Battling a Complacent Marvel Machine, Legion Championed Brave, Bold Superhero TV

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Battling a Complacent Marvel Machine, <i>Legion</i> Championed Brave, Bold Superhero TV

Superhero fatigue is upon us. After over a decade of big budget successes, it feels like every new show and movie has some comic book roots. And now it’s not just the mainstream heroes getting new incarnations, shows like Invincible and The Boys have introduced a new field of superhero media that comments on its own existence. The big players are getting in on it too, with Disney+’s upcoming Moon Knight already claiming to be darker than any previous Marvel work. Every superhero property claims to be a different take, something special to set it apart. But only one had the guts to solve their problems with a rap battle.

Legion is a weird show. The Noah Hawley FX series originally marketed itself as an X-men adaptation of the Marvel character Legion, Professor X’s son plagued by multiple personalities with different superpowers. But the show’s comic book ties were only a prompt for its existence, not its entire purpose. Legion is actually one of the most ambitious series ever made, a science fiction show about reality, time, and the nature of humanity itself that needs to be seen to be believed.

If Legion could be compared to anything, Twin Peaks might be its closest companion. But even that is a tenuous connection. Legion is an abstract horror show, a psychedelic journey, a celebration of the hippie and midcentury-imagined futures of the 1960s. Legion treats storytelling like a ball of yarn and knits its own identity.

The series only lasted three seasons and suffered from diminishing interest after its first. It’s not surprising, audiences probably expected a fun superhero show and instead they got…Legion. It’s hard to sit down for an X-men show and get recurring monologues by Jon Hamm explaining existential thought experiments during a series that disregards linear narratives. But Legion never cared about keeping those viewers, Legion was for people who wanted to watch Legion.

Upon rewatches, I’m in awe that Legion even made it to air. It reportedly cost $4 million per episode for a show averaging about 350k viewers in its third season. Since Legion is about breaking reality, the show had to look unlike anything else. Through its astral plane, Legion could travel anywhere, from the deserts of Morocco to a packed techno club for a life-or-death dance battle. (I just need to constantly reiterate that major conflicts are solved through rap and dance battles).

Legion’s superhero core is grounded in the character of David (Dan Stevens), a very troubled boy who goes on to become the most powerful (and evil) mutant in the universe. Through the course of the series David transitions from someone just learning how to use their powers to becoming a literal god who wants to destroy reality. He’s a deconstruction of what someone with superpowers could actually become if they were broken enough: an undefeatable monster. We start Legion thinking David is our hero, but he gradually becomes our villain.

Legion also invites interpretation. The show is riddled with metaphors and symbolism in a way where each person might come away with a different idea of what it’s all even about. My personal interpretation is that Legion is about change—whether it’s possible and whether it’s even worth it. Time and space are fickle, who we are and the moments we cherish are the only things that matter. Every episode forces you to pay attention to try to see between the cracks of Legion’s insanity. It never wanted viewers to get comfortable or complacent with what it wanted to say.

And that’s what’s missing from recent superhero and comic book adaptations: bravery.

Any fan of Legion can tell you that Legion didn’t always work. The show had big aspirations and not every idea was executed well. Season 2’s abstractness was compelling, but often left viewers too much in the dark. David’s ultimate villainous act in the Season 2 finale was too real of a violation, and Hawley and Co. struggled to keep up Legion’s zany energy in the wake of such a visceral and concrete crime. Further, Rachel Keller’s Syd was a fascinating character who didn’t always get her due. Big plotlines could end in underwhelming ways just in service of introducing a new big idea.

But for every missed swing there was something you had never seen before. Legion’s episode exploring grief remains one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. The visits to the astral plane left me with my jaw on the floor in terms of pure technical artistry and imagination. Aubrey Plaza as Lenny is one of the most creative and exciting characters ever put to screen. Legion had me closing my eyes and grinning ear to ear. It inspired new fears (that teeth chattering disease still gives me shivers) but also made me think about the possibilities of how to tell a story in a way no other series ever prompted.

Legion also set a high bar for the possibilities in an audio-visual medium. It looks gorgeous in a way that makes you realize “why do so many shows look the same?” Jeff Russo’s score is incredibly well crafted, complete with both original pieces and some truly inspired covers, featuring vocals from Noah Hawley himself (his cover of Superman by R.E.M is a frequent replay years after its release).

So if Legion can be so bold, why can’t anyone else? Self-awareness isn’t enough to make a superhero property interesting anymore. Insane, creative risks are the only things that can break superhero fatigue. Legion was never ashamed of being a superhero property, it wanted to say something new with the material it adapted.

People have begun to associate superhero media with something comfortable, and that’s a tragedy. Legion proves that there is still unexplored ground on television, and yet we get more of the same. Even shows like Wandavision and Loki that claimed to be new forays into genre for the MCU always ended up bogged down by their connected universe obligations. The superhero is just another incarnation of the great Hero, and the only limitation should be an artist’s imagination. Instead, the limitation is on timid studios.

It looks like superhero media is here to stay. Audiences still love it, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still interested in every new DC and Marvel offering. But watching Legion feels like seeing a glimpse of what’s possible in a medium that has become comfortable with complacency. I want to see more than just competency and studio-approved cliffhangers. I want to see something that makes me excited about TV and film as a medium. I want to see insanity, even if it doesn’t work. I want to see rap battles.

“Nothing of value is ever lost,” says a character in the series finale of Legion. With that line, Legion made its peace with its messy existence. I may not always look fondly on every part of the show, but that line continues to follow me. Legion made me feel like I was part of an experience that will stay with me forever. There are many superhero movies and shows I like, but none that have carried the same impact Legion could have in one line in one okay episode.

We need higher standards for the genre we’ve accepted as core to our current entertainment landscape. Legion should not be an outlier. It’s depressing that five years after it aired, nothing even a fraction as bold has materialized. The superhero genre is only dead if we accept it as one boring thing. Legion believed that some things can be changed, and some are broken forever, but what we accept as quality for superhero media is still malleable. I have to believe that, because Legion made me crave something more.

Legion is available to stream on Hulu and Disney+.

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila

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