Asta is a young boy who dreams of becoming the greatest mage in the kingdom. He only has one problem, he can’t use magic. Luckily for Asta, he receives the incredibly rare five-leaf clover grimoire that gives him the power of anti-magic. Even though he can’t use magic, he plans to become the Wizard King.
Source: Anime News Network
In trying to come up with a pithy way to introduce Black Clover, all I could think was “It sure is a shounen.” And yep. It sure is. That’s not an inherently bad thing, of course, and I wouldn’t call Black Clover “bad” either, exactly. It’s just very rote, is all, full of character types and plot points you’ll recognize if you’ve spent so much as an hour with a Weekly Shonen JUMP title before.
To wit: Our protagonist Asta is one of the only people in the world without
a Quirk magic, yet he’s still determined to be a wing spiker the Wizard King one day. His rival is is a taciturn, gifted prodigy named Sasuke Yuno who also dreams of wearing the Wizard Crown. Both were adopted and raised by a local church when they were infants, but are probably secretly Saiyans magical royalty or something. You get the sense the premise was created by playing a game of Mad Libs (just fill in the blanks for Instant Shounen Success!), and the premiere lacks that spark of charm or uniqueness that could make it more of a story and less of a checklist.
Which, I admit, is a mighty harsh opening for a show that was, at the end of the day, Resoundingly Fine. So let’s back up and talk about some positives. For one, it looks pretty darn good: The backgrounds are lush and give the world a sense of history and scope, the character designs have a pleasing sketchiness to them, and there are some nice bursts of action animation, particularly with how they handle the elemental magic (although I could’ve done without the awkward CG chains).
While some of the dialogue is a bit “let me monologue exposition at you,” overall this premiere does a solid job of clearly establishing the world and its rules. Most interestingly, there are multiple divisions built into this culture, first in the form of “magic” versus “magic-less,” and then between peasants and nobles. This puts Asta at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, but it quickly becomes clear that even Yuno, for all his magical talent, is barely a step above him as far as the world at large is concerned.
How Black Clover decides to tackle these discrimination elements could make for some rich undertones and valuable discussions. The series is clearly interested in knocking down these barriers—Asta straight-up shouts to the treetops that one of his goals is to prove that “anyone can be amazing, even if they’re poor or just some orphan”—but it’s unclear if this will be a straightforward Inspirational Underdog Tale or a more nuanced exploration. If this first episode is any indication, the heroes will be too busy posing with their grimoires and the villains too busy leering nefariously for the social commentary to get particularly complex, but it’s a solid thematic backbone and worth keeping an eye on, at least.
For me, though, Black Clover‘s biggest stumbling block is its characters. Yuno has glimmers of complexity, particularly in his relationship with Asta (he seems to find Asta both exhausting and admirable), but he’s too stone-faced for much of that to shine through in this first episode. The supporting cast doesn’t get to do much and there are almost zero female characters of note, save for a nun who we’ll talk about in a minute. The antagonists are all two-dimensional baddies, either spoiled noble punks or eeeevil cackling madmen.
As for our protagonist, well… Asta is a Loud!Boy, my least favorite of the shounen hero archetypes. Asta can never just tell you something—no, he has to DECLARE IT, AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS, REPEATEDLY. He is also STUBBORN AND DETERMINED, which is to say he won’t take “no” for an answer. This is all well and good when he’s refusing to give up on his dreams, but a lot less so when he’s SHOUTING at the nun to marry him, and she tells him no, and then he LOUDLY SWEARS he’ll never give up and she punches him to the ground with water magic, and he continues to fling himself at her until Yuno tells him to knock it off.
In Black Clover‘s defense, this is the worst thing in the episode as far as feminist-relevant concerns go. It’s thus far respectful of its few female characters when it comes to framing (the premiere has zero fanservice, I’m happy to report), and the rest of the cast does scold Asta for his behavior here. Still, this screeching refusal to respect a woman’s wishes was the very first scene we got with our “hero,” which made it hard to root for him or get invested in his struggles. The fact that he just. keeps. SCREAMING sure didn’t help things, either.
Ultimately I wouldn’t warn folks away from Black Clover, but I’d also recommend you go in with your expectations tempered. It’s not gonna reinvent the wheel or even slap a new coat of paint on it, but if you’re a big fan of premise-based shounen, enjoy high fantasy, and don’t mind Loud!Boys, you’ll likely have a fine time with this series. As for me, I doubt I’ll be back. There’s another fantasy-based shounen adaptation coming out later this week in the form of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, after all. No need to settle for oatmeal-raisin cookies when I can just as easily have a snickerdoodle.