Zack Snyder probably didn’t consciously rip off David Fincher’s Fight Club palette for his grim and gritty idio-epic Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice but there is some potency in that superhero work having the same asylum aesthetic as one of film’s most durable dissociative personality tales. What is Batman if not Bruce Wayne’s own personal Tyler Durden? Applying the sterile yet sickly colors of the hospital world to superheroics could be smart commentary in the right hands, but what’s perhaps even more impressive is when someone pulls off the opposite, as Noah Hawley has done in his new FX series Legion.
Featuring set and color design that fits as naturally into Silver Age Marvel Comics as it does the film language of Wes Anderson, Legion is a scattered but immensely fascinating experiment in dissociative narrative, focusing on a man who may be schizophrenic or a gifted mutant or both. Through the perspective of David Haller (Dan Stevens), the world of Legion is displaced and mercurial, seemingly ’70s set in certain moments, like anytime we’re in Clockworks’ orange hospital corridors or on location at the brutalist UBC in Vancouver, then mysteriously modern in the ’80s influenced interrogation sequences. Few shows are as visually splendid yet utterly indecipherable as Legion is in its pilot, making it one of the few comics adaptations that nails the look of the comics medium while also nailing the gloriously convoluted plotting of superhero comics, particularly the X-Men titles that Legion is adapted from.
Hawley’s intent with Legion is to keep the viewer as confused and frustrated as its protagonist, forcing you to question the reliability of not just the protagonist’s viewpoint but also the reliability of the show’s reality at large. Strong performances by Rachel Keller as “Syd” Barret (named for psych music’s first legend as unreliable narrator) and Aubrey Plaza as Lenny, both (seemingly) fellow patients with Haller at Clockworks, help make that shifting reliability entertaining and enthralling, but the real star is Hawley’s strong visual sense. The surreality of season two of Fargo is front and center here, both in the areas you’d expect for a show about someone who has been told they are a paranoid schizophrenic (shadowy hallucinations, whispery crowds, intense dreams) and in less expected ways (a Bollywood dance sequence, a climactic and horrifying use of Haller’s powers). But the show never feels desperately flashy, it has a visual consistency and clarity that marks it as the work of disciplined team with incredible chemistry.
Though the show has ample dark moments and intensity, it also stands out as far more fun than the visually bleak and brutally serious superhero realm the Snyders of the world operate in. Indeed, if Legion has a television peer outside of Fargo, it’s Stranger Things, both because of its emphasis on mental abilities and its use of ’80s sci-fi and horror tropes and imagery. Legion even works in what appear to be a number of nods to Stranger Things, from the red filter that gets used heavily in the climactic incident at Clockworks to the mysterious government organizations that have an interest in Haller; there’s even a S U R V I V E esque section of the score and a scene involving a stack of Eggo waffles. But Legion is notably not a nostalgia generator; it has an awareness of sci-fi auteurs like Cronenberg and Scott and Cameron but it never outright pillages their iconography, nor does it have an interest in winking and nodding at their works. You can see that in the show’s pop culture artifacts, where instead of a The Thing poster or a Dungeons & Dragons motif you just get a book on Haller’s end table that simply says “Robots” and the only game that’s ever played is ping pong.
With Legion, Hawley has created something more uniquely his than even Fargo has been. The show briefly mentions mutants and by the end you encounter a few more of Haller’s peers, but they don’t wear costumes (yet) and there doesn’t seem to be much world domination on anyone’s minds, merely survival. There are connections to the art of Legion co-creator Bill Sienkiewicz in the hallucinations and fashions Haller and company have, but none of that legend’s scratchy aesthetic or moody coloring; Hawley mostly seems to use the otherness of the X-Men and flat coloring of the era they originally came from as springboards for his vision of crumbling reality and unrealiable perspectives.
That means the real question to ask about Legion right now is how long it can maintain this precarious balance of shifty yet intriguing perspectives and jarring, intense twists. By the end of the pilot, we’ve gotten a glimpse at a larger world that Haller falls into, and some of the divisions and rivalries within it, but it’s unclear how real any of that is. It’s hard to shake the feeling that some kind of Brazil or 12 Monkeys style Gilliam twist is on the horizon, complete with a depressing happy ending fake out. Hawley has proven his ability to balance a number of rival perspectives on Fargo, but both seasons of that show, weird as they could be, never moved as far away from narrative coherence as Legion does immediately. But even if Hawley can’t stick the landing, Legion promises to be an invigorating ride that opens up the possibilities of serialized storytelling in ways his previous efforts couldn’t.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover