Beyond being a surprisingly well-written entry among Traveler’s Tales’ more recent Lego-Whatever titles, Lego Batman 2 may contain the most poignant expression I’ve seen of Superman’s perhaps most obvious narrative problem: how does one make a literally omnipotent character dramatically interesting? What does it mean when there’s this one guy always front-and-center who can outdo any individual, super-powered or otherwise, at whatever thing they feel makes them special?
Lego Batman 2 shines a spotlight on these questions in the very best way a videogame can, purely through play mechanics, and with reserved brilliance. Much like the first (much weaker, far buggier) Lego Batman game, the first few acts of the story mode lend Players One and Two the unsurprising respective roles of Batman and Robin. At the start of the second act, the plot twists in such a way that the latter finds himself bumped into the wings when Superman swoops into the Player Two spot. And then things get interestingly weird.
Now, this game has the same core rules as every previous Lego title going back to Lego Star Wars, including the crucial rule that death is extremely gentle. If you let your Zelda-style four-heart hit-counter run dry, your minifig-persona falls to bits while yelping like a Vaudevillian slipping on a banana peel, but only a second later reappears fit as a fiddle right where they fell. Players may suffer a moment of embarrassment and drop a handful of collected loot, but otherwise neither lose progress nor face any real sense of failure or loss.
Even against this backdrop of universal plastic-hero immortality and inexorable victory, the Lego Batman 2 incarnation of Superman flies in with all his aforementioned baggage in tow, and succeeds in using the distinct play-language of the Lego games to make subtly profound statements about the nature of his character.
The Lego-ized Superman’s button-tied powers assert themselves from the outset: he can fly, shoot heat vision, blow freeze-breath, and use super-strength to pull obstacles apart. This already starts to shame his buddy Batman, who can jump around and fling boomerangs, and (on finding the right powerups) change his clothes to temporarily gain other powers.
Superman’s amped-up abilities extend to the game-specific. Since 2005’s Lego Star Wars, an on-screen pile of bouncing, burbling Lego bricks acts as a cue for a player to approach and hold a button down; this directs their character to build some sort of useful device, ally or vehicle out of them, while the players look on in eager anticipation as the thing slowly comes together. It’s the games’ own version of Link’s rooting-around-in-a-treasure-chest animation. Superman does not play into this: he tears through the pile at super-speed, finishing in an eyeblink. One supposes he thinks he’s just being helpful.
Lego-Superman also possesses true invulnerability, at an angle that makes the quick-respawn abilities of all his minifig allies look like a sham. He still has a hit-counter up in his corner of the screen, but it spends the entire game grayed out, untouchable by any foe, fire or fall. (Not that Superman can fall, either. He’ll gladly topple over the lip of a deadly chasm if you send him there, but then proceed to hover patiently.) The presentation of that life-bar really drives the point home: it evokes the fact that, in all media, Superman has the outward appearance of just another mortal earthling, and indeed consciously chooses to present the façade of a friendly neighbor — when in reality dude’s a divine being of inexpressible power and terrifying potential.
I’m pleased to say that the game’s writing helps set this up, but steps aside at the right time, allowing the mechanics to deliver the punch, as it were. Superman first shows up in a cutscene, delighting fanboy Robin but immediately exasperating Batman, the cynical loner, who rebuffs his offers to help. Clearly Superman’s sunny boy-scout attitude chafes against Batman’s need to brood about criminal psychology from the shadows, a pairing familiar to anyone with more than a passing exposure to these comic-book personalities. So it feels like an especially powerful coup when Superman later becomes Batman’s player-controllable partner, and within a few minutes of play — and without the need for any further cutscene — we start to empathize with Batman, but not in the way the cutscene would lead us to expect. Sure, their personalities clash, but Batman must feel completely, even ridiculously redundant when trying to fight crime with this humble-bragging jerk in the red cape hanging around.
With both characters in play, one gets the impression that Superman could easily wipe out the entire game if he wanted to, and holds back out of politeness, or perhaps even a desire to make his friends feel strong or important. He refuses to enter arcing electric fields, something Batman can accomplish while wearing the right suit. Superman’s exaggerated “Oof!” when lightning hits him seems like theatrics, though: a dad pretending that his toddler play-tackling him actually knocked the wind out of him, a favor to the kid’s self-esteem.
Inevitably, Lex Luthor shows up later in the story and starts setting up Kryptonite-based traps and obstacles that Superman legitimately cannot cross; Batman must jog ahead and disable them to clear a path. But this only invites the view that Superman remains the real force of the pair, with Batman his janitorial support staff.
If the game relegated this Superman to a non-player character, just a foil to a controllable Batman, this wouldn’t work. It probably also doesn’t seem as powerful an effect if one plays through Lego Batman 2 in single-player mode, swapping between which hero one controls as needed. I played through the game’s story with a loved one on the couch beside me, with one of us controlling exclusively Batman or Superman, respectively. The Batman-player never felt like they were having less fun; their shared levels’ designs make sure that both have plenty to do. However, in a way that doesn’t quite match any previous Lego game, the intentional power-mismatch between the player-characters of Lego Batman 2’s middle act provides just enough of a sense of legitimate role-playing — even within the loose and consciously silly Lego videogame rules — to teach a couple of comics-culture-saturated grown-ups something new and surprising about these familiar old characters in the way that only a game can, through game mechanics. And that’s awesome.