Movies · TV

‘Legion’ is An Evolution in Superhero TV

By  · Published on February 8th, 2017

FX’s new series risks being tragic, funny, and at times befuddling. All of it pays off brilliantly.

Throughout the better part of the past decade, we’ve watched the world of superhero cinema evolved. Pushed forward primarily by the emergence of Marvel Studios, we’ve watched as big screen hero stories have become more sophisticated, more interconnected, and in many ways, just bigger. This evolution is not, however, all upside. With the rise of the expanded universe generation, we’ve also seen a dulling of the innovation. It’s the most ubiquitous complaint about modern superhero cinema: it’s so much of the same. Marvel does their team-up movie, so DC does theirs. DC’s TV division succeeds in crossing up its shows, so Marvel builds its own little Netflix universe. The assertion that there’s a lot of sameness out there isn’t a false narrative, nor is it limited to the big screen. And for studios, there often isn’t a downside to the sameness. Look at Sony Pictures and its Spider-Man franchises. Even though they’re on their third attempt to get it right, they also grossed literal billions of dollars in the five movies they made between 2002 and 2014. Proving that even if you’re doing basically the same story over and over, people will still bring popcorn.

Along the way, though, we’ve seen some interesting creative tangents that truly illustrate what superhero-driven entertainment can be when in the right hands. 2016 saw a scrappy, but passionate crew deliver a foul-mouthed, ultra-violent take on Deadpool. And it worked. Later this year, we’ll see the same studio (Fox) take one of their marquee characters and send him off in R-rated style with Logan. These are risky propositions, but they are often the propositions that stand out. Take X-Men: First Class for example. This was a film made entirely within the churn of the studio machine, but there was enough Matthew Vaughn zip to make it a stylish period piece about mutant politics. Unfortunately, Fox put its X-Men right back into the sameness machine for two more movies and all we got for it was Oscar Isaacs looking like Ivan Ooze. Studios don’t always learn the right lessons when risks work out. And this isn’t limited to Fox or Sony. Look at the way Marvel Studios delivered high-wire genre cinema with the 70s police state spy thriller disguised as Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This brilliant turn did not prevent them from smashing their toys together in the loud, often incomprehensible Avengers: Age of Ultron.

This is all to say that no single studio is perfect when it comes to putting superheroes on screen. There are missteps and there is sameness, but there are also interesting risks that sneak in when we least expect them. Which brings us to Legion, the first collaboration between Fox’s FX Networks and Marvel. In the same way that Winter Soldier and Deadpool felt like very different, more evolved versions of superhero cinema, Noah Hawley’s X-show is undoubtedly an evolved version of the superhero TV show.

Based on a character named David Haller who originates from an X-Men run written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. David is the mutant son of Charles Xavier (Professor X) who suffers from severe mental illness, mainly schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. At least, that’s what he believes when we meet him. Played by Dan Stevens (star of 2014’s The Guest and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast reboot), David is portrayed as a very confused, deeply troubled former junky who – through very mysterious and X-Men like circumstances – find himself on the run from a secret government agency.

What’s most interesting about Legion is that while its playing with the same general tools of any mutant (or enhanced, or gifted, or whatever they can legally call it) story, it does so with a style that’s all its own. It exists within the same pastiche of the 60s that made X-Men: First Class so interesting. In an interview from late last year, Hawley described the look of the series to “a 1964 Terrence Stamp movie,” which is spot on when you visit the final product. From costumes to sets to environments, the entire production is top-notch. And while this is meant with no disrespect to shows such as Arrow or The Flash or Gotham, it’s clear almost immediately that Legion represents a visual step forward for superhero shows. It’s more on par with a show like Hannibal, one that exists in a world that’s meticulously crafted.

Beyond being stylish and sleek, Legion also has deep roots in genre cinema. In the way that Hawley dove into and nailed the Coen vibe with Fargo, he is here rhythmically synced with the psychological thrills that you might expect from, say, David Lynch. How we’re experiencing David’s story is similar to how David might experience it – in that it’s often frenetic and disorienting, but the show is careful not to leave its audience behind. While individual episodes feel frantic and leave a great number of questions unanswered, what we realize as we move further into the series is that the show is very patient. You may not get any solid answers for several episodes, but you will ultimately get them.

All of this makes Legion uniquely qualified to be a new guidepost on the road that is superhero entertainment. It’s a show that is unapologetically stylish and relentlessly thrilling. It benefits from a strong cast – beyond Stevens, there are also strong performances from Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, and Katie Aselton – and a creative team that appears to be unafraid to make something that’s tragic, thoughtful, and methodical. It’s by no means your average superhero show, in that it doesn’t feel as if it’s building toward some big battle where our hero must overcome evil. In fact, we’re not even certain that our hero is a hero. Nor are we certain that he’s stable enough to make decisions about right and wrong. And that makes him interesting.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)