In a cinematic landscape dominated by blockbuster superheroes, can the latest X-Men effort stand out from the Marvel crowd, and maybe just become something else entirely…?
With the profits amassed by Fox’s X-Men film series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and numerous Batman/DC films, it’s no wonder that we’ve seen numerous recent attempts to launch into television. It began a few years ago with Arrow and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (both still going strong), and we’ve since seen ambitious extended universes four-shows-strong on the CW and Netflix.
The formula thus far has been simple – we’ve seen kooky ensemble casts focused around the main hero, a single Big Bad plotline per season, dramatic deaths of inessential supporting characters, flashbacks, and, really quite often, some spectacular episodes. But overall there’s been a real lack of consistency in these shows, and a worrying lack of originality or uniqueness to make a single one stand out from the crowd. Well, until now at least.
The only thing about Legion to suggest that it might be something extraordinary is the name of the show-runner – fans of the TV Fargo may well identify creator Noah Hawley as an unusual choice to helm an X-Men show, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Because it’s that bold choice that makes Legion so wonderfully unusual and off-beat, devoted to the same kind of amazing story-telling that makes Fargo one of the best shows on television.
Legion‘s main character and central superhero is David Haller (Dan Stevens), a psychic unaware of his own abilities who is confined to the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. The institution is controlled by the sinister Division 3, a government group dedicated to the study and exploitation of mutants like David. In the opening episode, David is broken out of the hospital and taken to a resistance group at a place called Summerland, who want to teach him to use his powers to aid their plight.
All of this makes the plot sound far simpler to untangle than it actually is – the show is mostly presented through David’s muddled and unreliable mind, taking both character and viewer on a joint journey to discover what is actually occurring. It allows for some bizarre haunting imagery, and serves as the perfect method to weave flashbacks and mental obstructions visibly into the narrative. In Legion, everything feels connected to David – he is the centre of the show. And that alone is already a huge improvement over the rambling lack of focus in Arrow or Daredevil.
That’s not to say there isn’t an ensemble cast, which there is, but rather that they are all tied together far more neatly. Most prominent is Rachel Keller’s portrayal of Syd Barrett, a fellow patient with the ability to swap bodies who becomes David’s girlfriend. Syd functions initially as a more enigmatic figure, but in the second half of the series becomes a more grounded perspective into David’s world, a shift that works in Legion‘s favour.
The majority of the characters are in fact members of the resistance, including leader Melanie Bird (the ever brilliant Jean Smart), her right-hand man Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris) and the super powered pseudo-siblings Cary and Kerry Loudermilk (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder). Rather than spending time exploring these characters as soon as they appear, the writers wisely choose to reveal more details about them as they become relevant to David. It’s yet another method of trimming the fat that substitutes patronising exposition for smart quirky dialogue.
The villains of the show initially appear to be related to Division 3, most notably agents Clark (Hamish Linklater) and the sinister Eye (Mackenzie Grey) but ‘Chapter 5’ brings a whole new revelation to the table – David’s instability is being caused by a parasitic mutant in his mind known as the Shadow King. The parasite has been manifesting itself as David’s friend Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), who soon stages a coup to take full control of his mind. It’s an inspired casting choice that stands out in a strong cast.
Plaza chews up the scenery, relishing the chance to play a strange gender-less formless being and is fittingly terrifying, especially as the major characters all become consumed and trapped in an imaginary version of the Clockworks Hospital. It’s an odd and unexpected location for a climax but nonetheless a fitting one – and ‘Chapter 7’ sees perhaps the best sequence in the entire series – a silent film homage battle against the Shadow King.
So what makes Legion work so much better than other shows of the genre? The most obvious answers may be stylistic but it isn’t a show just about weirdness and flash for the sake of being entertaining. All the usual superhero show elements are in place, but they’re subtly tweaked to work far better than they usually do. For example, the weapon that both David and the villain are fighting for control over is David’s own powers, and the conflict is made all the more compelling by the fact that everyone around them has their own skills and is actively involved within it.
Legion chooses to be character-driven rather than action-driven, and by making the mental state of its protagonist so visible and malleable, it means that the setting and excitement arise from his character itself. The show has a singular focus in its eight episodes that is rarely seen on TV and an original take that drives everything. It’s hard to say whether the premise will still feel as novel or innovative in a second season, but for now it’s a breath of fresh air that all the extraneous boring elements (i.e. slow pacing, unconnected sub-plots or repetitive fighting) are stripped away.
If there’s one flaw I’d level at the show, it’s that it can come across as a bit cold – the emotional relationships aren’t as familiar or involving as they could be, but that’s a hazard of the quirks of the story-telling style. The one exception to this is Jemaine Clement’s tragicomic Oliver Bird, trapped and losing his mind in a mysterious nether-space. The Loudermilks, or even David and Syd, never quite resonate in the same way.
Legion is still absolutely a superhero show but it chooses to defy all the tropes that have been holding other lesser shows back by having faith in the simplicity of its concept, and in its ability to tell that simple story in a wacky unexpected way. Make no mistake – Legion is weird, challenging and off-beat in all the same ways as Fargo was, but this time around there’s a simple supernatural tale at its centre. And that’s why it works.
This is one strange, creatively-structured, and clever journey that is well worth taking.
Written by Tom Besley