Skip to main content

I know what I am. I’m the magic man.

Legion
Season One

(SPOILERS) I suspect it’s no coincidence that my favourite comic book adaptations tend to be ones that don’t pay an awful lot of heed to staying within standardised genre limits, be it Tony Stark out of the suit with a kid sidekick of Iron Man Three, the altered states romping of Hulk or now the pan-fried head trip of Legion. Ironically, the latter was co-produced with Marvel Television, whose Netflix shows have been on the determinedly moribund side. Indeed, Legion feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison, if perhaps lacking that certain something that would truly send it into the stratosphere.


That’s partly because, however stylistically daring Noah Hawley’s series is, however beguilingly confused the mind of its protagonist becomes, and however evidently not in thrall it is to offering straightforward superheroics (of which there are very little), Legion definitely does conform to the genre’s limitations of defined supervillainy and quantified narrative devices and solutions. I don’t especially care that David Haller (Dan Stevens) is Charles Xavier’s son (and even less whether or not Patrick Stewart will cameo), or that Big Bad the Shadow King is an established entity of comic lore; I’m only really interested in how Hawley uses the character as a leaping off point to do his own thing. And when he’s doing his own thing, more often than not, Legion is a great show, firing on all cylinders in a not dissimilar fashion to Joss Whedon series of – now – old (say, the last couple of seasons of Angel), but with added visual aplomb. As such, the series is much more interesting when exploring David’s uncertain mindscape than when it settles into the well-ploughed terrain of a card-carrying evil mutant with standard nefarious motivations.


Hawley has namechecked a host of inspirational elements, from David Lynch to Pink Floyd (Sydney Barret, actually using Floyd in the last episode) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to Terrence Malick to Breaking Bad (inevitable?) to, in terms of design aesthetic, “a 1964 Terence Stamp movie” and Hannibal (a show I didn’t care for at all, apart from its palette), and you can see those elements, but they tend to evidence that there isn’t anything fundamentally altered or askew in Legion’s construction; it’s all surface trappings. As talented as Hawley is in composing his narratives, it rather makes you think in retrospect that inserting a UFO into the last season of Fargo wasn’t a wild and whacky idea but rather his idea of what a wild and whacky person’s idea would be.


That’s why I keep coming back to Whedon when I think of this show, both in terms of its broad, cartoonish characterisations (albeit fortunately absent the more egregious smart-mouthed pop culture quipping) and core Scooby gang of heroes, but also in its very measured, calculated approach to twists and reveals that, no matter how much they exert a grip, never truly take you out of the box, even when they apparently have; you’ll always end up back in a safe place, even when you think there’s been a game changer (albeit, the final season of Angel comes very close in places and is certainly something one couldn’t go too far wrong in aiming for).  There’s a comfortable, finite quality to the design of their TV universes that is only underlined by limitations of scale and budget (Legion’s world is a very limited one, which works like gangbusters when trapped within the confines of a mental institution, less so when trying to depict the environment outside).


One can expect too much of a show of course, and the willingness of Legion to set itself “out there” initially was inevitably, I think, going to result in some backtracking. It needs to bear some resemblance to the Marvel brand from which it has spun off, so if Hawley had really intended to go the “full Lynch” I doubt if he’d ever have got the green light. So too, there’s no mistaking what we have here for the philosophical probing of the oft-vilified Damon Lindelof, or any kind of interrogation of the nature of society and one’s place in it, such that when I’ve seen comments invoke The Prisoner I’m wondering if they’ve only seen the remake (even in terms of design, the comparison is far off the mark).


Even Legion’s take on mental illness fully embraces a frizzy, pop aesthetic, ready to discard and embrace it as the mood takes the writers (in the penultimate episode, David’s rational mind appears to cast off doubts of his afflicted state with the boxing up of the Shadow King, but it would make for a very pedestrian subsequent season if he becomes entirely stable, particularly since Legion’s main appeal thus far has been the untapped hollows of his mind). A better yardstick, both in terms of losing one’s marbles and design, might be Theodore J Flicker’s The President’s Analyst, but to pass muster in that regard, Legion would have to take on board a satirical element, and thus far there’s scant evidence the show is about anything beyond its ability to pull narrative rugs and stage wildly invigorating dance routines/musical set pieces.


Cary: You have a very large amygdala.
David: Thank you.

And yet, many times this over the tired, bloated Netflix shows. From episode to episode (and I admit I watched this over a couple of nights, rather than on first broadcast, so it may not have percolated in quite the manner it did for those who saw it the “traditional” way), Legion continued to surprise and impress, even if was mostly on a stylistic level – something that should never be underestimated, especially when style is so often a conservative thing on TV, even at its most luxuriant – flipping in the first episode from David’s interior, medicated state to the reveal of Sydney’s particular skillset and then providing one of those Escher-like potentialities that, alas, only go so far (“This is your memory of the day you called the hospital. Not the actual day, I’m inside your memory”), as Syd warns him inside his mind. Like Episode Six, where the Shadow King is controlling the state of play, returning us to the opening passages of the first episode, there’s a virtuosity on display here only diffused by our gradually becoming fully cognisant of the limitations of how crazy Hawley’s willing to get. Which is, no further than this being a game played. When a character asks “Could we still be in David’s mind?” in the fourth episode, the answer is: this show’s not really willing to turn into the season closer of Twin Peaks for its entire duration, so no.


In terms of characterisation, then, the heightened quality goes to emphasise how little substance there is to anyone, as opposed to Fargo, where the broad strokes can be underplayed and so given more resonance. Rachel Keller made a big impact in a relatively small role in Fargo, but here, after the first episode, Syd doesn’t really say or do all that much to make an impact; instead, she tends to be defined by David. It’s all downhill from discovering her superpower. Likewise, Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris) does little of consequence after the second episode, besides firing a machine gun. Cary (Bill Irwin) and Kerry (Amber Midthunder) Loudermilk are much more consistently effective due to their interdependent relationship, one that feels like the most Whedonesque thing here, particularly when ructions develop, but they’re still defined by their visual sense (Kerry fighting heavies while Cary mimes her actions in the lab, playing mental games as patients in Clockworks). Better is Melanie (Jean Smart) and her distress over the inability of Oliver (Jermaine Clement) to remember her, his wife.


Oliver: May I introduce you to my friend, Jules Verne.

Indeed, Oliver’s astral hangout, and method of getting out and about by means of a virtual diving suit, is the most appealingly batty conceit in the show, such that, as with David’s undefined discord early on, the series deflates a little once he becomes corporeal once more. Clement is wonderful, of course, encouraged to indulge both his penchant for singing (notably in the final episode, when he takes off after a rendition of If I Ruled the World) and his ear for the absurd (“Too bad” he comments on being told bras are back, before recovering with “How do you feel about beat poetry?”) and even precisely underplaying the tragic beat of remembering Melanie just as the Shadow King is about to take possession of him. If the series is going to maintain a level of safety in not really pushing its capacity to go the full Lynch, it could use more of this kind of goofiness of ideas and visuals.


David: And you’re British.
David’s Rational Mind: Like I said, I’m your rational mind.

Stevens’ performance is masterfully modulated, of course, although we’re occasionally led by the nose when it’s entirely unnecessary (does he really need to start wearing black when the Shadow King is assuming an influence in the fifth episode?), and the bugs crawling through the fruit are very well-worn “evil under the skin” cliché. The “revelations” concerning his adoption (Professor X) and the Shadow King never really take on a compelling quality, any more than the standard motivational subplot concerning the threat to his sister (Katie Aselton). It’s lucky then, that much of the unfolding of the reveal elements occurs in the sixth and seventh episodes, set mostly within the mental landscape of the Shadow King’s version of Clockworks, and that the means of exposition (David conversing with his rational mind, laid out on an animated blackboard) are pocked with knowing humour (“Boo-hoo. Focus” instructs his rational mind at one point. “You’re right... I am pretty. I am loved” responds David).


Aside from Mackenzie Gray’s permed Tom Waits-alike The Eye, the expressly monstrous aspects of Legion failed to really hold my attention, certainly not in terms of offering the stuff of nightmares. “The Devil with Yellow Eyes”, announced almost as soon as the show starts but revealed a little later, just isn’t that scary, looking rather like a Sin City reject by way of the obese vampire from Blade, while the picture book cut-out The Angriest Boy in the World, The Babadook by way of Frank Sidebottom, is similarly derivative and lacking in a real frisson.


On the other hand, when Aubrey Plaza is revealed as the embodiment of the Shadow King, leading to such sequences as her dancing around her office to Nina Simone’s I Feel Good or – in possibly the standout passage of the season –menacing the hospital inmates a la Tim Burton meets Robert Smith in silent movie fashion, complete with caption cards, Legion shifts into the positively inspired (but again, it’s the kind of inspired that gave us Buffy’s Hush or Once More (With Feeling)). The fake reality is an oft-used trope, to the extent that it might be labelled a tired device rather than the relatively fresh one it one was (say, around when The X-Files used it in Field Trip), so interesting things being done with it tend to stand out.


Final episodes as epilogues can be a relief when a show is as highly strung as Game of Thrones. I’m not sure it succeeds so much here. Some of the visuals are nice (the tree of soldiers), but the decision to switch focus completely to a character not seen since the opener (Hamish Linklater’s Clark), now with burns over 40% of his body following the swimming pool incident, is the sort of perspective switch Lindelof might have pulled after a whole season of Lost. It’s mildly interesting, but it smacks more of a self-conscious device than something equipped with sincerity, substance or intent to really explore a “bad guy”, despite David’s protestations that he wants to avoid a war and Hawley’s desire not to “send a message that all conflict can only be resolved through battle”. As such, I mostly had in mind the first Austin Powers’ depiction of the family of an evil henchman having to deal with his offhand death.


Added to which, David’s abduction in the mid-credits scene just felt silly. Rather than a cliffhanger, it left a taste of anti-climax and probably would have been better cut out completely, really. Season One certainly delivered the goods visually, then (and in the case of the Cloud Atlas-inspired exploding kitchen, several times on repeat, to get its money worth), and musically (one wonders how much a soundtrack album including the likes of The Who, Serge Gainsbourg, The Rolling Stones, Jane’s Addiction, Thomas Dolby, Pink Floyd and T-Rex would cost to licence, which probably explains why only Jeff Russo’s incidental music is available). I’m mildly intrigued at what Hawley has in store for the second run, but I’m also wary that he hasn’t now established too level a playing field for an ostensibly antic series, and that it may lack the potential to truly surprise. I’ll happily keep coming back for the musical numbers, but I’m nursing the hope it can be something more than that.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He's going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams.

Dreamscape (1984)
(SPOILERS) I wasn’t really au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ‘80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A.) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his mood. Dreamscape was one of his early leading-man roles, and if it’s been largely forgotten, it also inherits a welcome cult status, not only through being pulpy and inventive on a fairly meagre budget, but by being pretty good to boot. It holds up.

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…