This Week in Anime
Is Netflix's Dota Show Worth Watching?

by Jean-Karlo Lemus & Steve Jones,

Valve's strategy game is the latest inspiration for Studio Mir, the studio behind Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Unlike those series, this one is for grown-ups, so get ready for plenty of F-bombs and sexy shenanigans. Also dragons.

This series is streaming on Netflix

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet


Steve
It's another week of Netflix Hell, Jean-Karlo, with even more Adult cartoons made by Adults, for Adults! And you know what that means.

We can say "fuck" in this one.
Jean-Karlo
Ah yes, another serialized action cartoon animated by Studio Mir where everyone has pointy chins. Forget that Horimiya kid's stuff, this is real "Anime™". Thank you, Netflix, you truly know what the Anime Fan Wants.

...He said, dripping with sarcasm.

I really don't have a horse (or horse girl) in the race to define once and for all what "anime" means. That said, I really don't appreciate Netflix's consistent efforts to ensure that this debate will never, ever go away. Like, you can still call animation for more mature audiences a cartoon. Nobody's gonna knock down your door and force you to wear diapers again. It's 2021. We're all grown up and we're all watching cartoons. That's all there is to do now.
If you're gonna make this big parade about your cartoons, at least bother to make sure these cartoons are good, is all I ask. And Dota: Dragon Blood here...oof. I can only wonder how Dota fans feel about this.
I certainly don't know! I didn't even know what Dota stood for until about 16 hours ago, so I am approaching this as a complete neophyte regarding anything and everything in this franchise. I don't think I've even watched footage of someone else playing it. I am (I'm assuming) very much not the target audience for this, so please take my criticisms with that in mind.

That said, Terrorblade is one of the goofiest-ass names for a villain I've ever heard. MFer sounds like a rejected Decepticon.

For other uninitiated: Dota stands for "Defense of the Ancients", a beloved and popular Warcraft III mod that eventually spun off and became a game all its own. It's the foundation of the MOBA genre, later inspiring other games like League of Legends or Blizzard's own belated Heroes of the Storm. It's long since shed its Warcraft roots, but it's still boilerplate fantasy stuff—and the cartoon doesn't do much to change that.

The show centers around Davion, a Dragon Knight who gets himself tied up in a sweeping adventure after he has a violent run-in with the fire dragon Slyrak (voiced by Tony Todd!). Cursed with the ability to turn into a dragon-person, and fated to totally transform into Slyrak himself, Davion seeks out a sage who can undo his curse.
Davion is an aggressively fine protagonist. Like, he's a powerful knight with a dark secret, and you don't get more "main character" than that. Consequently, he's also kinda boring, but I do have to say that I appreciate the percentage of the show that he spends nude, which ends up being a very high percentage.

When I looked up the show on Twitter, literally the first posts that popped up were fanart of even more aggressively nude Davions, so in that sense, I'm glad the show seems to have found the right audience.
Davion is travelling with Mirana and her mute assistant Marci. As the deposed Princess of the Moon, Mirana is seeking a number of stolen lotuses that belong to her goddess, Selemene.
Selemene ends up being the nexus of this season's plot, which grows more convoluted with each passing episode. Basically (and there's no guarantee I'm getting this right), she's a moon goddess who usurped that role from the prior moon goddess called Mene (not confusing at all). When this happened, some elves switched to worshipping her, but other elves kept their fealty to Mene in the hopes she would one day return. And this conflict ends up boiling over thanks to the stolen lotuses, which are important for some reason that we're never told.
It doesn't help that the Sage that Davion and Mirana are looking for is the Invoker, whom the elf Fymryn is also seeking in the hopes that he can use the lotuses to bring back Mene. Fymryn, by the way, is the elf that stole the lotuses from under Mirana's nose.

Meanwhile, the Invoker—who has no name besides "Invoker"—was apparently a wizard who had a kid with Selemene, and he's got a grudge because Selemene let their daughter die. So he crafts a complicated revenge plot involving the lotuses and the dragons that Slyrak is connected to, and hey Terrorblade is also involved.
The point we're getting at here is that the plot grows wayyy too convoluted for its own good, and at the expense of stuff like character development that might have made the series feel not quite as dull. Like, there is a lot going on, don't get me wrong, but it never feels like anyone is actually moving forward in a meaningful way. Just hopping from fight scene to fight scene and exchanging various magical trinkets.

It's also very hard to take the worldbuilding seriously when these long-winded explanations inevitably circle back to a demon named Scarysword.

A quick glance at the wiki illustrates that a lot of this stems from the Dota games themselves, which aren't terribly original. Again, this used to be a Warcraft mod, so basic fast-and-loose lore had to be established for these characters, leading to situations where some characters—like Davion—are better known by their roles ("Dragon Knight", "Crystal Maiden", etc). Or, like Invoker, you seemingly get stuck with names as a joke.
Alas, poor Carl.
Oh my god that's incredible, and definitely explains why he only goes by "The Invoker." See, this is the kind of lore I wish we got more of! And yeah, I guess I can understand the series hitting different if you're already familiar with these characters and their backstories in the game setting. Maybe that helps flesh them out a bit more. But absent that, we just have familiar archetypes and a lot of extremely weak humor trying to do the legwork of humanizing them.
See, this makes me appreciate adaptations of gacha games a bit more. Sure, the cast of Granblue Fantasy or Azur Lane aren't that much better than Carl up there, but at least the games do have a wealth of in-jokes and backstory for these characters that could feasibly make for a collection of entertaining scenes. Stuff like Granblue's Durm and Strang bickering, or... I dunno, that one time St. Louis from Azur Lane wore a barely-there dress and drove a concept car? It's at least something. The Dota games don't give the Dota cartoon much to work with, so poor Studio Mir had all this budget but not much more to go off of.

And that's a shame because as low-key resentful I am of Mir for always getting shouted about because of that one wuxia-inspired cartoon they did for Nickelodeon (I get it, the bad boy got a really well-written arc, please watch another show), they do have a very defined and attractive house style—but no writing to back it up. It's like Trigger's contribution to DARLING in the FRANXX. You can toss all the great animation at the screen that you want, and you will drag some folks in with just eye-candy, but it's not until you back your fancy robots with a deep, hard-hitting story about cutting off toxic influences and addressing your trauma as told by an army of Transformers gijinka that you'll make something truly special. And Studio Mir sadly isn't there yet.
Yeah, Dota doesn't stray too far from the beaten path of the "adult-oriented" cartoon trifecta: lots of blood, people saying fuck, and orgies.
Truly, the most important bit of storytelling in Dota: elves are polyamorous.
And in at least two of those categories, I still have to give the edge to another recent show we watched, Onyx Equinox, which had both more gratuitous gore, and wasn't a coward when it came to drawing penises.

Seriously, one of the most buckwild shots in the whole season is this full-body look at Davion's half-dragon form, where he clearly has dragon pubes, but absolutely no dragon dick. What a weird line in the sand to draw.
"Give us that drussy!", he shouted as his editor sadly shook her head and filled out the pink slip.
It was nice knowing you! But don't think this is going to get you out of finishing this column, because we still have a lot to talk about. Like how Marci is the best character.

She has superhuman strength, I think? It's not really explained, and she's also mute, so she gets even less backstory than the other party members, but I know a good character when I see one.
Wouldn't you know it, Marci is a cartoon-only character. So the one time Dota manages something undeniably great, it's not even from the games.
Well go figure. The season also plays up the budding romance between Davion and Mirana, but I think we know who the real OTP is here.

Real wife hours.
Time should also be dedicated to Luna, or as I like to call her, "Korra's P2 Palette". An enforcer of the goddess Selemene, Luna has a bloody history and indulges in her knack for killing once Selemene orders her to march against the elves.

Apparently, she can be too violent for even Selemene's tastes. But I'm with Luna, you don't tell someone "do what you have to to put those people in line" then complain when they just waste 'em.
Hell, I wish the series dedicated more time to Luna, period. The closest this season gets to digging at an actual theme is its exploration of cycles of violence, where Luna and Fymryn are both struggling leaders trying to do what's right but spiraling deeper into obsessive chaos. This is paper thin, but at least it's something more than big dragons and magic gems.
Between Dota and last week's Pacific Rim: The Black, it feels like Netflix purposefully snips seasons in half to ensure there are two seasons' worth of "content". Dota's first season—sorry, "book", because I'm totally reading this show in print—is only eight episodes long, and ends on what wants to be a cliffhanger but just feels like someone arbitrarily hitting the "stop" button.

You can see this with the elf rebel leader that Luna imprisons. She's captured, locked in prison, escapes and... that's all she wrote?

It's not "foreshadowing" if you only tell half the story.

There's also just not much in these eight episodes. Like, there's oodles of lore, but not enough connective tissue to sustain a compelling story. Way too many broad strokes, when fewer, more careful plot threads would have gone a long way. On the lore front, though, I do have to admit I'm a sucker for a fucked up moon. You gotta have a fucked up moon.
I feel bad for Studio Mir because there's a lot of effort on the visual side of things. But there's absolutely no reason to give a rip about anything that's happening unless you really, really care about Dota. And sure, Valve really does push Dota hard, but as a person who doesn't care about MOBAs, I have to say that maybe League of Legends would have been a better wagon to hitch up to?
Anecdotally, I definitely feel more familiar with at least the characters and aesthetic of League, despite never playing it either. Dota's always been a huge black box for me, and I guess I sorta understand why now.
Again, this is what happens when your game treats its characters almost exclusively as functions as opposed to characters. The sad thing is, you could have made at least an entertaining narrative out of all of this. But it's just not there, man. See, this is why I get so mad about the whole "Anime™" thing. To paraphrase Hank Hill, you're not making your cartoon better, you're making an entire medium look worse.
And anime doesn't need any help making itself look worse, you can trust us (and this column) on that!
Also—because I really want to get this out—you cast freaking Tony Todd as a freaking dragon and this is the best you can do with him?
Slyrak's not even close to the best dragon in the show! That distinction belongs to this Smeagol-sounding freak whose only lines of dialogue are about wanting to watch Davion get torn to pieces. That act of sublime scenery-chewing is one of the few times I genuinely smiled at Dota.
This guy's performance reminds me of Chris Latta's classic Starscream (or Cobra Commander, if you're a GI Joe fan). And there are worse things you can do than to emulate the voice behind the biggest 1980s Saturday morning villains.
And really, the show isn't bad as much as it's way too dull, so anything that injected a bit of life into the proceedings deserves praise in my book.
Noblesse was also a dull, boilerplate show, but that one had astoundingly-good domestic scenes with its cast of self-serious vampires and government agents. Dota is just a dry, pompous, self-serious fantasy with little else to show for it and it's just a shame, considering it gave us Marci.
It's definitely difficult to recommend to anybody outside of hardcore Dota fans, because the branding is the most distinguishable part of it. But if you absolutely need to watch a new fantasy cartoon where the main character says fuck a lot, then I'm not gonna stop you. Sadly, however, these here are all the fucks I have to give.


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