Take one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises. Combine it with one of the breakout auteurs of the Peak TV era. Drop it in the middle of a very crowded, yet largely undistinguished, field of competitors. “Legion,” the stylistically bold new X-Men spinoff from the “Fargo” showrunner, Noah Hawley, is designed to cause a sensation. Given the superhero genre’s odd combination of cultural omnipresence and cinematic anemia, it’s hard for it not to.
For all their reliance on feats of derring-do, superhero films and TV shows are, creatively speaking, a risk-averse lot. Since director Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” film inaugurated the genre’s pop-culture hegemony nearly 17 years ago, precious little variety in tone or technique has been permitted by the major spandex factories.
Marvel, home of The Avengers, relies on a house style that coasts on the charisma of its attractive casts but has all the visual and sonic flair of an ibuprofen commercial. Its rival, DC, switched from making sometimes dull movies for smart teenagers (Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to often dull movies for dumb ones (Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman films and the egregious “Suicide Squad”). On television, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and especially producer Greg Berlanti’s various DC properties have some zip, but no more genuine ambition than a syndicated ’90s action series. Marvel’s Netflix series are a step in the right direction. “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” take relative risks with their moody visual palettes and their pairings of strong leads with idiosyncratic enemies who function like coprotagonists.
So there’s some precedent for “Legion,” the new superhero-ish series tangentially tied to the X-Men franchise from the writer, director and showrunner Noah Hawley. But for its true antecedents you have to search further back in the superhero timeline, to Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s stylish and self-aware “Batman” series from the late ‘60s. Or you could simply look at Hawley’s previous act of televised alchemy: “Fargo,” an anthology series in which the Coen Brothers’ Midwestern-noir classic is used as a springboard for a bold, bloody, often beautiful homage to their entire oeuvre. Perhaps in a desire to transform Hawley into an auteur-impresario in the style of Ryan Murphy or Louis C.K., FX, their shared network, tapped him to guide their all-important first foray into pop culture’s most lucrative zone.
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In “Legion,” Hawley takes pages from his own “Fargo” playbook. The ostentatious use of classic rock on the soundtrack, scene and spatial transitions that call attention to themselves with graphic design or camera trickery, the sense (borrowed from the Coens) that reality is a sheet of thin ice that could crack and immerse you in the chaos beneath at any moment. It’s as fearless a creative statement as the genre has seen since Tim Burton’s original “Batman” movie in 1989. Whether it’s successful is yet to be decided.
Based on the titular comic-book character created by writer Chris Claremont (the architect of many of the X-Men’s most memorable story lines during his long tenure on the title) and the expressionistic artist Bill Sienkiewicz, “Legion” follows the enormously powerful and unstable David Haller. Played by Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), Haller is secretly a mutant. But when we meet the character, this aspect of his identity is a secret even to him. Yes, he’s aware that strange psychic phenomena seem to haunt him in times of stress, from disembodied voices to “Poltergeist”-style flying household objects. But a lifetime of psychiatric evaluation, medication and, finally, institutionalization have convinced him that “crazy” and “crazy, but with caveats” is a distinction without a difference.
|Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller in “Legion.” Credit Michelle Faye/FX|
The government, however, knows better. Through the course of a story structure that unfolds like an origami flower, we slowly piece together that David has been captured following a horrendous incident at Clockworks (as in “Orange”) Psychiatric Hospital. While held there, Haller has been able to make both progress and friends, from the wisecracking “Girl, Interrupted” cosplay character, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), to the psychiatrist Dr. Kissinger (as in Henry) to his girlfriend Syd Barrett (as in Pink Floyd), who has haphephobia, a fear of being touched.
Syd is played by the “Fargo” Season 2 standout Rachel Keller, and David’s puppy-love attraction to her — he initiates the relationship by asking, “Do you wanna be my girlfriend?,” — inspires many of the premiere’s most magical, and musical, moments. Their initial flush of love gets no less a soundtrack than the Rolling Stone’s marvelously sappy psychedelic ballad “She’s a Rainbow,” and he later hallucinates an entire French-sophistipop dance routine with her in the episode’s big showstopper sequence.
Which is no small risk where superhero audiences are concerned. Tobey Maguire’s Evil Peter Parker disco routine was easily the craziest and funniest thing in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, but to this day fans talk about it as if they were personally betrayed. Moves like this, or like opening the episode with a coming-of-age montage set to the Who’s post-mod masterpiece “Happy Jack” like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, demonstrate Hawley’s willingness to attempt actual wit, rather than self-seriousness or rip-roarin,’ old-fashioned fun, the genre’s two acceptable poles at the moment.
But this is a show about a crazed psychic with godlike powers, so of course the telekinesis hits the fan eventually. The episode is punctuated by three escape sequences that offer mainline doses of C.G.I.-enhanced mutant mayhem. When David finally touches Syd, her own power to swap minds with people who make physical contact with her kicks in; David finds himself in her body (he grabs his newfound breasts in disbelief), while she finds herself in his and unleashes his full power by accident, killing Lenny and sealing all of the other inmates behind the walls of their rooms.
After David is captured, he bursts free of his initial interrogation by sending every person and object in the room flying in slow-motion to the tune of Jane’s Addiction’s alt-rock anthem “Up the Beach” in a scene that plays like a riff on the climax of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.” And when knockout gas and electric wires give his captors the upper hand once again, a team of other mutants — including Syd, long since back in her own body — wipe out the government goons in a protracted gun-and-superpower battle that litters a swimming pool with charred corpses and tosses soldiers into the sky through sheer psychic strength.
Hawley’s attention to detail throughout the episode is impeccable. He and his collaborators make design choices that delight and discomfit effortlessly: the rectangular indentations in the table at which David and his interrogator are ensconced, pink accents in the uniforms of his sinister handlers, a prominent goon whose throwback perm and wardrobe make him look like he should be breaking legs for Bob Hoskins in “The Long Good Friday.” Amid the camp and the chaos, Hawley introduces a note of truly frightening horror, too, in the form of the hairless and corpulent “devil with yellow eyes,” who occasionally pops up on the periphery, as mute and menacing as a David Lynch demon.
The same praise cannot be leveled at the script. Ultimately, it’s tough to blame Hawley for not taking the mental-illness angle particularly seriously. Why should he, when we all know David really is hearing voices and really can make objects move with a thought? But the result is one of those unbearable “quirky mental hospital” scenarios, an odiously cutesy aesthetic made worse by the glib slacker sarcasm of Plaza’s manic witchy nightmare girl, Lenny, and Stevens’s unconvincingly twitchy handling of the conflicting signals in David’s brain.
There’s something equally flimsy and phony about the final scene. Shot in a long, continuous tracking-shot take, it appears intended to evoke similar knockout scenes, from the shootout in “True Detective” Season 1 to the seemingly endless one-take blood baths of “Children of Men.” But with each soldier who goes flying hundreds of feet through the air when a character waves a hand at him, the digital enhancement gets more obvious and the feat grows less impressive. For all its visual splendor and its “pull out all the stops” approach to thrills, it’s too airy to feel like a real technical achievement, and insufficiently involving to feel like an emotional one. So far, the same can be said of “Legion” itself.