‘Legion’: A Superhero Series that Rejects the Basic Tenets of the Genre

Where do my mind stop and yours begin, dear reader? By reading what I wrote, aren’t you subject to the powerful psychic powers of this author? Isn’t your mind welcoming thoughts from an outside entity, mediated through the mutant capacities of my editor? These are the kind of questions one can expect in the age of hyper subjectivity, of retreat into the self, of the crumbling common reality. The desire, however, to burst into the mind of others has seldom been taken quite as literally as in  Legion, the FX series that finally ended this August.

The show is nominally part of the X-Men Universe, although it has been spared annexation by any established cinematic universe.  Despite being released under the umbrella of Marvel Television, Legion shares more commonalities with Fargo (the TV reboot of the Coen Brothers’ movie) than Agents of Shield. Beyond being produced by FX, both series have been penned by political-scientist-turned-author Noah Hawley, a man who seems to have mastered the art of TV adaptation. Take single figures from an existing universe, strip them of any stereotypical charter trait, unearth their humanity and throw them back into the source material’s genre: in this case, a superhero epic. This approach certainly plays to Hawley’s strengths as an author; readers of his novels will recognize the poignant portrayal of human flaws, without the justified but prosaic social commentary that irked many in Before the Fall.

legion-dan-stevens.jpg
Aubrey Plaza and Dan Stevens (Source: Vanity Fair)

Not that the series lacks a “voice of God”, intervening with instructive educational videos on delusion and lessons in time travel. What would be utterly out of place in more shows concerned with the suspension of disbelief is worn with pride by Legion, whose script happily revels in weirdness and paranoid confusion.

The plot revolves around David Haller, a psychic mutant with incredible reality-bending powers, who happens to be affected by schizophrenia. The voices crowding his head (the eponymous Legion) are also joined by Farouk, “the Shadow King”, an ancient psychic literally living inside David’s head since childhood. After being sent to a mental hospital, David meets Sydney, another mutant with the power to swap bodies with whoever she touches. After falling in love, they’re caught in a three-way-conflict between Farouk, the shady mutant-control agency Division 3, and a commune of mutants headed by the widow of a man who lives in an ice cube on the astral plane. And that’s not even the most bizarre bio, trust me.

In many ways, Legion is a superhero series poised to reject all the basic tenents of the genre. It follows the Twin Peaks orthodoxy of taking chaos and surreal comedy absolutely seriously. Uncertainty pervades the show in all its crevices, from the introductory “Allegedly, on Legion” to the 4th wall breaking, to the dance-offs and sing-alongs representing the psychic battles. Resulting in a certain solidarity between the show and the public, not in the try-to-outsmart-each-other kind of way perfected by Westworld and Reddit, but more in the we’re-in-this-together sense. Throughout three seasons, viewers and characters have often found themselves sharing a loud WTF towards whatever outrageous nonsense the world has thrown against them, highlighting how little both have managed to understand about its (lack of) rules. And yet, this has certainly not been caused by the powerlessness of our protagonists. Time-traveling shenanigans and quasi-magic technologies aside, the events of Legion are pretty much set in motion by the limitless powers of its mutants. As wills clash, as people come to rely more and more on their own powers, as they seek to recreate reality in their own image, blame grows into this toxic weed poisoning relationships. No figure in this constellation is without troubles, as mutants (and humans) come to symbolize different mental illnesses: dissociation, split personality, depression.

Limitless power also manifests itself stylistically. The show vigorously rejects the wielding-of-energy-spheres approach touted by the MCU and Fox, fully exploiting the total control the various figures have over reality. As put by the shadow king when pressed into an old-style, boring fight: “Surely, we have more imagination than that”. This may well be the reason why the ample use of licensed music, from Pink Floyd to Tom Petty, as well as the proliferation of meme-worthy dances and one-liners, never feels neither cheap nor an attempt at viral marketing. Instead of serving as stylistic crutches to the action, these moments are themselves the action, they’re an expression of total ironic freedom and half-serious chaos, the kind of black humor one could imagine would be common among ants trying to comprehend Dali’s Sagrada Familia. Think Starlord from Guardians of the Galaxy without the bravado: if reality has become the total expression of our minds (the “astral plane”), a messy tangle impossible to straighten out, why then not frame existential dread in a fun way?

The differences go well beyond stylistic anarchy. Where many explain the successes of superhero films as a desire for quick solutions, as a punch in the villain’s face, or even a triumph of personal authority over uncertainty, one could also argue that much of Marvel’s appeal comes from the shadows cast by the boundless power of its heroes. Superhero movies, not unlike the capricious gods of antiquity, always root their conflicts in some kind of personality, be it astral or earthly. It’s the hero’s journey, a glorified siege of the individual by forces outside their control.

The kind of (social) isolation explored by Legion is only tangentially related to that pinpointed by 20th-century fiction. There’s a common theme that runs from Frantz Fanon to Matrix, a fear of “mental colonization”, of external forces encroaching and chaining the mind for the benefit of some power structure. Contemporary economic structures, backed by digitalization, tend to put this state of affairs on its head: the issue isn’t only the lack of individual power but in some cases its overabundance. When singles are cursed with earth-shattering might, they’re confined into a world of their own making. The image of Dr. Manhattan alone on the moon, reflecting upon his own immortality, is maybe the most evocative. A God can’t certainly remove himself from the board, seek the help of outsiders, observe himself from the outside. The struggle isn’t lack of control, be it over one’s mind or the circumstances, but rather the total control over both mind and matter.

Screenshot_2019-08-26 Meet The Man Behind 'Legion' Season 2's Most Ominous Villain
Navid Negahban (Source: FX)

The puzzling thing is that established Marvel movies don’t really seem to appreciate this radical shift. They still portray regular individuals engaged in extraordinary challenges, in which cosmic conflicts seep into their every-day life and force them to take difficult decisions. The result is rarefied relationships, highly artificial conflicts and the impression that the whole MCU is just a big family feud.

Legion, on the other hand, is painfully centered on the kind of violence regular people can inflict on their loved ones.  It’s neither a conflict between the protagonists and their surroundings, nor against their own heads, but rather the realization that conflict is potentially non-existing. Without spoiling too much, in all three seasons, the main issue of heroes and villains is the others’ sure and inevitable victory. It’s not surprising then that its conflicts feel of much more cosmic proportions than Infinity War‘s space opera. They’re thus far more gut-wrenching, too: sexual abuse and depression, after all, literally infringe any believe one can have about oneself and the world. And why shouldn’t one be concerned with these personal apocalypses when they affect animals capable of nuclear fission, of poisoning its own planet and force others to live in abject poverty?

The Astral Plane, the mental playground accessible to psychic mutants, is often represented either as a white canvas or a desert. The overwhelming emptiness that accompanies the triumph over the boundaries of one’s self — the capacity of extending one’s personality over everything under the sun — essentially erases concerns about sanity and insanity. The problem is that we’re stuck into our own mind, regardless of whether its  “correctly” functioning. Analyzing Annihilation, which also insists on the question of humanity’s dissolving boundary, Elvia Wilk writes that “Loss of bounded self is only truly horrifying within an anthropocentric framework that prizes human being in its current state over all other forms and ways of being“. The diagnosis of mental illness may well be a tool of social control, but it would be wishful thinking to imagine that even a total affirmation of “sanity” would liberate anybody from the shackles of mandatory responsibility. The most potent form of power, even if directed to ourselves, is that which acts directly over our very biology – or in this case, over our perception of reality.

In Legion, the painful process of change requires a true act of secular abandonment, leaving the cycle of hate and embracing forgiveness. Importantly, growing out of this system requires injuries to cicatrice into something else, not actively trying to cancel them. The most obvious example: Unlike Endgame, Legion’s time travel doesn’t result in erasure of the past, but rather an uncertain reset: it looks forward, not backward. What’s noteworthy is that in an era in which individuals are ever-more pushed into their individuality and cut off from a social whole, these kinds of questions echo debates around the causes and healing of mental illness. Are they to be considered diseases of the individual, like cancer? Or does its social dimensions (and causes) make it a status to be analyzed in the context of a community, of social networks, of families? As put by Mark Fisher, “[Depression’s] underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it“. When he was writing these words, he was making a point about a dominant ideology justifying the lack of poverty relief and social interventions. A corollary that Legion seems to be adding is that, sometimes, it’s also the true reality-altering powers humans have discovered having in these last years that clouds our capacity of seeing a way out. The issue isn’t simply that powerful heroes generate powerful adversaries (the way Joker is generated by Batman’s actions), but that power itself reveals our vile vengefulness.

Unlike the redemptory finale of Endgame, Legion offers no way out. What it does, however, is to suggest that the only hope we have is to firmly believe that change — or at least the possibility of change — exists.

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