By George Tatoris
The world of superhero comics is a vast tapestry made of thousands of different ideas thought up over decades by hundreds of artists and writers. Some of those ideas stuck around, some of them were forgotten, some became passion projects and others were hastily stitched in to meet a deadline.
Out of this disjointed quilt FX pulled out David Haller, aka Legion, to adapt to television and chose Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley to direct it. Having aired its first season finale on March 29, the show has set the bar high for every superhero show that will come after.
David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a mutant psychic with unprecedented power, but is plagued by schizophrenia. He is dumped in a psychiatric hospital, where he is discovered by two warring factions –– the government agency tasked with hunting mutants to extinction known as Division 3 and a group of mutants hiding away in a haven called Summerland.
The premise allows Hawley and Stevens to explore their respective crafts. Stevens is compelling as Haller, whose journey from madman to hero is the focal point of the series. Stevens sells the character every step of the way. Hawley illustrates David’s story with psychedelic interludes through David’s memories, periodic visions of the world through David’s broken psyche and an imaginary mindscape called the astral plane. These lead viewers to question the reality of the show. How much of it is in David’s head?
Hawley draws on horror influences to create a host of truly unnerving villains like the World’s Angriest Boy in the World, a children’s book character from David’s childhood with a large head that looks to be papier-mâché, and the Devil With Yellow Eyes, a ghoulish round figure resembling Humpty Dumpty’s evil twin. These characters often appear subtly in the background without any warning and torment David without saying a single word.
In the hospital, David befriends Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), a manic drug addict and Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller), a mutant who switches bodies with people she touches and becomes David’s girlfriend. Plaza shines as Lenny, who becomes somewhat of a shoulder devil for Haller, while Keller manages to give the distant Syd some charm.
In Summerland, David meets the rest of the cast. Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), a Professor X-type character; Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), a mutant who remembers every waking moment of his life and can enter the memories of others; and Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) Loudermilk, who live within the same body. All of these characters except David are original. While every cast member does an excellent job with what they’re given, the cast of mutants often take a backseat to David’s story. None of them get sufficient development in the first season.
These characters have their moments, though. The Loudermilks’ relationship stands out among the rest of the side cast because of the way their powers work. Kerry lives within Cary and only ages when outside, creating a kind of father-daughter relationship. Cary is a docile, old scientist while Kerry is a headstrong young woman always looking to fight.
One scene illustrates how close the two are. Cary is in his lab quietly working while Kerry is out on a mission. As she pounds on dozens of Division 3 mooks, the show cuts back to Cary in his lab. He’s suddenly on his feet, moving in sync with Kerry as she fights miles away, like a superpowered tango.
Superpowers in general are another thing “Legion” nails. Rather than existing solely as an excuse for expensive special effects and cool fight scenes, the powers in “Legion” tie into the plot of the character’s development. For example, David and Syd must learn how to be a couple without being able to touch.
For me, a lot of the appeal with superhero comics is the way creators weave in the more ridiculous ideas from that tapestry into the story. These things complicate the comic on the surface, but at its core is a simple hero’s journey.
Adaptations usually seem ashamed to touch on the ridiculous things in the comic book universe. Netflix doesn’t even put their heroes in spandex until the very last episode, if that. “Legion” is not afraid to dip its toes in the unusual and the absurd, while still being a superb superhero story.