In the next month, the X-Men will celebrate two major milestones. March 3 sees the release of Logan, and in it what is likely the final appearances (probably) of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Professor X. Before that, though–this week, in fact–the first official X-Men television show, Legion, debuts on FX. (The first non-animated one, at least.) The new show does more than help X-fans get over the loss of Jackman’s and Stewart’s stalwart portrayals; after watching a few episodes of Legion, it’s hard not to feel as though the television is where the X-Men truly belong.
Legion feels like something fresh and different in the X-Men universe–a personal drama that’s as much about making sense of your life as discovering your mutant powers. A self-consciously experimental series that’s full of visual nods to trippy 1960s movies, it drags the downtrodden mutants into a place they’ve never been before: the world of prestige TV.
In Legion, David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) is a troubled young man living in a mental institution, being treated for schizophrenic delusions–but it’s clear from early on that the voices he hears in his head are real, and he actually can move things with his mind. By the midpoint of the pilot episode, we’ve started to glimpse a larger story in which mutants are struggling for freedom (as usual) from humans (as usual) who want to use or destroy them (as usual). David’s main allies in navigating that discovery are Syd Barrett (Rachel Heller), a crazy diamond with her own problems to deal with, and Lenny, his best friend from the institution (Aubrey Plaza, stealing virtually every scene she appears in).
The story of Legion is simple enough, at least in the pilot, but the exploration of David’s psyche is anything but. The show is stylistically ambitious, jumping around in time and playing with tricks of light and color and perspective. Creator Noah Hawley (Fargo), who directed the first episode, wears his influences on his sleeve, and they seem to range from video games to cartoons to music videos to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But most of the strongest influences seem to come from the envelope-pushing movies of the 1960s.
Film geeks will have a field day pinpointing all of the classic shots and techniques Hawley and fellow director Michael Uppendahl use, all of which contribute to a mounting sense of disorientation and a seriously unreliable narrator. Legion forces you to question everything you’re seeing, and paints a decidedly slippery version of reality. In one early scene, Syd shows David how if you squint, your perspective can change and your position in relation to the world can look different. That seems to be Legion’s mission statement: to throw viewers off-balance enough to make them rethink where they stand. Mostly, though, it’s a jolly weird, fun ride–which is exactly what makes it such a perfect fit for the X-Universe.
Because Legion has the luxury to keep its story small and to explore its characters over eight episodes (and hopefully more to come), it can explore the mutant’s quintessential identity crisis in a deeper, more interesting way than any movie could. There’s no need to have an explosion every 15 or 20 minutes, or to make space for a few dozen cameos by famous comic-book characters. Legion would be a must-watch new show in any case, but it feels like even more of a welcome change after 17 years of decreasing cinematic X-cellence.
In the early 2000s, Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were among the first superhero movies to capture the drama of their source material as well as the thrills. But lately, the franchise has been looking and feeling tired; seeing Jackman and Stewart hang up their claws and wheelchair once and for all only adds to the sense that the X-Mansion has been blown up one too many times. Judging from the trailers, Logan looks like it could be a return to greatness, but it also feels like a swansong.
In contrast, last year’s devil-may-care spinoff, Deadpool, got more love than tentpole X-Men: Apocalypse, and in doing so showed a new way forward for the mutant movies. Less self-important scowl, more irreverent fun. Besides, the theme of mutants running from a world that hates and fears them, which sustained a half-dozen films, feels better suited to a format with the breadth and depth of television. It certainly hasn’t lost any relevance, given that American society is currently debating just how much to fear outsiders–but it’s not a set of problems that are always best solved with explosions.
Television has already made several attempts at an X-Men-esque show. There was a failed pilot, 1996’s Generation X, followed by the 2001 off-label show Mutant X (which sparked a host of lawsuits). More recently, Heroes often felt like an X-Men show in all but name, and the longer Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes on, the more it mines familiar mutant territory.
But there’s still plenty of scope for a well-told long-form story about mutants trying to survive and understand their incredible powers, as Legion proves. The sheer unpredictable strangeness of Hawley’s fractured story, which will leave you trying at times to figure out which timeframe you’re watching, is a delight. And the overwhelming paranoia of Legion’s world feels like the perfect mutant epic for our times.
And if Legion doesn’t prove that the small(er) screen is the perfect place to delve deeper into the persecution of homo superior, then stay tuned. Veteran X-Men director Singer is set to helm the pilot for an untitled new Fox show about two parents who discover their children have mutant powers. Soon enough, you won’t need a Cerebro helmet to know where the most interesting mutants are hiding.