“I have to know. Is this… is this real?”
So wonders David Haller, the hero of Legion, FX’s new X-Men spin-off series, and it’s a question he asks, or is asked, over and over throughout the show’s pilot episode, which debuts next Wednesday night at 10pm ET.
David, you see, has spent most of his life being told that he’s mentally ill, and has been medicated accordingly. But as the series begins, he starts encountering mysterious people who suggest he’s perfectly healthy, and that what psychiatrists mistook for a disorder was actually the manifestation of David’s vast mutant psychic powers. So as David (Dan Stevens) toggles back and forth between the two explanations for the voices in his head, he understandably keeps wondering if any of this — his powers, his would-be girlfriend Syd (Rachel Keller), best friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), and the various alleged forces of light and dark — actually exists.
David’s question is also one I found myself asking often as I raced through the stunning debut episode and the two wonderful hours of TV that follow it. Legion is so strange, so idiosyncratic, so outside the norms of anything we’ve come to expect from modern comic book adaptations, on the big screen or small, that it was hard not to wonder if I was just imagining the whole thing, or if it was an elaborate, expensive prank perpetrated by FX and Fargo creator Noah Hawley, here adapting a relatively obscure X-character introduced in the ’80s by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz.
The Marvel films and movies — both the ones produced directly by Marvel and the ones that come from outside studios that hold rights to certain characters (like Fox with the X-Men, though Fox brought Marvel in to help make Legion) — are such factory-designed products that even the best ones only deviate slightly from one another to reveal the personalities of the people who made them. You might note a particularly Joss Whedon-y bit of banter in Avengers, or recognize a Community alum in one of the Russo brothers’ Captain America movies, but these projects are designed to prioritize the brand over the individual, and to make each franchise hospitable to visitors from all the other ones, so that it won’t feel weird if Falcon has a cameo in Ant-Man’s film, or if Spider-Man swings into the middle of a civil war among Avengers.
In the comics, David is related to a significant X-Men member. These early Legion episodes offer no clues as to whether the TV version has similar family ties, but the show is so tonally unlike any of the films that it’s hard to imagine Hugh Jackman or Michael Fassbender wandering in to give David a hug. This isn’t X-Men being done for TV, the way Agents of SHIELD is so often presented as the budget Avengers, but more like what would happen if some exasperated executive went to see Wes Anderson, or a French New Wave director — or, for that matter, the man who somehow turned the Coen brothers’ seemingly singular Fargo into the inspiration for one of TV’s greatest current series — threw a typically bizarre Sienkiewicz page from New Mutants on their desk, and left in an exasperated huff, muttering, “We don’t know what the hell this is or what to do with it. Have fun.”
Hawley, whose only previous professional directing credit was a season 2 Fargo episode, is behind the camera for the super-sized Legion pilot (without commercials, it’s 68 minutes; FX will air it in a 90-minute timeslot), and it’s a stylistic tour de force, telekinetically throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the screen to convey the way that David experiences the world.