Spoiler warning for both seasons of Overlord.
Overlord is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Its “trapped in a videogame-like fantasy world” premise has been done more times than I can count, the execution doesn’t particularly stand out, and the characters are mostly very one-note. At the same time, it’s also highly entertaining. Overlord establishes early on that its primary goal is to be mindless escapism, which isn’t as bad as it sounds.
The term “escapism” is often used as a criticism of works that don’t have any goal beyond basic entertainment, but it isn’t necessarily a problem. We all sometimes approach stories with the desire to escape reality for a while and just have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that-reality is often a pain to deal with-and there’s nothing wrong with stories that cater to that desire. Overlord sets up its main priority early on, that priority being showing its overpowered main character be overpowered.
Ainz Ooal Gown is completely broken by in-universe standards. He utterly destroys powerful enemies in melee despite being a mage, and uses magic leagues above what his human opponents can. Overlord is well aware that he’s overpowered, and wisely doesn’t try to hide it. Instead, it goes all out by being as showy as possible. Whether its Ainz laughing while standing in a giant laser, or Nabe overwhelming a giant dragon that’s supposed to be immune to magic, Overlord’s main source of entertainment lies in it’s protagonists showing off how powerful they are and leaving their opponents utterly shocked. This style doesn’t make for a particularly thought provoking story, but it’s enjoyable either way. It’s a blatant escapist power fantasy, but there’s nothing wrong with having fun with that sort of show. Overlord isn’t a mean-spirited anime, and doesn’t carry any hateful messages. It’s just meant to be fun.
Entertaining as it is, Overlord’s emphasis on mindless entertainment is also its biggest flaw. It’s perfectly fine when the anime is focusing on just that, but it hamstrings any attempts at doing more. Season 2 has given a lot more focus to the world outside of Nazarick and the characters that inhabit it. Stories like the Lizardmen arc are pretty good in isolation; the culture is interesting, the characters have a solid dynamic and backstory, and there’s a clear conflict in place. The problem arises when these stories are put in the context of the plot as a whole.
It’s pretty much inevitable that Ainz or his floor guardians will get involved in these stories eventually. After all, he’s the main character. Since the anime has already established that he and his underlings are practically invincible, his existence limits the possibility of any drama outside of Nazarick. It’s hard to be excited at the Lizardmen’s victory over his skeletons when we know that he could step in and wipe them out whenever he wanted to, which is about what happens. Ainz sets up a fight between them and Cocytus that ends up being about as one sided as you’d expect. The Lizardmen stood no chance, and were ultimately conquered by Ainz. Concluding their arc in that fashion wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it wasn’t so predictable. By establishing how strong Ainz is from the start and reveling in it, Overlord precludes almost any external force from being a credible threat.
On the same note, Sebas’ approaching conflict with the Eight Fingers carries very little weight. Even with how the anime has been building up their power, The Eight Fingers obviously aren’t going to be a threat to Ainz or Nazarick. We’re talking about a character who can shoot a miniature black hole at his enemies like it was nothing. Ainz and his subordinates obviously aren’t in any real danger from this. Their mere existence also makes it harder to care about the Blue Roses and Renner’s scheming against the Fingers. Whatever happens between them, Ainz or someone else from Nazarick will eventually get involved and pretty much take over everything. There’s no tension in a conflict when you know there’s a powerful force that’s eventually going to step in and take over everything.
Since early on in season 1, it’s been obvious that Ainz can’t lose. Shalltear is the only opponent who’s ever posed a credible threat to Ainz, and that doesn’t really help matters since she’s one of his floor guardians, not an external opponent. Overlord has reached the point where it’s practically impossible to take threats from outside of Nazarick seriously. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of drama-Solution’s scheming against Sebas has potential-but it stands very little chance of creating drama from outside of Nazarick.
I know I’ve been pretty negative on Overlord, but I do think it’s a good show. It’s solid entertainment that’s great for turning your brain off for a while, similar to Hellsing Ultimate. Fun as that is, it means that Overlord is unlikely to ever be more than just that: a good show. Unless it completely reworks its premise, it won’t go beyond mindless fun. Again, that’s fine. I like mindless entertainment as much as anyone else. Overlord just isn’t going to become anything more than that.
4 thoughts on “Overlord: The Pros and Cons of Mindless Entertainment”
I didn’t quite finish season one of Overlord. I liked the concept well enough but midway through the first season, the absence of anything that could really be considered a plot started bothering me and ultimately I decided not to continue watching. I was hoping when reading reviews of season 2 that I would find a reason to go back to the show but to be honest the opposite has mostly happened. Even people enjoying the show haven’t really managed to make it feel like there’s a real reason to go back and watch it.
It does pick up a bit after the halfway point, but it’s not really a must watch. It could be worth going back to if you’re in the mood for an isekai, though.
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“We all sometimes approach stories with the desire to escape reality for a while and just have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that-reality is often a pain to deal with-and there’s nothing wrong with stories that cater to that desire.”
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Unfortunately, anime cut a lot of the details present in the light novels. And these details are what makes overlord fun (well, more fun than Ainz laughing at the strongest angel summon.)
Overlord isn’t about Ainz & co face rolling the new inhabitants of the new world (though that happens too.) It’s about Ainz trying to leave up to the expectations of his NPCs – to be the smart and powerful Overlord. Unfortunately, as a salaryman, AInz sucks at leadership and isn’t terribly good at communicating either. So, just like a regular shounen MC, Ainz is weak in this area and struggles to improve. Same goes for his world conquest. While he could easily do it by force he tries to do it via diplomacy and cloak & dagger type shenanigans. Both of which are Ainz’s weak points.
Then there is the fact that both Albedo and Demiurge are geniuses, but perceive Ainz to be smarter than them. Because Ainz is an undead, and has no facial expression for others to read, they have to operate based on what they know (Ainz is a God-like mage and a ruler of equally powerful subordinates.) Ainz conversation with Jircniv is hilarious precisely because of this misconception.
This incongruity, of Ainz being a powerful mage but a total noob at being a ruler and leading is the central premise of the story.