For the first time the X-Men franchise has been made being into a live-action television series in the form of Legion thanks to FX and Fargo showrunner – Noah Hawley. The first episode was met with much fanfare and certainly a unique attempt at a superhero show.
David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia and spends years in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. While in hospital he falls for a fellow patient, Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller) who has a fear of being touched.
However, these scenes are portrayed as flashbacks and David is being questioned by a mysterious government organization who believes he has the potential to be one of the most powerful mutants in the world.
Legion has been met with great fanfare from critics and the show is a departure from other shows in the superhero genre – which tend to be more action-orientated. Instead Legion attempts a more avant-garde approach to the superhero genre, being more a surreal psychological thriller.
Hawley has been open about what his influences were for the show – films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and the works of Terence Malick; the marketing team for the series has compared it to Fight Club and The Matrix.
“Chapter I” has a striking opening: a montage set to The Who’s “Happy Jack”, showing David’s journey from being a popular boy to the unstable man who descends into madness. It was a compelling two minutes where David goes from winning soccer trophies to becoming an arsonist and suicidal.
The pilot was even able to match this montage by showing David and Syd’s relationship – set to The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”. It does help that Hawley used some terrific songs for these montages.
Hawley set out to make his version of the X-Men universe visually distinct and it is radically different to the film series. Hawley went for a ’60s/’70s look: characters designed in the clothing from the era and pastel colours were used for the clothing and sets.
Hawley admitted that British design influenced the art direction and fans of A Clockwork Orange can see how the classic Kubrick film was an inspiration: the psychiatric hospital is even called Clockworks.
The psychiatric hospital setting does give Legion a similar feel to One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a scene where a psychic projection of Syd speaks to David under a bridge – it was like a scene when Cobb was describing to Ariadne how the dream world works in Inception.
Despite the period look, Hawley stuck in some moment technology, like the Interrogator (Hamish Linklater) having a template device. This small detail gives the show an ambiguous setting and it is a departure from the film universe.
David Heller is Charles Xavier’s son, yet producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, admits that it’s unlikely that James McAvoy or Patrick Stewart would reprise the role. Legion is setting itself as a new universe instead of being a part of the existing one.
The cinematography by Dana Gonzales was also worthy of praise being cinematic in quality. One of the best moments in the pilot was the final action scene which was filmed as one long take: it was breathtaking and an action set piece like this can easily match its contemporaries on film and TV. If this is a sample of what’s to come then viewers are in for a treat.
Legion also boasts an incredible cast: it was a huge coup to get an actor like Dan Stevens in the lead role and he continues to showcase his range by playing an incredibly complex character: a man who has been told he is mentally ill but really has a power that he cannot control.
Hawley reteamed with Fargo actress and she had a big journey in the pilot – from a timid young woman scared of herself and others, to warming up to David and becoming a self-confident person who can lead David out of his captivity. She is the show’s Rogue. Yet it was Audrey Plaza in a supporting role who stole the show – having some of the wittiest lines in the pilot and using her comedic ability to play David’s unhinged friend in the hospital.
Although the pilot has the acting and visuals to give Legion some promise, the first episode has one huge problem: a lack of engagement. It squanders its terrific opening by slowing to a crawl. This is partly due to the run time of 68 minutes and when commercials are included it made the pilot run for 90 minutes (80 minute in the UK).
If it was just the pilot having a long run time it wouldn’t be much of an issue, other shows have long episodes and do perfectly fine, Legion had an issue of its disjointed timeline, jumping from places and locations. This was a move to show David’s fractious mind and Hawley wanted to make the lead an unreliable narrator, that his world view is distorted – yet this approach made “Chapter I” a slog to sit through – nor is it as smart as it thinks it is.
There are even parts that don’t even make any sense – which will lead to SPOILERS: after David kisses Syd for the first time, their minds swap bodies leading to a traumatized Syd to kill everyone near her using David’s power. Later David is back in his body and even released from the hospital. All this could be explained in later episodes but it does not come across as a great mystery: it’s just pointlessly confessing.
“Chapter I” had plenty of promise thanks to opening and closing minutes with the visuals and acting to back it up. However, the good parts of the pilot do not hide its shortcomings: being rather tedious.