Review: Legion – Chapter One

Of the ten people that were willing to let me talk to them about X-Men, nine of them said they had never heard of Legion. The exception googled it as I gave my thoughts on Noah Hawley’s new FX series. To be honest, I did the same after seeing the promo-posters, because I did not have a clue either. Turns out, Legion is the child of Professor Charles Xavier, and evidently one of the more esoteric members of the extensive Marvel universe. But in risking appealing to an incredibly niche fan-base, Legion’s opening chapter offers enough fertile ground to potentially generate new interest in Xavier’s little known son.

Led by Downton’s Dan Stevens, Legion surrounds David Haller, a young man who has lived a good portion of his life inside Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. Through an assortment of vague, flicker-book memories, we learn David was diagnosed with schizophrenia during childhood, and was hospitalised after a failed suicide attempt. He has lived estranged from all outside-folk except his sister, Amy, under the assumption he is crazy. The episode itself takes place in an interrogation room, where Haller is being questioned about his supposed-murder of best friend, Lenny Busker.

You do not have to be a Marvel buff to know the ‘until now’ moment is coming. Alongside his mounting suspicions, we soon see objects soaring across rooms as David’s temper rises, and the friend he has supposedly offed finds herself the quite literal ghost at the feast. The final straw comes through an encounter with fellow-patient, Syd Barrett, whose connection to Lenny’s murder leads Haller to question the reality of his supposed ‘delusions’.

Hawley makes a point of stopping there, however, for early on it is obvious that Legion is not sprung from that familiar Hugh-Jackman-shaped mould of other titles in the X-Men saga. That is partly down to source material; the Legion of Claremont and Sienkiewicz’s original never received the exposure his mutant counterparts did, and a series so heavily concerned with the internal state of its protagonist potentially requires a different approach. So for the most part, Legion does not attempt to nestle in, and Hawley’s divergence from the adventures of Professor X strike a wise choice, if not a pleasing one. Whether or not Hawley plans to introduce Xavier remains to be seen.

Legion draws more on sources outside the Marvel universe than from recognisable conventions. Don’t get me wrong, the pilot very much resembles the ‘catalyst’ phase in our hero’s tarry-unto-mutantdom, and there are even echoes of Deadpool in David’s offhand ‘don’t be a dick’ comments to his mysterious interrogators (albeit incredibly tame echoes). But American Horror Story vibes are present when its comedy begins to bend to foreboding (and vice-versa), and Clockwork’s dreamlike twists and turns would not feel out of place in The Shining.

David’s uncertainty filters through the pilot’s visual style. Scenes are interrupted by impromptu camera blips, and the pacey action of previous X-Men fare finds itself replaced by lingering suspicion. Some scenes are so bursting with lurid colour that they feel genuinely hair-raising, while the symbolic tendencies of his previous Fargo resurface here in weird, labyrinthine settings to reflect the complexity and confusion surrounding Haller’s situation. As the soon-to-be Legion tried desperately to comprehend and convince others of his innocence, I found myself continually perplexed by Hawley’s elusive direction, which ultimately ensured that – even during lighter segments – suspense never strayed far.

Set design is similarly quirky. Against the moody greys of Netflix’s Hell’s Kitchen (and the toughened Apocalypse), Amy Haller’s twee fairy lights and brilliantly green sweaters feel like a breath of fresh air, while both the tangible and mental corridors of David’s suspicious world alternate playfully between cold, clinical brightness and unsettling, theatrical tinting. There is something ever so slightly…Twin Peaks-y about it.

When it comes to characters themselves, David’s rapport with Syd Barrett feels occasionally disconnected in the pilot, with the mystery underlying their exchanges only offering points of minor intrigue (something that, I suspect, will come with subsequent episodes). Thankfully, however, it is more than made up for in Haller’s relationship with his newly-imaginated bestie (Aubrey Plaza). If you have ever wondered what Parks n’ Rec might have been like if April Ludgate ran for office, you will probably dig Legion, because Knope’s pokerfaced intern relishes Lenny with all the verve of a snarky vampire. With a bit of Jolie in Girl Interrupted thrown in. Dan Stevens is similarly-suitable: his self-doubt, grim sarcasm and intense emissions of frustration all speak to a sensitive hero only-just managing to stay afloat. A promising thought ahead of his descent into Beastliness next month.

While its glaring idiosyncrasies might initially throw viewers expecting an X-Men romp, Hawley’s finicky, playful style feels appropriate against the show’s psychological themes, reflecting David’s interrupted thought patterns in a way that is unsuspecting, exciting and really rather refreshing. But its insistent separation from the franchise makes it difficult to know how long it will last as a fully-fledged series. By the time Legion ventures beyond Amazon Video to air accessibly in the UK, the clamouring critical reviews may likely have faded, and when they do it will be interesting to see how the theatrics of David’s mind hold up amongst fans.

As it stands? I’m heartened. Side-lining recent visual murk for something a little showier, Hawley’s proclivity for deadpan humour and surreal spectacle reinvents a part of the Marvel franchise that – until now – saw little recognition. A tricky visual style may easily separate it from its mutant predecessors, but as a loosely-connected spinoff, Legion’s opening chapter offers an entertaining, intriguing and refreshing add-on to the X-Men cinematic universe. I have a feeling Legion will be sending my thoughts swimming nicely with episodes to come.


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July 2021
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