FX’s “Legion” Redefines Superhero Television

Having superpowers would be pretty great, right? Not if you’re David Haller aka Legion, the schizophrenic, titular mutant in FX’s newest, comic book series. To call Legion a comic book show, though, is actually quite misleading. Created by Noah Hawley of Fargo fame, Legion is simultaneously a deconstruction and evolution of the superhero television genre. Comic fans expecting a traditional representation in line with Marvel’s previous efforts may be disappointed. But it’s Hawley’s diversion from the norm that makes Legion so compelling.

With any superhero, the first thing most people want to know is, “What can they do?” Super strength or super speed? Flight or telepathy? Attempting to describe David’s abilities is not only difficult but also fairly confusing; he is simply unlike any other mainstream superhero. To be clear, though, David is not a hero; antihero may be more appropriate, but even that designation imposes a binary limitation on the character. David’s morality occupies a liminal space beyond the standard convention of comic book code.

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(Wikipedia)

First appearing in New Mutants in 1985, David Haller is the mentally deranged son of Professor X, capable of assimilating a person’s psyche, thereby afflicting him with severe multiple personality disorder. As a result, David can manifest the potential superpowers of any subsumed mutant, making him one of the most powerful (and dangerous) mutants on the planet. David’s mind is not his own but rather a broken composite of endless personas – a legion. So the existence of “David Haller” may actually be more concept than reality.

Tonally, how does one even begin to craft a world representative of such mania? Emulating some of film’s most prolific directors, known for their surrealist styles, is a good start. The well of influence from which Hawley draws is as vast and deep as it is twisted and colorful. Shades of Kubrick, Malick, Lynch and even Paolo Sorrentino or Wes Anderson can all be seen in the pilot. Hawley’s references aren’t exactly subtle;  David’s mental institution is called “Clockwork,” and his love interest is named after Pink Floyd’s schizophrenic and once-committed, Syd Barrett. Luckily, subtly could not be further from Legion‘s desired tone.

In unison, Hawley synthesizes his inspirations into a psychedelic, cinematic cocktail that’s almost too hard to handle. For some, it may be too much. And that’s okay. Because FX and Hawley are prepared for that reaction; it’s by design. “The premiere is deliberately alienating: If you can handle it, you’re in for the whole ride. If you can’t, you probably didn’t want to watch an elliptical not-quite-superhero show in the first place,” Alison Herman explains in her review from The Ringer.

Elliptical is a polite way of saying weird and polarizing – or in other words, Noah Hawley’s personal brand. How many creators are bold enough to include a Bollywood-inspired dance number in their superhero show? And that’s just one of countless anachronisms throughout the show.

legion_fx

(Uproxx)

The pilot wastes no time in challenging our conception of time and place. The most immediately jarring example is David’s sister, whose 1960’s wardrobe makes her a better fit for Mad Men than a mutant drama. Later, during one of David’s evaluations, a device reminiscent of a digital tablet is used. But even that inclusion doesn’t provide a conclusive answer to when and where.

Legion‘s production designer, Michael Wylie, offered some insight on the decision to avoid a definitive timestamp: “We’re meant to be in David’s head looking out at the world, and that world, because he may or may not be schizophrenic, changes every time he looks at the same thing.” Hawley isn’t trying to trick the audience. He’s simply imitating David’s distorted view of reality while helping us sympathize with him in the process.

Legion makes the case that our characters’ traumas are more important than their extrasensory abilities. Mental illness is not the springboard for indulgent displays of CGI excess. Rather, David’s powers provide a platform for discussion on the meaning of insanity and its effect on someone’s life. Legion concerns itself with the fragile nature of a broken mind first, and superpowers, second.

A different show would have likely glamorized David’s pathology in an almost Sherlockian fashion – a tortured, neurotic soul uses said neuroses to overcome his inner demons and save the day. Unfortunately, battling mental illness is not that easy; you don’t just “get over it.” Legion is far more introspective than that. By the end of the pilot’s introductory, 90-second montage, which culminates in a suicide attempt, it becomes very clear that being David Haller is synonymous with tragedy.

Sure, Legion isn’t completely devoid of humor, thanks in large part to a versatile cast.  Best known for his suave and stylish characters in PBS’ Downton Abbey or 2014’s The Guest, Dan Stevens does a complete 180 as David. Playing against type, Stevens embodies David’s socially awkward yet abrasively witty personality without a hitch. Supporting Stevens is Aubrey Plaza, who delivers her trademark snark with a mature nuance. Even in these moments of levity, Hawley quickly reminds us that they are built on the foundation of deeply disturbed individuals. Their collective insanity, though, is what allows the show to be so unpredictable.

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(FX)

Uncertainty is a common theme throughout the pilot and will be for the remainder of the series. The unreliable narrator can be a contrived trope, commonly exploited to betray character motivations in favor of cheap twists. How often has a show or film duped its audience by revealing it was all a dream or in the main character’s head?

In Legion, David questions his reality from the very beginning, eliminating any potential for future deception. Via transitive property, we’re therefore trained to meet any revelation with doubt. As David jumps between moments, there’s always a creeping suspicion that nothing he experiences is actually real. By establishing that level of understanding so early on, Hawley allows us to sit back and enjoy the ride, rather than over-analyze every small detail.

Legion‘s circuity can be admittedly frustrating, but patience is rewarded; the path of least resistance is also the most enjoyable one. Despite the unconventional structure, it somehow all makes sense – a controlled chaos, if you will. It’s a necessary aesthetic and storytelling choice to properly convey a fractured psyche. In turn, Legion constructs one of the most impressive depictions of what it may look and feel like to break completely from reality.

Apparently one of Hawley’s cinematographers has never even seen an X-Men film. If Legion were part of that franchise’s continuity, such an oversight would be a weakness. Here, it’s a strength. In 67 minutes, Hawley and team executed the most unique X-Men story to date. To be fair, Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films are landmark achievements that helped pioneer the superhero movie genre.

Before the idea of shared cinematic universes even existed, Fox united one of Marvel’s most iconic teams under one roof. With the exception of Matthew Vaughn’s soft reboot, X-Men: First Class, Fox also managed to maintain the same core cast over 17 years. In a Hollywood ecosystem where reboots run rampant, that’s fairly impressive. But the live-action representation of X-Men desperately needs new blood.

The X-Men domain is one of the richest and most specific worlds within Marvel’s broader range of properties. Sans a few major crossover events with other characters and teams like The Avengers, the X-Men and their various iterations have existed largely on the fringe of Marvel Comics. Their world operates according to different standards, as evidenced by the parallels of racism that define the X-Men comics. They don’t quite exist in a vacuum, but the general disassociation from Marvel’s lager universe has often been a strategic advantage for their stories. These same benefits enjoyed by process of separation have also extended to the film and television universes.

Currently, Fox enjoys the exclusive rights to any cinematic X-Men adaption. Given the success of Marvel’s film and television universes, critics and fans alike regularly wish that the rights would revert back to Marvel. Had that happened, though, Legion would likely have never existed if it were shoehorned into one of Marvel’s larger “phases.” Fox’s model isn’t perfect, but it certainly adds a dimension of freshness to an already saturated market. Legion further demonstrates the value in keeping some properties separate.

Beyond X-Men adaptions, Legion represents an opportunity to become Marvel’s best series to date. When Netflix’s Daredevil burst onto the scene, the series was applauded for its brutal and adult tone – words that are not often associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While subsequent installments like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were equally as daring, it became clear that the direction of those series was fairly flat. Much like their silver screen counterparts, Marvel’s TV efforts lack a unique voice between each series. In their defense, it’s a necessary evil.

Maintaining a uniform visual aesthetic is the easiest way to ensure cohesion between otherwise, vastly different worlds and characters. A billionaire playboy needs to have the same weight as a thunder god. Legion, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about conformity. Untethered from a larger connected universe, Hawley is free to craft whatever bizarre path and follow it (or not), as he sees fit. Where other Marvel series’ toe the line between realism and fantasy, Legion completely embraces its source material’s insanity, right down to the pilot’s climactic, superpowered finale.

legion_fx

(Uproxx)

After premiering to so-so ratings, Legion doubled its audience in the three days following the pilot. As impressive as that jump may be, Legion is still one of FX’s least-watched series to date. That shouldn’t be cause for concern, though, as the series is receiving near-universal acclaim. And FX president John Landgraf is known for his commitment to critical darlings over ratings behemoths.

The series will likely find a niche among those willing to take the plunge and may even see an uptick in viewership as positive word-of-mouth continues to spread. In all fairness, an obscure Marvel character with an equally insane premise is a tough sell. But that’s exactly why you should give Legion a chance; obscurity makes the property malleable, capable of truly becoming a one-of-a-kind series, regardless of its comic book origin.

Support for Legion tells Hollywood that risks are still worth taking. And that means something, now more than ever. With “Peak TV” expected to reach 500 scripted shows in 2017, FX and Noah Hawley prove that quality still exists in a sea of mediocrity. When Legion wins an Emmy later in the year, wouldn’t it be nice to say that you were there from the beginning?

 

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