Of all the big-budget superhero franchises carving their names into film and TV, it makes sense that the X-Men franchise is the one with an identity crisis. That an X-Men story should always be focused on a gang of misfits with mutant superpowers seems to be the only thing that all the comic book writers, artists, directors, and screenwriters over the years can agree on. And even then, that’s debatable (see anything Wolverine-related). The film series has had its hits (“Days of Future Past,” “Deadpool”) and its very rough misses (“Wolverine,” “Apocalypse”), and every addition has fused its superhero genre with everything from fun action-comedy to sci-fi to 1960s-era thriller.
It’s unclear what exactly FX was expecting when they hired Noah Hawley, the showrunner of “Fargo,” to create a new X-Men television series following David Haller, a young man institutionalized with paranoid schizophrenia who discovers that he possesses telekinesis. In the first few minutes of the pilot, “Legion” stands out as unlike any X-Men work before it, and certainly unlike any other superhero TV show on air or online.
Set to The Who song “Happy Jack,” the opening credits of the show consist of a series of dissolving shots as an infant David grows up to be a troubled youth, and eventually an unstable adult, all while his environs slowly grow more chaotic in a reflection of his mental state. And from there, it only gets much, much weirder. Cerebral and trippy, fractured and mysterious, “Legion” makes no promises as to what parts of its story are actually happening and what’s in David’s head.
Right away, there’s fear that a show like this could quickly turn exploitative. The entire premise of “Legion” revolves around the connection between David’s serious mental illness–one that is already heavily stigmatized in fiction and in real life–and his highly destructive mutant powers. But Hawley, his team of writers, and the actor who portrays David, Dan Stevens (“Downtown Abbey”), are careful not to simply display the character as an unhinged maniac. Stevens plays the role a bit like Mark Ruffalo plays the Incredible Hulk: David has lived with schizophrenia for long enough that he has some understanding of his limits and triggers, and he finds ways to cope with them even when he can’t always control himself. Consequently, David is a very human character, portraying both a curiosity about the world and a fair bit of skepticism, mixed with snark, towards the higher-ups who run the institution he’s trapped in. Even at his breaking points, Stevens plays the character with such determination to stay grounded that he’s easy to empathize with.
Much of the pilot takes place inside the eerily sanitized, government-owned mental hospital where David has lived for the past six years. Pretty soon, it becomes apparent that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. This isn’t just a medical facility we’re looking at; it’s something of a mutant holding cell. There are enough wide-angle shots, weird decorative foliage, mosaic-tiled pools, and long hallways lit with neon to make Stanley Kubrick blush, especially given that this particular breed of sci-fi creepiness harkens back to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and other 1960s entries of the genre.
But though the show takes place in this era (or at least appears to), none of the characters follow through with the decade’s usual tropes. A friend of David’s, another in-patient played by Aubrey Plaza, transcends any sort of ‘60s archetype with her wise-cracking humor. And David’s female counterpart and love interest, a new patient named Sydney Barrett (named after the mentally ill former frontman of Pink Floyd), has more awareness of her situation than meets the eye, as well as a more contemporary style of speech. At one point, in a group therapy session, she responds to the psychotherapist’s request for her to speak with a “nah, I’m good,” which would be off-putting if the show didn’t already muddle the boundaries of space, time, and reality.
Like other FX series, “Legion” benefits from a substantial budget and artistic freedom for its showrunner. I say “benefit” because, while the show’s more art house-y qualities and cinematic techniques don’t always pay off, it’s a treat to get to see them used for what has become the most tired, overused plot in pop culture today: the superhero origin story. Unlike “Deadpool,” which stuck a little too closely to familiar beats to be considered a true satire of the origin tale, “Legion” (sometimes literally) turns the plot on its head. Disorienting intercuts between out-of-order scenes, abstract imagery that is never fully explained, and a flashback structure that only exists for half the pilot all contribute to its uniqueness. Throw it all together at a whiplash-paced 90 minutes, and you’ve got a show that is inevitably difficult to follow at some points, in stark contrast to the very overt storytelling technique of the Marvel films. But this is hardly a problem, because the peculiar style of “Legion” is what makes it so engaging.
Even when it all gets to be too much, elements like David and Syd’s relationship keep the show emotionally grounded. Syd, we learn, is afraid of all physical touch; it’s never entirely clear if this is due to past trauma, or a mutant power, or even because she might be a figment of David’s imagination. Whatever the case, that complication prevents Syd from becoming a stale romantic lead, and her relationship with David embodies the best qualities of any X-Men story: marginalized people commiserating, rising up in the face of injustice, and bringing out the humanity in each other.
Like its characters fully grasping the potential of their abilities, “Legion” pushes the envelope in what we’ve come to expect from superhero television. While recent series like “Jessica Jones” may have broadened their thematic scope, “Legion”’s exhilarating narrative and visuals make it a must-see, raising the bar for more Marvel series to come.