to the city is romanticized in this scene, we also see shots of fights and other criminal acts throughout the show, even during Vi’s screen time, which gives viewers reason to believe the stereotypes against Zaun residents created by Piltover residents.

On the other hand, Piltover is clean, their citizens have more privileges than those of Zaun, the people have more opportunities to gain a proper education that nurtures a love for scientific discovery, and they don’t need to rely on neon signs and window lighting as their main source of light, as they enjoy the regular sunshine. These distinctions are made clear through elements such as character design, where inventor Jayce and council member Mel wear neat uniforms, while characters from Zaun like Vi don’t have access to such uniforms; she wears bandages, worn out clothes, and even one of her newest clothing items, the little red jacket, is stolen. The show does a wonderful job depicting the two opposite environments and the complex dynamics that stem from these relationships between the cities.

Earlier in the show, we see a wide shot of the city as Vi, her younger sister Powder, and their friends Mylo and Clagger stand on a Piltover rooftop overlooking the area. Both Zaun and Piltover’s buildings are quite clustered together, as they are both cities, but somehow, Piltover manages to look much neater. However, Piltover is quickly shown to be the opposite of a utopia. The show is predominantly in the point of view of the characters that come from Zaun, and viewers quickly get an idea of how they are treated by Piltover or “topsiders” as they are called in the undercity. The police force, otherwise known as the Enforcers, originate from Piltover, and they are stationed throughout the undercity. Although clad in neat uniforms, their personalities aren’t nearly as proper. There are several examples of Enforcers taking advantage of the power they are given, which gives Piltover as a city a bad reputation and Zaun residents dislike them, consequently. 

Zaun and Piltover are complete opposites and, with Zaun’s reputation of being dangerous and conniving as well as Piltover’s reputation of being corrupt and snarky, tensions are bound to rise between the two cities, bubbling up and eventually exploding into events such as the show’s first scene.

No matter how clever a plot may be, a series cannot be enticing without immersive characters to drive the story forward.

At the beginning of the show, after the first scene, Jinx is approximately 12 years old and goes by the name Powder. Powder is the youngest of two sisters, and she is the most innocent out of the entire group with whom she spends the first three episodes. Powder absolutely adores her older sister, Violet (Vi), and spends the first three episodes of Arcane trying to make her proud by making sure she can catch up with the rest of their group when they have to jump from one building to the next.

Powder’s voice was the first voice heard at the very beginning of the series, and her action at the end of the series is the last one we see before the credits roll for the final time.

Powder grows up in Zaun with Vander, a legend in Zaun, her older sister Vi, and two friends: Mylo and Clagger.

Mylo constantly makes snarky comments towards Powder, calling her a jinx that ruins all of their jobs to steal from Piltover homes. Each time Mylo makes such a comment, Vi steps in to defend Powder. This establishes Vi’s role as Powder’s protector and sets up Powder’s downfall into becoming Jinx while she has to take all of these insults each time she makes a mistake.

Powder’s style changes according to her personality change over the course of the show. As a child, she wears a lot of blue and purple, just one belt, and a separate sleeve on each arm. When she grows up to be Jinx, her color palette still contains blue with a bit of purple, but she’s generally a lot darker. The animators stayed consistent with a few elements of Jinx’s design even when she didn’t go by Powder anymore. Such elements are the bolts in her hair, sleeves that aren’t a part of her top, and the appearance of purple and hot pink stripes, which signifies that Powder is still a part of Jinx, but due to massive changes in Jinx’s circumstances and character, some elements of the design followed suit. Jinx’s clothes are tighter fitting than Powder, which allows for more mobility for the fighting Jinx does throughout the show.

This change is rather significant, despite it simply being manifested through her physical appearance. This change further accentuates her transition in character from Powder to Jinx, and her new relationship with other characters, such as Vi.

Vi is introduced as a protector right from the beginning, where she was first seen tightly holding onto little Powder’s hand on that bridge. Throughout multiple scenes, Vi has had to make her way through difficulty. It’s a constant in her character arc, even after the timeskip between the third and fourth episodes that likely took five years in that world. She took on a parental role for Powder ever since the scene on the bridge, she defended Powder against Mylo, she fought her way through several of Zaun’s strongest crooks to save Vander, and that was all within the first three episodes.

Vi’s response to trouble is almost always fight, and when she cannot fight, she considers it as flight, even if it was out of her control. She’s constantly aggressive and often acts without thinking, especially when in distress. 

Vi, as a character, is charismatic and kind, but her dominant trait is her aggression. Going back on the topic of Zaun and its reputation, one has to grow and learn to successfully survive in such a place, especially when under the roof of one of the biggest legends in the area for his fighting prowess. Although Vi and Jinx spent several years from their early childhood together, their mental states, coping mechanisms, defense mechanisms, and even relationships with characters they both interact with are nearly polar opposites. 

As mentioned before, the undercity is dim and known for its high crime rates. As the adoptive daughter of one of the most notorious undercity residents, Vi grew up with a lot of pressure in addition to feeling the need to be prepared for dangerous situations, even from a young age. 

In general, the environments are developed well enough to provide viewers who may know nothing about League of Legends lore beforehand, with more than enough context to avoid confusion as they watch. Arcane is not exclusive, and it is open for enjoyment to all who have access to the series, not just League of Legends players.

The conflict between Zaun and Piltover is an issue that pops up in nearly every single interaction between the Enforcers and Zaun’s residents, or between Zaun and Piltover’s residents themselves. Much as in the real world, when people grow up believing a certain stigma against a group of people, those biases are very difficult to get rid of, and will influence the way in which that individual interacts with those from that certain community.

Although Vi was able to bond with an Enforcer named Caitlyn when they had to work together to find Jinx, Jinx turned against her own sister for being with someone from Piltover. Vi might have been able to push her biases towards topsiders aside to cooperate with and possibly even fall for an Enforcer, but Jinx could not. Jinx has grown to be paranoid and distrustful of those around her after Vi seemingly left her, and to see Vi after so many years accompanied by an Enforcer, a member of a group Jinx deems to be corrupt and horrible, her mistrust and paranoia doubled, preventing her from thinking clearly and showing viewers that distrust and tension between the two cities runs deep within many of the show’s characters.

This happens once again between two inventors, Jayce and Viktor, residing in Piltover that decide to work with one another. They end up bickering on the bridge between Piltover and Zaun over what to do about the rising rates of crime. Then, Jayce exclaims that people from the undercity are not to be trusted, despite Viktor himself being from there.

Even characters who built a strong relationship like Jayce and Viktor can be torn apart by bias built between two large communities.

In short, Arcane is rooted in reality while still being a spectacular series based off of a game, despite how brief it is. Viewers were immediately enthralled by its art, its complex characters and their dynamics, and the constant clashing between the two cities. Arcane may be based on a video game, but even non-gamers who enjoy watching action-based movies and shows can sit down and enjoy it.

In short, Arcane is rooted in reality while still being a spectacular series based off of a game, despite how brief it is. Viewers were immediately enthralled by its art, its complex characters and their dynamics, and the constant clashing between the two cities. Arcane may be based on a video game, but even non-gamers who enjoy watching action-based movies and shows can sit down and enjoy it.