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Inside ‘Legion’: How the Trippy, Thrilling ‘X-Men’ Spinoff Is Changing the Superhero Game

The Daily Beast visited the Vancouver set where ‘Fargo’ auteur Noah Hawley and his cast of mutants have created a mind-bending new twist on the superhero genre.

02.08.17 3:06 PM ET

The superhero boom of the last two decades carries with it familiar, genre-defining totems. They’re what you think of when you hear the word “superhero”: high-tech gadgets, tights and capes, city-totaling climactic clashes between good and evil. Legion, the new FX series loosely based on a late-’80s run of X-Men comics, aims to defy the norms—and succeeds. It takes the tropes, straps dynamite to them, and blows up the superhero genre.

The FX/Marvel collaboration springs from the mind of Fargo auteur Noah Hawley, who writes and directs Wednesday night’s dazzling premiere episode. Through a psychedelic growing-up montage we’re introduced to David Haller, a diagnosed schizophrenic who might be bestowed with telepathy and telekinesis. (In the comics, he is also the son of the famed Charles Xavier, though that biographical bit hasn’t made it into the show—yet.)

Legion

FX

David, played with a jittery charisma by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, becomes our unreliable narrator—though he doesn’t narrate so much as simply manifest what he sees, remembers, fears, and fantasizes about onscreen. That means what we see is subjective, filtered through David’s fractured, unpredictable psyche. Timelines jump and memories change without explanation. And we’re never quite sure if what we see is real because, well, neither is David.

He’s a mental patient, committed to an institution that purportedly doubles as a shady government research facility that finds mutants, tests its control over them and sometimes even kills them, at least according to one of David’s fellow patients. Her name is Syd Barrett, like the Pink Floyd singer, and she doesn’t like to be touched, ever. David of course falls madly in love with her.

He calls it a “romance of the mind” and ignores doubts about whether she really exists. Soon they run away together to a place called “Summerland” where mutants learn to control their powers. That’s what he’s now told his illness really is: power to be nurtured, not numbed by medication. He isn’t crazy, he’s gifted! Is there a difference? Maybe he’s both.

Along the way, sounds and images distort nightmarishly—lurching into the past or into David’s fears with dizzying, blaring urgency. Echoes of one memory reverberate in others, sometimes altering what they mean. Fantasies bloom fully formed onscreen; there’s a dance number in the pilot that turns a drab hospital room into a swirling Technicolor daydream.    

This, in a nutshell, is the world of Legion: an intoxicating cacophony of voices, possibilities, and malleable impressions. A super-antihero origin story, fueled by dreams and nightmares.

There has never been anything on TV quite like it.

***

“He’s a genius, and you can quote me on that.”

It’s a cold October afternoon on the Vancouver set of Legion, where a small group of reporters have seemingly walked into a soundstage-wide exercise in personality myth-making. Hawley—showrunner “genius,” an “incredible talent” and “incredible human being,” according to his cast and crew—is nowhere to be found. He makes it into every conversation anyway.

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“He’s a first-draft writer,” says executive producer John Cameron, one of many loyalists who followed Hawley here from their Emmy-winning work together on Fargo. “He has the idea and he writes it, and not a lot of work comes out of him after that because it’s so good and layered and insightful. There’s a lot of depth to everything he does.”

That knack for writing depth into unconventional characters helped make Hawley Fox’s top choice for a prestige TV take on the X-Men. (Fox has held TV and movie rights for the X-Men since the early ’90s, when a flailing Marvel Comics staved off bankruptcy by selling away rights to its most popular characters, including Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.)

Fox producer Lauren Shuler Donner, the woman who bought those X-Men rights and has since shepherded the mutants through every big-screen outing, approached FX and Hawley with a pitch alongside X-Men: Days of Future Past scribe Simon Kinberg. Hawley read it and came back with his own pitch: a dive into the mind of a powerful schizophrenic antihero, one who was only a minor character in X-Men lore.

For Hawley, David’s obscurity was in itself opportunity: a chance to tell a story about deconstructing identity and reframing illness as power. Here, in a welcome contrast from Fargo, he could experiment with timelines and narrative subjectivity. To do this all against a flashy superhero backdrop was only the cherry on top. “A story that’s just about people who have superpowers isn’t in itself interesting, to me,” Hawley later tells me over the phone. “The story has to be about something.”

Created by famed X-Men writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, the David Haller who debuted in the pages of New Mutants #26 only loosely resembles the one now onscreen. Physically, for instance, comic-book David rocks a mile-high shock of jet-black hair, while Stevens wears his blond tresses in a comparatively telegenic emo-boy cut.

Young comic-book David’s latent powers are triggered by the murder of his stepfather, a trauma that ends with him obliterating the killers’ minds, absorbing the consciousness of their leader, and shattering his own personality into pieces. He ends up with dissociative identity disorder—and the ability to develop new powers for every mutant’s mind he absorbs.

It’s unclear what triggers Legion’s version of David’s abilities. The memories he’s forced to revisit are often altered or cut short by repression, and his explosive telekinetic outbursts have (so far) only been glimpsed in the past. A memory-hacking good guy named Ptonomy allows us to step inside David’s memories, to interrogate them frame-by-frame, but even that reveals precious little. (Fear is a powerful suppressant.)

Compound that uncertainty with David’s malleable, ever-shifting reality and it’s near-impossible to ever know just what the hell is going on. That, of course, is by design.

“You’re allowed to be confused,” Cameron says, reassuringly. “Hopefully it’s in an engaging and interesting and fun way. It’s a show about memory and the vagaries of memory—what is a true memory and what is not, or what might have been true but the feeling or your take on it has changed over time.”

“You get answers as [David] does,” Hawley promises. “We don’t purposely confuse or manipulate, or just drag out questions with more questions. It’s not a mystery box. It all leads somewhere. You just have to get there as he does.”

Legion’s cast and crew are just as curious for answers. Huddled next to each other in a drafty corner of the soundstage, Dan Stevens and Fargo alum Rachel Keller (who plays Syd) both laugh remembering the confusion sparked by Hawley-penned scripts calling for outside-the-box locations like “astral plane.”

“The props guys are like, oh my god, how are we gonna make that thing he’s talking about there? And the art department is like, what is this? Where are we again?” recalls Stevens, marveling at the “playfulness” such mandates inspire on set.

“Sometimes we have to go to another actor and be like, do you know what we’re talking about here?” says Keller.

“We had to outlaw the phrase ‘does that make sense’ in our conversations,” adds Stevens. “It’s not a useful question anymore.” Hawley’s stonewalling did come with a silver lining: “It confused the hell out of me and thus David, which I think reads on the screen,” Stevens laughs.

Emmy winner Jean Smart, meanwhile, remains entirely unbothered. The ex-Fargo star, regally styled in a full-length coat and a glamorous, extra-stiff beehive (“If you lit up a cigarette near me it’d probably go…” she trails off, mimicking the sound of an explosion) says she’s “still figuring out” her character, Melanie.

“I guess if this was a James Bond movie, she would be M,” she offers. “I’m kind of mentor/therapist/rescuer/house mother to my young mutants. And I try to make sure that they’re safe from the dark forces that want to either use or eliminate them.” Asked she’d talked with Hawley before taking on the role, Smart simply shrugs. “I was in as long as he was writing it.”

***

Hawley proudly wears cinematic influences on his sleeve: you see the diorama-like precision of Wes Anderson here, doses of Lynchian surrealism there. Stanley Kubrick’s DNA runs throughout Legion, and not just in the name of David’s psychiatric hospital (Clockworks). Films like Alice in Wonderland and 500 Days of Summer come up too, somehow, as he’s discussing the show.

Legion’s poppy, often psychedelic aesthetic is another deliberate mishmash of cultural influences. Colorful British Invasion chic clashes with the mustard yellows and overripe oranges of the ’70s. Garish brutalist architecture gives way to sleek modern buildings. Beehives and pompadours contrast jarringly with modern-day technology carried by officers in riot gear.

“We’re not supposed to know where we are or what year it is,” explains production designer Michael Wylie, noting it’s why we seldom see cars onscreen. Costume designer Carol Case says she sourced outfits from the ‘50s and ‘60s along with more modern pieces.

The sum of their efforts is as visually disorienting as the inside of David’s mind, a choice Hawley made both to emphasize the show’s subjectivity and to add a timeless, fable-like quality to it.

And while there are few if any overt homages to the X-Men of Fox’s current cinematic oeuvre—which technically takes place in an alternate universe so, sorry, no Wolverine—themes of understanding remain inextricable, especially for a story about a mutant plagued by mental illness.

“That’s a classic X-Men thing, the idea of difference,” says Stevens. “The ideas of love and fear are very key to Legion. So the idea that somebody is a mutant—we must fear them, destroy them, hate them, consider them an abomination—those two wholes are very relevant. They’re always relevant, but they’re key to our story as well.”

Hawley says that last year’s “emotional” New York Comic-Con, where a 20-minute clip of the pilot debuted to rapturous applause, is what drove the weight of this project home for him. “I certainly felt a responsibility,” he says. “Seeing all these people who have maybe been told they don’t belong, who find empowerment through these stories.”

Back inside the rotunda of the mutants’ Summerland headquarters, Wylie bashfully admits that “this isn’t official or anything,” but points to the rainbow of colors painted on the walls. He chose them as a nod to the X-Men’s longstanding tradition of LGBT representation, he says. “People who are different want to be treated the same.”

Legion premieres Feb. 8 at 10 p.m. on FX.