A few months ago we reported that LEGO was discontinuing its Creator Expert branding in favor of a broader array of adult-targeted LEGO sets. There’s no longer a handy moniker to round up these sets, but most of them bear the new 18+ age recommendation, which simply denotes their focus on adults rather than signifying anything about the difficulty of the set, as the age bracket has traditionally done. However, most of the sets that have come out of the new initiative fall neatly within the familiar styles from previous years, such as the Star Wars UCS A-wing, Crocodile Locomotive, or the Haunted House. One new assortment stands out, though, with the LEGO Art line featuring a series of four sets that let you assemble your own wall decor mosaic-style. Today we’re taking a look at 31199 Marvel Studios Iron Man, which is available now for US $119.99 | CAN $149.99 | UK £114.99. It has 3,167 pieces, and includes instructions to assemble one of three different portraits of various Iron Man suits. Alternatively, if you purchase three copies of the sets, you can build a huge Iron Man image that’s three times the size. So let’s take a look at the new mosaic set and see if it lives up to expectations.
LEGO has a long history with mosaics, reaching as far back as 1955, several years before Godtfred Kirk Christiansen even filed for a patent on the now-iconic toy building brick. In that year, LEGO released a few sets that used basic bricks to create very simple pictures. The company continued to explore the idea throughout the 1980s with printed tiles for the Duplo theme, and in the 2000s introduced a variety of mosaic sets, which bear a much closer resemblance to the new Art theme mosaics. One interesting set was 3443 LEGO Mosaic, which allowed customers to upload a photo and generate instructions to piece together a black and white image.
LEGO 3443 Mosaic. Image courtesy of Brickset.com
A similar but more sophisticated colorized system that employs an on-site photo booth is now available exclusively in a few flagship LEGO stores. So LEGO’s Art line is not the introduction of a brand new system, but rather the logical next step in the company’s 65-year history of mosaics. Whereas previous sets have had only a small handful of colors, the Art theme mosaics utilize a wide variety. Importantly, they also aim squarely at pop culture fans, with sets based on the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, as well as Andy Warhol’s art and The Beatles, positioning them well to draw in new customers who haven’t purchased LEGO before. (Read more about the other LEGO Art sets here.) So with that background, let’s dive into the Iron Man set.
The box and contents
The set comes in a box that’s approximately the size of the finished build, which is 50×50 studs (just slightly larger than a standard grey baseplate). The new adult-focused product branding is on display with the black box, though it’s missing the monochrome greeble stripe along the bottom that most other 18+ sets have. Both the front and back of the box show the alternate portraits that can be built using the set’s pieces: an Iron Man Mark III suit, a Hulkbuster Mark I, and a Mark LXXXV. I chose the latter to build as it’s the one featured on the box and also because I thought it looked the most interesting.
Unlike most LEGO boxes, the box is very thin in a way that belies its huge part count, giving an early hint that this won’t be a traditional LEGO set.
The box top swings open showing a neatly arranged assortment including the manual, bags of elements, and a box for the baseplates. A prominent graphic of a smartphone and headphones indicates that there’s an audio element to the set, and we’ll return to that in a moment. The manual is slotted into a cardboard cover that hides the two traditional element bags with parts for the frame.
The rest of the bags are a variety of 1×1 round plates sorted by color. The bags range in quantities from as few as a couple dozen to more than 500.
The color sorting is an absolute necessity for a set of this style, as having to pick the correct colors from a mixed lot would be a miserable experience. (Spoiler alert: we also built the combined mosaic, and that meant unbuilding and sorting this one.) Seeing all 2,974 1x1s pre-sorted in 15 colors like this, it almost felt like a shame to open them and start building.
The instruction manual begins with several spreads of history about both Iron Man and the LEGO set.
The final page before the build begins is an introduction to the audio component, which is a 90-minute podcast about the origins of the Iron Man comic and its fandom. It’s well-produced, though it feels a bit forced at times. However, chances are that if you’ve just purchased a $120 Iron Man mosaic to hang on your wall, you’ll be firmly in the target audience for enjoying learning more about superhero trivia. Infuriatingly, the instructions do not include a link to the podcast, only a QR code, so if you’re like me and use a laptop and speaker setup in your build area rather than a smartphone, you’ll have to resort to poking around on LEGO’s website to find it. (To save you some time, here’s a link to the audio on both LEGO’s website and Youtube.)
The mosaic sets include a few new elements, the most prominent of which is the new brick separator. It’s essentially an extra-wide version of the modern brick separator, twice as wide on the stud-pulling end and three-times as wide on the tile-shucking end, which has led to some fans dubbing it the “thicc separator.” It also lacks the Technic axle on the old one, which I rarely found useful anyway. The new tool is intended to help disassembly of the thousands of 1×1 studs go faster, and it does work better than either the old tool and just using your hands, but don’t be fooled into thinking it makes quick work of the job. It’s still a slow, tedious process.
Another new element is the 16×16 Technic brick. Nine of them are used to create the mosaic’s substrate, and their Technic pinholes provide plenty of ways to attach them together, as well as attach the picture hangers to them. The hangars themselves are also new elements, which are essentially 3×5 Technic panels with a deep groove in the middle. I found them to be remarkably effective for catching a nail or screw to hang the finished picture.
The build process
Now it’s time to get started building the mosaic. Or, perhaps more accurately, I should say get started assembling the mosaic, as there’s little that could be considered “building” involved in the process. Luckily, since all the 1×1 plates come pre-sorted, you can dive straight in. You’ll assemble each of the nine 16×16 panels individually, connecting them with Technic pins. A small map in the upper left shows which part of the image you’re working on. The instructions are a different style than most LEGO sets, with a two-dimensional, top-down diagram of each 16×16 panel showing the colors. There’s a color chart with corresponding number codes, so it’s always easy to tell which colors go where.
You’ll definitely want to figure out a good work area and a way to place all the colors of 1×1 rounds for easy grabbing. The box image laughably shows a small bowl of the colors mixed together, which would be a terrible way to approach it. I grabbed a stack of small party cups that I use when sorting my own LEGO to hold each color.
There are a few ways you can approach putting the pieces on. I started by trying to go across each row completely filling it in with whatever colors were needed, but found it to be much faster to place all the studs of a certain color first, and then do the same with the next color, and so on.
Some of the sections consisted of only two colors, and these were brutally tedious, as it was very easy to lose your place and put pieces on the wrong spaces. But it is possible after a while to get into a zen-like rhythm, relaxing and just mindlessly copying the instructions placing stud after stud. In this regard, there’s a certain charm to it, and it’s likely this will appeal to people who enjoy other similar crafts that require a lot of repetition. But it bears almost no resemblance to the aspects of LEGO that draw me to the hobby and engage my brain–there are no interesting build techniques, no fun part combos. Also, there’s no predicting what the next piece will be, because the zoomed-in nature of a mosaic means that you’re dealing with seemingly abstract colors and shapes.
If you’re like me, you might occasionally make mistakes when building and not notice them until a little while later. Unfortunately, the new brick separator is no help whatsoever in removing a stud from the middle. There is a simple solution, though. I grabbed one of the spring-loaded missiles which I have in copious quantities from Star Wars sets, and it works perfectly to pry out a piece in the middle. Any LEGO bar element would work here, though.
Every three panels are connected together to form a full row, and the rows are then assembled into the final picture. This provides at least some sense of progress as you make your way towards placing the two-thousand, three-hundred, and fourth (and final) 1×1 round plate. Despite the set having 604 more 1×1 round plates than are called for on any given design, you’d better be sure to hunt any escapees that bounce away during building, because not all of the colors are equally used in every design. When I got to the end of this image, I had a mere one or two pieces left of a few colors.
With the nine segments assembled, you can finally step back and admire your handiwork. There’s just one remaining section, which is to add the frame.
The frame is a simple 1-stud border of standard bricks that attach to the picture with 1×2 bricks with Technic pins and a lip of plates around the back edge. Without the frame, the segments are very unstable and can’t even be moved easily, but the structure is fairly solid once the frame is in place.
The finished model
The completed portrait is captivating, and the larger variety of 15 “pixel” colors makes the fidelity considerably more appealing than LEGO’s previous mosaic sets.
In the bottom right corner, there’s a 2×4 tile with the Iron Man logo (the set’s only printed element) that serves as a placard. As a nice touch, the instructions include the pattern for the studs that it displaces, giving you the option to leave it off.
The mosaic hangs easily on the wall and sits nicely flush. The two hangars are easy to adjust a few inches left or right if you’re using existing nails in your wall. I had just a single nail, so I moved a hangar to the middle.
The Ultimate Build
But what if a 15-by-15 inch Iron Man portrait made of LEGO just isn’t big enough to show off your superhero nerd cred? Well, there’s a bigger build too, if you want to triple your expenses by getting three copies of the set. Let’s do it.
I’d highly recommend you determine if you want to build the ultimate model at the start, rather than using a single set to build a smaller mosaic first like I did. Because I had only three copies of the set, I had to disassemble the first model to retrieve the parts. I’ve already alluded to this process being a slog, but what a slog it was. As I mentioned, the new brick separator is a help but it’s still slow going. There’s a trick to using it though. My instinct was to fit it to a row of studs and push down on the upraised end, but that doesn’t work very well, and tends to send the studs flying in the four winds when they do come loose. A better method, I found, is to fit it to the studs and then twist it towards myself, prying off each stud one at a time in sequence, while using my other hand to cover the studs and keep them here on earth.
What seemed like an eternity later, and I had three cups full of mixed colors of 1×1 round plates. I did pull off most of the dark blue and black section separately to save myself a little sorting. At least the other 2/3 of the studs from the other boxes were still neatly sorted. In the end, I resolved to skip sorting these parts and just pull from the sorted piles first, only diving into these once the sorted ones ran out. I think that saved me some time, though again, some colors were nearly used up even with all three sets combined.
So then, on to assembling the Ultimate Build. Except, where’s the instruction manual? The paper manual included has an advertisement for it, but like the podcast, there’s a QR code but no link or directions on how to find it on LEGO’s website. If you’re an experienced LEGO fan, you probably already know that PDF copies of every LEGO set are available on LEGO’s website via a tiny navigation link at the page bottom, but people new to the LEGO experience (certainly a target audience for this set) won’t know that. Here’s the Ultimate Build instructions link that LEGO should have provided.
Additionally, you definitely won’t want to be following these instructions on the tiny screen of a smartphone. My wife and I worked on this together, as the modular nature of the build makes it easy to divvy up the work. Had I been working alone, it would have taken at least 10 hours. The ability to split the workload, however, is actually an important point. This set would make a great family project, as each person can build one or a few sections (and with digital instructions, they can build simultaneously) and then combine them all for the complete picture.
The finished Ultimate Build is an impressively large piece of art, clocking in just shy of four feet wide and more than a foot tall. I don’t know exactly how many pieces it uses, but with 6,912 1×1 round plates alone, plus the frame, Technic pins, etc., it’s within spitting distance of LEGO’s largest-ever set, 75192 Ultimate Collector Series Millennium Falcon, and for less than half the cost.
Much more than the square mosaic, you have to be careful moving this one. The sheer size of the picture allows a lot more flex between the elements, and while it’s fairly strong carried perpendicular to the ground (as if it were hanging) if you shift it to flat you risk catastrophe. I know, because I did.
Thankfully, the model’s modular nature meant it is pretty easy to piece back together–certainly much simpler than dropping any other multi-thousand piece set. Only a few studs popped off, and the rest was just reconnecting the modules and fixing the frame.
Conclusion & recommendation
The LEGO Art line set out to capture a new segment of the LEGO audience, and it succeeds admirably. There are many who will find the set’s simple techniques yet impressive results a very satisfying experience, and it’s sure to open the doors for newcomers to the LEGO hobby, and that’s always a good thing. The Art theme’s pop culture expressions are an instant hook into the wallets of modern nerddom, and there’s no denying that the stylized portraits are cool.
However, along the way, some of the joys of traditional LEGO building are lost. It’s so simple that to call the experience a “LEGO build” seems almost disingenuous, and if you’re looking for excitement with the process rather than simply joy at the results, this probably isn’t the set for you. The price is also a bit hard to swallow. No matter how many thousands of tiny plastic pixels the set includes, you’re paying $120 for a 15″ picture to hang on your wall, or $360 for the larger Ultimate Build. For those prices, you can get a pretty amazing traditional art piece. But a large part of the appeal of the set isn’t what it is, but what it’s made of. Most buyers will want to show off its LEGO-ness and tout their geek cred, and for that, perhaps, price isn’t the first consideration. Ultimately, the LEGO Art mosaics aren’t for everyone. But they are very much for someone, and just maybe this review helps you figure out if that’s you.
31199 Marvel Studios Iron Man includes 3,167 parts and is available now from the LEGO Shop (US $119.99 | CAN $149.99 | UK £114.99) and may be available from third-party sellers on Amazon.com, eBay, and elsewhere.
The LEGO Group sent The Brothers Brick copies of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.