I think it is more than fair to say that we have reached peak superhero. The number of hours I have spent in the Marvel Cinematic, and Marvel Extended, and Marvel Television Universes makes me feel obligated to not miss an offering, lest all those previous hours spent been in vain. Netflix alone has overwhelmed my tv time with a seemingly endless parade of superhero shows (Jessica Jones is the best, I can skip Iron Fist right?). I refuse to engage with the DC universe because life is simply too short. Ironic that it is FX, the network of John Landgraf (forewarner of ‘peak tv’) has opted to throw out another offering from the world of Marvel.
Full disclosure, I have not read any of the X-Men comics and my experience with the characters has purely been through the movies and a childhood friend who dressed as Wolverine for 6 Halloweens in a row. That being said, the X-Men have always been my favorites in the superhero world. While the X-Men themselves may fight for good, mutants in general are not inherently heroes (or villains). They are not super soldiers, or vigilante billionaires, but rather just people who were born differently and have to deal in a society that is consistently suspicious of those who are different (hmmm feels familiar…almost like…..a parable…or something…). The best parts of the movies for me were never the blockbuster action sequences, but rather the mutant characters who were living their lives as teachers, line cooks or petty criminals. The potential mundanity of a mutant’s life sparked my (and I’m sure countless others) imagination: what would it be like to have mutant powers? What would they be? How would I live my life with them? In case you were wondering, my power would be to kill people with my mind. It would cause a lot of problems for me.
Legion captures that imaginative spark perfectly with the outsider narrative of David Haller (played by my nemesis Dan Stevens), a young man who believes his telepathic powers are really a schizophrenic mental illness. Even his sneaking suspicions about his own abilities feel intertwined with a potential psychosis, leaving the audience, like Haller, unsure of what to believe. Yes, I know I could easily google what the extent of this character’s powers are, but seeing them uncovered is infinitely more delightful. Instead of surrendering fully to the hero narrative we share Haller’s doubts and hopes regarding the increasingly surreal situations in which he finds himself. He is not an untouchable god or immortal alien, and while he may be a mutant he still suffers from the fallibility of his humanity.
Most superhero movies, despite the presence of a different white male lead (I said it), are intensely formulaic. Even Deadpool, the R-rated black sheep superhero movie, still followed the standard formula pretty faithfully. And while these movies are on a whole enjoyable, the Marvel films have begun to feel more like a Mad Libs fill in the blank rather than films with individual vision.
Legion, however, has taken that Mad Libs booklet, set it on fire, and scattered the ashes to the wind. Legion is superhero story that feels 100% original, it is able to stand alone on the strength of its artistic merit and would be just as good without the Marvel and X-Men labels on the tin.
To start with Legion looks INSANE. With Fargo, Noah Hawley showed us he could channel the unique style of the Coen brothers, but he is a far from a one trick pony. Imagine that Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch decided to raise a child together, and that child grew up to be Wes Anderson, and then armed with his father’s directorial ambition and passion for the color red, he directed Legion. That’s what Legion looks like. Haller inhabits a world of earth tones punctuated with fire alarm reds and sickly greens, Zissou crew members scurry around the foreground while ominous figures lurk in the shadows. It is a world of menace, imagination, and overwhelming beauty. It feels like Twin Peaks on LSD, like the Royal Tenenbaums trapped in A Clockwork Orange. It is sublime.
Even though I will never forgive him (he knows what he did), Dan Stevens is magnetic as the titular character, and even his sometimes odd American accent lends to the delicious oddness of Haller. Now get away from me forever Dan Stevens. Rachel Keller (who is only 24!!! Don’t talk to me.) Is as radiant here as she was in season 2 of Fargo. Her sweet but doomed romance with Haller is the anchor in a world that is constantly tilting on its axis. Rounding out the pilot cast is Jean Smart (legend), Aubrey Plaza (possibly, actually, a mutant) and Hamish Linklater who I love in everything. I just love that guy! Don’t you??? He’s always good (do I have a crush on Hamish Linklater? Help).
Most importantly, Legion is FUN. It is not bogged down in self importance or the dreadful moral hemming and hawing that plagues so many comic book outings. For chrissakes, it has a Bollywood dance break that is as emotionally resonant as it is playfully irreverent. Legion is a show that is both a visual existential escape while being inescapably tethered to our present reality through its allegorical content. It is the show that we need even though we may barely deserve it’s staggering beauty and sublime weirdness. I will not be recapping Legion, because (a) I don’t want to sully my enjoyment of this fine television program with my opinions and (b) I am already covering a lot when no one pays me to write (yet..?). But you have all been put on notice to watch this gem.
Five out of five, ten out of ten, hearts, stars and horseshoes.
PS. FX you can pay me in cash or check. I also accept Venmo.