Note: This is the mandatory Christian “I really like this thing, but I don’t necessarily recommend it” warning. Legion is rated TV-MA. If that’s not your thing, I would recommend watching something else. Or waiting until VidAngel inevitably releases a censored version. Your call.
The entertainment industry is absolutely saturated with superhero content right now. Ever since the success of Iron Man, studios and networks have been desperately trying to get a piece of the valuable market that the genre has created. And while this trend has resulted in some serious commercial success, many critics and fans are starting to question whether or not the rush to put out so much content has resulted in a drop-off in the quality of films and TV shows based on superhero properties. Can the studios continue to put out adaptations that are creative and engaging? Has the entire genre stagnated, accepting its fate of simply telling the same story over and over with different masks (or capes or suits)?
If you’re looking for a source of hope in the superhero genre, you need look no further than Legion, a new show from FX based on the character of the same name from the X-Men comic book universe. The show debuted in January and finished its eight-episode arc a couple of weeks ago, garnering praise from critics and fans all along the way. It may not have had the widest audience, ending its first season run with under a million viewers, but those who watched Legion were absolutely enthralled, myself included.
Legion tells the story of David, a young man who is haunted by voices inside of his head that are interpreted by those around him as symptoms of schizophrenia. The season as a whole follows a chronological narrative arc, but nearly every episode includes jumps in time, exploring David’s childhood, his attempts at living a normal life, and his time in a mental hospital. When we first meet David, he is in the custody of D3, a government agency dedicated to protecting the nation against mutants, members of a new stage in human evolution who are born with superpowers. And this is our first indication that David’s struggle may stem from something other than mental illness. This is only confirmed when a team of rogue mutants emerges onto the scene showing a clear interest in him.
What people seem to love about the show is just how different it is from any other superhero film or TV show that we’ve seen in the recent boom. It was developed and showrun by Noah Hawley, the creator of another beloved FX show Fargo. His approach to storytelling and character development carries over well from the small-town crime genre to the superhero genre and shows that not all superhero stories have to play out in the typical way.
A superhero story, especially an origin story like this one, usually follows a pretty straightforward script. The hero somehow attains superpowers, explores them for a bit, and then uses them to defeat a bad guy and save the world. That is not David’s story at all. In fact, most of Legion’s conflict is internal, not external.
Like the viewer, David does not understand his abilities or know their extent. Sure, he’s a telepath and can move objects with his mind, but how far can that go? Much of the season centers around David and those around him questioning his abilities, his history, and even his motivations. All of this is played out in his mind rather than the external world, and it makes for compelling TV.
That is not to say that the show is all dialogue. As Kerry, a brawl-loving mutant who comes to David’s aid, notes, “There’s always a fight.” Each episode features stunts and action scenes, and much of the choreography is quite innovative. Due to the nature of David’s powers and the fact that many of the fights take place inside his mind, the show’s creators are able to play with elements like physics and even silence as a part of creating tension within action scenes. The fights in Legion drew me in both narratively and emotionally in a way that I haven’t been by a fight sequence in a long time.
And even though David is the protagonist, he is supported by an incredible cast of characters and actors. In the season finale, David says, “This only works if it’s not about me.” Of course, he’s referring to his mission, but it also serves as self-referential commentary on the show itself. The fourth episode (aptly named “Chapter Four”) barely features David at all and instead focuses on the characters around him, including the ways that his presence has impacted their lives. Of particular note is Aubrey Plaza’s portrayal of Lenny, which starts off slowly but really begins to take center stage about halfway through.
Legion’s success ultimately stems from the bold choices it makes to break out of superhero mold. Yes, the writing, directing, and editing are each incredible in their own right. But when it comes down to it, Legion is still a superhero TV show, and what it does best is serve as an example to those creating superhero content that they can do better. Comic books have shown us that superhero stories can be as varied as the characters themselves, and Legion follows in that legacy. Here’s to hoping that other players in the genre follow suit.
The first season of Legion is available for streaming on the FX website or app and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD later this year. A ten-episode second season, which will focus less on David's internal struggle and more on the question of the coexistence between humans and mutants, is slated to be released in February 2018.