What You Need to Know About Noah Hawley’s New FX Show, Legion

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Don’t expect any capes or costumes. Photo: Chris Large/FX

We’re just a day away from the debut of the year’s first new superhero adaptation, the FX series Legion. It comes from both the pages of Marvel Comics and from the mind of Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, and though it stars a long-running X-Men character, he’s an extremely obscure one. To make matters more confusing, the advertising for the show leaves it very unclear whether or not the show will even feature the X-Men. It’s all quite baffling. Fear not, noble reader! Vulture is here to break down the ingredients of this deliberately disorienting television concoction.

What’s the deal with the title? What does Legion mean?
It has something of a double meaning. The show is about a troubled man with enormous psychic powers named David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), and the character has its origins in the pages of Marvel Comics, where the people around him nicknamed him “Legion.” The nickname referred to the fact that he has a legion of multiple personalities inside his head. In the show, he still has those personalities, but he doesn’t have that nickname (at least in the episodes released to critics), so the name mostly refers to the multiple voices in his brain.

Those superpowers sound … complicated. Can you lay them out a little more clearly?
Well, they’re not actually well-defined in the first few episodes. They have something to do with David’s brain, and he apparently has the ability to move stuff telekinetically, but the nature of the voices in his head is unclear. He doesn’t seem to be overtaken by the different personalities like the dude in Split, but who knows what the future holds? In the comic-book source material, David often accumulates his personalities by drawing other people’s consciousnesses into his brain. But, again: We don’t really know what’s going on with the Legion version of the character, other than telekinesis.

What comics has he been in?
David has almost exclusively appeared in comics about Marvel’s angsty mutants in the X-Men and their affiliate teams.

Oh, so he’s an X-Man?
Not really. Just a member of the supporting cast (and son of X-Men founder Charles Xavier). He’s occasionally a threat — but only because he’s mentally unstable, not because he’s eeeeeevil.

Are the X-Men in the show? Is it set in the same universe as the movies? Will I see Hugh Jackman’s sideburns on FX?
There are no X-Men to be found in the show. There’s a collective of mutants with metahuman abilities who are on the run from shadowy government forces, but they’re not X-Men, nor do the X-Men exist in the world of Legion. Despite contradictory reports over the past few months about the show’s relationship to the X-Men movies, it appears that they are set in a totally separate universes.

So Legion isn’t part of the X-Men franchise?
It’s not part of the X-Men cinematic universe that’s been rolling along since 2000’s X-Men and will continue with Logan, but it’s still owned by Fox and part of their stable of X-Men-based intellectual property.

But it’s based on X-Men comics, right? Is David a big deal in them?
He’s not a huge deal, no. He’s popped up every few years since his 1985 debut in X-Men spinoff The New Mutants, and he had his own solo series from 2012 to 2014, but he’s a C-tier character, at best. That is, of course, one of the reasons this show could happen — no one called dibs on him for the movies, so he was fair game.

If it’s based on Marvel comic books, is the show part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
No, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an entirely separate entity, owned by Disney, not Fox. Due to decades of legal entanglements, there is very little chance we will ever see the MCU cross over into the X-Men cinematic universe.

All right, so what is this show about?
Hard to say, actually! And deliberately so! Hawley wants the viewer to be as confused as David is, and given David’s mental problems, he’s pretty damn confused when Legion sets out. David is living in a mental institution, where he meets a fellow mutant named Syd (Fargo’s Rachel Keller), gets interrogated by the government, then joins a squadron of mutant renegades after his powers flare up disastrously. All of this stuff happens out of order and we’re barraged with cryptic and unreliable memories of David’s troubled past. It’s more a series of disorienting vignettes than a linear plot.

That doesn’t sound like a superhero show.
Right you are! It’s intended to be a great leap forward for the genre, something that feels as different from Supergirl as Mad Men was from Boston Legal. No one wears costumes, no one shoots lasers from their eyes, no one has a secret identity, and nothing really makes sense.

So what does it feel like? Is it like Fargo?
It only feels like Fargo insofar as it’s meticulously constructed, both visually and narratively, and overwhelms you with dread and bleak humor. It’s sorta like an X-Men remake comprised of existing footage from Mulholland Drive, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Solaris. Also, Hawley is deliberately vague about what time or place it’s set in. There really isn’t anything like it on TV or in movie theaters right now.

Is it funny?
At times, but rarely in a laugh-out-loud way.

Does it have action?
At times, yes. Hawley’s big on using practical effects, so the action is genuinely thrilling and not just cartoon-y.

Are there big-name actors in it?
Very few. Stevens has a decent following from Downton Abbey, veteran character actor Jean Smart plays the mutants’ den mother, Katie Aselton is David’s sister, and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement plays a mysterious figure in a safari outfit, but the show admirably (and thriftily) relies on talented unknowns.

When does it premiere, and how many episodes long is it?
Legion debuts on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, February 8. The first season is eight episodes long.

Last question: How is Dan Stevens’s American accent?
Surprisingly good, though he does the thing where he overcompensates on his r’s. He’s no Jamie Bamber, but then again, who is?

Is Legion an X-Men Show? Your Burning Questions, Answered