Dan Stevens wasn’t joking when he described his latest series, Legion, as the “fake news” of superhero dramas. Nominally set in the X-Men universe, the much buzzed-about new show, which has just arrived on Fox, from the outset tries to drill into the viewer’s brain and muck about with their perception of reality. In the best sense, it’s like sitting through a Sean Spicer press conference scripted by Stan Lee.
In the title role, Downton’s dashing Dan is unrecognisably rough and ready. “Legion” is the superhero tag of David Haller, a troubled soul apparently suffering a multitude of mental traumas (unstated is the nugget that he is son of X-Men honcho Charles Xavier).
He has superpowers – or at least believes he has – but these are presented more as disadvantage than blessing. In the original comic book, Haller’s abilities were tied to the multiple personalities competing for dominance inside his head. To access a power he had to “become” the person controlling it.
This is rather more complicated than Superman locating a convenient phone booth in which to slip his underpants over his trousers. In the television series, Haller’s talents are portrayed as a straight-up curse which has pushed him to the brink of sanity. It’s a fantastic showcase for Stevens, who leaves us guessing whether what we are seeing is real or part of a waking fever dream.
To return to the Superman analogy, can you imagine a retelling of the Man of Steel that hedged its bets whether Clark Kent really was a flying crime-fighter or sick man battling dangerous delusions? How post-modern and thrilling would that be? (Answer: very).
“He’s exhibiting symptoms that had him diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia since his late teens,” Stevens told reporters earlier this month. “From a narrative point of view, that lends itself to a very playful tone, in that all of these realities are quite real.”
Legion has been created by Noah Hawley, who has achieved acclaim for his ingenious small-screen reworking of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. As with that project, here he takes a familiar property – the X-Men story has been told in a multitude of forms on the big screen across the past decade-and-a-half – and gives it an irresistible twist. Is Haller truly a superhero? Or are the voices in his mind merely hallucinogenic reverberations?
“I was interested, after Fargo, which is very objective storytelling, in doing something subjective, in the sense of, here’s a character who either has schizophrenia or he has these abilities,” Hawley told New York magazine. “He’s a haunted house, and the things that he’s seeing, the things that he’s hearing, they might have a logical explanation, but he doesn’t know that.”
Adding to the ambivalence is a unique visual sensibility somewhere between Stanley Kubrick and Iron Man. As the presence of iPads and other technology makes clear, Legion is set in the 21st century. So why is everyone dressed in ’70s-style sweaters and track-tops – and how to explain retro fixtures that might have been shipped straight from Mad Men?
“Noah was quite deliberate in not letting me know exactly, at any given moment, whether what was happening was real, so it was sort of up to me to decide,” Stevens said. “David is ready to accept almost anything as real, at any given moment, and that’s a really alive place to be as a performer. No matter how crazy and out there, David is ready to take on whatever happens.”
“Noah wanted to make sure that the audience was as confused as David is about what is real by not having a time or a place, never saying where we are,” production designer Michael Wylie told New York.
Far from an aberration, Legion can be seen as part of the next stage of comic book adaptations – an evolution occurring almost exclusively on television.
Yes, a whiff of self-awareness attended last year’s loveably scatalogical Deadpool movie. However, the small screen has otherwise emerged as the driving force behind what, in comic book terms, is tantamount to an uprising.
Consider Netflix’s trilogy of superhero sagas – Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (a fourth show, Iron Fist, arrives this spring). Here the fundamental conventions of comic book storytelling are turned on their heads, with nuanced storylines and characters who neither speak nor act like spandex clad do-gooders.
Yet far from a repudiation of the genre, there’s an argument that Legion and similar shows point to a thrilling new future. With bombastic comic book movies pitching tent at the box office for much of the year, there’s an imminent danger of ‘peak superhero’. You have already experienced the fatigue settling in, I am sure.
Thus if superheroes are to avoid the inexorable decline suffered by the western and the gangster flick they will have to outgrow their current juvenile tendencies and simplistic moralising. Legion, Luke Cage and their ilk represent the first steps in that transition.
“Will we ever get tired of superheroes? It’s almost like saying are we content with enough gun violence on screen or will ever get sick of sex scenes?,” Luke Cage star Mike Colter told me when we spoke last year. “You change the positions and it becomes appealing. If we don’t find those things entertaining, what’s left? Maybe we’ll go back to books.”
“I did want to be very careful about sending a message that all conflict can only be resolved through battle. There is a sense in a lot of these stories that everything always builds to a big fight,” Hawley said. “And certainly, if you’re doing a story about outsiders and empathy, I didn’t want to be drawn into the gravitational pull of that white hat vs black hat. I wanted to find a story that was just as exciting and interesting, but doesn’t send the message that in the end ‘might makes right’.”
Legion airs on Fox on Thursdays.
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