FX’s ambitious new superhero series won’t play by the same rules viewers may be used to seeing vis-a-vis Professor Xavier’s merry band of mutants. Legion, premiering in February, is different from the rest — and it’s not just because its main character eventually ends up with some of the wildest hair in the comic milieu.
The show is centered on a young mutant named David Haller (played by former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens), whom we first meet in a psychiatric hospital where he’s come to believe he’s schizophrenic and mentally ill. Naturally, David is actually an incredibly powerful telepath (and related to an iconic X-Men figure) but his identity crisis mirrors a major theme of Legion‘s characters: the subjective over the objective.
Unlike the grounded realism of his breakout hit Fargo, show creator Noah Hawley explained his vision for Legion‘s experiment in perception during FX’s leg on the winter Television Critics Association press tour. “The underlying thing with the X-Men, as a franchise, is that it’s about a group of people who have been defined one way by society—as outsiders or mentally ill or different in a way that ostracizes them,” said Hawley. “So if you have these characters who have all been defined one way by society, then it felt interesting to me to make this show about that transition, to see Dan in the context of believing that he has a mental illness and then to take him someplace where they say, ‘No, you don’t have a mental illness, you have these abilities and we’re going to be able to take you back into your past and what you thought was your illness was you coming into your powers.”
Mutants questioning and discovering their powers has always been a hallmark of the X-Men franchise, to be clear, but there’s a slow burn to the process that marks a different vibe for this superhero thriller — one that focuses more on the characters not as mutants but as questioning humans. Hawley offers an example in Rachel Keller’s mysterious character, Syd, a fellow patient who demonstrates an almost Rogue-like aversion to touch: “If you can’t touch people, then yeah, you’re going to be diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder, and on some levels you’re going to develop one because you are literally anti-social.”
Marvel TV chief Jeph Loeb, who joined the panel with Hawley and stars Stevens, Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, Bill Irwin, and more, went so far as to proclaim that “Legion, in particular, redefines the genre in a new way,” he said. “Marvel doesn’t ever start out from a place of, ‘This is a person who’s defined by their powers.’ In particular, the X-Men franchise is one of those franchises… where you can really bend the issues. There were the quiet issues, there were the issues where they just played baseball. It wasn’t a ‘save the universe’ kind of world, and Legion as a character is not particularly well-known. When Noah came in and started talking about the nature of mental health and the nature of the perception of people and how the best Marvel stories are the ones that take issues that are out there in the real world and put them in a prism [of a storyteller], that’s what’s exciting for us.”
The series is still visually explosive and bears its share of bad-ass mutant moments, though. Loeb continued: “We don’t know anyone’s going to come to the show because they think it’s going to be ‘like the Defenders.’ We think [of] Noah Hawley and the cast and the writing and FX…have merged together to tell a kind of show that Marvel’s never made before.”
Marking another departure, Hawley promised that Legion honors its published roots but will take jarring turns from the Legion narrative, at least compared to the close relationship other Marvel projects have tended to share with their comic storyline counterparts. “One approach would be, take issues 113 through 120 and say that’s season one,” said Hawley. “What was more interesting to me was to take the concept of this character, on some level, and then use his sort of subjective reality to say, ‘Let’s create something that’s a little more of a fable or a parable on some level, in order to try to create something unexpected, which I think is always really important to an audience, to feel like they don’t know and can’t predict where it’s going, which I think is fascinating.”
If nothing else, purists can rely on seeing a realization — or at least some version of—David Haller’s iconic coif. “We’re working up to the full Legion hair,” grinned Stevens. “We haven’t quite got it yet. It’s a good haircut, though.”
Legion premieres Feb. 8 on FX.