License to Build

I have to say that coming back to building as an AFOL it took a while for me to come to terms with the presence of licensed themes.

Jurassic World. Disney sets. Simpsons minifigures. Scooby Doo. Angry Birds movie. The horrible SpongeBob in LEGO form. Even awesome franchises like the superhero universes and Star Wars.

When I contemplated all the time and pain I went through trying to make old-style hinges and trans yellow Space windscreens work for a proper X-Wing, the fact that there’s a set for that now seemed almost like a betrayal.

I probably sounded rather Grumpy Old Man about it: “Eee, lads, in my day we used a black-suited Classic astronaut holding a trans red antenna brick, and that were our Darth Vader. And we counted ourselves lucky to have a black spaceman! You young whippersnappers don’t know how good you’ve got it! You’d be better builders if you had to work it out and imagine like we did!”

Licensing? Bah!

Of course, the attitude is rather hypocritical, because I would have cheerfully strangled small furry animals to get my hands on a real X-Wing set at that age if there had been such a thing.

It didn’t help me come to terms with licencing that my inspiration initially flowed better in the direction of nonlicensed and classic themes. Classic Space was my first LEGO love, the pre-theme “theme” that really got me hooked on LEGO. Naturally as an AFOL I want to build with a Classic Space vibe.

Getting into storytelling using the LEGO Message Boards, I gravitated to non-storied, older themes or stories with only a tangential connection to LEGO. The part of storytelling I most enjoy is the worldbuilding, and there’s just less scope for that in a theme with an established story. Which includes every single licensed theme there is.

Still, I have to say that licensed sets do give you options for MOCmaking.

It’s basically impossible, for instance, to build a minifig-scale Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter or a steampunkified Batmobile without a Darth Vader or a Batman to work with. Since they exist, people want to see the real figures; a black-suited Classic Spaceman is not going to cut it as either Vader or Batman.

That led to a gradual re-evaluation and acceptance of the various licensed themes. I’m still pretty sparing in the licensed sets I’ll purchase, because licensing costs money and the Star Wars theme, for instance, are some of the most expensive ways to buy bricks when calculated on a price-per-brick basis.

I still can’t imagine willingly putting down money on a SpongeBob or Angry Birds set, just because I can’t imagine ever having a use for those minifigures.

But as my kids (and especially my son) gravitate to Star Wars and Batman and the Avengers and other things, our household stock of various licensed minifigures has grown to the point where it’s actually not unreasonable to contemplate a Star Wars-themed creation.

Licensed themes aren’t, in fact, destroying creativity. I’ll grant that a tile printed with the symbol of the Empire doesn’t lend itself all that well to a non-Star Wars build, but like balljoints or Travis bricks or pneumatic T-pieces, the sets open up possibilities. In this case, possibilities for modeling those worlds that just wouldn’t be there very well without the licensing. Who’s going to drive your replica Batmobile if there is no LEGO Batman?

So I’ve basically come to terms with licensing as a general principle of the LEGO Group’s operation. It has its downsides, particularly in the amount of time and energy the Group seem to pour into licensed themes versus nonlicensed ones, but I’m no longer feeling like my youthful not-very-good-but-using-what-was-available X-Wings and AT-ATs have been betrayed by the existence of sets for that.

I think in some ways I’d prefer it if there were proportionally a few less licensed themes, but I understand that the LEGO Group are a business and that’s where the money seems to be.

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3 thoughts on “License to Build

  1. Luke Skytrekker

    I’ve always similarly struggled with licensed themes myself, despite my young whippersnapper status. 😛 The only thing I’ve ever fully embraced is Star Wars, and that’s just because my first official Lego sets were Star Wars ones, and for me Star Wars and Legos were practically synonymous growing up. Admittedly, me and my brother did get around the lack of wordbuilding opportunities and general storyline stiffness of Star Wars by scrapping everything but the Jedi, Sith, and spaceships. We still have this giant universe of characters we developed laying around, mostly in the form of rainbow-warrior monstrosities we built years ago but can’t bring ourselves to take apart because “That’s Darth Sul’s battle cruiser” and “That’s Tommy’s space taxi cab.” Despite our growing ages and his cooling interest in actually playing with Legos, my brother did actually sit down with me on my recent birthday and dig out a ton of our old characters and builds and have some fun. I still love my main Jedi I created, mostly because he’s a complete wreck of insecurity and jealousy, and generally results in amusing plotlines.
    To return to the whole topic of licensed themes, I still have yet to embrace 90% of them, and honestly don’t really buy very many sets anymore as a result of them, but at least there’s Star Wars. 😛 I probably should be more openminded, but I just don’t have the time or the patience. 😛

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    1. geoffhorswood Post author

      This is why Star Wars is such a great LEGO theme: its universe, big enough to support Extended Universe novels and fanfiction, is certainly big enough to support MOCs. There’s enough room for new and different ships and ground vehicles to be built, that no-one’s seen yet.
      I have some vague ideas about a Star Wars alternate, set somewhere between RotJ and TFA, in which Wicket becomes a Jedi Master.
      I’m with you on most of the licensed themes. My son bought himself a Jurassic World set for the dinosaur included, and we have some LEGO Batman Movie sets, and if they still made Harry Potter or Hobbit/LotR sets (or sold them on Bricklink for prices less than extortionate) we’d probably have those, but Star Wars is really the only theme we buy new sets of.
      One of my big problems with at least half of the licensed themes is that they seem like they have dubious LEGO potential. I mean, after you’ve acquired all the characters and built the Mystery Machine and a “haunted” house, what’s to build in a Scooby Doo theme? Or Jurassic World, whose sets are only in it for the dinosaurs? Or most non-Batman superheroes, for that matter? The Avengers are undoubtedly cool, but they don’t need or use a lot of toys for their hero-ness, which means less set potential.
      Contrast something like Star Wars, where yeah, they remake the “main” vehicles like X-Wings, TIE Fighters and so on every few years, but there’s always something else that can be built.
      My one peeve with the Star Wars theme is the amount of attention they devote to peripheral secondary-canon stuff like Rebels. I still don’t really know (or to be honest, care much about) the whole Ezra Bridger/Kanan Jarrus etc crew, but they seem to have a heck of a lot of sets. I’d prefer some more sets from the actual films.

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      1. Luke Skytrekker

        Wicket as a Jedi Master? That’s both amusing and intriguing. Personally, I’ve always wanted to rewrite the prequels in novel form, to try to make all of them consistent with the originals and in general make more sense, but I’m dubious of my skills to do such a thing and I wager it’d be so different I might as well call it a different story. Add in my obsessive originality and inability to write anything remotely connected to other people’s work, and I just never got around to trying it.
        I am rather sad I didn’t grab any of those LOTR sets, but they were all based on the movies, and as one of those annoying book purists I couldn’t bring myself to it. I regret it now, if only for the pieces.
        You’ve got a good point with the Avengers—they really don’t use any iconic vehicles, or even have very many iconic location, and so they don’t really lend themselves to sets. And, aside from that, they suffer horrifically from what I’ll just call the Multiple Identity Incarnation Crisis: Avengers revolves so intensively around a certain key cast of characters, that the same characters appear in nearly every set. So, if you buy more than one, you’re going to end up with more than one Iron Man and more than one Hulk. Before you know it you have an entire Iron Man army. Themes Star Wars do suffer a little from this, but not nearly as significantly (Star Wars features a lot of stormtrooper-like characters that can easily be present by the dozen without causing any existential crises).
        I feel you with Rebels and that weird Clone Wars thing. I’ve never watched any of the Star Wars TV shows, regardless of some of the good things I’ve heard, and frankly couldn’t care less about this whole cast of characters I know nothing about. Also, can I just say the Lego incarnations of Clone Wars’ animation style were outright horrific? That Yoda…

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