Legion, quite simply, is the best superhero show on television.
Granted, superhero stuff — the countless movies, television shows, comic book tie-ins and crossovers — enjoys a home court advantage of sorts when it comes to criticism. It’s why, when would-be blockbusters receive negative reviews, like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice did last spring, aficionados brush off criticism by promising that, like something written in invisible ink, only “true” fans can see the movie’s goodness. It’s also why you get effusive praise for some genuinely good properties, like calling Guardians of the Galaxy a redefining “space opera” or Captain America: The Winter Soldier a “political thriller” when you could easily argue that they’re slight just deviations from the Marvel movie-making formula.
But Legion, a stylishly nutty anti-superhero series from creator Noah Hawley (Fargo) and FX, doesn’t need the generosity, even though it is a Marvel-Fox collaboration. Shot beautifully, Legion is a delirious ride into the story of one David Haller (Dan Stevens), a powerful mutant from the X-Men universe.
Legion isn’t as showy as regular X-Men fare, trading big apocalypses and mutant-human crises for a focused psychological analysis of Haller, painting us a haunting portrait of a young mutant who hasn’t yet — or perhaps never will — grasp his own heroism.
We see what David sees, though his mind isn’t exactly trustworthy. At first, it’s dimmed by medications designed to grind him into dullness and suppress his powers, which he takes to control his mental illness. But even once he’s free of the meds, there’s a mounting sense of dread, because you can’t tell whether he’s living in the same world others see, or living in his own constructed reality.
There’s beauty in trying to piece together this challenging, mordant puzzle. And with the care Hawley has infused into this odd world, Legion
, rises above its peers by presenting a more difficult picture of humanity, power, and heroism. Legion isn’t hopeful or neat, and that’s what sets it apart.
Legion isn’t structured like a traditional superhero story, and that’s its greatest strength
Comic book adaptations, particularly X-Men ones, are often stifled by having to explain how their worlds work, what with all the mutants, the Phoenix force, and superpowers in play. Having prior knowledge from reading the original comic books helps.
But that’s isn’t the case with Legion.
Originally created by writer Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, David Haller a.k.a. Legion is a character who suffers from mental illness. He has dissociative identity disorder. That’s about as far as reading the original comics will get you, and that’s where Legion kicks off its first episode.
Haller is in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. It’s impossible to tell whether his world, the people around him, or the powers we see him use are real. They could just as easily be the hallucinations of a broken psyche.
Legion doesn’t even bother with the villain-of-the-week episode structure that’s become a staple of superhero shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Flash or the irrationally under-loved Alphas. And sometimes it gives up on villains altogether, in exchange for focusing on a never-ending spiral of Haller’s jagged memories, his present state, and whatever he thinks he’s seeing. Events aren’t presented linearly, but Haller’s flashbacks and flash-forwards aren’t distinct. Each memory or moment bleeds into the next, creating a never-ending loop of confusion.
Like all fledgling superhumans, he also has a Scooby Gang of sorts — he’s best friends with a dirty-haired, croak-throated junkie named Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), falls quickly for the untouchable (as in she literally cannot be touched) Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). He occasionally meets other super-powered beings. Though, again, it’s unclear as to who’s real and who isn’t. These characters could easily be an effect of Haller’s illness, each one just a figment of his fractured mind (in some scenes, look for the characters who show up in the mirrors).
Contrasted with the traditional arc of a superhero show or movie, Legion has a blistering edge.
The notes I took while watching the three episodes of Legion that FX made available to critics are riddled with question marks; it’s definitely a challenge to keep up with what’s going on, to figure out the order of the plot and the “rules” of the show. But the non-linear format isn’t discouraging. There’s a natural inclination to puzzle out the show’s different scenarios and predict the endpoint that Hawley and his creative team have plotted. But the real beauty of Legion is its unpredictability and insistence on pushing back against the traditional hero narrative.
Legion isn’t about defeating demons, it’s about living with them
As the show digs deeper into Haller’s mind, we slowly begin to understand its true intent: Perhaps this isn’t a story about Haller getting better, but more of a question of what “better” actually means, and whether humans should embrace or suppress our desire to “fix” ourselves and each other.
Legion’s most powerful moments — in Haller’s memories, his imagination, or whatever’s happening to him in the present — underscore this credo. The pockets of time he spends at Clockwork are doused in a numbing, sepia haze that conflates safety with dullness. At Summerland, a safe-haven for mutants that he finds after Clockwork, it’s the opposite: The setting sharpens into sunny, bright greens, stark whites, and glass walls. But even then, the “fix” feels ominous, driven by the clinical feel of the place.
Hawley’s series isn’t the first superhero tale to connect m mental illness to specialness or superpowers. But in those tales (see: Sherlock or Syfy’s The Magicians), you often get the tidy reassurance that goodness is on the horizon, if you just try hard enough or learn to trust other people. After all, that’s the foundation the X-Men are built on — the idea that these freaks of nature can control what makes them strange or outsiders, and use it for good.
Hawley and company have disrupted that idea, by telling a story that’s much more macabre: