“Something new needs to happen soon,” says David Haller (Dan Stevens) a few minutes into the pilot of Legion, FX’s first foray into the superhero genre. In more than a few ways, that line feels like the show’s mission statement. The series — an X-Men quasi-spinoff based on a character from Marvel Comics — won’t premiere until an unspecified date in early 2017, but a sardine-packed crowd at the Hammerstein Ballroom was treated to the first half of the debut episode at an early afternoon New York Comic Con panel on Sunday. They weren’t whipped into a frenzy like the audience at the Marvel Netflix panel, but that might be the point. In an entertainment marketplace saturated with superhero filmmaking that traffics in bombast, fan service, and childishly expository dialogue, Legion is something we haven’t seen before: a tale that’s bold in its restraint, evocative in its compositional risk-taking, and firmly targeted at grown-ups.
For anyone who’s been tracking the show’s gestation, the fact that it works so well will inspire sighs of relief rather than chirps of surprise. After all, the creator and showrunner of Legion is one of FX’s golden boys, Fargo chief Noah Hawley. Other stylistically distinctive filmmakers have been put at the helm of superhero properties in the past — Thor’s Kenneth Branagh and Iron Man 3’s Shane Black leap to mind — but all too often, the demands of franchise expansion and international-market penetration grind the end product into brand-synergistic blandness. Thankfully, FX and Marvel Television seem to have given Hawley a long leash. You’ll never mistake Legion for, say, Daredevil or The Flash.
Indeed, after watching the 25-ish minutes screened for fans and reporters, it feels odd to even call Legion a superhero story. The lead character, a psychologically troubled man named David, shares a name and some telekinetic powers with a longstanding X-Men character who has often gone by the nom de guerre of Legion, but there are no costumes, no energy bolts, no giant leaps, no bulletproof chests. There’s just a man who occasionally finds silverware and furniture gathering around him like a swarm of slow-motion locusts while he crouches under the weight of his aching brain. (Who among us with mental-health issues hasn’t felt at times like the laws of physics are collapsing when we spiral out?) In that way, the show’s metahuman chaos feels more like magical realism than traditional superheroics.
On top of that, the “superhero” label doesn’t quite stick because Hawley seems to reserve his most eye-catching flourishes for all the moments between the special effects. I’ve never seen a piece of superhero filmmaking this visually distinctive, and the thrills start right at the top. The episode kicks off with a wordless montage of slow-motion shots done in outward-zooming zero-point perspective, showing David as he ages from blissful infancy to depressed adulthood. In junior high, he grins as a science experiment explodes. At his high-school prom, he endures the bullying shoves of tuxedoed peers. A twentysomething David sits behind the wavy bars of a cop-car divider, lolling his head back and forth, smiling with a kind of intoxicated relaxation. As an adult, he stares forward and shakes a pill bottle like a baby’s rattle, shunted backward to childhood weakness by resignation and heavy medication.
As the pilot progresses, we see a buffet of sumptuous images. After the screening, Hawley told the audience that he wanted the show to look like “a 1964 Terence Stamp movie,” and although he was off by a few years (if we look at Legion in terms of Stamp’s filmography, it evokes 1967’s Poor Cow and 1970’s The Mind of Mr. Soames more than anything else; perhaps he meant Malcolm McDowell?), he achieves an eerie riff on the clean pastels of the era. It starts with the wardrobe: David’s sister (Katie Aselton) first appears to us in a hospital visiting room, clad in a green wool coat and trim haircut in the style of Jackie O. Her brother wears an orange tracksuit with white stripes on the sleeves and a massive, drooped collar.
When their meeting is over, David walks the halls of the controlled environment in which he dwells. The place is a radical departure from the usual stained-white walls and shabby furnishings of mental-institution scenery. We see lush, fluorescence-free lighting, Eames chairs, and a strange little alcove of jungle greenery where a silent patient occasionally wraps himself in leaves and vines. But the show resists our attempts to temporally place it: A few scenes in, David is questioned by some shadowy G-men, one of whom holds a tablet computer that makes an iPad look like an Etch a Sketch. Are we in a near future where early-’60s décor is all the rage? Or is David seeing an imaginary world that’s unstuck in time?
That latter notion is a strong possibility, given that Hawley told the audience that Legion is largely situated in David’s subjective experience of the world. He can’t trust his own mind, so how can we trust the things that appear in it? During a chillingly Lynchian shot of a man eating what looks like strips of VHS tape while all-caps text hovers around him reading, “THE DEVIL WITH YELLOW EYES,” we have no idea whether we’ve gone down the rabbit hole or had a veil lifted. When David’s romantic interest, a blonde woman named Syd with an extreme fear of being touched (Fargo alum Rachel Keller), sits in front of him in a group-therapy session, she’s so heavily backlit that half of her face is obscured. Does that mean David is seeing a love-induced halo, or is he merely positioned poorly vis-à-vis a sunlit window? Hawley said he wants the show to suggest Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon “because that album is the soundtrack to mental illness, in a way,” and Legion aims itself squarely at that record’s aesthetic mix of the melodic and the unsettling.
While we’re on the topic of music, it should be said that the soundtrack is great — no surprise, given Hawley’s musical choices on Fargo. Only two songs are used in the footage that aired, but they’re both head-noddingly kick-ass. The Who’s “Happy Jack” blares during the opening montage; the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” dances during a subsequent montage about David and Syd’s hospital courtship. That said, the Stones’ 1967 ballad is a little clichéd for a romantic sequence, and a few other elements feel similarly on-the-nose: For example, the institution is called “Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital” and Syd’s full name is Syd Barrett.
It’s also worth noting that the footage has a certain narrative flatness. David is yet another tortured, white, male protagonist whom nobody understands, and the ongoing “is he really superpowered, or just hallucinating?” conceit feels thin. Come on, are they really going to reveal that this guy doesn’t have any special abilities? At one point, we’re briefly showered with the genre tropes of the X-Men films when shadowy forces of the government speak cryptically about an incident in Red Hook and a “spike in psychic activity.”
That said, it’s grossly unfair to judge the story direction of a show when you’ve only seen half of the first episode. To be clear, Legion is in good hands with Hawley and it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the leads, especially David and his sallow-skinned BFF, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, firmly on brand with her cynical grin and slightly extraterrestrial eye-movements). And we haven’t even seen fellow cast members Jean Smart and Bill Irwin yet. Even if we can’t draw that many conclusions about the characters and the plot, those elements aren’t what you’re thinking about when you walk away from Legion. What sticks with you are the visuals.
There’s a bit where Syd and David stand on an upper floor of the hospital at nighttime, staring through enormous windows at a magnificently lit city below. David leans to kiss Syd and she pulls back, still allergic to his touch. He assures her that he isn’t going to do that. Instead, he moves his head forward in front of her. The camera fixes itself on the window and we see his reflection move its lips onto hers. Throughout the first half of the episode, we are placed in a variation of that situation, with the audience in Syd’s place and Hawley acting like David. Though we might be afraid of getting close to yet another boilerplate superhero, it’s easy to be seduced by such gentle, passionate, and creative tricks of the eye.