Why Dan Stevens and ‘Legion’ are lightyears ahead of the Marvel pack
Legion returned for season three and we’re still reeling from the news that it was the last. To commiserate, we’re looking back at the mindblowing S1 and S2. Warning: there will be spoilers – enter at your own risk.
Superhero shows generally fall into two camps: serious & grounded (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist) or fun & campy (The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Powerless). But when it comes to the surreal and disorientating visual feast that is Legion, showrunner Noah Hawley takes the superhero show to an astral plane far away from anything audiences have experienced before.
Anyone who caught the first season will know popping the show neatly into a box is slightly more complex than any of its on-screen counterparts.
After a year’s gap (Lord knows our fragile brains needed it), the show returned this week with the first episode to season two, following on from the season one finale in which the Shadow King abandoned our show’s protagonist David Haller (played with jaw-clenching intensity by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) for Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement).
Plotwise, it’s been a year since David was abducted by a mysterious orb and he has absolutely no memory of his time away, while the rest of the team have since been absorbed by Division III working hard to stop Amahl Farouk from infecting more people.
You’d be forgiven for thinking perhaps Legion might calm down a bit now Shadow King has abandoned David’s body, but if anything it looks even more of a mind-bending journey than the last. Buckle up, folks! In celebration of the show’s return, we’re spotlighting all the reasons Legion has broken free from the superhero TV show formula and become a work of art in its own right.
Legion avoids the typical superhero tropes
The first season of Legion followed David – a superpowerful mutant who has spent most of his life thinking he was a schizophrenic. Following an encounter with a fellow psychiatric patient, David is confronted with the possibility there may be more to him than mental illness.
Hunted by the government agency Division III in the first season, David is saved by a group of mutants at the Summerland facility, who bring him to the realization he is a mutant and his mind is infected by the aforementioned parasitic mutant named Amahl Farouk a.k.a. Shadow King a.k.a. the Man With the Yellow Eyes.
What’s laudable about Legion is it manages to avoid the traps that catch many of these comic book shows, which is something Hawley set out to do. While the story is pulled from the original X-Men comics, with David being the son of the mega-mutant Charles Xavier, Legion has so far downplayed any family ties.
“So Legion is an arms-length addition to the X-franchise,” declared writer Graeme Virtue, “and showrunner Noah Hawley, who spent three years developing the project, seems to be making the most of his additional wiggle-room.”
Instead of centering on the comic books it’s based on (much like many of the other superhero shows), Legion focuses on interesting flickers of cult pop culture, from Bollywood-style dance sequences to a rendition of Kermit the Frog’s banjo-fuelled anthem “Rainbow Connection”.
It’s no wonder unsettling moments like this have led critics to compare Legion to everything from Black Mirror to Twin Peaks. Virtue went on to state the show has “more in common with the clinically precise dread of Black Mirror than the quasi-realistic, Kevlar-heavy worlds of Arrow or The Flash.”
Legion is full of aesthetic decadence
Hawley and the team behind Legion certainly used that wiggle-room wisely and while the well-balanced and beautifully paced storyline pulls it forward from its comic book counterparts, it’s the aesthetics that throw Legion lightyears ahead. Using bold colors, symmetry, and retro styling, the visuals of Legion are comparable to the likes of Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) & Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel).
There’s a reasoning for the show’s visual decadence. Scenes are colored to ignite mood changes and settings feature a mix of dated and modern gadgetry, drawing attention to minor details the viewer might otherwise have missed.
Writer Beth Elderkin described every frame is designed to draw your gaze to a specific point. “It feels like the show knows what you need to be focused on before you do, helping viewers spot things they normally would miss, like the weird-eyed guy whittling the wolf figurine during the interrogation scene.”
While Hawley borrows techniques and aesthetics from some of the greats, he somehow transforms Legion into a unique work in its own right, adapting the tropes and making them his own. Taking no detail for granted, every episode is packed full of choreographed moves, carefully planned costumes, and precise props & settings, creating a show almost too visually stimulating for the small screen.
In Virtue’s words, “the pop-art cocktail of bold colours, retro styling and symmetrical compositions . . . make Legion the most visually arresting and aesthetically decadent show currently on TV.”
It tackles mental health in a fresh new way
In the old days of on-screen superhero depictions, the focus was on fantasy characters – strong men who could fight the villains, get the girl, and save the world. These days it’s increasingly flipping the lid, culminating with Legion which explores the downside of being unique.
Many of the superhero shows now delve into social issues through the lens of a superhero’s struggle, for example Black Lightning engaging directly with some of the prevailing questions about race or Jessica Jones tackling alcoholism and the aftermath of sexual assault.
When it comes to Legion, the metaphor applies to mental health. Speaking on the topic, Jean Smart (who plays the matriarchal figure Melanie Bird) stated, “I think it talks to how we treat people with mental illness; Noah wanted it to be very sympathetic. Hopefully we’re a lot more knowledgeable and open-minded about it these days.”
Not only does the story center on a man who spent a majority of his life in mental health facilities following a suicide attempt, but we as viewers spend a significant chunk of our time trapped within the thoughts of David. As he transitions to life in the institution, he is consistently asked, “How does that make you feel?”
Elderkin described how this might be the most important question of the entire first season, “as the whole show’s dedicated to making us feel exactly how David does, largely through use of color, perspective, and pacing.”
If the start to Legion S2 is anything to go by, we’re in for an equally insightful, befuddling, trippy, aesthetic gala of a ride as season one. Unlike the many other comic book shows launched in the past several years, Legion stands out with a darker more mature storyline molded into something insightful and smart. It’s exciting to see a show pack a punch without depending on tiresome comic book tropes – because as we know, not all heroes wear capes.