“Legion” on FX
Broadly speaking, Marvel has been much more successful than its rival DC in translating the adventures of its comic book heroes to the realm of live-action entertainment. Marvel/Disney’s big screen movies (from Iron Man to Captain America: The First Avenger to Guardians of the Galaxy) have been one success after another. DC/Warner Bros., on the other hand, has struggled to find a tone that works (Green Lantern, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad). The one place where DC has looked like a success has been on television. Shows such as “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Legends of Tomorrow” and “Supergirl” have steered clear of WB’s “grimdark” mandate and have actually had fun with the superhero mythology. But between its superb Netflix shows (“Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage”) and the newly revitalized “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on ABC, Marvel is catching up quickly.
The widening split can be seen clearly in FX’s new Marvel-based “Legion” and FOX’s new DC-based “Powerless.” Whereas “Powerless” is a painfully generic workplace sitcom (basically a laughless rip-off of ABC’s underrated “Better Off Ted”), “Legion” is an edgy, genre-bending original. FX’s intriguing, hour-long drama is based loosely on characters from Marvel’s X-Men franchise. That franchise is owned not by Disney but by 20th Century Fox, which has had some ups and downs in the handling of characters (Fantastic Four = awful, Deadpool = awesome). But “Legion” places them in good hands. The series is the work of Noah Hawley, who created FX’s quirky, Emmy-winning spinoff of the Coen brothers’ Fargo.
“Legion” looks in on David Haller (an unrecognizable Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey”), a young man stuck in a mental institution with what appears to be some severe issues. But, as it turns out, he’s the world’s most powerful mutant. Those voices in his head? They’re basically the voices of every person on Earth—which he’s more than capable of hearing. Haller is eventually liberated from the mental institution and taken to an academy for young mutants, run by Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart). It’s a thin substitution for Professor X’s school. (The show, evidently, does not have the rights to any X-Men characters other than Haller). But the question remains: How crazy is our main character, and how much of what’s happening to him is real?
Hawley offers plenty of unexpected zigs and zags in “Legion,” not the least of which is a narrative that feels like it was put inside a snow globe and shaken vigorously. But the fractured storytelling more than reflects the mindset of our protagonist. The setting is equally slippery, looking like it takes place in some mod 1960s world, complete with bouffant hairdos and reel-to-reel tape decks. That could be some sort of clue about what’s really happening in “Legion”—but it’s more likely Hawley just likes the anachronistic appearance.
“Legion” is certainly not for every taste. It’s unconventional in the extreme, occasionally surreal and loaded with bizarre humor. It’s probably not the best introductory series for those who don’t actually read comic books. But it attests to the elasticity of these characters, showing just how different in look and feel each iteration can be. And “Legion” is nothing if not different.