If Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman and Stanley Kubrick got together to make a show about the X-Men, you’d have Legion. But instead of those three directors of stylized, surrealist cinema, we have Noah Hawley (Fargo) to thank for this bizarre, beautiful TV drama.
At New York Comic Con today, Hawley was joined by members of the cast — and big names from Marvel Television — to debut an extended look at Legion’s premiere episode, which airs early next year. It almost feels wrong describing what we saw in words: It was a beautiful mishmash of retro color schemes and musical cues with a modern storytelling sensibility, an antihero origin story filled with quick cuts, nonlinear progression and dueling realities.
We first meet future X-Men member Legion — neé David Haller — from the very beginning, as a baby in the first of several montages scored to ’60s pop songs. In a world much like our own, Haller is seen as a paranoid schizophrenic, due to the voices he claims to hear in his head. These voices occasionally make him do some very bad things ... like allegedly sending his girlfriend at the mental hospital down the river.
That’s where we leave off at the end of the Legion sneak peek, after being introduced to the show’s wild and very specific world. Helvetica-set chyrons define locations and certain major elements for us within the asylum where the heavily medicated, extraordinarily gifted man is housed. Brightly colored tracksuits and highly clinical walls also define Haller’s subjective reality for the viewer in a subtle, striking way.
Before shacking up with (the very Wes Andersonian) Sydney Barrett, a woman who refuses physical contact, Haller is seen at an impasse with his day-to-day routine of therapy and pills. It’s after their whirlwind affair that things begin to change greatly for him — and the viewer, as we cut to the present, which is stylized in a completely different way as to indicate a break from the schizophrenic Haller’s way of seeing things.
Where we leave off is with Haller on the verge of realizing his gifts. Maybe those voices in his head aren’t just mental illness, speculates the mysterious team that’s investigating him for Barrett’s strange disappearance and some other, ambiguous events at the hospital. Maybe they’re signs that this man is no man at all, but an all-powerful mutant.
It’s a biting, fast-paced, unforgettable pilot, and none of these stylistic conventions should surprise fans of Fargo, two seasons deep into the award-winning FX series. But they seem atypical for a superhero show, which Legion nominally is. It’s set in a universe parallel to the X-Men cinematic world, we were told at the panel, and comic book fans know the character well.
Alongside DC Comics’ partnership with The CW, Marvel Television currently defines the superhero landscape on the small screen. For executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner, Legion represents a welcome move forward into a surprising, adult-focused space for the genre.
“This was exactly what I wanted,” she told the Comic Con crowd after the pilot showing. “It’s far away from the X-Men movies, but still lives in that universe. The only way X-Men can keep moving forward is to keep being original and surprise us.”
Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel Television, was also on hand to vouch for Legion as both distinct from and part of the established Marvel DNA. Although Legion is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, due to Fox maintaining the rights to the X-Men, Loeb sounded pleased with Hawley’s stewardship of the storyline.
“If you start at a place that’s as strong as David Haller’s character is, and you have a storyteller like Noah, then that’s Marvel,” he said. “In that way, I would say it is all connected. We’re all approaching it from a place where [...] we just want something that has truth to it. If what you just watched feels like Marvel, then it’s all connected.”
Legion doesn’t feel like Marvel in the same way that, say, The Avengers does. Don’t expect it to feature any Agents of SHIELD crossovers either, Hawley told a hopeful audience. But the show does feel authentic to the X-Men brand of alienated characters looking for a sense of belonging. Part of why Haller falls for Barrett in the hospital is because of her impassioned view that none of the patients are ill at all; they’re just misunderstood, and their views of reality are only invalidated by some other definition of “normal.”
That’s a pretty classic X-Men ideal, even if it’s told through the lens of a drama series with an indie-film feel. Although the pilot begins as far away from talk of mutants and superpowers as possible, the man behind Legion himself promised that things would begin to take shape over the course of the first season’s eight episodes.
“We started from a place of great confusion on this show,” said Dan Stevens, who portrays the lead character. “It’s been an amazing process just going through each episode, and things get crazier, but we kind of get clearer as we go on.”
For longtime fans of the Legion and X-Men characters, Hawley said they can rest assured that the show will “stay true to the origins of this character.” (Yes, that means we can pretty much expect to see Professor Charles Xavier at some point.)
But those of us who don’t know much about these universes, and who have little knowledge of the X-Men beyond the recent movies or classic cartoons, can also take heart. Legion approaches the genre du jour and makes it accessible to today’s TV-savvy viewer. There’s little else we’ve seen quite like it on television, and we can’t wait to see more.