March 31, 2017

Film & Television

The welcome challenge of ‘Legion’

By Harry Windsor
FX’s new Marvel superhero show is refreshingly cerebral

Even in this age of plenitude, it’s rare to come across a series that’s genuinely challenging, rather than just morally ambiguous or confrontingly violent. Legion fits the bill and then some. It’s a show about a man who thinks he’s schizophrenic, told in elliptical fragments that might be real or imagined, with a narrative that shatters and reforms with the speed of its hero’s fragile synapses. The FX series is the brainchild of Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, but where that show is coolly dispassionate, Legion is defiantly subjective, insisting that the viewer share in its hero’s confusion.

In one sense, the show’s sheer density is of a piece with the superhero comics it came from, with their never-ending storylines and shifting allegiances. The character of David Haller, a powerful telekinetic and the son of one of the most famous characters in the X-Men universe, first appeared in 1985. He’s played here by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) with a sweetness that’s somehow survived years of pain. Hawley discards just about everything from the original comic except the central character, and Legion feels about as close to Netflix’s line-up of Marvel shows as Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind do to 50 First Dates.

Sent to a mental facility after trying to hang himself, David falls for another patient, Syd (Rachel Keller), whose wrinkle is that she can’t be touched. Together they escape with help from a band of fellow mutants and go on the run, chased by a shadowy organisation called Division 3. Hiding out in the woods, David discovers he has the power to create his own reality, one where he and Syd can have sex and where earthly limitations don’t apply. The leader of the mutant outlaws (Fargo’s Jean Smart), whose husband had the same ability, sees the warning signs: “He found a place where he could rule,” she says. “He started spending more and more time there. Sometimes I’d just find him sitting someplace staring into space. And then one day he just didn’t wake up.”

Like Logan, another X-Men tale that dwells more on its lead’s human, rather than superhuman, characteristics, Legion has few key characters, and they exist chiefly to interrogate our protagonist’s rattled sense of identity. Legion largely keeps its action scenes peripheral to the main game of teasing out what the hell is going on in David’s mind and seems to poke fun at the kind of overextended, under-involving melee which litters superhero cinema. “This’d be an awesome place to have a fight,” one of David’s companions says after stumbling upon a forest that's a dead ringer for the one in Logan's climax.

Hawley wears his references on his sleeve. David’s ladylove is called Syd Barrett, and the show’s composer, Jeff Russo (Fargo, The Night Of), even wheels out a first-generation synthesiser. The show’s colour scheme, all orange and harvest gold, is straight out of the late ’60s. The whole thing can sometimes feel like a contemporary riff on The Prisoner, with which Legion shares a hallucinatory aesthetic. But this is also a world where tablets exist, and its dislocation from any precise period adds to our uncertainty about where and when we are. Like David, the viewer has to work to distinguish between memories and projections, dreams and reality, past and present.

Artificial realities have long been fodder for science fiction, but the encroachment of virtual and augmented reality has given us a glimpse of how it might actually work. Later this year we’ll see the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which human beings while away their lives in a virtual world while the real one crumbles. Legion’s scattershot structure reflects its protagonist’s struggle to define “self”, but it also mimics its audience’s consumption habits, pinballing from one tab to the next. Season two is on its way, so we’ll have to wait and see where it goes, but one thing is clear: restoring David’s mind, cloven in two since infancy, would be the show’s most retro touch yet.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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