Note: This post about Legion is spoiler-free!
I don’t know about you, but hearing the words “superhero [show/movie]” immediately lower my expectations towards that show or movie. It’s because most superhero things follow a specific formula that rarely ever go outside these boundaries. The plot unfolds in the same fashion, the characters are composed of tropes rather than human qualities, and in the end, the white, straight male hero saves the world from a giant light from space. This applies to both the grimdark, “serious” type that is just one line away from being a bad joke by themselves, as well as parodies of said type that just end up being the exact thing they make fun of (isn’t that right, Deadpool?)
And, hey, to an extent, that is not a bad thing. An origin story is an origin story; everyone starts from somewhere, struggles to the top, and ultimately makes it. That’s the bread and butter of a superhero story. The important thing isn’t that they’re a superhero, it’s that they’re becoming one. No one wants to start a show or movie where the hero is already a hero, we want to know the why, how and who. This, however, is bland, rehashed and repeated ad absurdum, to the point where even actors complain about the lost potential. So this leaves the question: what makes a superhero series or movie, well, different? One could point out that it’s all in the character, and bring MCTV into this. Marvel’s TV shows (except for The Iron Fist) are a beacon in the superhero genre: by using different (and unheard in media) voices, the narrative ultimately revolves around these perspectives. They’re interesting, and yes, they’re good. But let’s be clear here: they still conform to a tried-and-tested formula. These characters still start from somewhere, struggle, and make it. We’ve seen it all before, just not with this kind of character.
It’s for these reasons that FX’ Legion is a one-of-a-kind show; it doesn’t offer a new voice in the TV and movie superhero landscape, but offers a unique perspective on the origin story, rather than misdirect the viewer.
Legion is all about David Haller, a schizophrenic, mutant with psychic abilities, drug junkie. To be more precise, it’s about his mind, a labyrinth so twisted that not even he himself has full access to it. It’s not about struggling a way to the top as it is struggling all your life and then some. The word “hero” is implied in this show, a weight that hangs heavy on the people concerned with power, rather than David. Talks about an anti-mutant government only fit into the worldview once the narrative sees it fit — and even then, it feels like a joke compared to the terror in David’s mind. The show is so deeply ingrained in David’s mind that reality isn’t a tangible, grounded reality as it is another plane of existence.
This is what the first season is concerned about: making sense of this large inner world by continuously entering and re-entering and framing things into perspective. The tools it uses to achieve such narrative are largely due to the exploration of what’s unreal, and the convenient underdevelopment of tangible reality. This can be achieved by an unreliable narrator, and although Legion has an aim, third-person narrator, it’s still an account of David’s life. Nothing about the show feels real to the viewer, even when everything feels real to David.
You can already tell by the first episode that this is different. Before watching it, you think you know the setting, you think you know what will happen. You think you’ve seen all the superhero movies before, nothing can shock you at this point. You’re here for the predictable, anyway. But the structure of the episode proceeds in a quick, jarring fashion that serves both as an introduction and as a further evolution of the plot. You have to squint to check off the list from The Obligatory Superhero Tropes: the outcast who realizes they have a superpower, the organization trying to recruit him for a better good. There’s no eventually making it, the constant struggle for every party involved. And unlike most superhero series, Legion isn’t so concerned with the larger aspects of humanity as it is with making sense of their main character in the first place. And because of that, the entire narrative shifts. MCTV was, in a way, concerned with the environment around the characters. And even Mr. Robot, which strikes the most resemblance to Legion plot-wise, is concerned about the world. In Legion, David’s mindscape is the environment; it is the world people are concerned about, its power so big that no one can quite fathom its size.
It is for these reasons that Legion’s first season is more than your average superhero something. It won’t try to preach about humanity through its themes. Rather, it tries to make sense of a single mutant, by giving him — and by extension, its other characters — the depth of a human. In fact, it’s so removed from the bigger picture, that it’s because of it that it’s one of the most human superhero series. If this will ever change the superhero genre for the better is questionable. But that it’s one of the better superhero things to watch in recent years is undeniable.
Legion airs every Wednesday on FX.
Author: Elif Erdem
Editor: Han Angus
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.