‘Legion’: The Next Generation of Superhero TV

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Photo: FX
Photo: FX

Legion is a new show about people with superpowers based in the Marvel Comics universe; when it premieres Wednesday night, it will be FX’s first such show in this genre. Because I’d been having a minor case of superhero fatigue — I don’t mean I’m a tired superhero; I mean I’m rather sick of superhero TV shows and movies — I was prepared to be irritated by it. Instead, I was enthralled: This is the best Marvel Comics-based TV show by leaps and bounds, by head and shoulders.

Legion stars Dan Stevens — yes, the sniffy Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey — as David Haller, a young man diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who’s leading a miserable life of insecurity, fear, and bouts of destructive drug use. (His pal in misadventure in the latter area is wild-child Lenny, played with controlled abandon by Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza.)

Related: Legion: Dan Stevens on Being ‘Confidently Weird’ as the World’s Most Powerful Mutant

As we see early on, David may actually possess telekinetic powers, which is to say he can control objects around him with his mind. So the good news: not schizo. The bad news: might destroy things without intending to. No wonder Stevens plays him as jumpy and mistrustful. Consigned to a psychiatric hospital, he meets Rachel Keller’s Syd Barrett (yes, the name is a nod to Pink Floyd’s trippiest member), a young woman who possesses a special ability that immediately links her to David. They are soon taken under the care of the psychiatrist Melanie Bird, played by Fargo alum Jean Smart. She leads a team of researchers who are conducting experiments with — and here’s the ta-da! Marvel moment — mutants living among us, waiting to be activated into doing good (one hopes).

Legion has been adapted for TV by Noah Hawley, who’s been doing such a great job with FX’s Fargo and whose 2016 novel, Before the Fall, I recommend without reservation. Hawley brings a method of storytelling and a visual style that no superhero show has ever had. The storylines fracture and double-back on themselves. When David goes into telekinetic mode, the screen explodes in a slow-motion riot of everyday objects swirling around him like a mini-tornado.

While I’m not conversant in the Legion comics as created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz in the 1980s, I am very familiar with the first-gen X-Men comics as created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s. Legion certainly connects strongly and well to the mythology set out back then: mutants as young, troubled people as much in fear as in thrall to their sometimes-uncontrollable powers; overseen by a powerful, science-based, flawed leader (Professor Xavier in X-Men; Melanie Bird in the TV Legion).

Stevens plays David as withdrawn and twitchy; he’s also prone to little bursts of deadpan humor, a quality that also pops up elsewhere in the story, and humor is much appreciated in superhero stories, which tend to be dreadfully solemn and portentous. Hawley knows you can’t do without a certain amount of overwrought pronouncements — that’s one of the things that makes comic books fun, and so you will hear Legion characters say things like, “He thinks he’s mentally ill, but he may be … the most powerful mutant we’ve ever encountered!” But you’ll also be delighted by David’s quick, deflating sarcasm, and the rapid-fire banter of characters like Lenny and Bill Irwin’s absent-minded-professor scientist Cary Loudermilk.

One presumes that David will eventually become what he is in the comics — the superhero called Legion, but there’s no indication of that in the three episodes made available to critics. Some may think of this as a slow-burn narratively; I think it’s just proper stage-setting. If Legion can maintain the balance of thriller-tautness and hallucinatory chaos that is done so well in the show’s opening hours, this will truly be a unique and superb superhero series.

Legion airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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