If there was a legitimate concern that we had reached superhero saturation in TV and film, Legion – Noah Hawley’s thrillingly disorientating project between Fargos – goes some way in alleviating fears.
The superhero genre, particularly on television, is omnipresent. However, while shows like Gotham, Daredevil and Legends of Tomorrow all have their merits and entertainment value, Legion feels like an elevated form of superhero storytelling. FX and Marvel’s primary objective was to redefine the superhero genre with Legion and, from the opening episode alone; it looks as though they have succeeded triumphantly.
Legion follows the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a paranoid schizophrenic plagued by nightmarish hallucinations and living an institutionalised existence. Despite his mental instability, David possesses bizarre, unfathomable powers that he neither understands or knows how to control. David’s progress at his institution is suddenly upended with the arrival of a beautiful, mysterious new patient called Sydney Barrett (or Syd Barrett, as in the schizophrenic founding member of Pink Floyd), who offers him refuge from his tortured mind.
However, in only spending more time with Sydney does David begin to witness the distortion of his reality, therein lies the potential genius of Legion. The carefully-plotted pilot – on several occasions – forces us to distinguish which sequences are taking place in reality, or in David’s mind. While it’s challenging, it’s an essential narrative strand for a show that seeks to explore living with a mental illness. Hawley has constructed a story in which we are transported into the haunted mind of the protagonist. We hear and see much of the same things as him, but it’s not always clear if it’s really happening, or if it’s a figment of David’s labyrinthine imagination.
The strength of the show, it seems from the pilot anyway, lies with essentially stripping away its superhero sensibilities. Although David is a mutant with exceptionally powerful capabilities (there’s a particularly striking sequence in which he creates a swirling tornado of cutlery and furniture in his own kitchen), we see him as a patient, a man plagued with having been in and out of mental institutions his whole life. Although they technically exist in the same universe (although Legion won’t immediately connect to Fox’s X-Men cinematic universe, according to producers) we do not compare David to Deadpool or Wolverine.
Hawley and the production team have cast Legion expertly, too. Stevens is the tortured yet delicate soul at the core, supported by Rachel Keller as Sydney, Aubrey Plaza as David’s delightfully kooky pal and Mackenzie Gray, who lurks ominously as permed henchman The Eye in the first chapter.
Hawley’s craftsmanship takes hold to an even greater extent in the second chapter. After a frenetic and breathless sequence to conclude the first chapter, the next stage slows the pace way down and gives us time to process. Time jumps and constant distortions of reality is fairly brain-melting stuff, which is the second episode’s more meditative quality is welcomed. Instead of launching back into chaos, the second episodes delves deeper into David’s psyche as he attempts to grasp a clear picture of his upbringing and what triggers his extraordinary telekinetic potential. It’s a journey that has shades of Netflix’s phenomenon Stranger Things, particularly the scenes involving Eleven and scientist Martin Brenner – not least because of Jeff Russo’ electronic score echoing Michael Stein’s main theme from the sci-fi hit – and is complete with shocking revelations that pique our interest in David’s story.
A closer connection to the X-Men universe may ultimately come (it seems like an inevitability), but Hawley’s vision was to tell a story that could stand on its own two feet, a show that genuine appeal to a consumer with no strong discernible interest in the X-Men or superhero shows. David’s origin story hasn’t been changed. Instead, it has been allowed to slot seamlessly into a technically accomplished, thoroughly engrossing production that is both a powerful allegory for mental illness and a daring new chapter in the X-Men universe.
Bottom line: a thrilling step-up in superhero television storytelling
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (with potential to reach 5 out of 5) nerds