The theme song toX-Men: The Animated Series is undeniably amazing, but now there are accusations that it was stolen. A Hungarian man has filed a lawsuit against Marvel, Disney, Fox, Apple, Amazon, and others—along with folks from Saban Entertainment—claiming that the theme song was plagiarized.
io9 has looked over the lawsuit, which was filed Monday and first reported by TMZ. Zoltan Krisko, who claims to be managing the estate for Hungarian composer Gyorgy Vukan, says Vukan’s theme song for the 1980s crime drama Linda the Policewoman bears striking similarity to the one created for X-Men: The Animated Series, which debuted almost a decade later in 1992.
Linda the Policewoman, which was created by György Gát and distributed by Hungarian National Television, is described in the lawsuit as a “household name.” That’s not inaccurate. Running from 1983 to 1989, Linda was a popular show that not only brought kung fu fighting styles to Eastern Europe television but also apparently contributed to reshaping gender norms during the Iron Curtain.
Even though Hungary was isolated from much of the Western world during this time, the lawsuit claims the folks behind X-Men’s theme song still associated with Hungarian animators, which could have exposed them to Linda. The suit includes:
During the 1980s, cooperation between film industry professionals from different countries, including from the “Eastern” and “Western” world, existed despite the still standing Iron Curtain. Based on information and belief, as professionals in the animation film industry, Defendants Ronald Wasserman, Haim Saban and Shuki Levy all came in contact with Hungarian professionals in the film industry, and were aware of the famous animation workshop at Pannonia Filmstudio in Hungary, where Hungarian film industry professionals, such as Gyorgy Vukan, were frequent visitors.
Along with the companies, Krisko is suing Ron Wasserman and Shuki Levy, two composers for X-Men: The Animated Series who have each at one point taken credit for the theme song. The suit accuses several companies and folks that produced, distributed, syndicated, or otherwise profited from the show of enabling the copyright infringement of Vukan’s work (a problem that could still continue, since Disney is reportedly considering putting the series on Disney+).
That said, Vukan’s composition wasn’t registered for copyright in the United States until 2017, which is when Krisko said he first learned about X-Men: The Animated Series. Krisko is asking for damages and to award any profits attributable to him, and asking the court to restrain them and others from infringing on the copyright further.
This isn’t the first time the X-Men theme song has been accused of borrowing from other works. Several folks have cited its similarity to Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” which came out in 1990. But unlike this situation, it doesn’t look like that ever resulted in a lawsuit.
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This month, nearly a decade to the month after the release of its predecessor, Nintendo released Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, a return to the beloved ARPG Marvel gaming series that takes comic book crossover mania to a team-based beat ‘em up conclusion. But it also serves as a reminder that…god, things were so different back when Ultimate Alliance 2 was coming out, weren’t they?
In September 2009, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still just a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye. We had accepted that upstart newcomers Marvel Studios might be on to something with the release of Iron Man the year prior (who would’ve thought that gamble casting Robert Downey Jr. as some B-tier comics character would pay off?), and at that point, only what is still the green-skinned stepchild of the MCU, Incredible Hulk, had joined it. The First Avenger, Thor, Iron Man 2, they had all yet to come—and above all, no one going to a movie theater outside of comic book diehards knew what an Infinity Stone was. There were murmurs of the Avengers, sure, after Samuel L. Jackson made us sit in a movie theater a little longer than we were used to (the audacity!). But Thanos? A gauntlet? Nada.
We also had the release of Vicarious Visions’ Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, which unlike all those lame-looking superhero movies we were being inundated with in the ‘00s, looked kind great. The follow up to a surprise 2006 hit and an adaptation of the then-recent comics event superseriesCivil War, Ultimate Alliance 2 presented an intriguingly gamified take on a blockbuster storyline: Superhero vs. Superhero! Privacy vs. Protection! That Guy you kind of know from a movie but he’s weirdly even more of a giant asshole vs. that guy with a shield they’re thinking of casting Jim from The Office as!
MUA2 was an unfiltered window into the world of Marvel’s comic book output as it was directly in 2009 which, in the context of everything has happened since, becomes a fascinating time capsule to reminisce over. It was a time when X-Men and Fantastic Four icons could stand alongside the Avengers and no one would bat an eye, because that’s just what happens in comics. A time when no one knew what an Infinity Stone was. And they were Infinity Gems, if you did.
In June 2019, by contrast, we were coming off the back of the release of something as bonkers asAvengers: Endgame. Over a decade and nearly two-dozen movies, the Infinity Stones haven’t just become part of pop culture lexicon at large, they have been gathered, used, re-gathered, and re-used. Thanos lived, rose up, and now died (twice, technically!), long live Thanos. So has Tony Stark, although the large shadow he cast over the MCU that Iron Man helped create all those years ago will continue to linger without him, thanks to the indomitable legacy of Robert Downey Jr.
At last, the cinematic version of the Infinity Saga is at an end—and here stands Nintendo and Team Ninja with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3. Which is…a quest. To gather the Infinity Stones. And stop Thanos before he does so!
And look, here are your familiar cinematic faces in a roster of Marvel heroes now considerably less esoteric than the one in Ultimate Alliance 2—filled with characters slightly ajar enough to be comics-inspired, but close enough to basically be the characterization of their movie counterparts. Here is the Black Order, aka Those Guys With About 10 Minutes Max of Infinity War and Endgame Screen Time, to find them! Here’s Ultron, please remember that movie that most people thought was just kind of okay! Here is Daredevil making a joke about hallway fights with other Netflix-Approved Heroes!
To be fair to Ultimate Alliance 3,it wears its inspirations on its sleeve—it does not mask its pretty direct connections to that giant movie you (and what feels like the rest of the planet) have just seen to the tune of a gabillion dollars, as if they were something worth masking in the first place. Marvel Cosmic Bullshit is just as good an excuse as any to smash all these heroes together, and smash Ultimate Alliance 3 does with an earnest abandon. It, thanks to the comics, can even go one better than the films, adding beloved comics heroes like Ms. Marvel—well, Kamala Khan, specifically, now that Carol’s had her well-earned promotion to Captain Marvel—and Spider-Gwen, alongside familiar names from the movies.
There are even X-Men characters and a whole level set at the X-Mansion! As if this game didn’t already serve as a reminder of what a long, strange decade it’s been, this marks the mutants’ first major foray back into Marvel tie-in media since that whole awkwardness with Marvel attempting to blacklist mutants and the Fantastic Four in its gaming spinoffs over a spat with Fox, who owned the movie rights for them. Well, up until the point Disney grew tired of the charade and absorbed the film studio into its giant, Mickey-ear-adorned mass earlier this year. At least we can play as Wolverine again?
But as fun as it is from a “I can play as Scarlet Witch and Elsa Bloodstone smashing up faceless bad guys for several hours” perspective, Ultimate Alliance 3 is still about smashing up those faceless bad guys in a saga we are now intimately, tiredly familiar with. Not just thanks to the movies, either, but because it seems like the Infinity Stones have been the catch-all reason for any Marvel crossover outside the comics lately—including other recent games like Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite.
A decade in the waiting, I wish it had been bolder—to take more direct inspiration (not even necessarily like its predecessors) from a particular arc of comics, and to embrace the idea behind why we love these superheroic crossovers at all in the first place. To do something silly, and wild, and zany to match the candy-coated Spandex it otherwise revels in thanks to its thankfully-comics-inspired-aesthetic.
We have had a decade of Infinity Stones. There’s so much more Marvel can be, whether it’s on the big screen (where we’re finally getting an intriguing glimpse of such a thing), in its comics, or in games like Spider-Man, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, the upcoming Avengers game, and beyond. Perhaps, after one last indulgence in this familiar well, its time to put the Infinity Gauntlet away for a good long while.
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Heroes from all corners of the Marvel universe unite to stop mad titan Thanos from collecting six Infinity Stones and unleashing their vast destructive power. What took the Marvel cinematic universe a decade and 23 movies to achieve, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order gets done in one game, and I didn’t sleep through any of it (looking at you, Marvel movies).
When last we visited the four-player, team-based action role-playing game series Marvel Ultimate Alliance, it was 2009, and the MCU had barely even started. The first Iron Man film and The Incredible Hulk hit theaters in 2008, with Iron Man 2 due out in 2010. Marvel fans who were eager to see Marvel heroes of all shapes, sizes and origins come together to kick villain ass outside the pages of comic books got their fix from 2009’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. Lacking a series of interconnected films to take inspiration from at that time, the Activision-published game was instead based on Marvel’s popular Civil War comic book crossover, in which superheroes clashed over the idea of losing their secret identities and registering with the government. The setting and themes made for a gripping, dramatic game.
Marvel fandom has changed over the past ten years. Millions of moviegoers have watched the saga of Thanos and the Infinity Stones play out on movie screens around the world. Marvel’s Civil War is the Captain America movie where everybody fights at the airport and Spider-Man shows up. The Guardians of the Galaxy, a B-list superteam in the comics at best prior to 2014, are now one of Marvel’s hottest properties. So now we have Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, an action role-playing game for the Nintendo Switch that brings together Marvel’s greatest heroes to battle Thanos over the Infinity Stones, again. It’s what the people want.
The game opens with the Guardians of the Galaxy stumbling across all six Infinity Stones on an abandoned Kree starship, because this is a video game and no one wants to have to sit through Iron Man 2 or Thor again to get to the good bits. During a battle with Proxima Midnight, a member of Thanos’ evil Black Order, Star-Lord manages to grab one of the stones, teleporting his team to Earth and scattering the remaining five to random locations convenient to the game’s plot. The problem of getting Marvel’s cosmic team onto the planet with the rest of its heroes is therefore solved. After that point, an alliance is formed between heroes and the race to collect the Infinity Stones begins.
I am so tired of the Infinity Stones. We all know the deal with them by now, right? They’re colorful artifacts, each granting mastery over one of six cosmic forces—space, time, reality, power, soul, and mind. Should one user gather all six Infinity Stones, they gain ultimate power over the entire universe, though they never seem able to hold onto it long enough to affect any lasting change. They’ll always leave some of the heroes alive to change things back, or decide the power is too much for them and send them off to the corners of the universe to be found again later. Thus, the Infinity Stones are green, orange, blue, purple, yellow, and red herrings, existing only to facilitate epic crossovers.
Like so many Infinity Stone stories before it, then, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t really about the Infinity Stones. It’s about bringing together a diverse cast of heroes and villains and letting them play. It’s forming a party with Venom and Spider-Man and Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen and seeing what sort of webs they spin together. It’s taking common Marvel Comics events, like a breakout at super-powered prison The Raft, or Ultron attempting to take over Avengers Tower, and then seeing how those events get handled by your personal dream team. It’s the ultimate Marvel Team-Up. Oh, and Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel are there, too.
The story isn’t great, but the dialogue is very good, giving each new character a moment in the spotlight. Occasionally we get little asides between certain groupings of characters, like Miles, Gwen and Ms. Marvel celebrating their first ninja temple after taking down the Kingpin in his Shadowland base. The game is filled with cute little interactions.
While set in its own pocket Marvel universe, Ultimate Alliance 3 draws heavily on the MCU. Characters are well-voiced, with many actors doing a fair impression of their live-action MCU counterparts. The entire Kingpin level is filled with references to the Netflix’s various Marvel TV shows, from Jessica Jones’ ripped jeans, leather jacket, and bad attitude, to Daredevil’s “I do my best fighting in hallways” line. When Iron Fist showed up, I wanted to take a nap until his section was over—just like the TV show. Developer Team Ninja really captured the spirit of live-action Marvel.
As they partake in what my co-worker Paul Tamayo aptly calls “fan service tapas,” players are forming a team of four Marvel heroes and running them through ten chapters of old-school action role-playing goodness. Utilizing a combination of light, heavy and special attacks, characters dispatch hordes of whichever faceless troops are native to each of the game’s locations—Kree soldiers, Ultron robots, escaped prisoners, ninjas and the like. Tougher versions of each enemy type feature stun meters that must be depleted before significant damage can be done.
Each character has up to four special abilities they can use in battle. These abilities can be combined with those of other characters, creating powerful combo attacks. Combining Storm’s whirlwind attack with Dr. Strange’s fire attack creates a controllable fire tornado that tears into enemy ranks. A meter that fills as characters use normal attacks allows them to unleash Extreme attacks that all four members of a team can join in on. These massive, screen-filling spectacles do massive damage to enemies and the game’s framerate alike.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is not a mindless hack-and-slash game. Spamming attacks might get players through the first couple of chapters, but enemies get strong pretty quick. Dodging and blocking is a must. Enemies appear in massive numbers, often making it hard to pick out the character you’re controlling in the chaos. Switching from the game’s default difficulty of Mighty to the lower setting, Friendly, mainly seems to make enemies drop more health and power orbs, giving players a slightly better chance of surviving.
Staying on your toes is especially important during boss fights. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s boss battles are like dungeon boss fights in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Attacks are telegraphed via glowing circles on the floor. Players need to learn and pay attention to boss movement and vocal cues. Positioning is important in order to avoid sweeping area-of-effect attacks.
I’ve died a lot playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, mostly in boss battles, but I’ve not gotten frustrated. Each time I’ve come right back, armed with a little more knowledge of what makes big guys like Ultron or Dormammu tick. While I’ve played a little online with my co-worker Paul, I’m really looking forward to going online with the public and seeing what a coordinated team can do against these challenging encounters.
No amount of outside help will help me conquer Ultimate Alliance 3’s greatest foe its camera. Sometimes it shakes when players turn corners. It gets locked behind a character from time to time, shifting perspective in disorienting fashion. A few times, the camera’s gotten stuck on geometry, forcing me to fight blind. It’s worse in handheld mode, especially when it pulls way back on a scene, making characters incredibly difficult to make out in a crowd. A day one patch will address some of the game’s camera issues, but not all. Here’s hoping for more patches.
One of the few disappointing aspects of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is it severely stripped down the role-playing elements from the 2006 original. There was barely any character and stat management, leaving players who enjoy fiddling with upgrades and enhancements in the cold. I’ve got good news for those players.
Ultimate Alliance 3 has a whole lot of management to perform between battles. There’s Alliance Enhancement, a multi-section grid where players can spend enhancement points and credits to boost the entire team’s statistics. Players unlock Infinity missions as the story progresses, bite-sized tasks that reward upgrade materials, alternate costumes, and a couple extra characters.
This is also the first Ultimate Alliance game to feature Isotope-8 (ISO-8), the mysterious power-enhancing material that’s been shoehorned into almost every Marvel video game since 2012. Characters can equip different colors and potency of ISO-8 collected in the story or through Infinity missions to provide a wide variety of enhancements. Some of these enhancements are straight-up stat upgrades. Others grant benefits in special circumstances, like increasing the damage a character does when their health is under 25 percent. Eventually players gain the ability to upgrade their ISO-8.
As with earlier games in the series, teams gain special benefits when formed with related characters. My party of Venom, Spider-Man, Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen gains an eight percent boost to their resilience stat for having four members of the “Web Warriors” sub-group. Three members are in the “Agile Fighters” sub-group, granting a two percent boost to the mastery stat. And since Miles and Gwen are in the “Ultimate Alliance 3” group of characters new to the series, they get a one percent boost to vitality.
Basically, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is menu management heaven, and every stat tweak makes a difference. Many of my deaths during the game’s story were immediately followed by a trip into the menu system to switch up ISO-8 assignments, unlock a few more spots on the Alliance Enhancement grid or swap around characters. Each time I felt a difference in how my team took and dealt damage.
I’ve got a lot more menu fiddling ahead of me. It took me ten hours to finish Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3’s story on Mighty difficulty. The credits have rolled, but since I spent the back half of the game relying on a team of Storm, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Ms. Marvel, they’re the only four characters I have beyond level 40. That’s four out of the 33 characters I’ve unlocked so far. I have Infinity missions to complete, several of which require solo characters I’ve neglected thus far. On top of all of that, finishing the story unlocks Superior difficulty, which starts at level 40 and ramps up from there. I’m not putting down this game any time soon.
Marvel is in a very different place in 2019 than it was in 2009. Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 were made for fans of comic books, cartoons and the early Spider-Man and X-Men movies. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is very much a product of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characterizations are straight from the films. The game prominently features characters no one cared about back in 2009. In the game’s gallery, there’s a report section with biographies on heroes and villains with commentary by members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, to be enjoyed by people who had no idea what a Groot was prior to 2014. I love that characters I’ve grown up with have so many new fans. I’m just mildly disappointed it led to another Infinity Stone hunt instead of a game with an original story to tell.
But that’s fine. If an animated rehash of 10 years’ worth of movies and television is the framing needed to get me an action role-playing game as rich, challenging and satisfying as Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, then so be it.
Recently I’ve been binge-watching FX’s Marvel universe show Legion. I don’t really care for superhero stuff, but the show’s portrayal of mental illness has its hooks in me, in particular how everyone says the main character’s name so much.
(Some spoilers for season one and two of Legion follow, as well as discussion of mental illness.)
Legion is in its third and final season on FX (I’m only halfway through season two, though frantically catching up, after being drawn in by ads showing cults). The show focuses on David Haller, a young man who thinks he’s schizophrenic but comes to find out he’s actually a mutant, with the ability to move things with his mind and read people’s thoughts. His mental illness was in fact a manifestation of his mutant powers and of a dark force that took residence in his brain, which he and his mutant friends have to fight. The show’s bizarre aesthetic, with dance sequences and trippy sets, has drawn me in far more than all the X-Men stuff, and I’m both excited to catch up to the episodes currently airing and sad that it will mean I’ll have to wait for new episodes along with everyone else.
Our sister site io9 has written about Legion’s examination of mental illness, in particular how the process David’s mutant compatriots use to help him harness his powers represents the actual slow work of coming to grips with your own brain. The idea that you’re not mentally ill, you’re special, is a compelling one—when Syd, who will eventually become David’s girlfriend, comes to a season one group therapy session, she brings up Picasso and Einstein as examples of people who “weren’t normal,” the way she sees herself. The idea that mental illness can be a gift rather than a deficit is something radical mental health movements like The Icarus Project explore. It’s an idea that can do a lot of good for people who are told the way they are is something to be fixed.
In 2006 I was diagnosed with bipolar II NOS, or “not otherwise specified.” It’s basically the least severe version of bipolar disorder you can have, but that didn’t keep me from being a mess for a while. The crass version of the story, the one I tell to make it sound like it’s all no big deal, is that I woke up one summer morning to find that I had suddenly become a terrible person, and then I spent about a year ruining my life. Like Legion’s mutants, I didn’t know what was happening to me at first. That summer is a blur of careening around on my bike, drinking a ton and slamming around at punk shows like I could parcel the uncontainable energy I had to others if I moshed against them hard enough. (I was moved by a past version of Legion’s Syd employing a similar tactic in season two.) I spent an equal amount of time lying in bed destroyed by a despair that’s defining feature was that one day I could feel sadder than I’d ever felt in my life, only to be impossibly more sad the next day. At my lowest, finding out I could always feel worse became a kind of game. I moved and got a new job, and also doctors, and then I messed all that up too: skipping appointments, running away from work, stopping meds or taking the wrong doses when I didn’t like how I was feeling on them. The down times started numbering far more than the up times, and the up times were like being pumped with a dangerously energetic anguish.
There’s a beauty in Legion’s core idea of you aren’t crazy, you’re magic, as well as David’s awareness of the dangerous places that thinking can take you. David’s demon, the powerful Shadow King, tempts him to use his powers for evil, and his temptation reminds me of all those times I purposefully chased after mania when the depression got to be too much. There’s a season one episode where Legion’s cast goes to a fantasy version of the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where David is bipolar instead of ostensibly schizophrenic, and he worries about how “this mirage, this feeling of clarity, how maybe that’s just a symptom of the other side of the disease kicking in… that invulnerable feeling, it’s dangerous.”
In the world of the show, this is a question of David embracing the dark side of his mutant powers or not. My own memories of mania, besides Legion’s spot-on use of the word “invulnerable,” are people saying my name a lot. Depression usually made me isolate myself, but mania sent me hurtling at the people around me. Legion, perhaps unintentionally, captures how a person’s mental illness can affect others through how often character say “David” in different ways.
Characters say David’s name on Legion a lot. (If you hadn’t noticed this yet, you’re stuck with an awareness of it now, sorry.) The first lines of proper character dialogue are David’s sister Amy singing “Happy Birthday” to him, saying his name in a kind of anxious, faltering way. The voices hiss it. Syd says it lovingly. Characters say his name in alarm. They scream for him when he’s missing, which is fairly often. They say his name fondly in childhood flashbacks. Doctors say it with clinical detachment or forced compassion. In a season two episode about alternate timelines, Amy says his name with different inflections for all the different people he is: rich and dangerous, tweaked out on illegal drugs, pathetically ill. Characters say “David” almost reverently when they need him, which is also fairly often. People ask for or talk about David all the time.
It can be a little grating, even though he’s the show’s protagonist, but it also resonated with me. In season two, the Shadow King says to David, “All the world’s a stage, and you’re the star.” When I was in the thick of handling things badly, I felt like the center of the world—not in a megalomaniacal way, but because I was feeling so many things so intensely that everyone else’s feelings paled in comparison. I felt like I couldn’t help shoving everything that was happening to me at others, even when I didn’t think they’d understand.
My then-boyfriend said my name cautiously when I surprised him at his door on a Wednesday evening even though I lived three states away. My friends said it in annoyance when I’d call them in the middle of the night begging them to do something about how terrible I felt and then refusing to take any of their advice. A doctor said it coolly after I ranted about how psych meds were “a tool of the man,” before he leaned forward and asked very earnestly, “Do you see a man here now?” (This was hilarious to me at the time, and still is.) My coworkers said it totally normally in those flashes when I was OK, and I wanted to bottle up their tone for later because I heard it so rarely. Doctors read it dispassionately off of charts and hospital bracelets. My dad said it breaking with compassion as I explained how depressed I was. My roommate said it wearily when I woke him up at midnight to explain how the ads for this gay dating site were out to get us and I know it sounds nuts but c’mere, look… I said my own name in annoyance, over and over, to insurance companies and appointment lines.
Unlike David’s voices talking to him, I rarely heard my own name in my head. I was buddy or pal when I was exasperated with myself, man when I knew I was fucking up, kid when I’d try to be self-compassionate. I didn’t want to let all those different versions of myself inside of me, because it would mean they were all just me.
In season two, the Shadow King exhorts David to “get up from the kiddie table and come and sit with the big boys.” It’s meant to be a temptation to let his demons win, but I also read it as a question of what it means to really deal with yourself. In Legion, while David has to do some hard work around his mental health, he also gets to wage reality-spanning sci-fi battles alongside his coterie of superpowered friends. Real people don’t get anything so exciting. Eventually, I realized I was the only one who could help myself, and I stopped listening to the parts of me that seemed hell-bent on havoc. I found better doctors. I found better meds and actually took them the way I was supposed to. I stopped lying to my therapist. I told my friends how I was feeling before the feelings went too far. I learned what symptoms to watch out for and how to head them off. It was a long slog with lots of setbacks, but things got better.
These days, my mental illness barely enters my thoughts besides the dread (a word a season two episode of Legion uses so well) that it’ll come back when I least expect it. Similar to themes of timelines Legion explores in season two, I live with a low-level fear of a future version of myself who’s not doing as well as present me, who’s going to show up one day with a lot of sadness and bad ideas. I try to think of him kindly when he scares me. I remind myself I can help him, and, if that doesn’t work, that I can survive him. At the end of the day, I know his name. He’s just me.
For decades, superheroes had the worst luck when it came to video games, the X-Men chief among them. There are a few welcome outliers—Raven Software’s X-Men Legends duology remains a classic, Wolverine’s game adaptation for his first solo movie has its silly charm, and you can still find the classic beat-’em-up cabinet in arcades everywhere—but there are more lows than highs, from Mutant Wars and X2: Wolverine’s Revenge,to the franchise’s last big stab at mainstream gaming respectability, 2011’s X-Men: Destiny. Sluggish and overwrought, the latter seemed to be the kiss of death for Marvel’s mutants, the precursor to their eventual fate years before they were kicked out of Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite. (Getting left out in the cold during Marvel’s big purchase by Disney probably didn’t help.)
Just as in the world of comics and films, hope for the X-Men to do more than tread water in the world of gaming seemed dismal until Disney’s recent acquisition of its wayward toys. Beyond next month’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, though, it may be some time before Disney decides to give its mutants the Spider-Man treatment, where a developer gives the brand a much needed restart that drills into the things that make it special. But if you own a PlayStation, you don’t have to look too far to get a glimpse of what that big-budget hypothetical X-Men game might look like: Just play Sucker Punch’s superhero saga Infamous—first released 10 years ago last week—instead.
The elements of what make a good X-Men game seem simple, but have proven tough to nail down. X-Men Legends went for the simple appeal of wielding the power of iconic characters and using that to draw in any type of fan—but the appeal ended there. X-Men: Destiny had the opposite problem: It wanted to make players really think about if they truly would protect or harm humans, but the choices lacked any real impact—in addition to the game itself not being fun to play.
2009’s Infamous and its numerous sequels took the best of both worlds, combining some of the best superpowered game-play around with a story just engaging enough for it to feel like it could be The Gifted—but with a better budget, and slightly higher scope. The original game followed the story of bike messenger Cole MacGrath weeks after an explosion left his New York-like city under quarantine and him with mysterious, lightning-based superpowers. Cel-shaded cutscenes help convey Cole’s inner thoughts and help make him a grounded character, even as the world gets more batshit and X-Men-like around him. (He even becomes a vampire in the 2011 side story Festival Of Blood,just a year after Jubilee had the same transformation in the comics.) In between fighting telekinetic homeless men and invisible cultists, Cole finds time to kill his future self, an evil time traveler who came back to better prepare Cole to save the world—exactly the sort of convoluted troubles Charles Xavier and his students find themselves in on the regular.
2011’s Infamous 2 sees Cole and his buddy Zeke fleeing to the game’s version of New Orleans following a beatdown from a giant flaming Beast, getting stronger as the fiery being makes its way across the East Coast for round two. Even with the Beast making his way downtown, Cole finds his time largely occupied by a charismatic William Stryker-type named Bertrand, convinced he’s destined to lead a Conduit genocide. In the most X-Men-twist possible, the Beast reveals itself to be the game’s equivalent of the Phoenix Force, activating potential Conduits—as the game’s take on hated-and-feared-youths-with-superpowers are dubbed—but killing anyone unlucky enough to be normal in the process. Cue the classic X-Men dilemma: Save humanity, or ensure the survival of a small, possibly more evolved group? It’s treated as a dilemma, but not really: Cole sacrifices himself in that game’s canon ending, saving humanity and helping the future of the franchise become more comfortably seated in X-Men territory, as the Conduit “threat” becomes more widely known and feared.
Picking up seven years later, 2014’s soft reboot Second Son and its DLC side story First Light unpacks the effects of Cole’s sacrifice on the wider world. Conduits are now hunted and dubbed “bio-terrorists,” locked in a prison while their rights are stripped away by an organization called the DUP. Replacing Cole as the protagonist is Seattle graffiti artist Delsin Rowe, given the more versatile (and fun) power of absorbing other Conduit abilities, Rogue-style. Where Cole was sullen and burdened—not unlike Wolverine or Cyclops—Delsin is Second Son’s equivalent to Nightcrawler, a youthful smartass with an accompanying alt-rock soundtrack meant to be played loudly by a teen trying to piss off their parents.
It’s the sort of setup for an interesting modern superhero origin story that Second Son isn’t entirely interested in telling, even as its world more closely resembles the one in which the Marvel heroes operate. Any thoughts the game has on surveillance state and freedom over security exists largely to help service a more simplistic gameplay loop, of taking down The Man by blasting security cameras and DUP outposts to pieces, while trolling Conduit alert hotlines set up to allow scared citizens to narc on your fellow superpowered folk. One mission sees Delsin climb the Space Needle to take down the DUP’s surveillance over part of the city, spray painting a flag on the monument in defiance. But it comes way too early in the story, feeling less like an earned victory, and more a way to get Delsin to fill out his roster of powers. The game’s attitude toward authority feels dated instead of potent, reminiscent of a time when games were clumsily stabbing at trying to be political in the ways that comics had been (in their own clumsy style) for years.
Since their debut in 1963, the X-Men have always zeroed in on becoming a metaphor for the oppressed and minorities. In recent years, that substitution for actual representation has led to recent PR blow ups. Infamous thankfully doesn’t front-load its cast with superpowered white people and call it a day, but it follows the X-Men playbook too closely in some aspects, in ways that are both interesting and frustrating. Infamous 2 features two women of color, Kuo and Nix, who both acquired their powers following torture from one of the villains. Second Son’schief villain, meanwhile, is a white woman named Augustine, who leads the DUP with her concrete powers. Surprisingly, it’s Second Son that doesn’t “go there” in terms of embracing the political aspect of its metaphor, despite the fact that Delsin is Native American, and that Augustine tortures the members of his (fictional) tribe with her powers. Contrasted with Infamous 2—where there’s a visceral sense of validation in seeing Nix spit on her tormentor following his death—Second Son diminishes its impact by using a fake tribe as a stand-in, making Delsin’s win less of a metaphorical triumph over the forces of oppression.
The political themes are shaky in context of the larger world, but it’s in the personal stories where the franchise fares better. The plights of Cole and Delsin’s respective entourage of Conduits help make the Good/Evil Karma system—one of the games’ key selling points when they were early bestsellers on the PS3—work, despite its flawed, binary outlook. (Game-play wise, Delsin’s non-Conduit brother, Reggie, largely exists to force players to choose between redeeming or corrupting Conduits he gets new powers from.) Infamous 2 features a mission path for Good players where Cole teams up with one of the game’s many evil ice mercenaries, only for Cole to have to put him down as he becomes more monstrous. In its early moments, Second Son hits a similar feeling of fear and freedom that comes from the strongest X-Men moments, with Delsin’s newly discovered powers nearly getting him killed as he uses his new Smoke powers to crosses a destroyed bridge, emphasizing the way mutant and Conduit powers can be a double-edged sword for the scared kids who suddenly unlock them.
Meanwhile, the villain Augustine—in true X-Men villain fashion—was actually one of the many Conduits activated during the Beast’s coastal rampage in Infamous 2, and only founded the DUP to lock up Conduits so they could avoid persecution from humans. (The bus crash that begins the game’s story was orchestrated by her to continue stoking Conduit fear among the public.) When the games get into the micro stories of its cast of characters, the writing shines brighter than Delsin’s neon blasts—but those moments can still be a bit too infrequent.
Superhero stories have taught us there is no true end, no moment of peace that can’t be shaken up after a matter of months. Second Son’s ending sees Delsin and his friends redeem Conduits in the eyes of Seattle and kick off an apparent era of peace—the sort of happy ending that Logan, Scott, Jean, Hank, and the rest of the team, trapped in their serialized world, can only dream of. Which might be the least X-Men thing about the entire Infamous franchise, offering a vision of a world in which the Other is ultimately accepted and loved, instead of hated and feared. But if this is indeed the end of Infamous—and Sucker Punch doesn’t continue the series after its new samurai game—then I’m glad the Conduits got to go out on a clear win, despite the series’ stumbles. Like the comic books it draws influence from, should the series ever decide to reboot itself, here’s hoping that it does so in an all-new and uncanny way.