I don’t play video games. This surprises a lot of people, if only because the Venn diagram overlap of video game fans and comic books fans is pretty much just a circle. I do a lot of zoning out as soon as my friends turn the conversation away from “Mad Men” to discuss the popular new game — which is kinda rude, considering I still have plenty of crucial points to make about the evolution of Harry Crane’s neckwear choices! Everything I know about modern video games I have learned from the people I follow on Twitter; I was genuinely mystified as to how a video game could necessitate spoiler warnings, and then I learned that modern video games tell stories just a tad bit more complex than “deactivate all the computers before the electric seaweed murders you.” Yeah, I’m still scarred from the first NES “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
I’m fully aware that I’ve come across more Andy Rooney-ish than usual in my attempt to write about the biggest medium on the planet. Video game fans are probably rolling their eyes as hard as I do every time I read the ol’ “Bang! Pow! Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore!” headline. I admit I’m completely ignorant about video games — but that just means that I have a lot to learn. Right now, “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes” is teaching me.
As someone who has not owned a gaming console since the Sega Genesis, my video game priorities are definitely a little dated. I only ever get the urge to play video games when they involve characters I already know and love. That led me to get more than a little obsessed with my friend’s copy of “Marvel Ultimate Alliance,” but it also led me to owning games like “American Gladiators” and “Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers” for the NES. And yes, I have played Nintendo’s “Wayne’s World,” and no, it was not fun; I vaguely recall there being anthropomorphic saxophones, and I definitely remember being confused. The only original video game characters that I have any affinity for are Mario and his pals, but then again that might just be because I spent weekday mornings in the late ’80s mesmerized by Captain Lou Albano’s performance in the “Super Mario Bros. Super Show.”
I knew that “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes” was probably a good game. I had played just a little bit of the “LEGO Star Wars” games in various platforms in the past — PC, iPhone, not-my-PlayStation 2. I knew that people loved the LEGO games, and I also knew that people had been flipping out about the game on Twitter for months, but my general disinterest in video games — I already have too much television to watch and too many comics to read, people! — caused me to just scroll past that praise on my feed. And then “Mario Kart 8” happened.
My boyfriend — a man that loves Mario just as much as I love X-Men — got the game the day it came out, and we spent the following weekend playing it. I figured I could handle “Mario Kart 8”; it’s just racing, with none of the puzzles integral to modern games that always irk my side-scrolling brain. Of course I sucked at it, and I can’t believe that I now associate the term “drifting” with both “Fast and Furious” and Super Mario, but it was fun. It was so much fun that I asked about “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes,” and soon my boyfriend was applying something called — Nintendo Club Points? Nintendo Reward Points? — to purchasing the game digitally.
And then we started playing it.
As soon as I took control of Iron Man and started flying around Grand Central Terminal, firing repulsor blasts at Sandman’s minions, I got a taste of what all you video game fans have been raving about. Being your favorite super hero is fun — especially when the game enables your imagination instead of limits them. I was obsessed with the Sega X-Men games back when I was in elementary school, but I was always annoyed that the game put a limit on your mutant powers. Cyclops and Gambit don’t constantly punch people, they chuck energy at them by the eyeful/handful! I wanted to be those X-Men, not just Sega’s gamified approximation. “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes” allows me to be these characters, incorporating everything from their big power moves, like Hulk’s thunder claps, to the little things, like Iceman’s ice slide. While playing as Black Widow, I can execute her signature legs-around-the-neck takedown move just by hitting one button repeatedly. If you’re at all aware of my feelings towards Black Widow, then you can probably hear the yell of excitement I let out when LEGO Natasha first whipped out that move. Yeah, there is a totally different kind of satisfaction one gets from being these characters instead of reading stories about them.
When the gameplay shifted focus away from the Marvel Cinematic Universe properties to the X-Mansion, though, I lost my mind. This is where the lesson comes in, by the way. I knew the X-Men were a part of this game, and I know how many mutants are playable characters in this jam, but I could not help feeling excitement when traveling to Westchester (or more realistically the Bronx, according to LEGO Manhattan’s squished geography) after spending missions fighting my way through the Helicarrier, Stark Tower and Asgard. My boyfriend and I had also gone on adventures in both the Oscorp and Baxter buildings; I knew this game represented the entire Marvel Universe, but it really hit me when we finally got to the X-Men. I realized that a united Marvel Universe is a joyous thing to behold.
That’s not something we get to experience a lot nowadays. Thanks to the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Marvel Studios’ output, one can’t talk about any aspect of the Marvel Universe without some bit of the movie business getting discussed. These characters are finally mainstream and they’re finally earning big bucks — but they’re doing so as film properties. And since Marvel Studios does not have the film rights to all of the Marvel characters, we’re getting three — with “Fantastic Four” possibly bumping that total up to an appropriate four — separate Marvel Cinematic Universes. Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four and then everyone else — these franchises are all separated and, as “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes” proved to me, not able to live up to what makes the comics so special. The X-Men really stand out as outcasts when compared to the beloved Avengers. Spider-Man’s underdog status really works when he can be compared to public champions like Captain America. Geniuses like Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are made more relatable when compared to super genius Reed Richards. The Fantastic Four make the most sense as trailblazers for a universe filled with super heroes that followed in their footsteps. Because of the way the film rights fell, there are aspects of every franchise that are so integral to the source material but will never make it onscreen.
Because of its all-encompassing nature, “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes” kinda feels like the video game equivalent of a greatest hits album. You start with Iron Man and Hulk, then Spider-Man, Black Widow and Hawkeye get added and, before you know it, Mr. Fantastic and the X-Men are in the mix. I can imagine people with just a passing knowledge of popular super heroes playing through the game and being blown away that they can play as Wolverine alongside Captain America — two characters that have never appeared onscreen together. This vast library of recognizable and relatable characters is Marvel’s greatest strength to me. That’s obviously what made them so desirable for Disney to snatch up.
I want to experience the unified Marvel Universe more often. It feels like that’s becoming harder and harder to do as Sony and Fox start building elaborate film universes around the handful of characters they own (actually, Fox probably owns at least two handfuls). I didn’t really expect for a video game to drive this point home in my noggin, but it did. It bums me out to think that I might never get to see Spider-Man and Iceman be amazing friends together in a film, but right now, I’m fine getting that experience through a Wii U.
And apologies to my boyfriend; I swear I will get the hang of these ice powers and stop encasing you in a block of ice. I’m new to video games, but I’m learning.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).