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Three Things Star Wars Could Learn from Arcane

Really, things every franchise could learn from Arcane.

A dizzying fever dream of animation and story | credit Riot Games/Netflix

Arcane released mid-November on Netflix with the first three episodes. Nestled in between the more publicized Netflix series, Cowboy Beebop live-action remake, and the holiday MCU show, Hawkeye (also featuring Hailee Steinfeld), this three-act season almost got lost in the mix. In some ways, it did: It took a while for critics to catch on and it never brought in the global views as live-action series release on Netflix around that time.

And Arcane just cleaned up at the ANNIE Awards with nine awards, including Best Directing, Writing, Character Design and Production Design. It was truly deserving of every single win. Where Star Wars used to have a great showing with The Clone Wars, this year, Star Wars only got one nomination for Star Wars Visions Kamikaze Douga’s “The Duel.” And, while The Bad Batch has breathtaking animation that is leaps and bounds from the first six seasons of The Clone Wars, it’s storytelling just can’t compete with Arcane’s masterclass in craft.

This is the part where I tell you that if you have not watched Arcane on Netflix, please treat yourself to a feast of top-tier animation, story, world-building, character arcs, and music tailor made for the show.

Animation in general is experiencing a renaissance in craft and storytelling. Ever since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wowed audiences and critics in 2019, studios have actually kept the bar moving, creatively. Disney, the reigning Queen of the craft is being bested by Sony (Spider-Verse) and Netflix with films like Klaus and Mitchells vs. the Machines and is becoming more reliant on catchy tunes and Pixar Studios to keep up.

Visions, an anthology series which was more middling in reception, was a big swing for Star Wars. The nine shorts were a smörgåsbord of different anime styles were made by seven different studios. The animation in the shorts were breathtaking and some, like “The Duel,” where as unique an animation style as Star Wars ever has done. But the story form was too short and many were too similar in tropes to make an impression past a first viewing.

When season two of Arcane arrives on Netflix (hopefully within the next two years), it will be more popular and have more eyes on it. This is plenty of time for the team at Lucasfilm to take some notes.

1. Master Storytelling on the Balance of War and Politics

Arcane takes place in one city (really two separate cities separated by class) and one side of the city has a foot constantly on the other’s neck.

One city, two worlds. Piltover (top) is the City of Progress while Zaun (bottom) is left behind | credit Riot Games/Netflix

Piltover is the city of progress, but it is also a city of hypocrisy, pushing technological development that makes the upper echelons of the city richer while ignoring the citizens of the undercity, Zaun. The result are Zaun citizens occasionally going top side to steal valuables to resell to survive and over-policing by Piltover Enforcers on Zaun citizens.

But the story begins when the two halves are in a truce, fostered by the unofficial leader of Zaun, Zander after years of war. He is challenged by Silco, one of the antagonist who wants to go to war for Zaun’s independence. The richness in storytelling that follows throughout the season paints a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional portrait on each of the players on both sides of the river as they grapple with and debate going to war with each other. And even within Zaun, there is a class system in which Silco has put himself on top.

War is also a tool of oppression and is often inherited through generations. Politics is a skill that takes finesse and craft to be successful (sometimes it is how you say something that what you say). It is not that Star Wars hasn’t shown the fraught relationship between politics and war, and that wars carry into the next generation in a maddening cycle of rinse and repeat. It is that the inciting incident in a Star Wars story is almost always the same and the stakes are on such a grand scale that it is difficult to relate to our world.

Yes, there is a bigger world out there with other nations that threaten Piltover/Zaun, but we do not need to see them to feel the weight of their presence. We can experience that weight through characters like Mel Madarda, who is a political strategist from a war-hungry family. Mel actively is pursuing Hex-Tech(the technology founded by Jace and Viktor that combines science and magic) for defense but her mother knows better, stating “it’s not conjecture, weapons cannot be unmade and they are always used.”

Similarly, throughout the timeline of Star Wars, entities have tried to use kyber crystals (mostly used in Jedi’s lightsabers) for weapons. The Empire took kyber crystals and made the Death Star. During The High Republic novel Mission to Disaster, the Nihil tried to recreate the properties of kyber crystals to power a weapon that created massive earthquakes on a planet, making it inhabitable. In all instances, the scientists were blindsided. However, unlike Star Wars where the scientist created flaws in their devices, the scientist in Arcane took very different paths. Jace, the main scientist behind Hex-Tech, navigates the politics of Piltover when he gets inserted into the council with support from Mel. With her help, they are able to negotiate a peace deal with Zaun. That gets blown, literally, to bits by the other antagonist of the series, Jinx.

2. Fighting is Not About Making Heroes Look Cool

In Arcane episode eight, “Oil and Water,” there is a battle that takes place between Vi, Jace, the Enforcers and Silco’s henchman in a shimmer factory. The triumphant music plays as it so often does when heroes battle the villains. Then, between rocking out to “Snakes” by Miyavi & PVRIS and enjoying the fighting animation, a boy gets in front of a blast from Jace’s hammer gun and falls to his death with a splat. Music stopped. Mood ruined.

A sobering moment for a temporarily blood-thirsty hero | credit Riot Games/Netflix

Arcane fooled me and other viewers with the awesome music and hurray type mood of the scene and the reality of the situation sets in. They are fighting in a drug factory that is run through child labor. Jace looks up and sees all children with their hands up as Enforcers apprehend them.

The scene is a turning point for Jace who, up until that point, has only seen one face of the underground world of Zaun…criminals. And Jace was lured into fighting with Vi because he wanted to make those criminals pay. Now he has to face the legacy of Piltover’s consistent neglect with a dead child on his conscious and hundreds more in his wake.

I mention this problem with Star Wars in my article Star Wars: More War, Less Fantasy, but for a universe that has slavery and child labor, Star Wars has rarely gone beneath the surface on the complexities of fighting generational urban wars like Arcane. And how someone like Jace can truly believe that his inventions are the solution to problems rather than the cause.

3. Non-dialogue Driven Storytelling

Jinx carries the guilt of her childhood friend’s deaths on her back | credit Riot Games/Netflix

In case you are still reading this and have not seen Arcane yet, a large part of the show is the tailored soundtrack for key character moments. These songs pull more heavy lifting so that the visuals can speak for themselves.

In episode six, “When These Walls Come Crumbling Down,” Jinx finds out her sister is still alive, she lights a flare for Vi to find her. The song “Guns for Hire” by Woodkid plays over the imagery of Jinx still struggling with her trauma of being responsible for Mylo and Clagger’s deaths. The two former friends have almost become multiple personalities of Jinx and we see apparitions of them attached to Jinx as the camera circles her lighting the flare.

A throwback scene and change in art style with a contemporary jam | credit Riot Games/Netflix

In the following episode, “The Boy Savior,” Jinx comes face to face with another old friend, Ekko (the aforementioned). Before the two fight, time has turned back to the two as children playing an innocent game as “Dynasties and Dystopia” floods the speakers. The Denzel Curry song perfectly conveys the generational trauma of war that has pitted these once close friends against each other.

Understandably, Star Wars cannot drop modern music into a scene but they can put forth more effort in crafting in-universe music to help convey emotional build ups in scenes.

To Lucasfilm’s credit, there is a an example of great non-dialogue storytelling of this in Star Wars, though not quite within canon: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars. This micro series consisted of several episodes where silence spoke volumes. During a battle between Anakin Skywalker and Asajj Ventress, Anakin kills Asajj (reminder this is not canon) in a silent battle save for rain and lightsabers clashing. After defeating Dooku’s apprentice Anakin screams primally into the sky. Nothing needs to be said for the viewer to realize that he is one step closer down the path of the dark side.

This nine minute micro episode includes one of the most engaging lightsaber battles between Anakin and Asajj | credit Lucasfilm ltd.

Lucasfilm has the capabilities and the resources to put Arcane-level efforts into their storytelling in animation. Star Wars Visions was essentially Star Wars Legends material but it would be nice to see Lucasfilm challenge itself with innovation in animation as it does in live-action.

Until then, Arcane can teach Star Wars a thing or two…or three.

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