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The massive surge in popularity that superheroes have experienced over the past 10 years can be accredited to Marvel and their innovative Cinematic Universe. There’s a consistent demand for more stories in their world and the comic book company have delivered wherever they can. The network television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been running since 2013 and the Netflix series have been delivering grittier, more adult shows in the MCU for those who want them (although the best series are not as consistent as they could be). There’s something for everyone in the MCU with the upcoming show Cloak and Dagger offering a teen drama, the Netflix series telling more mature stories and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. matching the lighter nature of DC’s ‘Arrowverse’ storylines.
At the beginning of this co-operation between TV and Cinema, viewers were excited to see more and more interplay between these intellectual properties other than the occasional cameo, name drop or reference. The first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. executed this concept well, with the ramifications of Captain America: The Winter Soldier drastically shaking the whole premise of the show and providing a shocking mid-season twist. Soon after, the arrival of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix continued to capture imaginations with the possibility that the title character could join The Avengers or make a big screen appearance somewhere else. However, since then fans began to understand the realities of production companies and patchy show quality meant that these initial expectations were unrealistic. The interaction between film and TV had a top-down nature and the hierarchy meant the films always came first and the small screen was never to influence the big.
But what if a Marvel series ignored the Cinematic Universe entirely?
2017 was a great year for writer and producer Noah Hawley. With the return of the Fargo TV series in its third season, the welcome announcement that he was working on a standalone adaptation of Doctor Doom for the big screen and the reassurance that his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’ was still in the works, he’s been rapidly consolidating his position as one of 21st Century Fox’s best creative partners. This is all before mentioning his newest TV series Legion, premiering last February, being hailed as the most beautiful, engrossing and creative superhero story to watch right now.
The show is in a unique position as a co-production between both FX and Marvel set in a pseudo-universe of mixed intellectual property rights. Therefore, the opportunity for X-Men characters to pop up occasionally is enticing and it could potentially be revealed as part of the MCU but these are in no way something the series focuses on or wants to market its identity around.
Legion was one of my favourite new shows of 2017 and is a good contender for my favourite series overall. In a genre with demands for holistic universes being met with fragmented executions, Legion doesn’t try to position itself in a larger world (apart from the rare reference to the title character’s familial origins) forging its own unique identity and style independent from its siblings in the Marvel and Fox superhero worlds.
The first season introduced us to the world and mind of David Haller, a schizophrenic young man with potential to be the most powerful mutant ever known with reality altering abilities. The show prides itself on a strong focus on mental illness and its impact on David. The protagonist’s perspective amplifies the unreliable narrator trope into the extreme, with the story itself playing around with time, space and character representation. Tackling an issue such as mental illness is the show’s own twist on the commentary on social issues deeply embedded within the X-Men mythos.
David’s perception of the world bleeds into every aspect of production beyond the script into design, stunning visuals, editing and music. The sets deliberately aim for a ‘retro-futurist’ look incorporating retro art movements into modern day technologies and reoccurring shapes tease the audience about a higher meaning. You can watch the whole series assuming a 1960s setting until a character mentions e-mail and it intentionally throws you off. The visuals flow into each other throughout each episode knowing when exactly to be abrasive or soft to the eyes, using this toolkit to its full potential when showing ethereal, romantic moments or lush, psychedelic fever dreams.
The score, provided by Fargo composer Jeff Russo, shifts between heroic string melodies you might find in a superhero blockbuster to frantic, vintage synthesizer beeps to convey David’s sense of suspicion and mania towards the world around him. Hawley’s own musical choices are used brilliantly too, with some sequences being quite obviously written with a song in mind. A carefree attitude towards music is evident by the range of artists used: Radiohead, The Rolling Stones and even an unhinged rendition of Bolero demonstrate the freedom Legion has when nailing the tone of the moment perfectly with a rebellious disregard for sonic consistency.
If the past few paragraphs are anything to go by, this is the artiest superhero show on TV right now. With a shorter season length than usual for the genre at 8 episodes, the first series knows what it wants to accomplish and doesn’t suffer from poor pacing – one of the big criticisms of other series in Marvel’s TV output. Legion is a show that’s saying a big “f*ck you!” to the established recipe of a good superhero story and is unafraid to occasionally throw in the tangent of a Bollywood style dance sequence to Serge Gainsbourg (the scene that sold me on the series) and it fully well knows what it is and wants to be, unlike it’s protagonist.
Although the show can get away with these unashamedly arty departures, it’s refusal to compromise to what the mainstream audience wants can be alienating to many viewers which might explain its relatively poor viewing figures for a Marvel property. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of this going away with Hawley remaining at the helm and the third season of Fargo being the most artistically bold and divisive to date. The standalone nature of Legion, whilst respectable, gives viewers less of an incentive to tune in if it’s not tying into ‘the bigger story’.
A personal criticism of Legion is that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the representation of mental illness on the show. Whilst it by no means treats it negatively, I almost feel as though the representation of David’s issues in its beautiful, psychedelic form almost romanticises them, which creates potential for misinterpreted empathy for those with mental illness issues and trivialising the point it’s trying to make. However, I can’t speak for others and have read much praise for how mental illness is portrayed, so until I hear otherwise I’ll continue to respect and enjoy how the show tackles this topic.
With the announcement that it had been renewed for a second season near the late end of the first’s original run, I was excited to see how much further down this rabbit hole Hawley could take us. I made Legion Season 2 an exception to my strict ‘No trailers. No previews.’ rule which is a testament to my excitement and the stellar job of the show’s publicity. If promotion can be art, Legion’s social media and promotional content should be lauded for conveying the themes and enticing audiences so succinctly with promos using trippy videos, optical illusion posters and beautifully shot photos which trick the brain.
Avoiding major spoilers, the second season returns where the last left off and is a reassuringly grand return for the show. With an unsure amount of time passing between now and the first season finale we are reintroduced back to David’s world and the impact the preceding events have had. A reoccurring talk point from the producers in press interviews was how the first season dealt with the unstable protagonist finding his feet in a normal world and how the reverse is true for the second season – a normal man finding his place in a world gone mad. Dan Stevens returns to form as the scruffy haired, mischievous yet innocently childlike David playing off the supporting cast and highlighting the slight tonal shift.
This is illustrated well straight off the bat, as something seems slightly askew with the returning cast from last season. As of yet, the most significant addition to the cast is that of basket-masked Admiral Fukuyama and The Vermilions – his three androgynous mouthpieces – a creepily strong visual which only this show can get away with.
The first hour of this season twists and turns like a cerebral rollercoaster, shifting from educating the viewer about what they’ve missed in the interim to exciting them with what this season’s proposition is moving forward. Be warned though, this is not a good entry point for new viewers and the show is quite clearly meant to be enjoyed as one whole story from the very beginning.
Again, in this episode tangents are made which are earned and hold some value to developing the plot instead of just being artistic gimmicks, with my highlight being a stunning ‘fight’ scene near the end of the episode. Finally, to wrap it all up, an incredible sequence makes the viewer question the reality of the past 55 minutes. Legion’s ‘Chapter 9’ returns us to one of the most unique realities on TV right now in a way no other show can, leaving fans wanting more and buzzing for the next 9 episodes. This is the same old Legion…whatever the hell that actually is.
A lot of promise was shown in this chapter and I can’t wait to see what else the show has in store for us. Hopefully a longer run of episodes this year can give more time for people to jump on the Legion bandwagon and for it to strengthen the cult following it rightfully deserves. One major concern is the show not making it to a third season as I want to see how far Noah Hawley can take David’s story and continue to melt my brain whilst doing so. Seeing as how FX seem to focus more on the critical reception and quality of their shows compared to other US networks, I have a strong hope that they’ll decide to continue nurturing one of the best superhero shows on TV right now with the potential to continually and consistently deliver a unique tale unlike anything else in the superhero genre.