Legion is the evolution of the superhero screen adaptation. It’s hard to overstate how intrinsically it differs from nearly every prior film or TV show about a Marvel or DC character. Confidently blazing a new trail with little need for the genre’s well-worn touchstones, the series is riveting. It’s as if a gonzo director bought the rights for peanuts when the genre was down on its luck, ignored most of the property, and used it as a playground for their crazy vision.
But this is no Jodorowsky Dune adaptation conjured up on the fringes of the mainstream. This is a co-production between erstwhile rivals Fox (owner of screen rights to the lucrative X-Men franchise) and Marvel TV (responsible for the Netflix Marvel shows set in the company’s cinematic universe, which notoriously does not include the X-Men). For both, this is a rare venture into avant-garde weirdness. Intertextually ambitious as the Marvel Studios films may be, Doctor Strange’s visual flourishes are the extent of their experimental storytelling. Legion, on the other hand, is experimental to its core, with an unreliable narrator for a protagonist who forces us to question the validity of everything we see.
The source of this ambition is Noah Hawley, who has used the clout earned from his unexpectedly brilliant series adaptation of Fargo to film a major superhero property in the style of an indie science fiction movie. Approached about creating an X-Men TV series, Hawley suggested a minor character from the mythos: the immensely powerful but mentally unstable David Haller, also known as Legion, in whom he saw potential to innovate. In the comics David is the son of Professor Charles Xavier, but the show has seemingly dispensed with that origin along with his cackling mania and ridiculously tall hair. Is this an X-Men show with no connection to the existing films, like the CW’s DC shows? Or is it pretending to be autonomous only to smash headlong into the established world down the line? With a show this obfuscatory, anything seems possible.
The first episode is an intense, bewildering experience, but the following two settle down to reinforce the premise in more linear fashion. Diagnosed schizophrenic David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), confined to a psychiatric hospital, falls for a newly admitted and mysterious young woman named Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller). Following a bizarre and destructive display of their powers, she leads him to a secret group led by Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) that protects superpowered mutants at a facility called Summerland. Bird insists that David’s delusions are manifestations of a mutant power and therefore actually real.
The longer-term agenda of the series is still unclear in episode three. David is being pursued by government agents who supposedly want to eliminate powerful mutants, but for such a puzzle box of a series this is too formulaic a threat. Legion is not another fugitives-from-persecution yarn. The primary plot engine and source of mystery is the subjectivity of reality and memory, which Hawley explores exhaustively. Certain terrifying elements embedded in David’s memories and visions indicate a sinister outside force intruding on his perceptions and therefore our perspective.
We see David’s memories in flashback and when he and the Summerland mutants explore them using one of their number’s own power. In each, we glimpse an obese, devilish figure with golden eyes that only David can see, which seems entirely disconnected from everything else on the show. And in his childhood, he apparently read a picture book so ghoulish it can’t possibly be real, not to mention then encountering one of the illustrated characters in real life, or so he recalls. If these are just representations of David’s deep-seated issues, they don’t warrant the emphasis placed on them. These are somehow intrusions of the outside world into David’s mind, making it a threat before it can become a tool to harness.
Describing the complex, subjective interiority still doesn’t do justice to Legion’s constant visual invention. Hawley takes any opportunity he can to craft a dazzling shot, visualising David’s skewed and skittish perspective on the world. In some wide shots the edges of the frame are out of focus, giving us the sense of being voyeurs at a remove. During a slow foot chase, the frame gradually narrows horizontally into a more cinematic aspect ratio. And the showstopper scene from the pilot, where the contents of a kitchen erupt around David, is slowly savoured by the camera, panning around and then speed ramping to bludgeon us with his confusion.
Certain plot turns and dialogue occasionally bring the show back to familiar superhero and action-adventure territory: reminders that David is ‘special’ with a powerful gift that must be controlled, and an angry insistence on a rescue mission despite the obvious risks. While acceptable concessions to the genre are perhaps unavoidable in small doses, it’s no coincidence these are the weakest moments of the show, almost breaking the spell Hawley has cast.
No superhero film or show has sought to innovate the screen interpretation of the genre as vehemently and unapologetically as Legion. As a consequence, it probably won’t appeal to a wide audience. This show has no interest in hewing to established live-action superhero norms. Where Marvel’s films and shows have a uniform aesthetic and sensibility – no matter the studio – Legion’s is entirely distinct, as if it developed in isolation. The show’s very existence makes the similarity of its peers all the more evident. Marvel and Fox must only be interested in this approach in order to diversify the reach of superhero properties into prestige television. There, you can transform the IP enough that it may even appeal to viewers more interested in challenging drama than super-powered action movies, opening up a whole new market while hopefully bringing some of the existing one along for the ride.
Still, it’s hard not to be intrigued by how this fits in with Fox’s existing X-Men films and the forthcoming live-action series on the Fox network. Will Legion tie in, despite feeling not remotely of a piece with them so far? Summerland is so reminiscent of Xavier’s academy that co-existence would be repetitive. But the show makes a point of keeping the face of David’s father obscured in his memory, even though his job and circumstances don’t resemble Xavier’s. Then again, David’s memories don’t seem that trustworthy. Is this just an alternate X-Men universe, or will we see James McAvoy appear later in the series? Hard to imagine, especially because it would likely diminish Hawley’s distinctive vision.
But diminishing it entirely would be difficult. Comparisons to the relentlessly daring Hannibal are justified. Aesthetically, Legion does for superhero TV what Hannibal did for the crime procedural and serial killer show. This is aggressively visual storytelling that depicts the characters’ mental states in more than just dialogue and performance. David’s confusion about his memories and capabilities are visualised in scattershot editing and a non-linear structure. Disorientation is not just an acceptable by-product, it’s the intention, amplifying our sense that David’s power erodes the boundary between thought and action. The borders of his memories are porous, bleeding past into present and vision into reality. A more conventional version of this show would throw in a few visions and otherwise just tell us this explicitly, never allowing us to truly feel the protagonist’s confusion outside of some point-of-view shots. Hawley offers the entire mise-en-scene to David, allowing him to distort it to reflect his own chaotic mental landscape.
Legion is so innovative and exciting – and in only three episodes – that it’s still hard to believe this is an X-Men show. While Marvel properties can produce thoroughly entertaining films, they’ve only broken ground in the MCU’s interconnectivity. Legion uses its special corner of Marvel to be truly audacious. If we have to settle for our entertainment being dominated by several sprawling IP empires, if the corporate shelter allows for offerings as artful as Legion, it may have a silver lining.