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Stranger Things Is More Of An X-Men Show Than Legion

by  in CBR Exclusives, TV News Comment
Stranger Things Is More Of An X-Men Show Than Legion

After almost 25 years of adaptations, including three cartoon series and nine (soon to be 10) live-action feature films, the X-Men franchise finally has a legit live-action TV series to its name. Unlike that other mutant-centric TV series, the short-lived “Mutant X” syndicated show from 2001, FX’s “Legion” is the result of a partnership between Fox and Marvel and it proudly touts its connection to the X-Men. X-Men fans have been waiting for decades to see mutant adventures featuring X-Men characters unfold on a week-by-week basis, and “Legion” — which debuted last week — finally fills that void.

Except, not really.

Unlike “Mutant X,” a show that was legally disconnected from the X-Men following a bunch of lawsuits, “Legion” does star a character from the X-Men comics: David Haller, a mutant with dissociative identity disorder and a unique mutant power paired to each one of his identities, though originally, those powers were limited to telekinesis, telepathy and pyrokinesis. He’s also the son of X-Men founder Professor Xavier and Holocaust survivor and Israeli ambassador Gabrielle Haller, even if most X-Men fans just know him as the guy in hospital scrubs with a two-foot-tall flattop. If you’ve seen the first episode of “Legion,” though, odds are you don’t recognize the character that was just described.

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An artful and ambitious show with dazzling visuals, captivating performances and an engrossing plot, “Legion” has taken a number of liberties with the source material. That’s paid off, at least so far, as the pilot was a truly unique storytelling experience. “Legion” didn’t adapt the source material into something bland or boring, that’s for sure. But while showrunner Noah Hawley used the X-Men comics — specifically the Legion storyline from Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s “New Mutants” run — as a springboard, he landed in something that doesn’t even resemble a pool. Dan Stevens’ David Haller is almost unrecognizable as Legion. That’s partly because they wisely didn’t give him that ridiculous hairdo, and also because they’ve given him even more of a distinctive personality (singular) than he’s had in most of his appearances. For the first 25 years of his comic book life, Legion was mostly a plot device and leaned heavily towards a somewhat insensitive portrayal as a cackling antihero just as likely to murder his own teammates as fight super villains. Stevens’ Haller doesn’t exhibit alternate identities, at least not in the way his comic book counterpart did — at least not yet. That makes Stevens’ version of the character, one that’s still affected by mental illness, kind of an anchor in “Legion” even as the show’s plot and setting morphs around him in unusual ways. The TV Legion is a wildly untrustworthy narrator, but he’s still consistent enough of a character that viewers can hold onto him as the story’s reality shifts in unexpected ways.

Beyond Haller, who himself is greatly changed from the comics, the rest of the show doesn’t resemble the “X-Men show” headlines and advertising have billed it as. Reviews for the show, mostly deservedly glowing, call “Legion” a bold new take on a superhero show, one that treats the source material in a whole new way. In a way, what’s bold about Legion is that it takes a concept from a superhero comic and then just turns it into… something else entirely. “Legion” gives us a David Haller that’s mostly unrecognizable from the comics, one that might not even be the son of Charles Xavier, and a supporting cast of completely original characters in an entirely original setting. The show uses the phrase “mutant,” but an X-Men show should involve more than just a token word. After all, “Mutant X” dropped “mutant” right there in its title, and it had to legally distinguish itself from the X-Men. How much of the source material has to remain intact for a project to be an “adaptation” and not just a whole new thing? Why tie a brilliantly original show like “Legion” to a larger property if it is purposefully steering clear of that larger property? Is it just so “Legion” can get press as a “whole new kind of superhero show” — one that isn’t a superhero show? By that line of thinking, every show that isn’t a superhero show could be considered a whole new kind of superhero show.

“Legion’s” pilot concludes with a credit citing Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s “New Mutants” run as inspiration for the show, even if nothing in the episode even remotely resembles those comics. It’s worth pondering, how would viewers react to seeing a “based on ‘Uncanny X-Men’ by Chris Claremont and John Byrne” credit at the top of the credits for Netflix’s “Stranger Things”? Would it really be that much of a stretch, considering the way “Legion” has so far veered away from the source material? If Fox and Marvel had come across Matt and Ross Duffer’s “Stranger Things” pitch and then put it into motion, setting it in the X-Men movie-verse in the years following “X-Men: Apocalypse,” would the show really have been that much different?

“Stranger Things” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga” have way more parallels than “Legion” and those “New Mutants” issues. Eleven and Jean Grey both exhibit extraordinary power and — SPOILER ALERT — in the climaxes of each story, they sacrifice themselves to save their loved ones. Jean and Eleven make their final stand in front of the character they’ve been closely linked to, Cyclops and Mike Wheeler. Both super powerful female heroes disintegrate, leaving dust and smoke behind. This connection to “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was also deliberate; in “Stranger Things,” the kids namedrop “X-Men” #134 — an issue that comes right in the middle of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” That issue includes Jean Grey’s first transformation into Dark Phoenix, when her power cuts loose and she goes after the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle. The issue even includes a panel of Jean pinning the evil Mastermind against a wall; the season finale of “Stranger Things” includes a similar shot of Eleven using her telekinesis to pin the Demogorgon against a chalkboard. The Duffer Brothers knew what they were doing when they cited that issue of “X-Men,” because the overall storyline of “Stranger Things'” first season plays out in a similar fashion. It is, in many ways, a more accurate adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” than what happened in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Furthermore, both series focus on underdogs, some of them (like Eleven or Jonathan Byers) considered freaks. The X-Men often fight shadowy government agencies, as do the kids of “Stranger Things.” The series even takes a multi-generational approach to storytelling, which is similar in structure to the X-Line of the 1980s, which included the senior team of X-Men and the junior team in “New Mutants.” Both series feature a loner (Police chief Jim Hopper and Wolverine) that begrudgingly teams up with kids (Will’s group of friends and Kitty Pryde/Jubilee/Armor). These similarities aren’t as obvious or specific as the “Dark Phoenix Saga” ones, but they still feel more prominent than the one or two similarities between “Legion” and those “New Mutants” issues. And while both “Stranger Things” and “Legion” pull in influences from elsewhere (the former owes a lot to the works of Stephen King and John Carpenter, and the latter is influenced by Wes Anderson and ’60s psychedelic rock), the nods to X-Men stand out way more in “Stranger Things” than they do in “Legion.” So far, “Stranger Things” — a series unofficially tied to the X-Men but still inspired by it — has more in common with its indirect source material than “Legion” does.

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That’s not to say that “Legion” can’t or won’t become the X-Men series that marketing claims it to be. The last scene of the pilot episode featured a team of mutants — all apparently original characters with no ties to any previous X-Men canon — staging a pulse-pounding rescue mission as they delivered Haller to the mysterious Melanie Bird (Jean Smart). Up until that point, not much in the super-sized pilot even came close to resembling anything from the vast majority of X-Men comics. But that sequence depicting a number of mutants in tactical gear working together felt decidedly X-Men — even if none of them were X-Men. If the show introduces a team of mutants, or — better yet — a training program for mutants, then it starts to justify its X-connection.

There’s also one other thing that could tie the show to the comics: the yellow-eyed devil mentally tormenting David throughout the pilot could be the classic X-villain Mojo. Not only does Mojo have yellow eyes, but he also physically matches the rotund and ghastly figure. That feels like a longshot (pun intended), though, since Mojo is easily one of the most gleefully ridiculous characters in X-canon. If “Legion” won’t adapt David Haller’s kooky hairdo, why would they choose to tackle a campy, spineless supervillain that walks around on mechanical spider legs? Still, adding just one more name X-character to the show — even one with as many alterations as David Haller — would go a long way towards making this show feel more like the source material.

All that being said, though, does the show even need to be tied to the X-Men? The pilot proves that Noah Hawley has mesmerizing ideas of his own to execute, ones that are so fully-formed that he doesn’t really even need to bother with the source material. So why even have source material to begin with? Plenty of things directly inspire other things, but they don’t have to be directly tied to their inspiration; “30 Rock” owes a lot to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” but Tina Fey didn’t cite “MTM’s” creators in “30 Rock’s” closing credits. If “Stranger Things,” which pulled so much from “X-Men,” can exist without official ties to the “X-Men,” then why couldn’t “Legion” (a show that could easily have a different name)? Future episodes of “Legion” will undoubtedly further define the show’s tenuous relationship to the larger X-franchise, possibly proving that this show really is more of an adaptation than total reinvention.

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