Solo Leveling – Episode 1

By: Alex Henderson January 6, 20240 Comments
Closeup of a young man lying injured on his side, glowing green with healing magic

What’s it about? Years ago, gates to a magical realm began opening, spilling monsters into the streets… monsters that drop an effective, renewable power source when killed. Enterprising humans who show aptitude in magic are sent through the portals on “raids” for cash and glory, and are ranked S to E based on their innate powers and organized into guilds accordingly. No amount of training or effort can change your ranking, which is bad news for E-ranked Jinwoo, who is still determined to become an adventurer and provide for his family despite being nicknamed “The Weakest Hunter of All Mankind.”

I’ll give Solo Leveling this: combining isekai elements with a capitalist hellscape isn’t going to instantly make them more appealing to me, but it certainly adds an interesting new angle that could carry the story. Unfortunately, due to the real world we live in, the urban fantasy worldbuilding of this show feels pretty believable. If portals to another world popped up, we probably would be in there ASAP looking for resources to mine. If people started getting magic powers, there probably would be men in suits immediately trying to recruit them to “guilds” and lay their lives on the line.

If slaying monsters became a business, it probably would quickly fall into the vicious cycle that Jinwoo describes in this premiere: strong adventurers get better loot, which enables them to buy better gear, ensuring their protection in future raids so they can get even more loot. Those without innate potential are at higher risk of injury or death, and can’t afford any of the tools that will help them survive. Despite monster-hunting being a new, exciting realm of possibility where you can strike it rich, it’s clear that it’s not an even playing field. If you start on the bottom rungs, so to speak, you don’t really have a way of climbing up.

A young man holding a single hunting knife, the camera shot cutting off his body at the waist. Subtitle text reads: This cheap knife is the best I can afford.

So the concept for this series is interesting—now I’m just waiting for the execution to catch up. Unfortunately, as of this episode I don’t have a super strong sense of Jinwoo as a character, despite his motivations to help get his mother the treatment she needs for an unspecified illness and to help his little sister pay for college. These are sympathetic motivations, for sure, and at this early stage you don’t necessarily need something more complex driving the story. Yet he still falls a little flat, for me, feeling all too familiar to other “young man throws himself into danger” fantasy protagonists. It’s entirely possible there’s so much going on in this episode that there’s simply not time to flesh him out, and he might get stronger (in terms of writing, not monster-slaying ability) in later episodes, but for now he’s not working as an emotional anchor point.

There’s also not much in the way of female characters, and the ones we have met don’t give me much to write home about. Jinwoo has a female friend who’s a healer who tends his wounds and nags him about his reckless ways. There’s the aforementioned sick mom and smart sister, whom we haven’t met, but are serving as motivation for our hero. There’s an A-rank hunter who we see momentarily in a scene where she stops a robbery with her superpowers, executing a cool kick-flip that puts her ass right in the camera for a brief but jarring sequence. Despite guild recruiters saying that gender isn’t a factor, the ratio of male to female hunters seems pretty skewed.

A woman flipping acrobatically over the heads of two men, her legs scissored out and pointing in different directions

I think there’s something interesting here, especially in how the story might use its urban fantasy elements as a critique or exploration of capitalism and the dangers and inequalities it can throw people into. However, cool concepts aside, a series like this ultimately rides or dies on its cast, and so far these fictional people aren’t bringing much energy or doing much to get me hooked. Maybe I’ll check back to see if it gets a bit more pep in its step, but this is ranking pretty low for me right now.

About the Author : Alex Henderson

Alex Henderson is a writer and managing editor at Anime Feminist. They completed a doctoral thesis on queer representation in young adult genre fiction in 2023. Their short fiction has been published in anthologies and zines, their scholarly work in journals, and their too-deep thoughts about anime, manga, fantasy novels, and queer geeky stuff on their blog.

Read more articles from Alex Henderson

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

%d bloggers like this: