Nine years ago, Legion would have been too weird to live. Like its main character, the paranoid schizophrenic David Haller (Dan Stevens), FX’s new X-Men adjacent series is aggressively peculiar, repeatedly unsettling, and ultimately, extremely powerful. In 2008, when fans were duking it out over whether Batman or Iron Man had the better superhero film, no one would have dreamed of taking a relatively obscure comic book property and making something this odd.
Who would have ever thought there would even be a venue for a project like this? Back then, Netflix was just stretching its legs with its streaming service and the original content boom that would expand the TV landscape was just beginning to boil. And yet nine years later, Iron Man is set to appear with 67 other established Marvel Cinematic Universe characters in Infinity War, and Ben Affleck as Batman is assembling the Justice League. We’ve reached double digits with the amount of superhero series we have on air. Fans of the genre are spoiled with options, but Legion is using different chemicals to switch up the formula, immediately setting it apart from the pack.
You know the deal; after proving his aptitude adapting Fargo for the network, FX’s parent company Fox let creator and showrunner Noah Hawley play in their portion of the Marvel Universe sandbox, which includes the X-Men, Deadpool, and Fantastic Four intellectual property. Though Legion is set in the world of mutants, it’s not expected to tie in any meaningful way with what Fox is doing in their films, at least not in a story sense.
No, I wouldn’t expect to see David Haller’s famous comic book character father make an appearance any time soon, but Legion connects to Fox’s Marvel Universe by being distinct and singular. After seeing Deadpool skewer and subvert the genre and watching the first 40 minutes of Logan prove that “serious” can still work for superheroes without being too dark and joyless, Fox, and now FX, are proving that they might be making the most original and rewarding superhero content in the business.
Legion isn’t just subversive for superheroes; it’s wildly different than anything currently on the air. Though I described it as singular earlier, it pulls and presents its influences – from Kubrick to Malik, dreamlike psychedelia to violent surrealism – like a kaleidoscope of strangeness. If you thought Doctor Strange was trippy, hold on to your hat.
Certain scenes, like the ones between Haller and his fellow mental patient and girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), play like David Fincher trying his hand at directing a Wes Anderson film. It’s visual eye candy with a sour twist. The art direction is fascinating alone, borrowing heavily from ‘60s-inspired fashion and using color motifs to enhance the clinical atmosphere. Even more affecting is the sound editing, which can be suffocating, overwhelming the viewer just as much as David with inaudible whispers and ambient noise.
The performances are top notch as well. Stevens, who made a name for himself on Downton Abbey, plays David like a raw nerve under a magnifying glass. Keller, who got lost in the shuffle a bit on Fargo, finally breaks out here as a mutant who cannot touch another person without swapping bodies. But the real scene-stealer is Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), as David’s fried, funny friend Lenny in the asylum. Her particular brand of comedy works wonders in Hawley’s weird little world.
Throughout the pilot, Legion is delightfully unhinged. If you’re like me, you’ll be amused just trying to decide what to make of it all, with its bizarre tonal shifts and Hawley’s inventive direction. The climax of the episode may fly too close to what I’d expect from a superhero show, but it still doesn’t spoil how refreshingly unique the whole thing feels. It’s crazy to think a show like Legion is even on TV at all, luckily, the show itself is even crazier.