‘Legion’ concludes three-season run of superpowered psychic dreams and nightmares

TV’s most inventive, stylish superhero drama bows out

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"Legion" actors Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller speak onstage at San Diego Comic Con in 2018. 

Courtesy Gage Skidmore

Superheroes are not necessarily heroes in “Legion,” Noah Hawley’s bold psychological drama set in an alternate X-Men universe prone to the surreal and strange. The show, which premiered in February 2017, stars Daniel Stevens as David Haller, the psychically-powered and unstable son of Professor X (Harry Lloyd). The third and final season concluded August 12th, and proves that Hawley is not only a gifted stylistic imitator, as seen with his work on the television adaption of “Fargo”, but a talented and risk taking storyteller fed up as anyone else with the stale state of superhero monopoly under Disney’s monolithic-feeling Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel cinematic fare showcases do-gooder heroes across tightly paced two hour adventures every few months like clockwork. Tony Stark is a likable character after his first film and experiences a satisfying redemptive arc from rich playboy to heroic genius. Hawley’s “Legion” opts for a darker tone, paralleling the X-Men comics’ theme of moral complexity. 

It would be tempting to describe David’s arc in “Legion” as a pure descent into villainy, but the twisted logic and time spent rationalizing his naive insecurities leave his character as a sympathetic — albeit catastrophically dangerous and misguided — cypher made up of multiple personalities, desires, and vices. David is a realistic human being, his mind is just further damaged and complified by potentially world ending powers.

“Legion” is often not tightly paced, immediately understandable or nearly as satisfying of a story as the big screen triumphs of Captain America and Iron Man. Instead, Hawley and composer Jeff Russo employ daring visual and musical storytelling to experientially convey dark and challenging concepts surrounding mental illness as David struggles with the demons — literal and metaphorical — occupying his brain. 

In “Legion,” the superpowers add to the formula, amplifying both the beauty and horror of humanity. While Marvel films explore disagreement among supers and government in outings like “Captain America: Civil War”, “Legion” has a more personal and complicated take on what it would actually be like to grapple with powers. David’s relationship with fellow mutant Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller) is a particular focus, showcasing the beauty of David’s imagination being able to spur dream worlds for his lover while considering the dangerous implications of unchecked power and mutual consent in a partnership when psychic abilities let David bend reality and twist the truth as it suits his narrative.

Jeff Russo’s original score is appropriately strange for the show, as are psychedelic song choices like Superorganism’s “Something For Your M.I.N.D.” and distorted covers of classics like The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” that feature in dazzling musical sequences to add to the surreal quality of David’s world. Aubrey Plaza’s schizophrenic character Lenny plays demon, sidekick, and enemy of David at various points and works wonders to amp up the surreal.

There are few comfortable or expected moments in “Legion.” A fight between psychics is depicted as a dance off, one episode imagines all the potential destinies of David’s life — from drug addict to super-villain and business tycoon, the timeline is an ambiguous split between a futuristic 1960’s and modern day, John Hamm narrates occasional psychological lessons and traditional superhero violence is thankfully lacking. Violence, after all, is of little use when a government soldier’s gun can be turned into a rubber duck or their mind instantly wiped by David’s reality-bending powers. 

“Legion’s” final season introduces Switch (Lauren Tsai), a time traveler who helps David in his quest to fix every mistake he’s made in order to narcissistically ‘fix’ the world his way. But this is no “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) or even “Avengers: Endgame.” Time travel works not as a gimmick to resolve an overly complicated movie studio universe, but rather as just one of many creative toys for the show runners to experiment with. Operating at its best as it finishes its final chapter, Hawley’s twist on the superhero genre is audiovisual ecstasy — an unrelenting psychological jawbreaker. 

As the superhero genre faces a transition period, now is a great time to binge creatively ambitious if imperfect series like “Legion” that have gone under-appreciated during the star-studded blitz of infinity stones and box office records. Lacking the spandex or nano-tech suits of prior X-Men outings or The Avengers, Hawley and company are free to explore the troubled world of the human mind in “Legion”. After all the popcorn and fanfare focused on  space battles and grand set pieces, we deserve to look inside the place ordinary non-supers battle everyday.

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