It’s a mental hospital the way Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick might imagine it, and the happenings within its walls are as weird as that mix implies.
(Kubrick’s influence on Legion’s style is acknowledged in the facility’s name: Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital.)
This is just a sample of what the first episode of Legion manages to pack in: telekinesis, licorice sticks, drool, group therapy, body swaps, interrogation, sweet romance, a lurking yellow-eyed devil, heck, even a dance number!
The thing is — as X-Men aficionados will already know, and as becomes slightly clearer as the episode goes on — David is not exactly mentally ill. Well, he might be, but that’s not all that’s going on with him.
“If the readings are right,” says an unnamed government spook at one point, “he may be the most powerful mutant we’ve ever encountered.”
Yes, this is a Marvel series based on a character from the X-Men comic books, but it’s not overplaying that card.
David’s telekinetic powers are realised via stunning slo-mo sequences in Legion. Picture: Picture: Chris Large/FX
David’s telekinetic powers are realised via stunning slo-mo sequences in Legion. Picture: Picture: Chris Large/FXSource:Foxtel
Episode one is halfway through before that first muttering of the word “mutant” and it’s only at the very end that we see mutants doing the kinds of things the X-Men movies have trained us to expect.
The show rolls out more like a psychological thriller, playing in fragments and flashes like it must be clanging around in David’s disturbed mind. And like him, we’re never sure what is real and what is delusion.
Very real is David’s attraction to Syd Barrett, the new girl on the good ship mental hospital. As played by Fargo breakout Rachel Keller, Syd has a social anxiety disorder and doesn’t like to be touched. Nevertheless she agrees to be David’s girlfriend and their union propels (literally) the story forward.
Syd’s also the first one to telegraph there’s more to this motley hospital crew than mental illness: “What if your problems aren’t in your head?” she asks during a group session. “What if they’re not even problems?”
The slo-mo sequences where David’s telepathic and telekinetic powers bust out are stunning — not quite on the level of the Quicksilver sequences in the last two X-Men films, but still packed with detail and wonder.
Stars Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza discuss Legion during a television panel in California on January 12. Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/AFP
Stars Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza discuss Legion during a television panel in California on January 12. Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/AFPSource:AFP
(In the comic books, Legion suffers from dissociative identity disorder, with each personality having its own particular powers — so the series has plenty of future tricks up its sleeve.)
This first episode is also surprisingly funny, much of that due to Aubrey Plaza as David’s best mate in the institution, Lenny. When she’s not in her own little world, bopping along to whatever’s playing on her headphones, she’s providing a zinging commentary on David’s obvious attraction to Syd: “Why are the hot ones always so crazy?”
It’s a slight spoiler to note that Lenny winds up in harm’s way during this episode. But one gets the feeling Legion is the kind of series where such things don’t necessarily signal the end of an actor’s employment.
The big question after this brain-melting first chapter is whether the pace and the madness can be sustained over the full eight-episode series.
If it can ... Sheesh. We’re all going to need medication.
HOW DOES IT CONNECT TO THE X-MEN MOVIES?
The other big question that’s been raging online since the series was announced is how Legion connects — or doesn’t — to the X-Men film universe.
The Legion team at New York Comic Con in October (from left): actors Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jeremie Harris and Amber Midthunder, series creator Noah Hawley, actors Dan Stevens and Katie Aselton, producer Lauren Shuler Donner and actor Bill Irwin. Picture: Theo Wargo/Getty Images
The Legion team at New York Comic Con in October (from left): actors Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jeremie Harris and Amber Midthunder, series creator Noah Hawley, actors Dan Stevens and Katie Aselton, producer Lauren Shuler Donner and actor Bill Irwin. Picture: Theo Wargo/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images
While Noah Hawley, creator of FX’s hit Fargo series, is the driving force behind Legion as creator, writer and director, he’s backed by the power trio behind the movies: Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg and Lauren Shuler Donner all serve as producers.
The team overall has sent some mixed messages about the big screen-smaller screen connection.
At New York Comic Con in October, Shuler Donner said Legion is “far away from the X-Men movies, yet it still lives within that universe”.
Hawley reckons the fluid timelines of the films have given him plenty of leeway.
Though he’d earlier called the series “a stand-alone kind of thing”, when asked at NYCC how the series fits into the film universe, he replied: “There’s a certain degree to which that’s to be determined”.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival last August, executive producer Singer (director of X-Men, X-Men 2, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse) said while the series took place in the “X-Men universe”, viewers would not need any knowledge of the comic books or the films — “it could exist completely on its own”.
Writer, producer and director of the X-Men films, Bryan Singer (back row, third from right), with the next-gen cast of his most recent film in the universe, Apocalypse. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox.
Writer, producer and director of the X-Men films, Bryan Singer (back row, third from right), with the next-gen cast of his most recent film in the universe, Apocalypse. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox.Source:Supplied
He added that the series “will relate to future X-Men movies” but did not elaborate on what “relate” means.
With the film franchise at something at a crossroads — Hugh Jackman will farewell Wolverine with Logan in March; second-gen X-Men Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence are now out of contract; Apocalypse, which introduced younger versions of several famed X-Men, didn’t break the box office — there is a possibility Singer and Co. are hatching plans to reboot the universe from the TV series on up.
Hawley certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that. He told the audience at NYCC: “My hope is to create something that is so strong that people at the movie studio will call up and say we’d be foolish not to connect these two things ... but I also know they’re different waters to swim in.”
As for any direct links to other X-Men happenings or characters in the pilot episode — don’t look too hard.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique (seen here in Days of Future Past) is sadly not the “yellow eyed devil” haunting David in Legion. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox
Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique (seen here in Days of Future Past) is sadly not the “yellow eyed devil” haunting David in Legion. Picture: Twentieth Century FoxSource:News Corp Australia
When David’s shrink asks him if he’s seen “the devil with the yellow eyes” lately, he’s sadly not referring about everybody’s favourite yellow-eyed mutant, Mystique (played in the film franchise by Rebecca Romijn and Lawrence).
This devil is far less attractive, far more creepy.
In fact, David Haller is said to be the only character from the comic books to appear in Legion, though Hawley isn’t ruling out introducing others in future.
Fans find it unthinkable that the series won’t make some link to David’s famous father — in the comic books, David is the son of Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, the wheelchair-bound, powerful telepath played in the films by Sir Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy.
On that front, Hawley has sworn to be “true to the origins” of the character. “I don’t think you can really tell this story without that element,” he said.
Who’s ya daddy? James McAvoy as he appeared as Charles Xavier in last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox
Who’s ya daddy? James McAvoy as he appeared as Charles Xavier in last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. Picture: Twentieth Century FoxSource:Supplied
Sir Patrick Stewart as the revered and powerful Professor X in X-Men 2. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox
Sir Patrick Stewart as the revered and powerful Professor X in X-Men 2. Picture: Twentieth Century FoxSource:News Limited
(If your follow-up question is whether that leaves the door open for a Stewart or McAvoy cameo: “Probably not, but you never know,” says Shuler Donner.)
Perhaps the best news of all to come out of Legion for comic book fans is the fact that it is a co-production between FX and Marvel Television.
Just as Sony and the Disney-owned Marvel Studios have done a deal to bring Spider-Man back into the MCU fold, this could be the first sign that there may be a pathway to reunite the X-Men with the rest of the super-team.
“The fact that I’m sitting here is an indication that bridges are being made,” said Marvel’s head of TV Jeph Loeb during the show’s NYCC panel.
And it doesn’t end with Legion. Fox looks set to greenlight another, as yet untitled X-Men series about normal parents who learn their children have mutant powers. Forced to go on the run, they discover an underground network of mutants.