For fans — of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” and the “X-Men” and “New Mutants” stories from which it draws its initial concepts, not to mention Dan Stevens’ devoted fanbase — the stakes are very high surrounding FX’s first Marvel series, “Legion.”
Tapping into a story and character that go back to Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s heady and game-changing days on the comics, Noah Hawley’s highly-anticipated series boasts an eclectic ensemble cast — Dan Stevens, Jean Smart, Aubrey Plaza and Bill Irwin, to name a few — and an experimental take on narrative structurethat’s as compelling as it is unexpected.
To put a cap on our preview coverage leading up to the show’s premiere (Wednesday, Feb. 8), we got to hear from both creator Noah Hawley and star Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” “The Guest”) over the course of multiple conversations. If you’re still on the fence about joining David Haller on his journey of self-discovery — from madness to mutant — we’ve put together the most exciting and insightful stuff we learned below.
It’s the X-Men series prestige TV has been waiting for
Stevens: The conception of Legion, as a character and what he soon becomes, was incredibly useful and, of course, infused and informed a lot of what we were doing — particularly the visuals. He is this sort of ridiculously powerful thing — but in our story, he’s not really aware of that yet. So there was a part of me that didn’t want to get too invested in it, because in this space of the story, he doesn’t know who he is yet.
I think the X-Men specifically, and these ideas of being different, mutations and how they were dealt with, were always kind of fascinating to me. But it’s more the spirit of them, and the realm in which they exist — the sense of wonder and awe, and the kind of cosmic ideas at play, in a very light-hearted way — that always appealed to me.
Hawley: There’s this dynamic where Magneto wants to rule humanity — or do away with humanity — because he grew up in a concentration camp and he knows how different people are treated in that society, and he’s kind of right. Then there’s Professor X, who’s like: No, we should teach them and learn to live together… And he’s also right.
What’s interesting about that is, you have two points of view that are both right and wrong, at different times — and that’s a much more interesting dynamic to explore than the sort of mustache-twirling supervillain who only wants to do evil against the heroes, who must battle him. This idea in the “X-Men” world, where a person can be a hero one day and a villain the next, is a battle that is so dynamic — which I find really fascinating.
In its visual and stylistic choices, ‘Legion’ is unlike anything else on TV
Stevens: It turned out [Noah and I] were both fans of Kubrick, we were both fans of Wes Anderson, we were both fans of Lindsay Anderson and the British New Wave directors… There were lots of references to the kind of world he wanted to create that I’ve already seen, and knew well.
Hawley: It wasn’t scripted to be this sort of hybrid “A Clockwork Orange”/”Quadrophenia” world — that was just a part of the development process once I took it on as a director. To think about the world-creation of it, and what the physical laws of the world were, and how the powers worked — but also to just try and bring a sense of inventiveness and whimsy to the material as well.
One of the things that I’ve always loved about genre — comic books, science fiction and fantasy — there’s a certain level of playfulness to them. Pure imagination and creativity. Genre allows you a really dynamic place to explore big concepts. You think of Philip K. Dick, or the works of Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore — these aren’t people that were just interested in writing a classic story of good vs. evil.
I just try to leave myself open to wild swings of imagination. Never for their own benefit, but to try to enhance the subjective storytelling. My hope was — because I was trying to do something a little more experimental — to offer the audience something every week that would blow their minds a little bit.
The story is serious about exploring our response to trauma
Hawley: This idea is central to the X-Men stories: You have a bunch of young people who have been defined by society that something is wrong with them, because of who they are and what they can do. Then, they become empowered. Part of that journey is them trying to rewrite their past, to say: These things that happened to me… I thought they turned me into someone weak, but really, they’ve made me into someone strong.
The best elements of the show, for me, are the ones where physical power also plays into the character dynamic. That — for me, as a writer — was the best part. To say: A positive ability also has a downside that’s worth exploring, in an existential kind of way.
Stigma, tropes and gimmicks regarding mental illness are not on the table
Hawley: The reason the show starts with a four-minute montage, taking David from infancy to being a 20-something in a mental institution, was because I think there’s an inherent tragedy here: A reminder that, obviously, mental illness is something, for the most part, that comes on later in childhood, or even in young adulthood.
There are a large number of years where the human potential is the same for everyone and then at a certain point, as mental illness comes on, a lot of people really have to adjust their expectations for what their life is going to be like, and the level of normalcy that they can have. That struggle is constant — and there is something seditious to mental illness that is a key function to convince yourself that you don’t have a mental illness.
David’s biggest struggle is this idea that if he allows himself to believe he doesn’t have a mental illness — that it was really his mental illness tricking him — that’s a hugely tragic turn he may never recover from. I am always very aware of that element, and want to be respectful to the people who have it, as well as the people who work with those people — it was never a gimmick, but a serious part of the story.
At its core, ‘Legion’ is a worthwhile love story
Stevens: In addition to David’s mental state, he finds himself in love. Love has been called a madness by many people, and it is a madness that we’re all capable of feeling at various times. It does make us feel, behave, and do strange things. If you layer that on top of somebody who is already in this very strange place, what does that look like? What does that feel like?
Hawley: To say that you have a character who doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not real, and for the audience to go on that journey with him… If you give them something positive to root for, they’ll make that trade. As long as this girl is real and this love is real, we’ll go with you wherever you want to go.
“Legion” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.