Superheroes aren’t the death of creativity in Hollywood, despite how badly film snobs want to label them as such. But there are more than a few legitimate complaints to lodge against Captain America and his super-associates.
The one that comes to mind most readily is the plague of sameyness that has spread through the brands. A Marvel Studios origin story is going to have all of the same beats and generally be pretty good. A DC movie is going to have interesting visuals and incoherent internal logic and will probably be pretty bad. (Don’t @ me. This is a fact.) But not all of this is accidental. Zack Snyder can only make Zack Snyder movies, and part of Marvel Studios’ plan for world domination involves a visual homogeneity with only a tiny bit of wiggle room for formal invention.
Fox’s X-Men movies are a unique case. As a partly rebooted relic of a previous era of superhero movies, the mutants of the Xavier School are a bit adrift without a distinct identity unto themselves. There’s a reason why Deadpool, a self-aware send up the series and the genre itself, is its most successful entry to date. But even that supposedly edgy spin on the conventions of a superhero movie ended with a lackluster boss fight just… like… every… other… superhero movie…
Then along comes Legion.
While not technically connected to the cinematic X-verse (well, at least not yet), the first live-action X-Men show is coming to us courtesy of Fargo‘s Noah Hawley, and its premiere episode is everything that was lacking in the series from a filmmaking standpoint, but also everything that makes the genre fun. The debut hour is a fun, trippy mindf— in the best way that actually feels super in its art style and direction. Pair that with a super-likable turn from former-Matthew-Crawley Dan Stevens, and it’s pretty clear that Legion is a much needed kick in the pants for the genre that doesn’t need to make fun of itself to seem fresh.
But this is still a superhero story, so we need to start in a low point. David, our hero, has found rock bottom, and it looks a lot like a knotted extension cord hanging from the ceiling. The pilot montages its way through David’s adolescence of confusion and then juvenile delinquency in its opening moments, leaving us with his short drop at the end of the noose, which we then get back around to thanks to the episode’s knotty pretzel of a structure. David hears voices and sees things, which lead to freak-out episodes usually involving some telekinetic fireworks. His suicide attempt was brought on by a particularly explosive eruption in his sister’s kitchen, which sent pots, pans, and steak knives flying.
The one-two punch of floating kitchen appliances and trying to hang himself lands David in Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, an institution that’s perpetually shot through a fisheye lens and boasts some natty, ’70s-tastic style that’s so perfectly kitsch Stanley Kubrick would see it and go, “Whoa, dude. Who’s your decorator?” It’s in Clockworks that David faces a realistic dilemma. If he pleads sanity, the doctors believe he’s crazy. If he agrees with them, they up his dosage of mind-numbing, drool-string-inducing meds. But you and I already know what’s really up with David. That dude’s a mutant, and already Legion is respecting the time-honored X-Men tradition of subbing in mutation for a real-world anxiety — in this case mental health. The metaphor, which was always baked in the comics, is such a good coverall for any marginalized people (members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, anyone who makes Republicans feel icky, basically), that it’s nice to see an X-Men title properly utilizing it again.
NEXT: A Clockworks courtship
Despite the unwilling and unnecessary confinement, David is doing all right. (There is that whole thing about him seeing a frog-throated, obese, Lynchian dwarf that he calls the Devil with the Yellow Eyes, but he’s mostly there as a tease for the rest of the season.) He’s got a sweet track jacket and a headphone-headed friend named Lenny, played by Aubrey Plaza, but everything changes once Sydney Barrett comes into his life. Syd, played by Fargo season 2’s Rachel Keller, is the new girl at Clockworks. She’s got a thing about touching people, but she’s pretty and is often remembered by David as moving in slow motion, so you know that he’s in love. The two mutually agree to become boyfriend and girlfriend, and they have a very sweet, Rolling Stones-scored courtship that faces an abrupt end when Syd is set for release.
All of this is a very lovely story, but we’re not the only ones hearing it. The story takes a step back to reveal that the present in Legion comes after David’s time at Clockworks, though it’s not immediately clear when that is. He’s being interrogated by a vaguely government-aligned entity represented by The Interrogator (Hamish Linklater) and The Eye (Mackenzie Gray), who know exactly what David is. And that’s possibly the most powerful mutant they’ve ever encountered. They got him in custody, but they want to know what happened to Syd, who according to hospital records never existed.
We’re never clued in to exactly how true of a statement that is, but if there’s any veracity to the claim, it may have to do with Syd’s last day at Clockworks. Packed and ready to go, she waited patiently for David to bid her farewell, but he doesn’t show until the very last moment. Probably thinking that this may be his only shot, he goes for a kiss and triggers a temporary Freaky Friday scenario. (But like, seriously, who hasn’t had that experience with a crush.) It seems that Syd was hiding some powers, too! David awakes in his girlfriend’s body to discover what havoc she’s wrought in his and with his abilities. All of the inhabitants of the hospital have been sealed into the rooms — well, except for Lenny. She got caught in the wall, making for one of the sickest reveals in recent TV history.
Still disguised as Syd, David is given the heave-ho from Clockworks and sets out into the world. Once he’s back to normal, he bunks up with his sister, has a ghostly delusional visit from Lenny, and attempts to track down Syd. Back in the present, David is in trouble. A small temper tantrum that pushed a pen through the Interrogator’s cheek (awesome!) and shattered the room around him has put David on the government’s bad side. Unwilling to contend with his not-so-latent powers anymore, they rig him up in an electrical trap in the pool. They want to know where Syd is, but he doesn’t know.
Luckily, Syd’s got some new friends, and those friends have tricks. During what we’re led to believe is another flashback, David meets back up with Syd. But the scene is not a flashback, but more a flash-inside David’s head. Syd is being projected into his mind and is able to give him instructions about breaking out.
This entire recap has really been a big preamble to this: The final moments of Legion, in my mind, represent one of the best realized superhero sequences ever. The team’s escape from the facility is thrilling and fun and creative and, most importantly, built on top of character. It cleanses so many of the X-Men sins of the past — well, not all of them.
But it’s one hell of a start.