A House Divided Against Itself: A Review of Lego Marvel’s Avengers

Lego Avenger box art

Gather ’round, kids. Grandpa’s got a story to tell. When I was a kid, Legos looked like this:

Old legos

Cheer in a handful of plastic.

Nowadays, they look a bit different:

New LEGOS

Almost three feet long and yours for only $349.99!

That’s the Lego® Marvel Super Heroes™ SHIELD™ Helicarrier©. It contains 2,996 pieces, five minifigs, three microscale Quinjets, three fighter jets, a gasoline truck, two forklift trucks, two runways, four road blockades, an armored exterior with translucent elements, 12 microfigures (Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Captain America, Iron Man, and eight SHIELD agents), and turnable rotors. Clearly, things have escalated a bit.

This is where I’d jump in with the “In my day, we carved our own Lego blocks from bits of broken concrete and we liked it!,” but even I can’t deny it: Legos are getting pretty sexy in the 21st century, whether or not the elder generations (in our infinite wisdom) approve.

Clouds

When I yell at a cloud, it stays yelled at.

The Lego Group, founded in Denmark in 1932 by the Kristiansen family, has surpassed Mattel recently to become the world’s largest toy company—though the proposed Hasbro-Mattel merger will likely knock them back into second place—mainly on the strength of its licensed properties. In addition to their in-house developed lines like Ninjago, Bionicle, and other themed playsets, Lego’s third-party licenses include Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel and DC superheroes, Jurassic World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and most recently Ghostbusters. The company suffered a sharp decline in the mid-1990s, but after signing licensing deals with Star Wars in 1999 and Harry Potter in 2000, its futures have steadily improved, leading to sales of $2.1 billion in the first half of 2015.

Legos and money

Krone krone billz, y’all.

Lego, according to reports, initially struggled with its decision to license properties for sets (and later video games), but it became the straw that healed the camel’s back (to torture a metaphor), keeping the company afloat and lifting them to their currently renewed worldwide success. A key focus for the company’s new initiative was to attempt to avoid both the appearance and reality of “selling out.” it was important to Lego that its properties—in whatever form—continue to encourage creativity and play (Lego itself is a portmanteau of the Danish leg godt, meaning “play well”) and that any violent elements would be de-emphasized and replaced with humor.

The strategy worked, though not immediately. The company posted a nearly $320 million dollar loss in 2004 (adjusted for inflation) and took sharp measures to reform the business, with Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen resigning as CEO and Jørgen Vig Knudstorp taking his place, the first non-Kristiansen to hold the office. Lego sold off its Legoland theme parks and returned its outsourced manufacturing to company control.

Lego Peggy Carter

Stick with me; we’re getting to it. Here’s Lego Peggy Carter to tide you over.

Lego’s new licensing initiative led, naturally, to video games, and Lego has found no lack of success in the digital realm, leading to sales of over 100 million copies of Lego-branded titles. Lego video game offerings, which are developed by TT Games, include Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Batman, Marvel Super Heroes, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Jurassic World. Lego Star Wars games alone have sold over 33 million copies, according to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (TT Games’ parent company), since their debut in 2005. In September, WB Games released a new property, Lego Dimensions, which is a toys-to-life, Skylanders-style game that lets consumers buy special physical figures that, when placed on the user-built toy pad, appear in-game as playable characters. Many previously licensed characters are available to play, as well as ones from new additions including Scooby Doo, Back to the Future, The Simpsons, Portal, and Doctor Who.

Add to all of this 2014’s The Lego Movie, a feature film starring Lego characters that grossed $470 million worldwide and spawned a sequel due in 2018—not to mention countless physical movie-themed toy sets plus a Lego Movie video game—and it’s undeniable: when it comes to toys, bricks are big business.

A brick wall

Not the clay ones, though. Kids don’t like those.

One pillar of that business is Lego’s licensed Marvel content, which has spawned two major platform video games to date. The first, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, was released in 2013 to positive acclaim; the PS4 version received a 9 out of 10 from IGN and sits at 83 percent on Metacritic. It inspired an animated miniseries (Lego Marvel Super Heroes: Maximum Overload) and an animated film (Lego Marvel Super Heroes: Avengers Reassembled) as well. Last week, Lego Marvel’s Avengers—a sequel to the original Lego Marvel game—was released. Is the game any good? Does it capture the action and sense of humor that made the first game so enjoyable? Read on, true believers, to find out!

(Note: This review is for the PS4 version of the game.)

Stan the (Lego) Man

“Hey! That’s my shtick!”

Honestly, it’s hard to say. Lego Marvel’s Avengers is similar to its predecessor in many ways. The first game features around 180 playable characters, while the sequel boasts over 200. The amazing, expansive open-world setting of Manhattan makes a reappearance in the new game, and it’s joined by smaller (but no less colorful) locations. The gameplay is very similar to the first entry in the series and has been refined to be more intuitive in several ways; team-up attacks between player characters have also been added. But the game’s major selling point—that it is an adaptation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) and not just the comic properties—both distinguishes it and holds it back from being truly great.

The main story of the game comes in two parts, letting you play through the events of both Avengers films: 2012’s The Avengers and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Following the model of past Lego movie adaptions, audio clips of dialogue from Marvel features make up the bulk of the voice content, though Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Clark Gregg (Phil Coulson), and Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill) provided original, in-character dialogue for the game—helped out by perennial Marvel movie cameo artists Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno). In addition to the main story, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, and Iron Man 3—all films released in the interregnum between the two Avengers films—are represented in their own levels. Guardians of the Galaxy is conspicuously absent from this lineup, and it’s a head scratcher that such a popular and successful film would be omitted. One can only hope for a standalone game based on the Guardians. (Please, Marvel!)

Lego Rocket Raccoon

After all, the Guardians were in the first game.

The game employs a world map with additional free-roam locations, a feature seen previously in TT Games’ other superhero series, Lego Batman, but it’s put to more effective use here. In addition to the island of Manhattan and the SHIELD helicarrier, players can explore various settings from the films, such as Asgard, the Bartons’ farm, Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion, the nation of Sokovia, South Africa, and Washington, D.C.. These locations hold their own minigames and unlockables and are generally more enjoyable than the sterile, claustrophobic planets of Lego Batman 3.

Characters from the films are the core of the experience, and the playable roster includes the full film Avengers lineup, plus Vision, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, Loki, Crossbones, Falcon, Peggy Carter, Malekith, and others. Characters from Ant-Man and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War are available (or will be, in the case of Ant-Man) as downloads from the PlayStation store. Other than Agents Coulson and Carter, Marvel TV properties are thinly represented here, though Daredevil and Jewel (a.k.a. Jessica Jones) do appear in their comic-book incarnations. TT Games has included a large number of playable characters from Marvel Comics proper, as well, including some deep-cut heroes making their first-ever appearances in a video game, with Miss America, the Young Avengers, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Ms. Marvel, Skaar, Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and Stan Lee (both as “Iron Stan” and the “Stanbuster”) available for play.

There’s a specific character I want to focus on, though, that encapsulates for me the schism present in the game: Jane Foster.

Janes Foster

But which version?

Jane Foster is represented in the game twice, both by her Natalie Portman–played Thor and Thor: The Dark World character and by her current comics incarnation, the Goddess of Thunder. No attempt is made to reconcile or connect these two versions, though in all honesty, comics are pretty weird sometimes.

Mighty Destroyer

Mighty Destroyer is in this game, incidentally.

The inclusion of Thor Jane only serves to highlight the ineffectiveness (and dearth) of most female MCU characters. Jane in the films is a genius scientist, but she mainly serves as a trophy for Thor to win and lose. Conversely, Jane in the comics has literally taken on the mantle and hammer of Thor and is a force to be reckoned with. The game designers can’t be blamed for what they’re given by the films, but the dichotomy between the characters draws attention to the chief problem with Lego Marvel’s Avengers: its slavish attempt to recreate the films and its subsequent marginalization of anything not contained therein. The first game—though sometimes daffy—was a celebration of the Marvel Universe in Lego form. Heroes from all over the Marvel Universe teamed up to stop the nefarious Doctor Doom from using the Silver Surfer’s Power Cosmic to wreak destruction on the world. Don’t look for Doom or the Surfer in this game: the Fantastic Four, the X-Men (and related mutant characters), Galactus, Apocalypse, Namor . . . they’re all absent from the roster. Even Deadpool, Marvel’s fourth-wall-breaking mascot and ersatz narrator for much of the first game, is nowhere to be found. Spider-Man’s not in the game, for crap’s sake! This is a Marvel “team-up” game without Spider-Man.

Bucky shrugs

Or a “Two-in-One” without the Thing, if you prefer

Other details rankle, too. The X-Men’s Westchester mansion is gone, replaced by the Avengers facility seen in Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. There’s no Daily Bugle. Strangely, there’s no Avengers Mansion, either, which may shed some light on the designers’ intentions. It would be easy to blame professional rivalry between Marvel Studios and their cinematic rivals for the absence of elements not controlled by Marvel, but it seems, ultimately, that the goal was to make a “movies-only” game. However, that restriction subverts the most enjoyable aspect of Marvel’s shared properties: the wild, expansive inclusiveness of Marvel’s 75-year-old universe, in which a talking raccoon and a man made of orange rocks can face off against the bug lord of the Negative Zone and the mutant master of magnetism. That’s not to say that TT shouldn’t be commended for the depth of their roster or the plethora of Marvel inside references, but it’s hard to get excited about the presence of Fin Fang Foom when there’s so much lore that we can’t interact with because of an aesthetic that, in seeking to make the game grandiose, only succeeds in making the Marvel Universe feel smaller.

Beth the Waitress

You can play as Beth the Waitress, though, so . . . get excited?

That’s the game’s main problem in a nutshell: it needs to figure out who its audience is and how it wants to serve it. Lego Marvel’s Avengers is doubtless an attempt to capitalize on the success of Marvel Studios films and to draw in movie fans who may not be familiar with deeper Marvel minutiae, but if that’s true, why field characters like the Swordsman and Moon Knight? Why take the time to include Captain Universe and Devil Dinosaur for hardcore fans when those same fans will be wondering where J. Jonah Jameson and Alicia Masters are? This game is like a combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell—where you see expanded options, I see a diminished experience.

Top hat Vision

Here’s Vision in a top hat; my argument is invalid.

That hasn’t stopped me (nor will it) from playing the game until my PS4 begs for mercy. I’ll certainly need to spend more time on it, and I will now that this review is complete, but I doubt my opinion will change much. This may just be cloud-yelling from someone who misses the first Lego Marvel game—or indeed, the dearly departed “Seriously, it’s stuck in my PS3 I’ve played it so much” Marvel Ultimate Alliance—but I came away from Lego Marvel’s Avengers wanting more.

Lego Swordsman

I got Swordsman, though, so how greedy am I, exactly?

I still recommend it for anyone who played the first game or even Lego Marvel newcomers who loved the films. I do confess to a certain frisson when ridding New York of Chitauri or battling Ultron on an airborne Sokovian city. Though it does contain disappointments, it still delivers the Lego Marvel action and humor I’ve come to crave, and it tentatively signals more good things to come from the collaboration between WB Games and the House of Ideas. After all, Lego is too smart—and in too deep now with its production of and reliance on licensed properties—to let technical glitches or vagaries of concept dull the shine of future installments in the franchise. It may not be a completely worthy sequel to the excellent Lego Marvel Super Heroes, but it does move the hammer a little bit.

Vision lifts Mjolnir

Get it?

Anyway, everyone shut up! They just announced Lego Force Awakens!

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