*Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of FX’s Legion*
In 2017, it seems like there is a show based on a comic book on every network and streaming service, from networks like Fox (Gotham, Lucifer) and NBC (Powerless), to premium networks like Cinemax (Outcast). Now FX, which is easily one of the most innovative networks, with critical darlings like Fargo, The Americans, and Atlanta, jumps in the game with Legion, based on a fairly obscure X-Men supporting character. But if you’re expecting yellow spandex or leather costumes, flashy CGI, or time travel bullshit, Noah Hawley has a surprise for you, showing that comic book adaptations can be a place where the rules of storytelling can be straight-up obliterated, as he takes viewers on a journey through the past and present of the powerful mutant, David Haller, a character who doesn’t have the greatest hold on reality, just like the show.
Unlike some TV shows, Legion isn’t into handholding and explaining each and every aspect of its messed up universe. The pilot episode features a dance number, Lenny (played by a not so slightly unhinged Aubrey Plaza) dying a gruesome death, a rush and push of flashbacks, and at the end, some traditional X-Men tropes, with our protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) being picked up the mysterious Dr. Bird (Jean Smart) and taught how to control his considerable abilities in a place given the Michael Chabon-esque name of Summerland. The simple image of a wise, kind face with a diverse team of young people around them is like a warm apple pie with a side of ice cream after the confusing, frenetic — yet enticing — imagery of the past hour of pilot. With each blue or red flashback and forward to the past, Hawley makes you question details about David’s past. Does he really have DID? Was he ever in a mental hospital?
And even though Legion doesn’t feature cameos or familiar faces from the deep X-Men back catalogue, the abilities and nature of David Haller are pretty faithful to his comics origins (even if his dad is just an astronomer, and not Professor X — for now). He can take over other mutants’ bodies and use their powers when his psyche dominates theirs, including telepathy and telekinesis, which is what he uses in the first few episodes of Legion. David has dissociative identity disorder, and through three decades of comic book appearances, he has manifested a large variety of personalities that could take up a whole Wiki article in and of themselves.
Other than his first appearances in Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s highly underrated New Mutants series, and a star turns in Si Spurrier and Tan Eng Huat’s 2012 reality-bending X-Men Legacy comic, David Haller is probably best known for creating the dystopian Age of Apocalypse reality. David wanted to help Professor X create a utopia where humans and mutants could live together and cooperate, so he decided to go to the past and kill Magneto, but accidentally killed Xavier instead, which led to the darkest of dystopias. Thankfully, Legion isn’t as continuity-obsessed as the X-Men comics and games and shows off David’s great, unstable power set through slow motion shots of him disrupting the world around him, from the day room at a mental hospital to an MRI machine. He’s not your usual mutant kid who can fly or project ice or fire, but instead, can disrupt reality itself.
The fragmented nature of Legion‘s plotting, where an image like David’s dad reading him a story in his childhood bedroom, or a therapy session about David’s mental state after breaking up with his girlfriend is shown, then followed by another one from Summerland or a weird scene with Lenny, reminds me a lot of Bill Sienkiewicz’s art style in New Mutants, where David Haller was first introduced. It’s a jarring departure from Bob McLeod’s clean, smiling teen superheroes, as he uses collages and mixed media to show the terror of a demon bear afflicting the telepath mutant Dani Moonstar, or all the voices that the comic book version of David Haller hears in his head (he gets the name Legion from their great number). This assault of images and voices seems how telepathy would actually feel, and is a recurring sequence in Legion, as even with the help of Dr. Bird and his girlfriend Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), David keeps drifting to various memories, seeing the creepy face of the Man with Yellow Eyes. Sydney has abilities similar to the popular X-Men Rogue because if she touches someone, she absorbs their powers and memories (this happens with her and David in the pilot, and it’s not pretty).
However, Legion reminded me more of Doom Patrol or Grant Morrison’s Invisibles than anything X-Men-related, even though that comic book has definitely codified the idea of misfits banding together to defend each other from a world that hates and fears them. The feeling of having no idea what’s going in “Chapter One” except that it vaguely has to do with mutants and mental health is one I felt while reading Gerard Way and Nick Derington’s Doom Patrol series, which also had super-colorful visuals. This series features all of reality being in a gyro, an old arcade game possibly deciding the fate of humankind, and an anthropomorphic street named Danny. It’s dependent on the continuity of the Morrison run on Doom Patrol, which had more bonkers concepts, like Dadaist supervillains. Legion treats superpowers in a similar high-concept manner while keeping the costumes and set dressing lo-fi. There is a supporting character named Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), who has the mutant power of reconstructing people’s memories. He basically creates flashbacks and combined with David’s powers, also concocts a narrative canvas that can be as non-linear as it wants to be, while also giving insight into characters’ deepest feelings and wants. Superpower as a narrative engine is very Grant Morrison thing to do, as seen in his work on Flex Mentallo (who began life as a Doom Patrol supporting character), and his use of the solar source of Superman’s powers in All-Star Superman.
Morrison’s Invisibles is basically about a ragtag team of rebels trying to keep a creepy Gnostic force from taking over the world in various ways — like government, pop culture, and religion. It’s a series that’s filled with 90s-era conspiracy but remains evergreen because it’s all about accepting the truth of reality beyond your five senses (like The Matrix, which very much ripped it off). The scenes with men in black helmets and flak jackets chasing down Mrs. Bird and her charges definitely reminded me of King Mob, Jack Frost, and the rest of the Invisible College getting hunted down by the Invisible Church. Invisibles is a comic that thrills with inventive action sequences but also challenges readers to think differently about both its and their world. For example, Invisibles #12 retells one of those guns a-blazing battle scenes from the POV of a henchman that the main characters kill. It deconstructs the “faceless henchman” trope, giving one of them a human face, and kind of makes you guilty for enjoying the heroes’ badass gunplay. This similar tension happens in Legion, with Mrs. Bird having the goal of making David “whole” by using similar methods to the Division, like holding him in a MRI machine where he can’t talk or move. She is kind and maternal, but I definitely think she’s hiding something. There is no clear hero or villain, just like in real life, although the worlds of Legion and The Invisibles are more stylistically engaging than (most) everyday reality.
Even though it’s technically based on X-Men/New Mutants comics, Legion really feels like something from the mindscape of “weird” mad-genius comics creators Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and their latter-day British disciples Kieron Gillen, Si Spurrier, and Al Ewing. These are the writers that remind you that comics is an infinite medium, one that is only dependent on the imaginations of its scripter, artist, and colorist, and can tell long-form epic stories that will break your heart with both their own characters and corporate ones, like Superman, James Bond, or freaking Galactus.
Noah Hawley does likewise with Legion and the X-Men mythos, penetrating beyond the nostalgia for beloved characters, the over-complicated continuity, and over-dependence on expensive, explosive CGI to tell a simple, yet complex story about a young man with abilities that are more blessing than a curse. The soul of Legion is the bond between David and his girlfriend Sydney Barrett, as Stevens and Keller share a searing chemistry (a “romance of the mind”), even though they have only kissed once, and she also helps him feel “normal,” like when he is running in the fields with his sister or looking at the stars with his astronomer father. This relationship, along with David’s with his sister Amy (who may or may not be his only connection to the “real world”) keeps the story of Legion grounded in universal feelings, even when it questions its audience’s perception of reality (or just who the hell Lenny is. My theory is that she is David’s unfiltered id, but that will likely change as the series progresses).
Noah Hawley’s Legion is an intriguing show, not only because it has inventive visuals with all kinds of gorgeous wipes and transitions between scenes, but also because it challenges your idea of the show’s premise every step of the way. Lead actor Dan Stevens is fair game along the way, with his slightly askew view of reality. It’s not another overstuffed good guy vs. bad guys continuity porn superhero TV show but will remind you of comic books like Invisibles, Doom Patrol, or Bill Sienkiewicz’s run on New Mutants, ones that opened your mind to the fact that reality is not as it seems.