Created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, Legion debuted in 1985’s “New Mutants” #25 as the mentally unstable son of X-Men founder Charles Xavier. David Haller was an immensely powerful mutant, whose abilities of telepathy, telekinesis and pyrokinesis were tied to three different personalities residing in his fractured psyche. With his unconventional powers and close ties to an iconic character already well-established on the big screen, Legion was one of the last properties we imagined making the leap to live action TV. Shows what we know.
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We may only be a few episodes in, but it is already clear that FX’s “Legion” is something special. Noah Hawley’s adaptation of David’s travails looks, feels and even sounds like no other superhero show on television. In fact, it’s so different and so much better than its competition, we came up with 15 reasons why “Legion” is currently the best superhero show on TV.
SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers ahead for FX’s “Legion” TV series.
15. NOAH HAWLEY’S CREATIVE VISION
The buck starts and stops with “Legion’s” creator and showrunner Noah Hawley. The series will live or die based on how viewers and critics react to his vision of the show. A novelist who is no stranger to quirky, unpredictable characters, who make their home on the dark fringes of the human condition, Hawley brings an outsider’s fresh perspective to David’s comic book roots.
His work on shows like “Fargo” has already established his dedication to solid character-driven plots that keep the viewer guessing, so bringing to life a fictional world that may or may not exist solely within the protagonist’s shattered headspace is a perfect match for the superstar storyteller. Hawley’s vision permeates every aspect of the production, from plot and character development, to visual design and musical score, creating a mind-blowingly consistent yet fluid imaginary realm filtered through David’s unreliable perceptions. The only thing that is constant in “Legion” is change. And that’s a good thing.
14. WILLING TO EARN ITS PLACE IN THE X-FRANCHISE
Legion is a character that comes to TV with a lot of baggage. Inextricably tied to the X-Men franchise thanks to his infamous parentage, any adaptation of David Haller almost has to address absentee father Charles Xavier. However, bringing Professor X (and by extension, an X-Man or two) to the small screen presents a number of challenges, not least of which are James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart’s iconic portrayals of the character in various films. It’s a pretty safe bet Hawley’s production can’t afford either actor’s salary.
Yet, despite the shadowy presence of David’s astronomer “father” early in the series, Hawley contends Xavier’s presence will not be absent from his adaptation. Weighing his faithfulness to the source material against a need to tell an engaging story that doesn’t leave viewers feeling ripped off, Hawley seems willing to earn a connection to the X-Men’s cinematic universe rather than shoehorn it into the series from the beginning. It is this even-handed approach to Legion’s comic book roots and his potential connections to the movie franchise that allows the series to unfold organically and without undue pressure to adhere to what might have come before.
13. UNIQUE VISUAL DESIGN
Something that is immediately evident upon watching “Legion” is that it looks nothing like any other superhero adaptation currently on television. Whereas the CW’s popular Arrowverse stable of shows share a distinctive visual tone that helps place each series within the same fictional milieu, “Legion” eschews established formula, with set pieces and costumes that borrow heavily from the design sensibilities of the ‘60s and ‘70s. This refusal to adhere to traditional superhero design allows the show to establish its own visual language, flowing naturally out of David’s skewed perceptions.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital set, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a ‘70s sci-fi movie, with its clean, almost sterile lines and bright lighting. “Legion’s” visual design is also impacted by David’s emotional state. As David becomes more agitated or unstable, his surroundings take on a disturbing, jarring quality, manifested by lurid strobing lights and a shadowy, labyrinthine layout. The fluidity of his surroundings challenges the viewer’s own perceptions of the show’s setting, forcing them to question the nature of David’s reality. Does Clockworks really exist? Or is it a figment of David’s imagination?
12. MUSIC SETS THE MOOD
Much like its distinctive visual design, “Legion’s” unique use of music helps distinguish it from other series inspired by comic books. True, anticipation seems to be running high for the CW’s imminent musical crossover between “Supergirl” and “The Flash,” but the one-off event seems geared more towards a late-season ratings boost rather than driving forward either character’s development. In “Legion,” music helps tell the story, reinforcing emotional beats tied inextricably to David’s unpredictable psychological state.
Take the pilot episode’s big dance number, for instance. A climactic scene in David and Sydney’s budding romance, “Legion’s” now-infamous Bollywood dance number not only underscores the couple’s burgeoning feelings for one another, but lends an air of innocent whimsy to this singular relationship between the world’s most powerful telepath and the girl who refuses to be touched. The scene also lulls the viewer into a false — if surreal — sense of security, before David’s rescue from the clutches of Division 3 by Sydney.
11. TELEPATHY IS SCARY
Within the established confines of the X-Men franchise, regardless of whether we’re talking about the comics or the movies, the power of telepathy is often taken for granted. Characters such as Professor X use their gifts for a wide variety of effects, including mental manipulation, mind-to-mind communication and astral projection. Telepathy has never really felt quite as scary as it should, though. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say that the X-Men make having telepathic powers seem pretty freakin’ cool. But what would having psionic abilities really be like? We’re betting it would be more in-line with telepathy’s depiction in “Legion.”
For David, possessing telepathic abilities has only ever led to a lonely life of substance abuse, mental breakdown and prolonged institutionalization. Imagine you could hear hundreds of voices inside your head at the same time and couldn’t figure out how to turn down the volume and you’ll get the idea. Hawley’s opening montage in the pilot episode illustrates the psychological damage unfettered telepathic abilities unleashes on David as he struggles to hold onto his own identity amidst a vast ocean of voices. It also pretty much scared us off of mindreading, altogether. Telepathy isn’t cool. It’s downright terrifying and we’d much rather have blue fur or a healing factor.
Whether it’s going by the name of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning, there’s almost always been some kind of educational touchstone for Marvel’s Merry Mutants. Unfortunately, just because it’s a school doesn’t mean it’s off-limits from outside attack and the X-Men have had to rebuild Charles Xavier’s ancestral home so many times it’s become something of a running joke. In “Legion,” there is also an institution dedicated to teaching mutants how to live safely with their abilities, but its location and functionality seem a little more thoughtful in execution.
Founded by revolutionary psycho-therapist Melanie Bird, Summerland is located in a densely-forested area well off the beaten path. A safe haven for fugitive mutants on the run from the government, the facility boasts living quarters and extensive diagnostic apparatuses to help its inhabitants better understand and control their abilities. While it may not be impregnable, Summerland has so far avoided detection by Division 3’s premiere hunter, the Eye. One part clandestine mutant training camp, one part therapeutic retreat, Summerland’s dual purpose, while similar to its comic book counterparts, feels like a part of the real world rather than a highly improbable utopian mutant refuge.
9. DIVISION 3
Like all good top secret paramilitary government organizations, there’s not much we know for certain about Division 3. Initially fronted by two mysterious operatives known only as the Interrogator and the Eye, Division 3’s agenda seems focused on the capture and study of mutants for as yet undisclosed purposes. Based out of the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, the clandestine agency appears to enjoy a large measure of autonomy and access to highly-trained, heavily-armed foot soldiers. And yet, all may not be as it seems with Division 3.
Considering David’s tenuous grasp on reality and his recurring visions of the Devil with the Yellow Eyes, Division 3 might not be the bad guys at all. In fact, they could be the good guys, protecting the public from mutants that are truly dangerous, like David, or from some other larger, darker threat looming in the future. To muddy the waters even further, they might not exist at all, except as imaginary constructs created by David, himself. Whatever the case, until their origins and mandate are fully revealed, it is clear Division 3 cannot be trusted.
8. THE DEVIL WITH YELLOW EYES
Lurking in the background throughout the first couple of episodes of the series is the grotesque presence of an obese demonic creature with glowing yellow eyes, who only David seems capable of seeing. Although the apparition’s purpose remains about as clear as mud, it does bear a remarkable resemblance to two established X-Men villains. Keeping in mind “the devil with yellow eyes” could simply be a manifestation of David’s paranoid delusions, its multiple appearances in the pilot episode especially would seem to indicate a much greater importance to the series’ plot. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to speculate, though.
Superficially at least, the apparition looks like a dead ringer for Mojo, the sadistic other-dimensional ruler of the appropriately-named Mojoverse, where entertaining the masses has become a blood sport. Mojo doesn’t seem like a good fit plot-wise, so we’re betting this is Amahl Farouk, one-time host of the telepathic entity known as the Shadow King and a villain intrinsically connected to both Charles Xavier and David Haller. An ancient psionic vampire who feeds off of telepaths to survive, the Shadow King seems like a much better fit for Hawley’s more grounded interpretation of Legion.
7. GROUNDED SPECIAL EFFECTS
What’s a superhero show without special effects? A pretty sorry excuse for a superhero show, if you ask us. Thankfully, despite a decided focus on character development and world-building, “Legion” hasn’t totally given up on spectacle. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. While many modern live action comic book adaptations seem to place a lot of emphasis (and budget) on spectacular special effects and complicated fight sequences, “Legion” takes a much more balanced approach to keep its viewers on the edges of their seats.
Hawley grounds his use of special effects in his plot and characters. Instead of overwhelming the viewer’s senses with extensive sequences of CGI, he relies upon his actors and his writers to build atmosphere and suspense, using special effects as a kind of exclamation points to bring a scene home. Take David’s climactic escape from Division 3, for example. Shot in one continuous take, it isn’t only the explosions or incessant gunfire or the telekinetically-charged bodies flying through the air that takes our breath away. Rather, it’s the constant forward motion, the breakneck pace, as we flee the compound one step behind our heroes that makes the scene feel so harrowing.
6. A STELLAR SUPPORTING CAST
While series star Dan Stevens has garnered loads of praise for his performance in “Legion,” he is only one actor in a larger ensemble cast that is every bit as important to the show’s initial critical success. Fans of Hawley’s other TV show “Fargo” will immediately recognize Rachel Keller and Jean Smart, who play the roles of Sydney Barrett and Melanie Bird, respectively. Keller, who broke out as “Fargo’s” Simone Gerhardt, appears poised for even greater stardom thanks to her emotionally demanding role as David Haller’s cursed yet optimistic girlfriend. Smart brings a smoldering intensity to the role of Dr. Melanie Bird, a revolutionary psycho-therapist, who seems to know more about David’s abilities than he does himself.
There’s also Jeremie Harris as Ptonomy Wallace, character actor and bona fide clown Billy Irwin as Cary Loudermilk and the delightfully androgynous Aubrey Plaza as Lenny “Cornflakes” Busker. We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention the fantastically unlikeable Hamish Linklater (another “Fargo” alum) in the role of the Interrogator. Each of these talented players brings their own bag of idiosyncrasies to the show, adding to “Legion’s” dark, quirky tone with their undeniable talents.
5. NEW MUTANTS
It would have been all-too easy for Noah Hawley and crew to mine the X-Men franchise for already established mutants, with which to populate the world of “Legion.” The comic gods know there are enough of them available. Having said that, by creating a new cohort of fugitive mutants for “Legion,” Hawley has, in one bold stroke, added to the existing lore, while distancing his project from the complications of the cinematic universe’s ever-changing continuity. As such, “Legion” boasts a fascinating group of totally new mutants with intriguing powers never before seen on screen.
First, there’s David’s girlfriend Sydney, who must avoid physical contact with others or risk swapping bodies with them. Then there’s Ptonomy Wallace, a self-described “memory artist,” capable of entering, restoring and manipulating a person’s memories. Other mutants abound in the first few episodes, as well, such as the savant Kerrie Loudermilk and an unnamed telekinetic who is instrumental in David’s escape from Division 3. This isn’t to say familiar faces will never show up in “Legion,” but with so many interesting new folks to get to know, we won’t miss our old favorites in the meantime.
4. MENTAL ILLNESS AWARENESS
Graphic medicine is a term that has been getting a lot of mileage in the comic book world recently. It refers to comics and graphic novels that educate or enlighten readers about specific medical conditions that may be afflicting the creators or their loved ones. In the comics, Legion’s ongoing battle with multiple personality disorder has been one of the character’s defining traits, even if it hasn’t always been treated with the sensitivity it deserves. One of the more positive aspects of a TV series like “Legion” is that it shines a much-needed spotlight on the effects mental illness has on its victims and their families.
Series star Dan Stevens performed countless hours of research, speaking with doctors, patients and families impacted by mental illness, in preparation for taking on the role of David Haller. In doing so, he has not only been able to infuse his portrayal of the series’ protagonist with emotional depth and verisimilitude, but has also brought to the forefront the very real challenges faced by people suffering from mental illness. “Legion” is proof positive that graphic medicine need not remain limited to the printed page and can possibly find far wider audiences as it crosses over to different media.
3. UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
There are numerous good reasons not to use an unreliable narrator in episodic television. Foremost among these is that episodic television relies on a formula to draw in viewers each week. Most viewers aren’t looking for a challenging plot or skewed perspectives when they tune in to their favorite shows. They’re looking for an opportunity to escape the mundane world and find a place where they don’t have to think too hard after a hard day’s work.
What makes “Legion’s” unreliable narrator work so well is his unstable mental state. David Haller’s reality is ever-shifting, tied to his emotional well-being rather than actual events unfolding around him. Everything should and must be questioned in “Legion.” Events, people and places may not be what they seem and may not exist at all, except as particularly vivid constructs of David’s fractured mind. Even his mutant powers should be called into question. So what can we trust about this show? Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. Even David asks during his escape, “Is this real?” The only way to know for sure is to tune in each week. See? Now you’re hooked!
2. DAN STEVENS IS LEGION
Before “Legion,” British actor Dan Stevens was probably best known for his work on the popular UK drama “Downton Abbey.” An accomplished actor who has lent his talents to a variety of films, television shows, radio plays and even audio books, Stevens brings a wealth of eclectic experience to the role of David Haller. He conveys a distinct sense of vulnerability as David, which manifests itself in an unrelenting barrage of facial tics, shifting speech patterns and herky-jerky body language. There’s also a definite edge to his portrayal, hinting at unseen depths and hidden strengths that David is only now discovering after his escape from Division 3.
Stevens heavily researched the role, talking to doctors, patients and families of loved ones suffering from mental illness so that he could understand their conditions. According to a piece in “Vanity Fair,” he was even kept in the dark about key plot points so that his reactions to David’s shifting view of reality felt real onscreen. All of these extraordinary lengths come together in a virtuoso performance that revels in its darkness, while striving for the light. Like the rest of us, David is just someone searching for answers, something Stevens never lets us forget.
1. PUSHES THE BOUNDARIES OF SUPERHERO TV
Truth be told, there’s no single reason why “Legion” is currently the best superhero show on TV. But when we look back at the entries of our list, it’s possible to see several arguments for how the series pushes the boundaries of a genre that has arguably already started to eat its own tail. By remaining true to his creative vision and looking outside of the genre jump-started by shows such as “Arrow” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Hawley and company have infused “Legion” with a refreshing level of sophistication typically reserved for more adult fare.
Like recent movies such as “Deadpool” and “Logan,” “Legion” challenges our expectations of the genre by stepping outside of the X-Men franchise without completely cutting ties. It is this ironic sense of self-assured identity injected into a show that trades upon the strength of its unpredictable protagonist that allows “Legion” to push the envelope of superhero TV. It is a superhero show without a clear superhero, and yet that is what we find so engrossing. David Haller may never become the hero we’ve come to expect on TV, but he is most definitely the hero we’ll all be cheering for anyway.
What do you like best about “Legion?” Let us know in the Comments!
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