My review of Legion season one SPOILS all the
things vague object signifiers because I’m the magic man! Here’s the story of a fuzzy little bunny who got too close to the ocean!
You know how most of the X-Men movies don’t look much better than SyFy originals? Well Noah Hawley’s Legion looks fantastic! It’s easily the best directed superhero TV series. Even its teaser ads are wonderful & accurately evoke the show. Rather than setting it in a conventional modern world, all the costumes & sets are carefully designed & curated to draw in viewers to its anachronistic reality. Its building blocks are surrealism. The series resembles highly polished Stanley Kubrick psychedelic horror. If there were drugs involved, they made the right decision to keep that budget separate from the lavish production values.
The pacing is very good, as intriguing events happen in each of the eight episodes. This is an improvement over the thirteen episode Marvel Netflix shows that drag on even when they’re Jessica Jones. I did feel episodes two & three could’ve been condensed into one, but your mileage may vary depending on how quick you pick up on Ptonomy Wallace exploring David’s false memories. It’s still an origin story, but it doesn’t feel formulaic or stretched thin. Objectively not that much ground was covered, but it was a subjectively exhilarating experience!
The weird thing is how long it takes the series to play its X-Men continuity cards. When Legion debuted in New Mutants #26, it was revealed upfront that David Haller was Professor X’s bastard son. The slow burn on the series is frustrating if you already know that. I wonder how many people watched the show without knowing the connection? I was worried that the series might not involve any canon characters except the eponymous one. The memory of David’s dad having no face still made me giddy until we reached the glimpse of an iconic wheelchair & a delightful chalkboard retelling of Uncanny X-Men # 117. (Coincidentally a completely fictionalized version of that issue featured in Logan.)
Dan Stevens is a great pick as the lead because he’s never boring to look at, whether he’s instilling fear or empathy. This is the first thing I’ve seen him in, so I was immersed in his fake Yankee accent. Stevens also does a fake English accent. He does mood swings with enough subtlety that it doesn’t feel “actorly.” I particularly liked how he became more confident & used magician gestures when David wasn’t in the driver’s seat. His hair is still wrong! Luckily Legion doesn’t have a missing costume for me to complain about too.
Playing against sullen type, Aubrey Plaza is the most dynamic character. At first I was confused why she was playing a new character named Lenny “Cornflakes” Busker when she looks like David’s pyrokinetic personality, Cyndi. She dies in the first episode & it seems like David absorbs her identity like Jemail Karami in the comics. Lenny’s ghost acts as both a manifestation of guilt & a familiar friend in uncertain times, but grows more aggressively manipulative. When it’s revealed exactly who she is, it’s one of the best surprises I’ve seen in a long time. I almost don’t want to tell you, but odds are you already know if you’ve gotten this far in this spoiler review.
Melanie Bird is the ableist Professor Fauxavier of the Brand-X Men. (Without costumes & codenames, the show veers into The Invisibles territory. WB should already have that covered with its The Matrix reboot.) She’s under the assumption that just because David’s a mutant he can’t be neurodivergent, which is a power fantasy that can be harmful to folks with genuine issues. Meanwhile the audience sees that both options aren’t mutually exclusive.
The non-canonical muties have identity based superpowers (telekinetic guy apparently named Rudy aside) that are logistically confusing. Much like Rogue, Syd Barrett’s tactile-activated body swapping power gives her a legitimutant reason to hate being touched. (Fortunately the show treats her better than the movies did Ol’ Skunkstripe.) Turncoat mutant Walter the Eye (played by professional weirdo whose name you don’t know, Mackenzie Gray) has very expansive perception powers. A psychic projection of Oliver attempts to thwart a hail of bullets in the real world by conjuring a shield made of “Bolero” & letters that spell “shield.” (That example makes the least sense, but I’ll allow it because it’s the most astonishing!) I’m not sure who burnt D3’s Clark though.
After minuscule movie appearances, we finally visit the Astral Plane in all its vibrant trippiness! Its best landmark is the giant ice cube inhabited by the mind of comatose beat poet & sometimes narrator Oliver Bird (excellent use of Jemaine Clement), whose suits are of the leisure & deep sea varieties. David’s adjourning layered mindscapes are far less boring than those of the overrated Inception. One combines The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with They Live! (Thanks to a lack of audio dialogue, it’s perfect for GIF-ing.)
Throughout the series, David hallucinates a yellow-eyed demon. Several people suspected it was the Shadow King, but I was not among them. Knowing how tricky getting clearance for characters to appear on TV is & how far divorced from canon the show is, I presumed it would just be one of of Legion’s many evil personalities. I was so wrong! In retrospect, ol’ yellow eyes resembles Amahl Farouk by way of Slimer instead of Sydney Greenstreet. The Shadow King did possess Legion during The Muir Island Saga, but I never expected he’d be The Big Bad in an introductory story of a character grappling with mental illness. Describing the Shadow King as a mutant brain parasite like zombie ant fungi is a creepier spin than Farouk boasting that he’s a primordial evil. Even better, phantom Lenny is actually a manifestation of the Shadow King! Characters discus the Shadow King as a known quantity, which I expect delighted comics fans & confused fans of just the movies. If only we could’ve seen Xavier & Shadow King have an Astral Plane battle dressed like gladiators for the fate of Storm on the big screen instead of the least intimidating Apocalypse!
Much like AMC’s Preacher (I finally read the first trade), FX’s Legion (or Leg-Ion, as I call it when not concerned about SEO) pulls random bits from the comics & mixes them into an invigorating cocktail with a healthy disregard for tonal consistency. The Summerlands resembles Emma Frost’s Massachusetts Academy. Confronting David at his childhood home & inhibiting the Shadow King with a tech-coronet is straight out of Dark Phoenix Saga. It’s more faithful than The Last Stand & I wager it’ll still be better than Simon Kinberg’s second bastardization of that seminal story. Whenever the sound goes out, it evokes “Silence: Psychic Rescue In Progress.” The Shadow King being with David since infancy & taking a female form further reminds me Cassandra Nova.
While much of the show is a psychopomp, it isn’t pompous. Kerry Loudermilk in a Jubilee coat laments how boring things are without a big fight. Then she gets her fight scene at episode’s end, mirrored by her Cary Loudermilk half miles away. The World’s Angriest Boy In The World is the best bedtime book since The Babadook! The series effortlessly works in music & dancing. One episode ends with a cover of David Bowie’s “All You Pretty Things”, which ought to be the anthem of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The Shadow King even gets a dance sequence!
Hawley made good on his promise to end the season on a note of empathy rather than might makes right, although some action was mixed in. The anti-mutant D3 gets a look at the Shadow King & realizes the Summerlanders aren’t the real threat. So season two might actually explore the human-mutant cooperation of Xavier’s dream? (Apparently Mealnie Bird is a human too, which explains why I couldn’t get a bead on her powers.) Could this pave the way for X-Factor?
The first finale finally features the Shadow King playing musical chairs with other characters’ bodies. In the end he winds up in Oliver Bird but keeps Lenny as a psychic projection, giving the supervillain an unbeatable charisma combo! The Shadow King is on the hunt for something mysterious that Xavier hid, & more comic tie-ins are promised. Since the X-Mansion is really obvious, could the dream team be headed to an exotic locale like Muir Island, Excalibur’s interdimensional lighthouse, or the Savage Land? Maybe the quest is for the M’kraan Crystal or the Siege Perilous? Regardless, I demand plenty of Oliver & Lenny car duets! Can the out of left field shrinky drone sphere be working for Mojo instead of D3’s Equinox? Will Hawley convince James McAvoy (who kind of played Legion in Split but with even wronger hair) or Patrick Stewart to guest star? Much of these are flights of fancy, but then I never would’ve believed you if you told me years ago that the first live action X-Men series would be about Legion.
The most dubious change from the source material is that David doesn’t have dissociative identity disorder. His original alters (Jemail Karami, Cyndi, & Jack Wayne) are a fundamental aspect of his character. I was even expecting the Brand-X Men to turn out to be figments of his own psyche. How can David Haller be named Legion if he’s not many? Instead TV David is schizophrenic, at least partially caused by having the Shadow King live inside his mind for decades. His condition is handed fairly well, but the change is off-putting as ‘schizo” used to be an inaccurate slur towards folks with multiple personalities. It’s akin to making a TV about the Flash except he teleports instead of running very fast. Since the story’s sci-fi aspects couldn’t be hallucinations in an X-Men adaptation without being a huge cop-out, questioning David’s perceptions wasn’t that tricky. (I did enjoy the “have you cake & eat it too” episode with everyone trapped in a memory of the Clockworks Institute ruled by the Shadow King.) Now that the Shadow King’s out of his head, I worry that season two will depict David being completely sane. Legion is a much more compelling & relatable character when his arc is navigating his neurodivergence instead of getting rid of it altogether. Perhaps the Shadow King was preventing David’s alternate personalities from manifesting?
The fractious Legion as Israel (or the Middle East in general) subtext from the comics is also missing. The metaphor works even better in the movieverse where Xavier is English, although the comic’s original post-WWII timeline has probably been slid forward. He’s adopted by the Hallers, so that means Israeli ambassador Gabrielle Haller presumably isn’t his biological mom. Of course the dog’s dinner that is X-movie continuity has been known to double up on characters, so having David coincidentally be part of two separate Haller families in the same show wouldn’t be that uncanny.
When this show was announced alongside the aborted Hellfire (Club), I was very skeptical. I’m very happy Legion has greatly surpassed my expectations. Now I’m even looking forward to the other unnamed X-show (please don’t stick with the working title, Gifted ) that’s already announced it will include Thunderbird, Polaris, a recast Blink, & Sentinels. If done right, I can even accept the inclusion of Rogue’s vampire husband. Could all the X-TV shows wind up being this engrossing, or will they look like Generation X by comparison?
While lesser shows fall off the rails, Legion reveals it was an autogyro all along.