People were ready for Marvel’s Avengers to be a disaster. Ever since the first teaser came out over three years ago, every glimpse at the game, from trailers to gameplay demos, was widely met with snark and derision, or, at best, utter disinterest. Between the relentlessness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the overexposure of superheroes in general, and legit concerns over the game’s direction, the buzz on this thing could only be described as bad.
Now that the game is actually out, reviews seem a bit more upbeat than expected. Sure, it might be another overstuffed example of how bloated big budget game development has become—four different studios are credited, and the Destiny-aping multiplayer stuff feels like games-as-a-service design by checklist—but based on the reviews it’s not the clear misfire people thought it would be. That’s at least partially because of a crucial decision its developers made with the game’s story, one that helps defuse one of the biggest gripes people had with the game’s trailers. It all comes down to character.
Of all the complaints that kept popping up before release, the most frequent one came down to its character models. People couldn’t get past the fact that the game didn’t license the likenesses of the actors who played these characters in the Marvel movies. The game brings that on itself—despite its developers repeatedly saying that this wasn’t connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was establishing its own take on Marvel lore, Avengers sticks about as closely as it can to the likenesses and depictions from the movies without actually licensing them. Obviously that only invites comparisons, which in turn highlights every way these characters do and don’t resemble the movie versions. And that’s not something you want your player to be fixated on while they’re trying to enjoy your game.
The game’s core lineup of characters—Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and Black Widow—have all been around for more than 50 years, and have gone through various permutations and portrayals in that time. Comic book fans are used to changes both subtle and extreme as these characters get adapted into different mediums or for newer generations. Until the movies, though, that specific combination of characters wouldn’t even be considered a classic Avengers lineup by any fans of the comics. It makes sense, obviously, that Square-Enix would want to promote this hugely budgeted, years-in-the-making, would-be blockbuster with the Avengers lineup made popular by the hugely successful movies. But inviting those kinds of comparisons are risky when you’re unable to give people exactly what they expect. From the characters chosen, to how the characters are portrayed, the game’s campaign intentionally courts the fans of the movies and what they would expect from a game based on them. Any differences stand out, no matter the practical explanations for them.
Take Iron Man. The guy seen in those trailers clearly isn’t Robert Downey Jr., but he has a goatee, quips as much as an obnoxious sitcom character, and loves the kind of classic rock songs my uncle can half-play on guitar. In the opening scene he makes a dramatic entrance during an Avengers fan festival, soaking up the adulation just like Downey’s Iron Man does in Iron Man 2. The dashing playboy gimmick has been a part of Tony Stark since his very first appearance, but the hyper-verbal, constantly wisecracking, flippant bad boy genius take on the character is inextricably linked to Downey. And when you watch those cut-scenes, and realize it’s not Robert Downey Jr., but something eerily similar, it can undermine the entire game.
Again: people have been complaining about this since E3 2019 . And now that the game has been released, we can see that its story—the parts of the game where you get to see and hear those weirdly familiar, but decidedly different, versions of these characters—seems to anticipate those kinds of complaints.
Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t start with any of those characters. The first person you play as, and the one whose perspective dominates most of the campaign, is one who’s never been seen in a Marvel movie. It’s Kamala Khan, the current Ms. Marvel, who has been one of Marvel’s best and most beloved comic book characters since her debut in 2013. By centering the game on a character who hasn’t been in the MCU, Marvel’s Avengers cuts off the likeness issues people had with the trailers. And by focusing on Ms. Marvel specifically, and her gradual introduction into the world of the Avengers, the game chooses a point-of-view character that perfectly fits its plan to establish its own continuity.
Kamala Khan might be a relatively new character, but she’s already made several appearances in Marvel videogames and animated programs. She’s effectively a modern-day Spider-Man—a nerdy, awkward teenager suddenly thrust into a life of heroism, only without 60 years of history as baggage, and with a Muslim heritage that makes her a perfect superhero for today’s multicultural America. She was born and raised as American as Steve Rogers, but by parents who immigrated from Pakistan, and the comics have largely explored the friction between those two cultures with an understated grace. That doesn’t exclusively define Khan as a character, but it’s a crucial part of who she is, and the comics have done a great job of portraying her as a well-rounded, realistic human being. She’s endearingly relatable, and the Ms. Marvel in Avengers is about as faithful to the comic character as possible.
By making her the central character of its campaign, Marvel’s Avengers quickly circumvents the whole likeness issue. Yes, we play as those classic Avengers in the game’s first big action sequence, which doubles as a tutorial, and it can be a little underwhelming to see and hear characters that try really hard to resemble the movie versions while staying legally in-the-clear. That’s a small moment during a lengthy series of scenes where you play primarily as Ms. Marvel, though. While playing as her we also learn the backstory of this version of the Marvel Universe, which is significantly different from that of the MCU (for one: Iron Man, Black Widow and Captain America are all still active). This, too, helps.
There’s still a lot to criticize about this clunky, overbearing game, but fortunately most of those problems come outside the campaign. When it comes to its characters and story, Marvel’s Avengers is surprisingly successful—and the main reason why is its least famous superhero, Ms. Marvel.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.