As we close the book on a spectacular anime year garnering hype, praise, and even some scandal, we otakus look forward. To kick off 2024, we’ve been given a screener for Episodes 1 & 2 of the adaptation of South Korean sensation Solo Leveling, and I’m delighted to share my review.
The OP Hero’s Journey
Solo Leveling is an anime adaptation lifted off the pages of its webtoon or manhwa format, itself an adaptation of the original web novel. It’s gotten an impressive fan following thanks to its fantastic execution of a familiar premise. The plot is structured like any Hero’s Journey narrative, but in the case of Solo Leveling, it can be called The OP Hero’s Journey.
Sung Jinwoo is the protagonist in a society where humans must combat supernatural threats that cross planes into their world. These humans are known as hunters, and their responsibility is to stop monsters from coming through various gates in the world. Its setting is ostensibly like modern-day society but with JRPG trappings such as swords, sorcery, and a hunter-ranking system.
Jinwoo is a hunter, he’s given the humiliating distinction of being the weakest of all humanity. He’s thus the weakest E-Rank hunter, a title he bears throughout this 2-episode premiere. He’s too weak to tackle practically any dungeon alone, and often spends his meager winnings to put his sister through school, provide for his ailing mother, and replenish his paltry supplies.
While anybody can guess how this proceeds, the series sells you on how pathetic he is. Everybody around him pities and and speaks poorly of him, and his few advocates like B-Rank healer Joohee still struggle to keep him alive. So when he joins for a dungeon, his companions are relieved, assuming it’ll be a piece of cake if the weakest E-Rank hunter is okay with it. How much more wrong could they be?
From here things will march into spoiler territory, so you’ve been warned!
The Double Dungeon
Jinwoo’s adventure went fairly okay in the dungeon early on. It was a D-Rank dungeon so he had no hope of running it solo, but with healing from Joohee, he could survive otherwise grievous wounds. Things were looking up, but the team was upset by the lack of rewards (McGuffins like Mana Crystals and Essence Stones, more on those later) and wanted more. They then spotted a passage into another dungeon.
This was highly unusual, but Jinwoo’s team felt compelled to explore further for the prospect of more treasure. After all, members of the party had mouths to feed, with one even having a pregnant wife at home. Jinwoo reluctantly agreed, having people depending on him at home as well. So he joined this ill-fated raid on the Double Dungeon.
A Glorious Cacophony of Chaos and Death
While I found Jinwoo’s predicament endearing, it’s not different from a lot of action manhwa protagonists in essence and even resembles a lot of Shonen protagonists or Western comic protagonists. He’s clearly on a path to becoming incredibly strong, but not before the “metamorphosis” step of his hero’s journey, which happens here. But in the Double Dungeon, we also see a glorious cacophony of chaos and death.
I won’t go into too much detail because I’m already in danger of summarizing the plot excessively in this review. But this dungeon aka the ‘Cartenon Temple’ has an esoteric puzzle gimmick where, if you don’t solve it, you die. The RPG structure of this makes it feel like death isn’t that big of a deal. After all, it’s inspired by game mechanics. But this is no game. Members of the party anxiously try to escape but are viciously and instantly killed by the statues who have now come to life.
The weight of death in this series reminds me a lot of how character deaths were handled in other series like Attack on Titan. Not all characters had fleshed-out stories but seeing them die was often delivered unflinchingly and in some cases with agonizing details like squelching flesh as one character is flattened. This creates real tension for the viewers.
In Solo Leveling, this premiere features the Double Dungeon massacre in pretty faithful detail, down to hunters being sliced in half with their gristly corpses on display. It’s gruesome but reminds viewers that the characters aren’t in some full-dive VRMMORPG. They are experiencing these terrors in real life, and their prospects of surviving are next to zero. Jinwoo sees this and realizes that he is doomed if he tries to fight or escape, so he tries to solve the puzzle. It’s this adaptability that is his saving grace.
Solo Leveling Is a Great Showcase of a Manhwa Hero’s Qualities
I’ve gotten into several other manhwa before and after reading and watching Solo Leveling, and in Jinwoo’s case, he embodies a few recurring characteristics of its protagonists. He’s weak at first, to a pitiful state in his case, but can grow and survive thanks to a combination of shrewd wits and courage reminiscent of a mythological Greek hero. But also, in the case of Solo Leveling, Jinwoo pays the ultimate price before this happens.
Jinwoo solves the puzzle of the Cartenon Temple, but he requires his team to help, and the tasks are simple too. But the harrowing trauma of the massacre causes each of them to retreat, leaving him alone to his fate. Jinwoo’s courage is on display here, when he faces the approaching statues (grinning like psychopaths) and holds his ground. Where others misunderstood the puzzle, Jinwoo stuck to his guns, even if the result wasn’t immediately appealing or even rewarding.
He completes the puzzle while being brutally sliced and diced within an inch of his life before being given a mysterious offer to turn him into a Player. Maybe Solo Leveling is more of a game than viewers perhaps realize, but still a cruel one where death is swift and merciless.
This structure is a great showcase of a pretty typical action manhwa plot, and Solo Leveling is a great showcase of a manhwa hero’s qualities. Jinwoo had everything to lose and was left to his fate despite doing everything right, and was ultimately rewarded with it. While viewers don’t know yet what will happen, rest assured, that Jinwoo’s death and return will also be his metamorphosis where he becomes unimaginably strong.
Brief Introductions of Supporting Characters
Solo Leveling does a pretty decent job at introducing us to characters we can predict to survive fairly well. While we know the sympathetic backgrounds of many of Jinwoo’s companions, they’re also fairly one-dimensional and there’s not much else to learn about them. Their deaths aren’t much of a concern. But we also learn of Go Gunhee, Guildmaster Choi, and Cha Hae-in, each with fascinating stakes in the story. This results in a slightly different structure in the anime adaptation, but one that doesn’t hurt the series.
My favorite moments of these include Go’s intended use of Mana Crystals and Essence Stones as sustainable power sources or Cha’s prowess as an S-Rank hunter. It doesn’t tell us all of their personality traits or their life story, but rather just enough to leave us wanting more, and for them to show up again. The brief introductions of supporting characters do more than just pad out the runtime of the episode. Their introduction is a worthy B-Plot to tease viewers about the details and power structure of Solo Leveling’s world.
I knew that a faithful adaptation of Solo Leveling would garner praise and excitement, and I was right. It’s not ground-breaking in terms of animation, and the plot is derivative, but the execution is extremely strong. Jinwoo is a sympathetic protagonist who goes through incredible suffering in this premiere and you can feel the tension alongside him. It might cross familiar territory, but it also pulls no punches.
The terror of what happens if a dungeon expedition goes wrong is believable, with the weight of death being nothing to scoff at, and the murderous, grinning statues are absolute nightmare fuel.
While I know the anime will go to some radically cool places in future episodes, I’m relieved that the premiere was as strong as it is. Seeing how weak and helpless Jinwoo is in this premiere, I recommend you hold onto that image. Remember that, as you see him steadily ascend to incredible new echelons as the Player, a pawn used by forces we’ve yet to see or understand.
This review of Solo Leveling Episodes 1 & 2 was made using a screener provided by Crunchyroll. This anime will premiere on Saturday, January 6, 2024, and will be available to stream on Crunchyroll.
- This article was updated on December 16th, 2023