At a time when it feels like we’ve reached peak-superhero on screens big and small, it takes something truly special to rise above the critical mass of costumes and crossovers and truly make an impact. Legion, erupting from the mind of Fargo’s Noah Hawley, does exactly that. Taking a lesser known character from the X-Men back catalogue, Hawley has somehow crafted a mind-bending trip that eschews the typical superhero formula in favour of something a little more weird.
Though he’s a minor mutant in Marvel’s vast mythology, Dan Stevens’ David Haller, the potentially super-powered hero at the heart of this story, immediately grabs attention. After a happy childhood dissolves into a fractured morass of mental illness, David is diagnosed with apparent paranoid schizophrenia and locked up in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital. It’s a frightening facility, populated by pale, twitchy patients who have gone dead behind the eyes thanks to a destabilising cocktail of drugs and lack of sunlight. Fortunately for David, his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-routine is broken by the arrival of Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), a new patient with a phobia of touching.
The designs are an off-kilter blend of Wes Anderson’s weirdly retro style and Stanley Kubrick’s perception-altering visuals. Aspect ratios shift, timelines crash and bleed into one another and kitchen utensils erupt out of cupboards with volatile telekinetic force. Even the musical cues are intended to knock your senses off-balance, mixing on point records with Jeff Russo’s brittle and edgy score.
And that’s entirely in keeping with a show which aims to disorientate and challenging expectations. Legion doesn’t adhere to the villain-of-the-week structure of Arrow or Supergirl, nor does it hit the all-too familiar story beats of Marvel’s Agents of Shield. Instead, Hawley makes his plot deliberately elliptical and misleading, skipping ahead in time at crucial moments before requiring us to piece together what happened as David’s fractured memories leak into the present.
It’s this doubt which forms the basis of the entire series: is David’s ability to manipulate reality with his mind real or just an extension of his paranoid delusions, as the shady, possibly governmental Division is so keen to convince him. Far from being too confusing or exhausting to follow, the first, feature-length episode is a bracing ride from start to finish. After watching so many predictable sci-fi schlock shows of late, it’s exciting to finally see a series that’s determined to challenge what we think we know and keep us guessing to the very end (and possibly beyond).
It might have been a different story were it not for Dan Stevens’ excellent lead performance. It’s a difficult role for the former Downton Abbey star, whose character’s mood shifts along with his grip on reality. Not only does Stevens pull of this tricky mix of anger, confusion and vulnerability, he also injects an added dose of sardonic charm that makes David a likeable hero even when he is at his most dangerous.
Time will tell if Hawley can sustain such mind-bending storytelling and visual trickery for an entire series and the real test will come when he needs to provide a pay-off to the many mysteries he has posed. But this is as strong a start as it’s possible to make. A surreal, stylish and distinctive origin story that’s teeming with confidence and imagination, Legion is unlike any superhero story we’ve seen. At least that’s one thing we know for sure.