Head games: ‘Legion’ is a different kind of comic book adaptation

By Jim Sabataso

When I first heard Noah Hawley was developing a TV series based on the X-Men comics character Legion, I was more than a little excited. Hawley’s FX series “Fargo” is one of my favorite current series — dark and funny in all the ways I like. The X-Men, meanwhile, are my favorite superhero team; “Uncanny X-Men” was the first comic book title I ever bought, all the way back when I was 10. Even if Legion isn’t my favorite X-Man, I was eager to see what someone like Hawley would do with such a complex character.

The series, which premiered on FX last month, is a heady, visually engaging delight. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) stars as Legion, aka, David Haller, a troubled young man battling mental illness that may be related to his later mutant powers. Stevens brings an intensity that underscores David’s suffering. David is a good person, afflicted by something he doesn’t understand — he hears voices, he sees things, and when stressed or upset, the world around him gets turned upside down.

In the comics, David’s mental illness is a key part of his character. Depending on the writer, his condition has been described as either schizophrenia or dissociative personality disorder. His powers work such that each personality in his head has its own powerset, ranging from telekinesis to time travel, and David can only access a particular power when that personality is in control.

Representation of mental illness in popular culture is often problematic, and David is no exception. While the comics have always been clumsy about it, Hawley seems to be proceeding with caution. Nonetheless, scenes of characters telling David that his illness may be a gift feel somewhat condescending and indelicate.

Legion is a tricky character, and I give Hawley credit for choosing him. Mental-illness issues aside, he’s a mess of continuity. The son of a major member of the X-Men — I won’t spoil who, in case it eventually figures into the show — his awesome powers have meant that he’s more often deployed as a plot device than a fully developed character.

When me meet David in the TV series, he is a prisoner of the ominous government-run Division 3, which wants to use his powers to their own malevolent ends, or, failing that, kill him. He’s rescued by Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) and her collective of scientists and mutants, who want to help David repair his mind and gain full control of his powers. Bird also discloses that David fits into her own schemes, alluding to a coming conflict between mutants and those who would oppress them.

Among Bird’s team is Sydney (Rachel Keller), David’s girlfriend and fellow mutant, who is able to swap minds with people via skin-to-skin contact. Syd is physically withdrawn due to her ability, but manages to keep David grounded and calm as he learns to control his powers.

Comedian and character actor Bill Irwin plays Cary Loudermilk, a quirky scientist who adds a bit of levity to the show.

Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) rounds out the main cast as Lenny, David’s deceased friend, who appears in visions as David’s conscience. Plaza gives a manic performance as she counsels David and forces him to question what’s happening around him.

As far as superhero TV shows go, “Legion” mostly eschews the familiar tropes. This is an origin story, to be sure, but it’s a bit more labyrinthine. The story is a dense mashup of flashbacks, hallucinations, journeys into the mind, and even a dance number or two as the mystery of David Haller is slowly revealed. Slowly is the operative word here. In three episodes, not much has happened as far as real-world plot advancement. This is a show more interested in the journey than the destination. At times, that means things drag a bit; however, everything looks so damn good that it’s occasionally hard to notice.

Indeed, this is a visually stunning show. Aesthetically, it borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson — sets are meticulously curated, color palettes are rich, not a scene is wasted, or without purpose or meaning.

There is also an anachronistic quality which makes it hard to pin down exactly what time period the show takes place in. The wardrobe evokes a 1970s vibe, but other set details and the presence of advanced technologies suggest it might be present day. It’s hardly a distraction though; rather, it provides an interesting quirk not unlike Anderson’s films or the animated series “Archer,” both of which play with temporal ambiguity.

While “Legion” doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Fargo,” Hawley has delivered an ambitious, compelling and trippy series that is a refreshing addition to the superhero TV genre. In a field of sameness, it stands out as an exciting example of what superhero TV can look like when it’s liberated from franchise constraints.

“Legion” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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