If you ever wondered what a Wes Anderson superhero project might look like, Legion is your answer. This is more Moonrise Kingdom than X-men (canonically, in the comics, the hero David Haller is the mutant son of Professor X) and from the moment it starts the screen is alive with colour and kitsch. Whimsical music plays over ‘60s flavoured clothes, set design and hairstyles, while beautiful photography frames everything to create a dreamlike world where you’re as uncertain about what’s real as the institutionalised David, played by Dan Stevens. Oh, and someone gets a fountain pen stabbed in their face, just so you know. It’s not all hippy slow-mo vibes, and half the fun here is sharing David’s surprise and bewilderment at what’s happening around him.
From a visual perspective Legion is astonishingly crafted, and uses its looks to add a great deal of depth and substance to the storytelling. The camera floats through unusual angles; cuts and focuses in odd ways, or slows down to draw moments out. One brief sequence is entirely upside down and only makes sense when you realise why later. The creativity starts immediately with an opening montage that’s Up levels of scene setting as it follows David’s life from happy childhood to promising youth, through troubled adolescence, then a destructive adulthood apparently ruined by mental health issues and (nearly) ending with a noose of electrical cord. You’re brought up to date effortlessly in seconds, the usual origin story churn worked through quickly to waste no time in starting the story proper.
It’s a plot that follows David Haller grinding away his life in a mental institution as a result of the hidden manifestations of his suppressed powers. Dan Stevens plays the part well, fitting just enough affectation into his speech and movement to appear unwell but with enough vulnerability and charm that you quickly warm to him. He doesn’t appear dangerous but, via therapy sessions and flashbacks, his past life is brought into focus and his current situation is gradually explained.
The show uses its visual palette and style beautifully throughout these sections. Cutting between the soothing calm of the asylum to disturbing red-drenched strobing flashbacks, or a kitchen exploding around David in a deliciously slow-mo detonation of utensils. These past recollections of David’s hidden mutant powers manifesting are artfully worked in in a way where we can see he’s not crazy. Or can we? Just as the episode is settling into a groove it’s lifted out of it by the discovery that this entire ‘60s themed setting is David’s recollections of the past, recounted to a mysterious interviewer in the present. The show continues to be effortlessly stylish in this new location, replacing kitsch with hard edges and bold colours. Even the photography changes to more brutal angles and transitions.
The reveal that we’re actually cutting between two timelines is a great spin as you think you’re working things out. In the past, David forms a sweet relationship with a fellow inmate called Syd Barrett - an obvious reference to the Pink Floyd singer and played by Rachel Keller with just the right amount of prickly adorableness - while bouncing off his friend, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza doing a fun if predictable ‘Aubrey Plaza’). The juxtaposition of the past and present create a nice dynamic as you join with the interviewer one minute, trying to unravel what’s happened, and with David the next, trying to work out what’s happening.
This first episode suggests a show that would be fun whatever the subject matter. The cast are charismatic, and the layering interesting. While David’s life fills out backwards in interviews, showing how his hidden nascent powers ruined his life, the sinister organisation interviewing him builds the future threat. “Division One want to kill him” says an unnamed suit overseeing the interview behind the scenes after it’s established that David “may be the most powerful mutant we’ve ever encountered.”
Elsewhere the show slips in all sort of things that feel symbolic or portentous. There’s a dog hidden in a partially covered, red lit cage given even more prominence by a silent character carving a wooden mutt during David’s interview. Then there’s the repeating and threatening appearance of a misshapen, goblin-like fat man. My only concern here is whether these elements will productively lead anywhere, or whether they're just visual macguffins to tease and confuse.
However, the sudden and surprising action finish is the final sweetener. The first episode’s ending is an exciting flourish that suggests the show won’t be afraid of splashing some bucks on the effect’s budget. It’s not a huge display but after so many (enjoyable) dialogue focused scenes it’s rewarding to see mutant powers, gunplay and a little horror pulled out of the hat and handled so easily - just enough people and concrete psychically blasted through the air make it clear that while writer (and Fargo TV show creator) Noah Hawley knows how to make a great story, he also knows when to go loud.
This first launch episode maybe suffers slightly from its extended running time. It’s only about 15 minutes longer than a standard ep but a Bollywood dance sequence that appears in a dream is nothing but pointless indulgence for example, and a few scenes feel like they're just starting to tread water. However, I suspect the shorter run normal episodes won’t suffer in the same way. That said, even with (maybe) 10 minutes of slack, this is one of the most interesting looking and unusual shows I’ve seen in awhile: quirky and threatening, unpredictable and beautifully crafted. If the current sheen and promise hold over the upcoming episodes then this could be very special indeed.