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Can a Superhero Show Win an Emmy?

With ‘Legion,’ his ‘X-Men’ spinoff on FX, Noah Hawley is trying to find out, one visually arresting sequence at a time

(FX/Ringer illustration)
(FX/Ringer illustration)

Superhero origin stories have a few staples: idyllic childhoods, defining traumas, first signs of being something more than human. Psychedelic FX drama Legion fast-forwards through its protagonist’s early life in a 90-second montage. Infancy and suburbia curdle into a youth spent in doctor’s offices and juvenile delinquency. All the while, the Who’s “Happy Jack” plays, equal parts rollicking drums and eerie irony. The climax is a suicide attempt to make it all stop: a noose appears, and then it morphs into a single, sad candle. It’s birthday time in the mental hospital, and it’s stunning.

Legion is centered on a character pulled from the seemingly infinite pages of Marvel Comics, but it looks nothing like an X-Men movie — one of its two cinematographers, Dana Gonzales, has never even seen one. On any other X-adjacent project, that’d be a liability. On Legion, it’s an advantage. The show is creator Noah Hawley’s follow-up to Fargo, and though the two shows both fall under the rather broad umbrella of “unlikely adaptations,” Legion takes lesser-known and lower-brow source material and amplifies it with cable prestige. The show takes Legion, a bit player from the X-Men universe, surrounds him with allies and enemies of Hawley’s own invention, and strips him of all but the most basic element of his canonical backstory — he’s an extra-powerful mutant driven off the deep end by his own ability. “The character’s struggling with aspects of himself,” says comics writer Chris Claremont, who created him over 30 years ago. “That makes him … dangerous.”

(FX)
(FX)

Legion claims that superheroes are worthy of ingenuity and ambition; in doing so, it breaks with the way superheroes have previously been presented to us, starting with their aesthetic. The series is proof that comics and their characters can be more than ballast for multibillion-dollar battleships. They can launch smaller, nimbler, but still-epic vessels that channel individual vision over house style. Kinetic and introspective all at once, Hawley’s vision is likely to confuse and repel as many as it thrills and excites. That’s part of the plan. But the world of superpowered entertainment doesn’t brook much room for controversy.

“The idea was for it not to look like a comic book,” says production designer Michael Wylie. “For it to look odd and crazy and not make a lot of sense and not necessarily grounded in any kind of reality.” Legion is a trip into the mind of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a.k.a. Legion, an awesomely powerful telepath who’s spent his life convinced he has paranoid schizophrenia. He soon learns he’s a mutant with powers strong enough that they’ve permanently fractured his mind. The distinction between superpowered and mentally ill becomes moot. In the X-Men comics, where he was introduced by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz in 1985, David’s pathology manifested as something closer to multiple personality disorder. His power allowed him to subsume other people’s psyches into his own, hence the moniker: The character isn’t a single person so much as many people in a single body — a legion.

In Hawley’s version, David is one man trapped in a cacophonous mind. He hears voices, represented as a faceless horde screaming in his ear. He can’t tell what’s real from what’s imagined, and nearly every visual choice on the show is geared toward ensuring the viewer can’t either. “We wanted to make sure you were on your back foot the whole time visually,” Wylie explains. “Not just from the set but from the photography: Things go fuzzy; [the directors] layer images on top of other images. You see faces in mirrors and scary things flashing and bobbing. You never know whether it’s real or not.”

“Kubrick and Clockwork Orange were strong foundational concepts,” says cinematographer Dana Gonzales, who also works with Hawley on Fargo. (He spoke to me on the phone while on location for the Coen-inspired show’s third season, which is currently in production.) “We even had a 9.8 Kinoptik lens, which Kubrick shot a lot of Clockwork Orange with.” The Kubrick influence is obvious in the Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where most of the pilot takes place, and its space-mod interiors, though Gonzales offers a few other touchstones he and Hawley had in mind when planning the look of the show: Young Pope auteur Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, for its indulgent bombast, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, for its nonlinear beauty.

Legion’s pilot, written and directed by Hawley, is a 67-minute assault on the senses that drags viewers into David’s world. (Ringer podcast host Andy Greenwald is a coproducer on the show.) Just as we’ve had time to adjust to one reality (David is a patient at a mental hospital because he’s heard voices all his life), another one is suddenly superimposed (David is being interrogated by government agents, and everything we’ve seen is actually a flashback). The camera toggles between aspect ratios to match David’s mindset, going narrower when he feels boxed in by the nefarious forces pursuing him. We switch between timelines, and eventually travel between them. The following episodes (three have been provided to critics) don’t sustain the pilot’s frenzied pace, but they keep up its sense of nonstop disorientation. The premiere is deliberately alienating: If you can handle it, you’re in for the whole ride. If you can’t, you probably didn’t want to watch an elliptical not-quite-superhero show in the first place.

(FX)
(FX)

“The idea was to never know where you were, whether where you are is real or not. To never, ever put a time or place stamp on it,” Wylie explains. Legion’s out-of-time vibe draws out the uncanny. David’s sister, Amy (Katie Aselton), dresses like a ’60s housewife, with bright eyeshadow and an exaggerated bouffant; scenes where David and his best friend, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), lose themselves in a heroin-like drug have all the junkie-chic of a New York–in-the-’70s movie. There are almost no cars, because, as Wylie points out, cars are “the quickest way to timestamp an era.” I found myself searching for a smartphone, a newspaper, anything to anchor me, until I accepted that sense of rootlessness as part of the experience: “We’re meant to be in David’s head looking out at the world, and that world, because he may or may not be schizophrenic, changes every time he looks at the same thing,” Wylie elaborates.

The emphasis on mental illness over superheroism is especially apparent once David arrives at Melanie Bird’s (Jean Smart) modernist masterpiece of a refuge. Bird has plenty of parallels with Professor X — except she prefers “gift” to “power,” eschews “X-Men” or any unifying term like it, and continues to use the language of therapy even after she makes clear David isn’t technically sick: sessions at the compound are divided between “memory work,” where Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) helps his fellow mutants revisit their pasts, and “talk work,” where Bird helps them process what they find. This is the aspect of David’s story that caught Hawley’s attention, and he’s warped the X-Men universe to center it. That tight focus is rare in the world of superhumans, where the goal is more often to be all things to all people than one thing to some.

It’s a recipe for a show as polarizing as its influences. Beautiful or bloated, pretentious or profound — how you feel about those filmmakers’ excesses is how you’ll feel about Legion’s. (Legion’s portrayal of super-powered mental illness means it has plenty in common with shows like Homeland and Monk, too.) Either way, Legion certainly succeeds at its stated goal of jerking you out of the X-Men’s world and into its protagonist’s. “Noah never wanted to make this a comic-book-character show,” Gonzales says. “David Haller doesn’t have a special suit or anything. He just looks like a normal guy. We didn’t want to make another Daredevil. It was never really about that. It’s more about this powerful mutant who’s schizophrenic, mentally ill.”

As superhero IP has sprawled across media, it’s become known for its stylistic conformity; after all, one of the calling cards of corporate management is quality control. The capes-and-crime style vacillates between Technicolor brightness (Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, CW’s Arrowverse) and monotone darkness (Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, Netflix’s Marvel series). Even when the building blocks are tonally varied, they’re visually unexciting. Cohesion is paramount — the movie about the billionaire playboy looks like the movie about the Norse God looks like the movie about the Boy Scout, so they can be combined and rearranged with minimal friction. And as Michelle MacLaren, Ava DuVernay, Edgar Wright, and Rick Famuyiwa could tell you, superhero movies are not friendly to individual expression. All four directors signed onto tentpoles (or were rumored to) off buzz from relatively smaller projects, only to find that no one is exempt from micromanagement with billions on the line.

(FX)
(FX)

Legion is a radical exception. Given its premise, it almost has to be. Claremont himself was surprised when he found out a series was in the works: “It was not a step that I would have seen coming, especially given the more traditional superhero approach of both Fox and Marvel to the presentation of characters,” he says. “At least from a conceptual standpoint, [Legion is] a much more idiosyncratic, almost tragic character, as opposed to what we’re used to seeing in terms of, say, Spider-Man or Iron Man or Thor.” David Haller isn’t particularly friendly to the “teams and characters and cool costumes involved in superhero adventures” that Claremont notes dominate the current boom. Fortunately, that’s not what Hawley was interested in.

When the time came to venture onto the small screen, Fox — which controls the film and TV rights to X-Men and its associated characters — sought Hawley out and gave him carte blanche. “I didn’t want to know any other writer that was available,” studio emissary and Legion executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner told Vulture last month. “Noah said, ‘Can I just take a character and run with it?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

The aesthetic uniformity of comic-book movies and shows stems from the need to handle high-value IP with kid gloves, which translates into an imposed fidelity to the format and iconography that made these stories so valuable in the first place. The reasoning is simple: Don’t piss off the fans, and the fans will continue to show up. Legion is free from any such obligations. David Haller isn’t Wolverine — he’s obscure, and therefore expendable on big swings on the nonzero chance that they miss. The gambit functions as a small-screen parallel to Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s no coincidence that Marvel’s kookiest, most ’70s-soundtracked outings to date, Legion included, feature the MCU’s least-famous characters. Legion isn’t shouldering a burden beyond its own creative team’s admittedly sky-high ambitions and unfurls its freak flag accordingly.

Legion’s closest TV sibling, another show that featured recognizable characters, distinctive visuals, and lots of psychotherapy, is more interested in supervillains than in heroes. Hannibal, too, drew connections between mental illness and the psychic burden of exceptional ability. In serial killer Hannibal Lecter and ace FBI profiler Will Graham, the show spun known archetypes into a fantasia that was more Luis Buñuel than Jonathan Demme, just as Legion is more Paolo Sorrentino than Bryan Singer. Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller recognized that the universe was as much a blank canvas for his own vision as a delivery device for someone else’s, a mindset Hawley clearly shares. Fuller, however, had the benefit of six years’ space between his own moonshot and the not-especially-beloved Hannibal Rising (and more than 20 years’ worth from The Silence of the Lambs). Legion exists as an island in a still-roiling storm of CGI and explosions, making the case for idiosyncrasy even as a steady template continues to pay dividends. Fox is clearly on board; the question is when Marvel, DC, or even Sony will eventually follow suit. They, too, have archives with deep cuts ripe for the picking and filmmakers willing to work with them if only they’d have a longer leash.

Legion isn’t the only sign of life in the superhero universe — it’s merely the brightest. Just last week, Powerless premiered with a warped take on comic-book context. In less than a month, Fox will take its nonconformist streak to the big screen with Logan, which looks more like something Taylor Sheridan would dream up on a bender than a Wolverine movie. (The key difference with Legion being that Wolverine earned the right to go for broke only after four team efforts and two stand-alones.) We have more than a year until Black Panther’s release, but Ryan Coogler is the lone name director Marvel’s managed to keep around for the long haul. The film is already an improvement. But Legion is so out there, so deranged, so weird it establishes a lead any future forward-thinking superhero projects will strain to close.

“The way Noah is as a filmmaker and a creator, it’s not like he’s going out of his way to tell this story in a different way,” Gonzales says. “But he’s got some strong, individualistic concepts.” And by letting them rise to the surface, Fox is proving there’s room in the modern megafranchise for personal trademarks. Legion is an extreme example; studios will continue to pursue profit first and prestige as an afterthought. But movement even a few clicks in Legion’s kaleidoscopic, singular direction would be a welcome development. We’ll be exploring this vast, superpowered landscape for the foreseeable future, given that we’re far from plumbing its depths. We might as well turn it into a playground.