The beauty of superhero comics is that they are constantly reinventing themselves. Just as you become attached to a certain interpretation of, say, Spider-Man, an infamous villain like Doc Ock will suddenly stomp along and insert his own mind into Peter Parker’s, seemingly wiping away the lovable wall-crawler we know for good. This was the basis for Dan Slott’s 2013 run of Superior Spider-Man, and emblematic of Marvel Comics’ willingness to generate original ideas rather than be slavish to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s canon. The wild success of the Marvel movies has led other media, and perhaps understandably, to more quietly follow in its wake.
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There are a couple of exceptions. Last year saw Insomniac’s excellent Spider-Man game swing its way onto PS4, praised by many for being a standalone story – isolated from the MCU – with its roots in familiar themes and plotlines, but its own Spider-Verse. This was then used as the basis for a version of Peter Parker that stood as far apart from Holland, Maguire or Garfield as possible, giving us an older, more earnest Spider-Man that we’d never seen or played as before.
The same can’t be said, however, for the likes of Square Enix’s upcoming Avengers game, which, by centring on the same line-up as Joss Whedon’s 2012 flick, openly feels like a weird pallet-swap of a world and characters we’ve already experienced. Why would you limit yourself to simply Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow and Cap yet again, when so many other comic book characters are known to be members? Recently released smash-em-up Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order fares slightly better, yet still opts to mimic the MCU versions of Star Lord, Black Panther and other characters, while spoon-feeding us another adaptation of the Infinity War Saga. Yawn!
In the same year that Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man debuted we were treated to what is, for me, the best Marvel video game that's really bucked against this trend, allowing players to battle and bash their way across a fresh storyline as groups like The Avengers, X-Men and, yes, The Fantastic Four. That game was none other than LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, TT Games’ first Marvel venture and one which successfully shed the overly popular MCU skin to instead do justice to over 180 beloved comic characters. 2018’s Spider-Man might have been a great study into the idea and code of one hero but, if you’re a comic book reader craving the ultimate love-letter to all things Marvel, this is it.
Setting you off within a fully explorable LEGO-fied New York as well as other self-contained iconic locations, the story of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes admittedly won’t be winning any awards. In a nutshell: Silver Surfer finds himself held captive by the sinister Doctor Doom, forcing our heroes to track down all the cosmic bricks that have dispersed as a result of his board being shattered while fending off a who’s who of popular villains. It’s hardly Shakespeare, but it is the perfect excuse to go on a Marvel-fuelled pulpy adventure – and with no Thanos in sight.
LEGO games are regularly called formulaic. It's an accusation that possibly has a grain of truth to it, but also one that misses the nuance and areas of depth in these games. It might seem outright strange to label a LEGO game as my favourite interactive Marvel experience in recent times. The reason why is TT Games' evident passion for the various licensed properties it interprets, having made a habit of being extremely nerdy about brands such as Star Wars, Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter. While the gameplay may repeat across games and the puzzles remain basic, it makes each mini-universe distinct, an easy pleasure for fans, and leaves room for even the most obscure characters to be touched upon. I mean, where else can you play as Union Jack? You know, the other English Steve Rogers rip-off that isn’t Captain Britain.
Whether it’s in how Deadpool shrewdly narrates the preamble to every Red Brick side mission, the way you can free fall from the S.H.I.E.L.D carrier to New York after loading into the game, or how Cyclops turns to Wolverine mid-cutscene to ask “shouldn't you be in Canada, uncovering your past or something?” - LEGO Marvel Super Heroes shows an acute self-awareness that you mightn’t see in a more serious adaptation.
Licensed material used to be a worrying video game stigma, but here TT Games makes the act of leaning into a brand feel almost artful. It’s just a shame that both 2016’s LEGO Marvel Avengers and 2017’s LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 ring hollow by comparison. In large part due to them closely aping elements of the MCU.
Brick-based or not, the moment I realised just how special the first LEGO Marvel Super Heroes actually is was when I first took the full journey across New York from the Daily Bugle building, past Fogwell’s Gym, to the X-Mansion situated on the South side. All these sights are enough to make any avid Marvel Comics fan froth at the mouth, but the fact that you can do so uninterrupted with pretty much the entire gamut of A-list Marvel heroes feels harmonious. Better still, story missions like ‘Bifrosty Reception’ and ‘A Doom with a View’ equally prove their gusto.
Unlike today, 2013 was a time when the MCU couldn’t introduce certain characters on the big screen due to rights issues, clearly affecting Marvel’s decision as to who it would let feature in its games. After all, why would you offer free promotion for Fox’s upcoming X-Men and Fantastic Four films or shed light on Sony’s desire to kickstart their own Spider-Man universe? It was a sticking point that plagued not just games, but all Marvel entertainment arms, as popular comic book runs got cancelled and lesser-known characters like The Inhumans were suddenly given a lot of fuss.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes was the rare case of a Marvel game that, probably thanks to the Lego brand an TT's track record, had enough clout to be able to cut through all that, so much so that it marked the last time Mr. Fantastic, The Human Torch, Invisible Woman and The Thing were all playable characters in a game, a crime given the Fantastic Four’s noteworthiness in forging Marvel’s idea of the ‘relatable superhero’. Disney’s recent Fox acquisition is at least seemingly already having a positive impact for future games, with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 due to add in the first family as DLC very soon.
LEGO has become known for giving people the tools to make their own fun, and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes achieves this tenfold by having the confidence to remain true to its Marvel comic (not Marvel movie) roots. It’s a fortitude that few games centred on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have replicated ever since, with so many opting to remain in the shadow of the MCU’s dollar signs.
I accepted a long time ago that Captain America had forever lost his helmet wings, his design across media now favours the battle-worn armour first seen in 2011’s Chris Evans-led The First Avenger. But how many times must we have James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy line-up be introduced to the humming rhythms of a cassette tape? I’d much rather have any Marvel game rendition of these characters move to the beat of their own sound, rather than someone else’s.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.