Before Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the 50 (yes, fifty) films based on various Marvel properties to be scheduled for release since 2002, Bryan Singer’s summer of ’00 hit X-Men paved the way for the superhero revival and established Fox as the rights holder to all of Marvel’s mutants. Seventeen years later, and after Marvel has launched several successful television series on Netflix and ABC, Fox is debuting Legion on FX, based on a lesser-known character in the X-Men lineup.
Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens (soon to play the non-Hank-McCoy Beast in Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast remake) stars as David Haller, a patient in a psychiatric hospital unsubtly referred to as “Clockworks.” David seemingly suffers from schizophrenia, but the extent to which his latent mutant powers contributed to his diagnosis remains unclear. Future episodes likely may reveal that he is both all-powerful and insane. Though this and many other of the series’ finer plot points have yet to be established, Stevens plays Haller with enough tics and charm to carry the show.
After a bizarre incident at the hospital, nefarious government officials suspect David to be the most powerful mutant they have yet encountered. Naturally these officials plan to perform experiments on him and/or weaponize his powers, à la Weapon X. Without giving away too much of the overarching plot, David escapes from his tormenters — like his adamantium-clawed predecessor — and begins to realize the scope of his powers under the guidance of a Professor X-ish psychiatrist, Melanie Bird, played by the always excellent Jean Smart.
The lush production design evokes Bryan Fuller more than Bryan Singer, with an indeterminable upstate setting fixed at some point in time between the ’70s and the relatively near future. Wide lapels and Brady Bunch hairstyles mixed with Kurt Cobain-inspired striped shirts add to the sense that Legion is meant to be an era-irreverent series in the vein of Hannibal or Pushing Daisies, but it’s too early to rule out a This Is Us-type twist that could reveal the series to be firmly planted between First Class and Days of Future Past. Fresh off the second season of FX’s Fargo (which also starred Jean Smart), director and showrunner Noah Hawley achieves such a fascinating and frenetic pace in the premiere that it’s difficult enough to ascribe chronological order to events that occur onscreen, much less place the overall series in any particular decade.
Full of wild colors and sleek, comic book styling, Legion appears determined to stand out among an ever more crowded field of costumed vigilantes. Less brooding than Netflix’s Marvel dramas and more subversive than ABC’s, Legion offers something curiously new for a genre that has seen so many iterations over the past few years. Despite clear admiration for the source material, FX’s surefire hit might be the first Marvel series to downplay its Marvel roots (unsurprising, considering the longstanding animosity between Fox and Marvel over the X-Men film rights). Apart from David and potentially the main antagonist, the “devil with yellow eyes” that bears a strong resemblance to Marvel Comic’s Shadow King, all other characters seem to be original to the series. As with his previous FX series, Hawley is more inspired by the source material than beholden to it, and the result is a show that will appeal as much to fans of FX’s other top dramas as to X-Men’s fanboy base.
Of course, no matter what direction Hawley chooses to take the franchise, there’s always room in the story for a Hugh Jackman cameo.