There are so many reasons why fans are buzzing over “Legion,” the new FX show inspired by Marvel’s “The X-Men.” Heading into the premiere on February 8, FX producers might have been cautiously optimistic about the show, which tells the story of mental illness as much as it does the story of a classic superhero. But the viewer and critical response to “Legion” has been off the charts, for several good reasons.
The main character of “Legion” is David Haller (played by Dan Stevens), who was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child, and now finds himself institutionalized as a young man in his early 30’s. He keeps having troubling visions and dreams – something that the FX illuminates with visually stunning scenes. The show, in effect, shows us what it must be like to live with mental illness.
And David Haller (aka Legion) suffers from a special form of mental illness known as dissociative identity disorder. Each disorder corresponds to a different mental ability. In the show, we learn that he has both telekinetic and telepathic abilities. And the most disturbing of those powers is the ability to re-arrange objects solely with his mind.
FX does not shy away from depicting some particularly graphic scenes that hint at the mental trauma that Legion must be experiencing. There are scenes of whirling knives, Nazi puppets, and strange masks. Legion thinks he sees characters, but is never sure if they are real or not.
By spending so much time on creating the visual vocabulary of mental illness, FX is going a long way towards helping to break down the current stigma surrounding mental illness. In fact, we are shown that what might be an “illness” is really a “superpower.” In other words, the very people that we are institutionalizing and treating as damaged might be the very people who have powers beyond the reach of most humans. And FX does this in the beginning without mentioning the word “mutant” or “X-Men,” and that’s what immediately humanizes this series.
As you can see immediately, this is a new type of superhero origin movie. In the original Marvel Comics, Legion was the mutant son of Prall the clichés are certainly there – the stylized scenes of asylum life, the doctors’ hushed dialogues about mental illness, and the appearance of other troubled individuals within the psych ward.
In short, we see Legion as an anti-hero more than a superhero. This is very different from other Marvel comics, where superheroes possess characteristics and powers that are largely superhuman and physical in nature – the ability to fly, or to run very fast, or to perform incredible feats of strength. In this FX show, we are not even sure whether certain traits are real powers or not.
And we experience all the dizzying features of Legion’s world. As viewers, we are constantly asking questions like, “Which of Legion’s friends are real?” “What can Legion do – or not do with his mind?” “How do his powers really work?”
These are the types of questions that make for great water cooler conversations at the office. They are what make FX’s viewers dive into online chat rooms to get the answers about this fringe “X-Men” character. And, ultimately, they are what help to build word-of-mouth buzz for this show.
In its review of “Legion,” The New Yorker referred to the show as an “absorbing nightmare.” And that’s exactly what this show is – a nightmare that you can’t escape from. You are tormented to find out more – and then to reassure yourself that this is not really happening.
Along the way, fans are buzzing over “Legion” for different reasons. Some see the reaction of society to “mutants” such as Legion as a metaphor for totalitarianism. Others see it as a version of racism or homophobia. It is clear that “Legion” has tapped into something very profound here, forcing viewers to challenge the world around them. The show is more than just a show – it is a statement on society.
And the show is so haunting at times, so psychedelic at others, that reviewers have scrambled to come up with an appropriate description of the show. Some have likened it to the TV show “Breaking Bad.” Others have referenced David Lynch and “Twin Peaks.” Still others have dug deeper into the American canon, searching for inspiration from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and “Alice in Wonderland.”
Part of the real enjoyment of watching “Legion” is trying to make sense of all the people coming into and out of Legion’s life. At times, we are not sure if they are real, or just figments of his imagination. And, we do not know if these characters are connected to Legion’s destiny or not. One good example is the troubled new patient Syd Barrett (played by Rachel Keller) – she is someone that Legion seems to bond with almost immediately.
And then there is the dichotomy of the two very different types of mental institutions. There is the sterile, faintly creepy psych ward filled with doctors who may actually be looking for ways to imprison or harm Legion. And then there is the wooded, almost idyllic, asylum of Dr. Melanie Bird (played by Jean Smart). She is trying to help patients like Legion acclimate to their powers. In many ways, the first thing that pops into our minds is Dr. Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters.
And that’s ultimately what makes “Legion” so compelling. Watching the show, we realize that there is, indeed, a very thin line between sanity and madness. We can choose to view certain mental conditions as an illness or as a power. And, often, the only thing that matters is the context. That’s certainly thought-provoking, and a key reason why fans are buzzing over “Legion.”