Legion: “Chapter 1” Series Premiere Review

Photo Credit:http://www.comingsoon.net/tv/features/811657-legion-chapter-1-recap#/slide/1

It’s cliche to say, but the series premiere for Legion kind of has it all. Trippy visuals, flawless direction, characters easy to like, a gorgeous style, contemplative emotional beats, insane superhero action, and a sense of humor. Hype for Legion was pretty high. With Fargo‘s brilliant Noah Hawley tackling the X-Men’s first foray into television, on FX no less, expectations were already through the roof. Yet, to my amazement, as the premiere gets going, there’s just this sense of confidence and thoughtfulness emanating from the pilot. The more complicated and intense the episode gets, the more you realize you’ve already started to care for David (Dan Stevens). You feel sadness for his solidarity. You feel excitement at the prospect of him exploring his capabilities. It’s incredibly rare for a pilot to lose the feeling of simply being a pilot and investing you in the moments happening on the show right then rather than the ones that could happen later. Legion does both in this expectation-shattering masterpiece of a premiere.

Hawley writes and directs the episode, giving it a signature auteur touch that will feel familiar to Fargo fans (which should be everybody at this point). After a dazzling, distressing opening montage chronicling David’s maturation from infancy to adulthood, where he currently resides in a mental hospital, Legion smartly refuses to settle. David’s world is aggressively confusing, sometimes sporting a ’60s color palette and sometimes going sleeker and shinier to portray the present. Our main character doesn’t even seem to know when he’s alive

But when Syd (Rachel Keller) enters the hospital, he knows it’s love at first sight. He may not know entirely what’s going on, and fear a truly terrifying “devil with yellow eyes” that looms over the premiere, but Syd seems to make things better, even if she won’t let David touch her. For a while, Legion lets the characters play in their mental hospital fantasy, with character quirks that would be normal in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest circling back later with greater meaning. It’s only as flashes of an interrogation of David start to become more prominent that the premiere starts to tell its story. But by taking time to develop David’s world as he sees it, we see our own routines and emotions inside of his slightly off-center ones. And as we learn he’s wrong about his world, and himself, we pity him and yearn for that discovery. For a character so distant and out there, Hawley ensures that we connect with him right from the get go. This success is pivotal to the rest of the premiere’s many successes, more than justifying its extended runtime.

As David’s interrogation, which appears to take place shortly after he meets Syd, continues, the show’s plot begins to form. The interrogator references Syd’s death, and for a while, he gently presses David for any and all information he has on how she died. It’s here, when David asks for a break, that the word “mutant” is first uttered in Legion. The interrogator references that David may be one of the most powerful mutants alive, but that he also isn’t fully aware that he’s a mutant, as his mental illness fogs up his reality. Knowing Hawley’s commitment to truly telling an X-Men story is crucial early on. To do so, he doesn’t need Wolverine or Mystique (though Xavier is David’s father in the comics), just an acknowledgement of the world and a tone that fits in it. Again, Hawley masterfully succeeds.

At this point, through some interjected flashbacks, we see a few displays of David’s power. We see every item in a kitchen swirl around him as his mental capacity reaches its limit. We see a hallway with all the doors horrifyingly removed, with everyone in the mental institution trapped in the walls. Hawley’s direction in these moments is quiet, either stylistically showing us something impossible to help us wrestle with David’s persona or taking us through a dark moment of horrific imagination. But David isn’t alone in this power, which is where the themes of the political X-Men comics rings true. Syd has the power to switch bodies with any person she makes skin-to-skin contact with. It’s the classic powerful but inconvenient ability that classic characters like Rogue and Cyclops originated, done in a way that perfectly fits into David’s utter confusion and growing paranoia.

Of course, Syd isn’t dead. It’s a bit unclear how she makes contact with David mentally, but she does, and we know help is on the way. As his interrogator all but turns into a mutant-fearing villain, light suddenly shimmer above David, and Syd and several others break into where he’s being held. For the climax of the premiere, we get a single-shot action sequence as a band of mutants break one of their own out of harm’s way. The special effects could use some work, but we learn that Syd is pretty nifty at combat, while one of her cohorts tosses rocks at armed guard with his mind. It’s awesome, and so perfectly X-Men down to the final shot of the premiere, as a new face, one of hope, extends a hand and offers what seems like genuine help to David. This figure is Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), a character clearly destined for a big future on Legion, practically embodying the role of Xavier here. Ending on this moment of two souls connecting, one of them virtually lost (David has to pause to ask Syd if any of this is even real just prior) is as perfect a statement as the first live-action X-Men series could ever make. That we understand David’s plight and beg him to take her hand after this tense battle for his life is what sends Legion over into masterpiece territory. It’s a highly emotional moment for this character, who we somehow just met. For Hawley, it’s a moment of triumph. Superhero TV just got a fresh coat of paint, not one that just feels right, but one that excites you to live in the space. Grade: A

Some Other Notes:

  • How about the art direction? All the sets were gorgeous and moody. The cinematography was on-point too, jumping from topsy-turvy movements to tense POV shots.
  • Aubrey Plaza is said to be a series regular, even after being killed in this episode. We get a glimpse at what her role could look like when she shows up in David’s sister’s basement, but I’m interested to see how this character is handled here on out, especially considering Plaza’s delightful performance.
  • There was a new episode of Arrow tonight before the Legion premiere. In light of this premiere, do superhero shows like what DC is doing on the CW still have a place? Hell, Legion already has more potential than Netflix’s Marvel shows (save for Jessica Jones).
  • I also just have to say, the X-Men franchise on-screen has more often than not been a pioneer for innovation in this genre. The original X-Men started this whole superhero craze, while it’s sequel featured an obvious LGBT allegory in a mainstream summer blockbuster. Then there’s First Class, which bent history to its will; the noirish The Wolverine; and Days of Future Past, a reboot that was actually worked into the story. Oh, and Deadpool. Now, with Legion and the very promising Logan coming out just a month apart, we’re being reminded again that superhero advancement on the big screen, and now the small on too, is with these merry mutants first. The Disney side of Marvel could learn a thing or two.

By Matt Dougherty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *