As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows, it gains opportunities to include some in-universe Easter eggs to make its continuity feel more lived in. The most recent Marvel TV series for Disney+, Hawkeye, goes so far as to include a full-blown Broadway musical featuring the exploits of that world’s Avengers. But while Rogers: The Musical is a fun extra feature for fans to pore over, there’s another Marvel property from the recent past that understands the power of good old-fashioned singin’ and dancin’ more than any other superhero project.
FX’s Legion, which first premiered five years ago today, exists outside of the Marvel continuity…like way, way outside of it. This series borrows some of the X-Men characters owned by Fox at the time (which is now, of course, owned by Marvel’s parent company Disney) to present a trippy, auteurist vision from Fargo creator Noah Hawley.
Anybody who tells you that they understood everything that happened in Legion is lying. The show was confusing by design. Its central character, David Haller (Dan Stevens), who is Charles Xavier’s son in the comics, is an ultra powerful telepathic mutant diagnosed as schizophrenic from a young age. Whether David is truly mentally unmoored or merely under psychic attack from external forces, his mind is a disorienting place to be – and his mind is where Legion sets most of its action.
Everything might not be as it seems in Legion…or maybe everything is exactly as it seems. Maybe this is set in a time-ambiguous universe where everyone wears ‘70s fashion but has access to modern technology. Or maybe it’s all in David’s head. There are a lot of “maybes” on Legion. One area that is perfectly clear, however, is the show’s brilliant use of music and dance.
Fittingly enough for this bizarre show, Legion never feels more alive or more perfectly coherent as when its characters are singing and/or dancing. Dance sequences occur on Legion both within the architecture of David’s mind and without – if those two things can even be distinct for such a powerful telepath. And each time (with a couple of exceptions) the musical scenes capture plot and tone better than any traditional dialogue ever good.
The show’s commitment to musical sequences begins early in Legion’s run. The series’ very first episode features a dance set in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital.
This one is very clearly a hallucination, as evidenced by the quick cuts to David asleep in bed. He is dreaming of running away with his friend Lenore “Lenny” Busker (Aubrey Plaza) and beautiful new patient Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). Dancing to French musician Serge Gainsbourg appears to be the closest thing that David can imagine to freedom.
While that first dance number is tied directly to David and his mental state, Legion very quickly moves beyond the confines of David’s unconscious (we think, at least). The next big song and dance presentation from season 1 “stars” Lenny all by herself, not connected to David and his psyche at all. And what a dance number it is! If you’ve only seen one viral clip from Legion, it’s likely this one.
There are certainly many storytelling strategies to communicate that a character is now a villain or compromised by a brain-invading psychic opponent. It’s hard to argue though that having Aubrey Plaza dance around to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” while humping pillows and huffing medical grade anesthesia isn’t the perfect route. Notably, Lenny thrashes around both Clockworks and David’s childhood home’s kitchen, which serves as the site of a cornerstone memory for him. The show is depicting both Lenny’s downfall and the continued battle inside David’s brain.
While Lenny’s dance sequence is excellent, Legion’s most impressive musical performance comes in the season 2 premiere. Up to this point, music and dancing has served as metaphor for internal things – like David’s memories. What’s notable about the season 2 episode 1 musical moment is how it serves as a metaphor for psychic battle.
Though Legion was certainly granted a generous VFX budget from FX, basic cable money likely wasn’t enough to capture MCU-level telepath battles. And even if it did have the money, traditional fight scenes weren’t something that Hawley was interested in anyway.
“I don’t find action for its own sake to be very interesting,” Hawley said in a FX-hosted YouTube interview. “So how do you show conflict between characters in a way that feels fresh or interesting?”
The answer, as it so often turns out to be on Legion, is dancing. Just get a load of this pitch-perfect approximation of psychic battle.
It’s hard to even properly set up this sequence in terms of its relation to the rest of Legion’s plot. The simplest way to explain it is that David has been placed in a sensory deprivation tank by Division III scientist Cary Loudermilk (Bill Irwin) to amplify his powers and find the villainous Amahl Farouk a.k.a. The Shadow King. Whilst in the confine of his own mind (or a psychic projection elsewhere?) David comes across two old friends and current unwilling thralls of the Shadow King, Lenny and Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement).
Devoid of physical forms, the trio can’t fight in the traditional sense. So, they dance to a thumping musical beat from series composer Jeff Russo. The real impressive thing here is how each of the characters’ choreographed movements roughly translate to a coherent fighting style. David’s dance is complementary to those around him, befitting a hero. Oliver’s is dismissive of his dance partners. Lenny’s is exploitative and sexual. None of this is actually happening but then again maybe it is? If not, how does Cary back in the “real” world know how to maintain the beat as he plugs new wires into David’s tank?
Legion isn’t a literal musical, of course, though it probably should have been. Several episodes can go by without a single song and dance number. Yet, you get a sense of how important the show views its dance moments by the prominent placement it gives them. The aforementioned David/Lenny/Oliver dance fight is given prominent billing in the show’s season 2 premiere. The show’s season 3 premiere also opens with a truly delightful choreographed sequence.
By the time season 3 opens up, David is a villainous figure and a near Manson-style cult figure to a group of enlightened hippies. The show deftly dives into the tones of that with a musical scene that features time-traveling mutant and would-be David recruit Jia-Yi a.k.a. Switch (Lauren Tsai). Watch as Superorganism’s “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” scores all this weirdness and makes a pretty compelling case for joining Professor X’s kid’s cult.
Now, just because many of Legion’s musical numbers are great that doesn’t mean that they’re all winners. As is often the case with folks breaking into song in any dramatic story, there is a fine line between compelling and cringe. Legion went back to the musical well for the first real confrontation between David and Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban) in the season two finale. The duo slowly floats towards each other while singing The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” before animated helicopters and sharks fight in the sky. It’s…not great.
Also better left forgotten is a literal psychic rap battle between Oliver Bird and an embodiment of the Big Bad Wolf (Jason Mantzoukas) in season 3. Though we suppose there is some value to hearing Jemaine Clement promise to beat up a fellow MC with his cock.
Misfires aside, Legion was truly at its best when it was leaning into the operatic qualities of superhero storytelling with literal opera. If there’s any lesson for future Marvel movies or series to take away from this fascinating experiment, then let it be that.