“Is this real?”
That is one of the two important questions David Haller (played by Dan Stevens) asks Syd Barrett (or does he?) in the closing moments of the premiere episode of Marvel’s new TV series on the FX Network, Legion.
Legion S1E1: Chapter 1 (FX)
And although Syd answers him in the affirmative, what is and isn’t real isn’t always easy to discern over the course of the 90-minute introduction to this very different corner of Executive Producer Bryan Singer’s X-Men universe that has already spanned two decades and eight films (and, in a few months, nine), assuming one doesn’t pretend any of those past installments never happened.
And though David’s lineage in the original comic book source material directly ties him to a major figure in the X-Men world who even non-comic readers are familiar with, references to the larger X-Men mythos, at least in this first episode, are nowhere to be found.
In fact, nothing about the show — tone, genre, or look — even remotely resembles the X-Men we’ve come to know on the big screen over the past seventeen years. And perhaps that’s a good thing because it gives the creators a chance to bring something actually fresh and new to the table at a time when film and TV audiences are saturated with superhero properties. Like the more artistically rendered Marvel Studio series on Netflix, showrunner Noah Hawley (Fargo) gets to build his own wholly original sandbox in which to play.
And the result is a visually breathtaking series full of strange images and funky dance sequences you can bet you’ll never see on an episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
And the complexity of storytelling is equally rich. To try to briefly and coherently summarize the episode is a daunting task if one wishes to go beyond the most basic plot points. Essentially, David seems to have lived much of his life in an institution because of serious mental illness. The premiere jumps us back and forth between two main time periods, one while he’s institutionalized and another where he’s being interrogated seemingly about the mysterious death of one of the patients at the very asylum he once occupied. It turns out the extraordinary abilities David’s been told were only delusions of his mental disorder are real and a mysterious cabal seeks to control him because he’s the most powerful mutant they’ve ever seen.
And the patient David’s said to have killed, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), wasn’t so much killed by David but by another patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) — a young woman who refuses to be touched and who quickly becomes David’s girlfriend at Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital — after she and David briefly switch bodies following a kiss.
Fortunately, Lenny’s untimely death doesn’t mean the show is done with Aubrey Plaza though as she continues to appear and converse with David after she’s dead. Is she just a delusion of his psyche? Is she real? And, for that matter, is Syd real, when she literally seems to enter his memory to advise him how to escape his current dangerous predicament and then moments later shows up again in what seems to be reality this time with the cavalry come to rescue him? Even David himself is so confused that, after he asks, “Is this real?” his next question to Syd is, “Are you real?” And given the sudden strange cliff-side environment he finds himself after this latest escape and the massive carnage happening around them as they run — all captured in a single long tracking shot — the audience is right to scratch their heads and ask the same questions.
I don’t know where this show is going, and I don’t know if it will get any closer to referencing anything in the rest of the X-Men franchise, but I don’t care. As long as the show at least grounds itself in its characters and relationships — as Noah Hawley already assures us it will — I’m excited to see where Legion goes from here.