The newest addition to the ever-growing series of television shows based on Marvel properties arrived last week, with the FX show Legion.
The show, co-produced by Marvel and Fox, is the first live-action adaptation of Fox’s X-Men and mutant roster. (At the moment, it’s unclear if the show is going to tie into the X-Men Cinematic Universe or not.) The show follows the life of lead character David Haller, based of the Marvel character of the same name, who’s comic alias also gives the show its name. At the start of the show, David is a middle-aged man who has been diagnosed with a severe case of schizophrenia from a young age — he constantly hears voices and sees things that don’t exist. David is currently being housed in a long-term mental health facility, where he meets the show’s lead female protagonist, a mysterious young woman named Sydney with a severe phobia of physical contact.
As the show progresses, David begins to form a relationship with Sydney, who largely rebels against the hospital’s treatments. Things go awry, however, when Sydney is set to be released, setting off a chain of events that leads David to start to believe what we, the viewer, probably already knew: that he’s not crazy, but he (and Sydney) seem to have super powers.
For those unaware of the source material, David Hallar is a mutant named Legion, the son of Charles Xavier, who inherits the mutant gene from his father. Legion’s telepathy extends far beyond his fathers — he is able to absorb the entire personality of people that he is close too. He suffers from a severe case of dissociative identity disorder, with each distinct personality having its own distinct mutant power. The television version of David Haller, so far, is not quite as extreme as his source counterpart — he appears to “only” be a very powerful telepath and telekenetic, though we may learn more as the show progresses. Also, there was no mention of David’s parents in the pilot, but he has a sister, and neither seem to have any awareness of mutants or superpowers.
Despite being a show about mutants and superpowers, the show is very heavily grounded in reality. (Indeed, the show only uses the word “mutant” once, about halfway through.) There are, obviously, scenes of events that are meant to be fantastical, but mostly the show sticks with David in his every day life, trying to cope with what he (and everyone around him) believes is a mental illness. We see what it must be like for someone who, for example, has telekinetic and telepathic powers but doesn’t know it. When David starts to hear other people’s thoughts, he’s accused of just hearing voices. When objects start moving around his kitchen on their own, he’s accused of acting out and trying to hurt himself. At one point, the stress gets so bad he tries (but fails) to hang himself, prompting his admittance to the hospital in the first place.
The first episode, at least, was shot in a style that’s somewhat unusual for a mainstream television series. With only a few brief exceptions, the entire episode is short from David’s perspective (which, if you’re paying attention, gives away one of the twists very early). But David is not a mentally stable person, and the director uses that to his advantage. The story unfolds in a very disjointed, jumpy, non-linear fashion of flashbacks and asides within an overall framing story that we don’t even see until about 10 minutes in. What’s more, David is an unreliable narrator; he can’t tell in-universe what is real and what’s not, so we the viewer are often left unsure ourselves. The show randomly switches into and out of dream sequences, but even those are sometimes more “real” than what we experience first-hand from David. It can sometimes be confusing trying to figure out where the show is in it’s own timeline, but the plot is straightforward and logical enough that all the parts fall into place neatly by the climax.
The writing and acting is also very well done; there’s very little of the typical cliche’d dialog you often get from comic book movies, and the tone of the show stays very grounded and somber most of the time (except for the occasional hallucination), as befitting someone locked away from the world for their own good. The character interactions all feel genuine, at least what we’ve seen so far. I’m very interested to see if and how the show changes based on where we end up at the end of episode one.
If there is a flaw in the pilot, though, it’s that it doesn’t do a very good job at character building. Everything we know about every character is based on their interactions with David, who spends the whole episode believing he’s crazy. This leaves very little room for those characters to stand alone or develop their own backstories. Apart from Sydney and Dr. Kissinger, both of whom David spends a lot of time with, the characters are very one-dimensional: the loving but terrified sister; the quiet menacing guy; the faceless evil corporation; the bad-ass bounty hunters, etc. The show does not spend any time getting us to care about these others, yet, instead focusing all of its effort on getting into the mind of David. The problem here is that, with David being such an unreliable narrator, it can be hard sometimes to care about him either; it’s not until very late in the show that you start to get genuinely interested in what happens to him. Hopefully, now that we’ve been introduced to him, the subsequent episodes can start filling in some of those gaps and keep me hooked.
Overall, the show was an excellent entry into the comic book television word; it’s very different from everything else Marvel or DC is putting out, and shows the potential to be a standout in the genre. However, the show is clearly taking some big risks in tone, style, and structure. It remains to be seen if those risks pay off big, or end up sinking the show.
|Airs:||FX, 10pm Wednesday|
|Created By:||Noah Hawley (Fargo)|
|Starring:||Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller|
|Episodes:||1 season, 8 episodes|