Superhero films have been immensely popular for years now. Whether one is a fan of “Thor” (2011) or “Spider-Man” (2002), “Captain America” (2011) or “Iron Man” (2008), there is a surfeit of flicks available to satisfy the public’s hunger for everything super. But as the saying goes, quantity does not always entail quality. As more and more superhero movies are produced, plot lines begin to feel all too similar, and cross-overs result in confusing plot jumbles that are difficult to follow. The TV series “Legion” (2017-present), which premiered on Feb. 8 on FX, manages to avoid these pitfalls, making for an interesting perspective on the superhero film.
Set in the world of the “X-Men” franchise (2000-present), “Legion” does stick to a few classic superhero genre principles: Some of the people in the “Legion” universe are actually mutants whose genetic makeup has changed, giving them unique superpowers and alienating them from the public. But this is essentially all that “Legion” has in common with the “X-Men” franchise. Told from the perspective of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at a young age, the series’ story revolves around David as he struggles to deal with his mental illness, which might not actually be a mental illness at all. While staying at a psychiatric hospital, he befriends Lenny “Cornflakes” Busker (Aubrey Plaza), a fellow patient who remains positive in any situation. David also meets a mysterious new patient named Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller) who helps him realize that his delusions might not only be in his head and sets him on the path to unlocking his new powers.
It is difficult to summarize “Legion” because of the very reason it works so well: The narrative structure of the show is told exclusively from David’s perspective as someone with schizophrenia. Creator Noah Hawley has said that he wants the show to be told from the point of view of an “unreliable narrator,” and the result is an experience that actively draws the viewer in and leaves one wanting more. Stevens’ performance as David inspires empathy from viewers, but one also recognizes his untrustworthiness as a narrator. This creates a sense of unease that naturally weaves itself into the show’s narrative. For example, in the first episode, when David loses control and his powers erupt in vengeful force, it is unclear whether this is a result of his mental instability or his superpowers.
Indeed, everything about the series is set up to help the viewer experience the world as David does: from the incessant voices playing in the background, to the way the show plays with the nature of time and the variety of music that constantly augments the action. After watching the pilot, viewers feel dizzy and disoriented in the best way possible. One does not simply sympathize with David but becomes David, unable to discern reality from fantasy and drifting from one surrealism to the next. Additionally, the music choices are a highlight. One minute, viewers hear horror-esque trills that shiver the spine, and the next minute, experimental sounds bring a momentary sense of peace.
If there is a downside to “Legion,” it resides in its inherent uncertainty. Although the show does a good job of explaining David’s past and his problems, it is hard to follow, understand and believe everything that the main character experiences. Nonetheless, that is the point of the show: to tell the story of a superhero from an unlikely perspective. Indeed, “Legion” does a great job at character development and storytelling. Given the pilot’s ending, the show promises to deliver strong content in the weeks to come.