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The first 30 minutes of FX’s Legion are better than any other superhero show on TV

FX’s Legion was the most promising thing to come out of New York Comic Con.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It’s very rare to find yourself wanting more of anything on the last day of New York Comic Con. The four-day pop culture bonanza is a sensory overload. Casting announcements are made. Trailers, teasers, sizzle reels, and sneak peeks are shown. Panel discussions are held to examine every detail of every comic book topic imaginable. By the end of the convention, it all bleeds together, and nothing feels fresh.

FX’s upcoming TV show Legion beat the odds and changed that, by offering an early look at what stands to become the most visually evocative and inventive — and perhaps even the best — superhero show on television.

The series is an adaptation of Marvel’s Legion comic book character, a powerful mutant whose powers are intertwined with his dissociative identity/multiple personality disorder and mental illness. The show has been in the works since last October, and I’ve had my reservations about it since its announcement — even with Noah Hawley, the talented writer and producer behind FX’s acclaimed series Fargo, at the helm. My reasoning: It’s too ambitious, because the character of Legion and his origin story are too sprawling to capture on screen.

But after seeing a 30-minute slice of the show’s pilot — in which we meet Legion, a.k.a. David Haller (played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) a man living (perhaps trapped) in a mental institute (or his own mind) — I’ve never been more thrilled to be wrong. So far, what Marvel, FX, and Hawley have accomplished looks awesome.

Legion is visually stunning, easily the best-looking superhero show ever made

When you look at Netflix’s stable of Marvel shows (Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil) and The CW’s cache of DC Comics shows (Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, and Supergirl) all of them — outside of some slight variations when it comes to color — tend to look pretty similar. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it helps establish shared universes and continuity. But it can also feel redundant.

Legion thrives because it doesn’t look like or feel like any of those shows.

“I’ve learned to trust my instincts, and when I put it on its feet, it wanted to feel like a 1964 Terence Stamp movie,” Hawley said during the show’s Comic Con panel, and added that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was also an inspiration for the show’s sound and texture.

The result is a surreal world that occupies the sliver of space between nostalgia and eeriness. Though Legion features some mid-century elements, it’s hard to tell where and when the show takes place — David wears a vintage track suit, another character sports an iPad-like device, and another looks to be channeling Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Each scene is visually thrilling.

Some are chilly, evoking the icy, metallic feeling of a clinic. Others play with the composition of the frame, carefully considering the way the characters inhabit (or are absent from) the space around them and the how close they are to one another. Sometimes, the show experiments with David’s point of view; through his eyes, some characters appear hazy or out of focus, occasionally blurring into the sunlight behind them.

Every frame, every scene, every shot is a story all its own, giving Legion a richness and depth that set it apart from every other superhero show on TV.

Legion makes it hard to discern what’s real and what’s imagined. That’s what makes it brilliant.

The conceit of Legion is that the show’s world, the vibrant characters in it, and the villains and monsters that lurk in the shadows could all be a construct of David’s imagination.

Every time a new character is introduced, he or she could just be one of David’s multiple personalities. Are they listening to him? Can they hear them? Are they even real? (The series also directly mentions a “yellow-eyed devil,” which I’m hoping is a reference to the X-Men character Mystique and her yellow eyes.)

I found myself poring over and double-checking things like point of view, and how each character appears in relation to David whenever he interacts with them.

Even the places he visits — the mental institution where he lives or the kitchens and rooms he remembers in flashbacks — could just be some sort of subconscious or psychological conduit David has dreamed up.

Watching Legion never feels stable, and with such a damaged protagonist, why should it? That’s the beautiful point Hawley is ultimately trying to make: This show, like its source comics, is as much about the mystery of what’s real versus imagined as it is about experiencing the uncertainty of it all.

I hesitate to call Legion a superhero series due to the simple fact that David’s not your typical superhero. It’s unclear if he wants to do good or even be a hero. And at the outset, it doesn’t feel like the series will make him decide anytime soon — I’m in no rush and won’t be disappointed if we never get to that point.

No matter what, Legion is one of the most promising TV shows, superhero or not, in recent memory.

Legion is slated to debut in 2017 on FX.

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