New superhero show Legion debuts on TV next week, and it’s quite unlike any previous comic book adaptation. That’s down to the challenging source material by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. The inspired choice for showrunner in the shape of Fargo‘s Noah Hawley. And the many brave, unexpected, and downright weird artistic choices made throughout.
We've seen the first three episodes, absolutely loved them, and think it might change the way superhero stories are approached going forward...
Where's the Hero?
Legion revolves around David Heller (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens), and from the first few moments, he's anything but a superhero. We're introduced to Heller via a montage of his childhood and witness David transform from happy-go-lucky toddler into deeply troubled teen. Paranoid, delusional and suicidal, he's diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and is now in a psychiatric hospital. Making David's back-story a little different to being hit by gamma rays or bitten by a radioactive spider.
Indeed, the first three episodes play out as something of a tragedy, with David struggling to understand the voices in his head and the frequent visions he sees. Most superhero stories have their protagonist doing something heroic early in the proceedings. But Legion seems less concerned with showing off David's powers, and more interested in exploring the twisted contents of his mind.
And in a conceit that truly sets Legion apart, there are times when David seems like he might be more villain than hero.
Legion isn't the simple story of someone discovering their superpowers and then using them to fight evil. For much of the first three episodes, David is doing battle with himself as much as anyone else. His confused mind, combined with the cocktail of drugs he's been taking, means that David no longer knows what's real and what's imagined. As the audience is frequently viewing the world through his eyes, we have much the same problem.
David also suffers frequent flashbacks, while a good chunk of the action revolves around delving into his past, via 'Memory Artist' Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris). The narrative therefore jumps back-and-forth in time, as we endeavour to piece together the puzzle that David presents. As that mystery unravels, the audience can never completely trust what they are seeing, with some characters appearing good, then evil. Others real, then imagined. And others still dying before being resurrected. Which makes for television that's both challenging and rewarding.
Legion doesn't look like any superhero movie or show that's gone before. The colours are bright and garish, like the panels of a particularly trippy comic book. The sets stylish and filled with retro chic. The time period isn't now, but it doesn't seem to be in the past either. And there are a few futuristic flourishes thrown in for good measure. The show, therefore, seems to exist in some strange time zone that's very much its own.
But there's method in the visual madness. Hawley told EW: "This whole show is not the world, it’s David’s experience of the world. He’s piecing his world together from nostalgia and memory and the world becomes that."
Legion, therefore, straddles fantasy and reality like some psychedelic fever dream. Which makes it infinitely more interesting to look at than the many other comic book shows on TV right now.
Hawley told San Diego Comic-Con that Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' casts a shadow over the show as it plays like the soundtrack of mental illness. Indeed Rachel Keller's character is even named after Syd Barrett, troubled founder of that band.
When creating Legion's self-contained universe, Hawley says he watched A Clockwork Orange, and Stanley Kubrick's influence can be felt throughout. David is a patient at Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, and a visually arresting moment in Episode 3 harks back to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is clearly an influence on the show's dream logic, while there's also a 'Swinging Sixties' vibe to proceedings. Hawley apparently watched British films from that era to prepare, as well as Quadrophenia.
The showrunner also cites David Lynch as an influence, telling Vanity Fair that the show is an "existential exploration" of superhero stories. “There’s, whatever, 9,000 superhero stories right now," he explains. "They’ve got all the running and kicking covered. I think my goal with this is to do something whimsical and imaginative and unexpected. Not just because I want to do something different, but because it feels like the right way to tell this story.”
For these reasons, and many more that we'd need to go into spoilers to discuss, Legion is a dramatic break from the comic book norm; a brave experiment that could genuinely change the way film and television approaches the genre. And you'll be able to see for yourself when the show airs on Fox in the UK at 9pm on February 9 (and one day earlier on FX if you are in the States).