At heart, superhero stories are character dramas. Underneath the incredible powers, our primary-colored pop-culture idols mostly interact with their worlds and those around them in relatable human ways. The best superhero stories bring depth and complexity to the characters’ inner lives. That’s why the X-Men, for instance, produced such iconic stories: an ensemble of unique, conflicted, and supremely powerful superhumans can make for irresistible soap operas, as well as poignant examinations of current issues and social injustices.
Legion, FX and Marvel Studios’ newest superhero series, initially looks like exactly that kind of story. It stars a nigh-omnipotent hero struggling with the real-world consequences of his actions. It also features a colorful cast of characters pulling him in various directions. But instead of painting a clear portrait of a troubled yet relatable protagonist, the story takes a pickaxe to all expectations, forcing viewers to ask “Is any of this even real?” In that way, Legion is trippy, ambitious, confounding, and unlike any cape-and-cowl series before it.
Created by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, Legion is like stepping into the fractured mind of a superpowered psychiatric patient. The series follows David Haller (Downton Abbey and The Guest star Dan Stevens), a young man battling severe paranoid schizophrenia. As we learn in the facility he initially calls home, he hears voices, hallucinates, and is dogged by truly terrifying delusions. But David’s illness might actually be the manifestation of his mutant abilities, which not only let him hear people’s thoughts and move objects with his mind, but potentially let him remake reality itself. Those abilities make him a threat to some very powerful people. Trouble is, he has no idea how to control his powers, so he and the audience are constantly left wondering whether anything he sees is real, or whether it’s all just happening in his head.
If that sounds maddening, you shouldn’t even touch the comics. Based loosely on the Marvel character of the same name, David is actually the son of Professor Charles Xavier in the source material. Due to his lineage and his multiple personality disorder, he can manifest potentially infinite sub-personalities with infinite superpowers (as the name “Legion” suggests), making him one of the most powerful mutants in existence. Given that this show rests somewhere in the X-Men film universe, Hawley has left the door open for some of those wilder concepts — but don’t expect any Professor X cameos. The series is laser-focused on David and his story, presenting him as the star of a mind-bending, tragic epic that might actually be an invention of his splintered psyche.
Stevens, as the wild-eyed, unhinged David, is thoroughly convincing in the role. More than a superhero series in any traditional sense, Legion is a story about mental illness, and it’s clear in his performance that care and research went into the portrayal of his affliction. David, above all, is a regular person. In his more lucid moments, he comes across as likable and a little rebellious. But when it’s clear he’s coming undone, he gives into tics, signaling the desperation he feels at just trying to keep things together. When he fails, he conveys a real sense of menace. It makes sense that the people he encounters would be terrified of him: even without powers, he’s a dangerously unpredictable individual struggling to stay grounded. Stevens sells all of this with such conviction that David’s humanity shines through even in his darkest moments.
The same care went into creating the other characters in David’s orbit. There’s love interest Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), who suffers from haphephobia, or the fear of being touched, and her illness (and possible mutation) colors how she relates to David. There’s Lenny Busker, played by the incredible Aubrey Plaza, who’s a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, but still a ray of light in David’s otherwise grim life. And then there’s his sister Amy (The League’s Katie Aselton), who tries to be a positive presence, even though she’s witnessed David’s past breakdowns. Their interactions with David capture what made the best X-Men stories work. David is different, but he’s still fundamentally human, and his relationships with other people unearth his humanity.
All this character work does only serve to add texture to David. The series never leaves his perspective for long, and it’s entirely possible that he’s the only real character on the show. Hawley exposes that idea in the show’s innovative, deeply unsettling style. Everything, from the audio cues to the set design, makes it impossible to take David’s situation for granted, since it all might be an invention of his powers. The series can look like an indie film, a romantic comedy, and a horror movie all in the space of a few minutes, depending on David’s state of mind. The scenery, with its blend of mid-century and present-day decor, fashion, and technology, makes it hard to set the series in any recognizable time period. Structurally, the show bounces back and forth between flashbacks, deeper memories, and the present at the drop of a hat. Even the aspect ratio changes depending on the stakes at hand. Hawley is using every tool in his arsenal to make the audience question what it sees at all times, leaving us as unmoored as David must feel.
That presents a problem for the show: if every character might be a figment of David’s imagination, how can they have inner lives and motivations? Hawley leaves the question completely open: even if Syd and Lenny are mental constructs, they clearly understand the world in different ways, and most importantly, they know things David doesn’t. It’s entirely possible that his powers have allowed him to create whole personas independent of his core identity. But since the show frames David as the protagonist, it’s hard to escape the meta critique that he’s a white straight male character writing his own story before our eyes, at the expense of everyone else’s perspective. Hawley’s vision and storytelling prowess help mitigate the problem, but it stands out at a time when other Marvel TV properties like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and even the upcoming Cloak and Dagger have moved away from centering that experience in favor of others.
Still, what an experience it is. In one scene late in the pilot, David is thrust into a thrilling downhill escape away from government agents. The scene, with mutants and gunmen all fighting and flying in and out of the frame, is as exciting as anything in the X-Men films. After the gunfire and the explosions, David turns to Syd and begs, “Is this real?” She reassures him that it is, and that she loves him But even in that moment, there’s no relief. There’s still no way for him to be sure what he’s really experiencing, or what it means. And things only get stranger from there.
Legion manages to up the ante for the entire superhero genre. It isn’t as thematically relevant as other Marvel series, but the creative energy and inventiveness Noah Hawley has brought to the show makes it a singular experience, unlike anything else on television today. It’s the prestige series that might remind the fans now tired of super-types to keep investing in these mythologies. Now it’s up to other shows to catch up.
Legion premieres tonight at 10pm ET on FX.