Legion has swiftly become one of this year's biggest surprises on television. Its debut season has built a compelling ensemble cast of mutants centered around troubled telepath David Haller, known as Legion in the Marvel comics.
While the main plot began with David on the run from mutant-hunting agency Division Three, the real Big Bad was allowed a much more gradual and sinister reveal. Last week's episode provided a surprising name drop and firm reveal: the grotesque figure seen hovering near the periphery of David’s mind’s eye is the Shadow King, a powerful X-Men villain, and he has his sights set on David.
Up until last week's episode, Legion was content with separating itself from Marvel and X-Men continuity. But during the critical scene where David manifests his logical side (who is British, naturally), we were treated to an important slice of David's backstory — and one ripped straight from the comics. It's a fun scene made even more delightful for comic book fans, as it depicts (through animated chalkboard drawings) the first battle between David's biological father, Professor Charles Xavier and Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King.
Who is the Shadow King?
The Shadow King's origins in the comic are a bit murky. We're lead to believe that he is a personified force that feeds on nightmares, which merged with the telepathic mutant Farouk. The Shadow King was the first mutant to show Professor X that not all mutants would accept his pacifistic ideals of coexisting with humans.
Farouk was first shown in Uncanny X-Men #117, where Charles Xavier tells his lover Lilandra of the time he journeyed to Cairo, Egypt as a young man. There, he met an evil mutant named Amahl Farouk.
Farouk was depicted as a large bald man (think Kingpin) with beady sunglasses and a fashionable fez, who had used his telepathic powers to become a crime lord, mentally dominating those around him. He offered Xavier a place by his side as a fellow telepath. Naturally, our hero refused, and the two became locked in a psychic battle. Xavier defeated Farouk on the astral plane, killing him in the process. But death is but a minor setback in superhero comics, and Farouk's power would only grow until resurfaced in the future as the Shadow King.
The Shadow King would return to harass the X-Men throughout the years. Whether Amahl Farouk was the Shadow King’s first mental victim or a the result of telepathic symbiosis is still up for debate. Regardless, every time the villain manifests a physical form, it’s Farouk. His astral forms have ranged from a giant armored centurion wielding a flaming sword to a monstrous green demon, and he has always been a formidable foe for any telepath.
The villain's most recent appearance was during Rick Remender's fantastic Uncanny X-Force series. While the Shadow King's usual motivations had previously been more concerned with world domination and vengeance against Xavier (by attacking his students), Remender’s Farouk was more interested in the patient work of toying with people from behind the scenes.
It's this incarnation that more closely fits the creature depicted in the TV series. Legion's Shadow King was willing to bide his time, manipulating David by using multiple imaginary friends throughout David's life, including a dog cleverly named King.
Farouk's goal is to use David's power with his own to eventually seek revenge against David's biological father — at least according to David. The Shadow King's plans were ruined once David traveled to Summerland and began receiving more hands-on mental help. Unfortunately for our heroes, they didn't grasp the power or the malevolence of the parasitic force that had latched onto David when he was a baby. While the Shadow King has already run amok in the latter half of Legion, we've also seen that our heroes are on the right track in trying to isolate and contain him.
During the pilot episode, Division Three admitted that David may be the most powerful mutant they've ever encountered. But now we're not sure how much of that power is David and how much is the Shadow King. When the Shadow King takes over, he can snap his fingers and reduce people to ash, or forcibly meld their bodies into concrete walls.
David doesn't have nearly that much focus or control of his powers yet; he's barely coming to terms with what he's capable of. He may need to use the Shadow King's powers to augment his own when the going gets tough. I could easily see the show continuing to evolve the Shadow King's various incarnations (particularly the brilliant Aubrey Plaza as Lenny) as David's inner Devils-on-the-Shoulder.
The Shadow King's reveal poses one more interesting dilemma. In the comics it's well established that David Haller's mind contains hundreds of personalities all vying for control, many with powerful mutant abilities. In the show, all of David's inner demons – Lenny, Benny, the Angriest Boy, and the Yellow-eyed Devil, are all manipulations of the Shadow King. Does Legion actually have multiple personalities, or is it just him and the Shadow King rolling around in there? The biggest nod to David's struggles in the comics are the brief scenes which depict David crumpled on the ground, head in his hands, surrounded by a horde of people talking at once.
Even if the Shadow King is defeated in tonight's finale, I doubt we've seen the last of him. A good villain never stays gone. Marvel loves to use the dark version of its heroes to represent the seduction of power, and the Shadow King is quite literally David unhinged. Farouk has been a great foil for our young mutant and his new allies, and a clever use of a classic X-Men villain.