First Impressions: FX’s Legion takes the superhero genre and subverts it

From the guy who brought you the X-Men, Bryan Singer, and the guy who brought you the TV version of Fargo, Noah Hawley, and based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz comes an origin story series for one particular obscure character from the X-Men universe.

Legion follows the story of David Haller, diagnosed as schizophrenic as a child, medicated for most of his life and currently living in a psychiatric hospital. When he meets another patient, Syd Barrett, she makes him realise that perhaps the voices he hears and visions he sees are real. And that there is more to his circumstances or situation than what he believes is happening. We got to check out the first 3 episodes of the series before the show airs on the FX Channel on Foxtel on February 9th and here’s our initial take.

First and foremost the characters are all new, even those familiar with the comic lore will see the only connection here is the name of David Haller aka Legion. Who in the comics is the son of the famed Professor Charles Xavier (aka Professor X, played by Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy in the film universe), however both are unaware of the connection to begin with. Hawley and his writing team have opted to take this character and build their own world and origin story for him.

Using a combination of his own aesthetic but also making it feel like a part of the X-Men universe that has come before it, but most importantly this is a new story. And for those hoping for any sort of X-Men crossover, Hawley has made it clear that it’s a possibility but highly unlikely in the first season. Regardless Hawley’s strength comes from his writing and making his characters interesting, relatable and always with a hint of mystery.

Firstly there’s David Haller, played by Dan Stevens (ex Downton Abbey), a man who has been told for almost his entire life that he’s crazy. Then his entire world becomes upended when he’s told that maybe he’s not crazy and he’s just got superpowers. Then there’s Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), who plays David’s love interest and fellow psych patient who turns out to be a mutant trying to bust him out of the hospital. As well as Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris) the “memory artist” who can transport people into their own memories to help them discover when their mutant powers manifested. Or The Eye (Mackenzie Grey), a member of Division 3 and the Government (or outside of the Government?) group trying to hunt David down. We know little about the players involved, all we do know from these episodes is that David has landed in the middle of an impending war – with a mutant movement on one side and a Government led strike team on the other.

It will be interesting to see if the series expands into other mutant characters and what their abilities are. There has been talk about an impending battle or war, and how David is the key to winning it. With the title of the series being “Legion” and that being David’s mutant character name according to the comic lore, could it also imply that the show refers to an army or legion of mutants that will be part of that war too? These first few episodes certainly have a slight hint and nod towards the X-Men: First Class film and building up to something much larger.

These initial episodes can be quite tricky to follow and keep track. As we cut from scenarios and settings and situations, jumping from present day to the past whilst David delves into his memories. It almost feels like we’re riding along with him as he attempts to put all the pieces together to work out what the truth is. Hawley works best when he teases his audiences with a large puzzle, and it’s only by the end of the season do we see the bigger picture revealed. For now all we know is that David is special, unique, powerful and he’s a mutant, and he’s wanted by both sides of the war.

Straight out of the gates Stevens as David is borderline electrifying and compelling to watch. He has a heavy weight to bear since the show focuses specifically on his character. But so far in these episodes he’s been an enigmatic performer. Aubrey Plaza who plays Lenny Busker is also fun to see in action. She plays David’s drug addicted friend who is in the psych hospital with him, and her almost non-stop chattering makes for some quippy dialogue. Without having seen the full season it’s hard to rate the performances of the other actors, but it’s clear that Stevens is managing the front man role exceptionally well.

If you’re familiar with Hawley’s work on Fargo he has a very particular style that you’ll recognise. The cinematography and visual aesthetic in Legion is quite similar, thanks in part to the work by Dana Gonzales and Craig Wrobleski who both worked on Fargo too. There are interspersed long shots of scenery, or dramatic close ups on character faces. The former giving us perspective and scope and scale, the latter to emphasise emotion and instill empathy in us for our characters.

There are moments where this feels very Kubrickian (Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital is a nod) but also hints of Wes Anderson too with splashes of brightness and a random Indian Bollywood dance number out of nowhere. Then there’s also the fancy camera work with the slow motion three dimensional-like 360 degree sequences. These feature particularly when David has outbursts of rage and his telekinetic power manifests in a wild out of control display of things flying everywhere. The “kitchen scene” in particular is something to behold. And if you want some added creepiness factor, watch this with your headphones on and volume up loud.

Where this show is unique is in its surrealistic and subvertive take on the superhero genre. There aren’t a bunch of super-powered mutants running around and things blowing up. Well there is a little bit of that but the majority of what we’ve seen so far is more of a character study. We are put into David’s shoes of being thrust into this world and having no understanding of what’s going on or how to control any of it. It’s all a bit twisted and weird and a feeling of not being sure what’s real. But I guess that’s the point?

Legion will air on Foxtel’s FX channel from February 9th