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What you need to know about X-Men before you watch FX’s Legion

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Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. are currently the Big Two producers of superhero television. If you’re watching network television, you’ll likely come across DC Comics series like Supergirl and the new Powerless. If you prefer to stream everything you watch, you’ve almost certainly seen Marvel series like Daredevil and Luke Cage. These are good and sometimes great efforts, and more series are already on the way in their respective camps. However, something has been missing: the X-Men.

X-Men, as one of the most iconic comics properties ever, hasn’t had a significant TV presence in almost a decade. That changes today with the debut of Legion on FX. Created by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, the new series takes place somewhere in the X-Men films’ already byzantine continuity. Only this series might not be what fans expect. Rather than focus on Wolverine and Cyclops, this one stars a lesser known mutant, albeit one with extraordinary abilities. And unlike the battles of Magneto and Professor X, David’s quest is more personal: he’s trying to piece together whether or not he’s actually insane.

Legion is like nothing like the superhero shows that came before it. Instead, it’s more of a prestige drama that just so happens to be set in a world populated with mutants. If that sounds nothing like the X-Men series you always wanted — or if you don’t know a Gambit from a Jubilee — fear not! I’m here to hold your hand as you wade in.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

The basics

Legion largely follows David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), a mental patient who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is trying his best to get well. He falls in love with a fellow patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), who then disappears under mysterious circumstances.

Before the show gets into the weeds of David’s powers, it establishes him as a sympathetic, if deeply troubled, everyday human. The thing is, it turns out David’s powers are anything but common. He’s gifted with incredible psychic abilities like telekinesis, telepathy, and perhaps even the power to alter reality itself.

The title Legion is itself a reference to David’s abilities: he can telepathically absorb the personalities and powers of those he encounters. That means David’s mind may house near infinite personalities, each vying to take control and potentially destroy the world. That’s the real reason why he’s been institutionalized and why the government starts to show an interest in him.

The comic book origin

The comics are (unsurprisingly!) a whole lot weirder than the TV show. Legion, created by legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, is the illegitimate son of Israeli Holocaust survivor Gabrielle Haller and Professor X, one of the most powerful mutants on earth. (He also has really tall hair.) His abilities first manifested during a terrorist attack in his youth. Assassins, out to kill any Israeli’s they could find living in Paris, invaded his family’s home and killed his stepfather. The trauma caused him to lash out psychically and destroy the minds of the terrorists. However, since his mind linked to every single person he killed, the trauma splintered David’s mind into a whole host of distinct personalities. Those personalities can each control a single portion of his incredible powers. He even absorbed the mind of one of the assassins, Jemail, which is, yeah, too creepy for words.

David, at least for the most part and when he’s in control of his legion personalities (see what I did there?), means well. But his cracked psyche makes him a liability, and he’s managed to destroy entire timelines while trying to achieve nobler ends. In one storyline, he traveled back in time (because he can time-travel, which I totally should have mentioned) to try to stop Magneto and help ensure a peaceful existence for mutants, only to wind up killing Professor X and paving the way to one of the many alternate dystopias that litter the Marvel universe.

And then there was the time when some his his sub-personalities got corporeal bodies and escaped, so he had to… I should get back to the TV show.

The adaptation

Right off the bat, David’s TV backstory is considerably different than his comics counterpart’s. First, he lacks the crazy hair. Second, he’s not the victim of a terror attack, but more the victim of his own mind. But that shouldn’t be your biggest concern going in. The key of this adaptation is how the series performs the delicate balancing act of embracing the zanier aspects of this character’s story while also grounding it in a very relatable emotional core. Legion is certainly a show about a man coming to grips with his incredible abilities, but, like any good X-Men story, it’s also about how he, as someone who is so uniquely afflicted, relates to others.

That’s why you need characters like Syd Barrett and Lenny Busker — Aubrey Plaza having the time of her life playing a recovering drug addict. They help keep the show grounded even as things start to go to Wackytown, USA.

Syd Barrett is a familiar name

At least Syd Barrett is a familiar name if you’re low-key a Pink Floyd fan, my friend. Syd is actually named after Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, who was pushed out of the band in 1968 before being briefly institutionalized. Hawley told an audience at New York Comic Con that the show should sound like Dark Side of the Moon, which he considers to be a soundscape of mental illness.

Really, dealing with mental illness is the show’s core theme. David is never sure if what he’s experiencing is real, so we’re never sure if what’s onscreen is real. But the connections, whether they’re with real people or not, do matter because they carry weight for David. When he falls in love with Syd, for instance, it’s important because it anchors him. It’s tragic, but relatable, and also keeps the story from being too morose, too emotionally impenetrable, and too weird.

The X-Men movie (non) connection

The show doesn’t connect to the X-Men film yet. Hawley did say that the story takes place in the X-Men universe, but it’s completely self-contained. That means you shouldn’t expect any crossovers too soon. But depending on the success of the show, there may be room for a cameo or two down the line. I wouldn’t expect David to pop up in a future film (especially since being able to alter reality would pretty much break any comprehensible movie narrative), but a TV show that Bryan Singer is developing could be fertile ground for bigger stories involving the characters established in Legion.

All of which is to say…

This is more interesting than seeing another take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Fox needs to let that one go. X3 was bad enough. If you would like to defend X-Men Apocalypse, the more power to you.