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Legion: 3 lessons the superhero genre can learn from FX’s standout thriller

For starters, be a little more stylish…

Spoiler: This article deals with the plot of the entire season of Legion and touches on what happened in its season finale.

Legion’s season finale marks the end of one of the most challenging — and best — superhero shows in recent memory.

In a genre cluttered with shows that bleed into one another, Legion stood out emphatically. Looking at any given scene from Legion, it would be impossible to mistake it for any other show.

That doesn’t mean that Legion is a perfect show — the finale feels a bit like letdown compared with the revelation that was episode seven — but it’s definitely fresher and more thrilling than any other superhero offering this year. For that reason, here are some lessons the genre could stand to learn from Legion.

1) Be stylish

The most striking thing about Legion is how the series looks.

A lot of superhero shows look the same, a quality that can be at least partially attributed to corporate cohesion. Marvel’s Netflix properties — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage — all take place in the same city, and those shows tend to all play with the same aesthetic, the same settings (Marvel’s Netflix shows love a good hallway scene), and similar colors.

Netflix/Marvel

The CW’s Flash and Arrow have a similar stylistic relationship, which is understandable to a point: Since these shows share the same universe, they should look similar. Though I’m still not convinced you can use the “shared universe” reasoning to justify no variation when it comes to camera angles and the types of shots used.

Though it takes place in the X-Men universe, Legion doesn’t share its onscreen universe with any other superhero property, giving it the freedom to be itself. The show freely plays not only with color — as evident in the first few episodes set at Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital and the ’70s tracksuits therein — but also with space and composition.

With Legion, there’s a strong sense of intentionality to the way the story and characters are presented visually. Like this shot of David (Dan Stevens) and Syd (Rachel Keller):

FX/Legion

Syd’s powers mean she can’t be touched (the blue hue where she’s sitting gets at that coldness), but she loves David. In this scene, the two have their designated spaces — denoted by the color — but he’s breaching that barrier. The shot tells its own story while simultaneously enhancing the story the series is telling.

This happens again with Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder). These two characters “share” the same body, are the same person, but are have two completely different personalities — he’s into science and gadgets, while she’s a no-nonsense fighter. So it’s appropriate, and smart, that this shot feels like looking at two separate images that, like Cary and Kerry, are the inverse of one another:

FX/Legion

Legion also plays with space and the rule of thirds — not unlike Mr. Robot. In the scene where David allows Melanie (Jean Smart) and Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) to go inside his head and delve into his memories, David is pushed into the right corner, at the edge of the frame:

FX/Legion

The positioning gets across David’s isolation and suspicion of these strangers. The window’s beams divide the room, but they also add to this feeling that David feels trapped and sequestered.

It’s clear throughout the first season that Legion is deliberately weaving its themes into its visual style. There’s planning and thought behind the way each scene is composed and the way the camera is positioned. I can’t think of a single superhero show or movie that wouldn’t benefit from being this conscious of its visuals.

2) Don’t be afraid to get weird

FX/Legion

Late in the season, Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny Busker performs a strange, hump-filled dance routine to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It’s as screwy as it is frightening, since she’s been revealed as the embodiment of a parasitic demon mutant known as the Shadow King and is traipsing around David’s jagged, broken memories. It’s Fosse meets Freddy Krueger, somehow taking place in the X-Men universe.

What’s so striking about the scene is that it’s unlike any other villain reveal in the superhero genre, which usually involve flashy superpowers and explosions; this grand unveiling is more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s also a stark departure from how Plaza’s character is depicted in the comic books:

The Shadow King in Marvel comic books/Marvel

Legion could have easily fallen back on a literal translation of the comic books, busting its budget on giant special effects. But that would have made it just like every other Marvel property out there.

I’m not saying every Marvel villain should be weird for weirdness’s sake and eschew the dazzle of Marvel magic every time out. But Legion possesses an understanding and interpretation of the show’s villain and source material that’s true to the story it wants to tell. That’s what truly matters, and what allows Legion to swing for the fences.

Legion doesn’t have a grand fight scene, and perhaps it’s not as exciting as shows like Daredevil, but it stands out for being brave enough to be strange. And it never has to stand in the shadow of a show like Daredevil (see: Iron Fist), because it’s confident in its own skin.

3) Trust your audience

The first six episodes of Legion do not make a lick of sense. It’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fake, and it’s unclear what decade it all takes place in (there are tablets, but also everyone is in retro track suits). Figuring out if what we’re seeing is in David’s head or a real place is hard, and we’re constantly left guessing. Time folds in on itself, because the story isn’t presented in a linear fashion. Around episode four, I almost gave up.

But it was totally worth it. I think.

Not having a grasp on what was happening is what made the Shadow King reveal in episode seven work. Everything unlocks, inviting you to go back into the previous episodes to see what you were missing. This wouldn’t be possible if the show held viewers’ hands and guided us through every detail.

I can’t help but contrast Legion’s insistence on leaving us in the dark with a scene from the first episode of Iron Fist, where the head of security confronts Danny Rand after a brief fight earlier in the episode. Danny exclaims, “Hey, you’re that security guard from earlier!” as if we’d somehow forgotten what’s happened in the last 20 minutes. There is none of that in Legion, which makes no apologies if you missed what just happened.

At the end of Legion’s first season, I’m not even sure what the Eye’s power is. But the payoff in episode seven wouldn’t have been as great or satisfying if the show hadn’t trusted us to keep up.

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