‘Legion,’ an ‘X-Men’ Spinoff, Mines the Intersection of Mental Health and Superpowers

FX's surreal drama flips the world of superheroes on its head.
June 19, 2019
7 mins read

With “Avengers: Endgame” having recently been released and “Dark Phoenix” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” coming out soon, 2019 seems to be continuing the trend of big-budget superhero films absolutely dominating the box office. But, if you are craving something different from the mainstream superhero stories Hollywood has been offering, there is an incredible alternative: the darkly realistic, gloriously bizarre and critically acclaimed FX TV series “Legion.”

With the third season of “Legion” set to premiere on June 24, now seems to be a better time than ever to discuss the mind-warping series, which deftly fuses superpowers with intense drama and uncanny surrealism.

“Legion,” based on the “X-Men” character of the same name, follows the troubled life of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man with incredible abilities but deep-seated mental and emotional problems.

The show is told mainly from Haller’s point of view, which, thanks to the character’s extrasensory perception and fragile mental state, brings a dreamlike quality to each episode that complements the strange and often jarring situations in which Haller finds himself.

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The surreal style of “Legion” is apparent from the very beginning of the first episode, where Haller’s backstory is given in the form of a dreamy montage that quickly turns sour.

While Haller lives an idyllic childhood, he falls into a downward spiral upon adolescence, when he first begins to hear voices in his head. By the time he is an adult, Haller lives a chaotic, drug-filled life that he nearly ends with a suicide attempt.

After this incident, Haller is diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where he spends six years in a drugged-out haze. Other than the occasional visit from his sister, Amy Haller (Katie Aselton), his only real companion is his eccentric fellow inmate, Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza).

But Haller’s life changes the day he meets Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller), a young woman with an irrational fear of being touched. Haller is quickly taken with Barrett, whom he convinces to be his girlfriend — on the condition there will be no touching.

Barrett becomes one of the first rays of light Haller has had in his life in an exceptionally long time. Like Haller, she questions what it means to be called “crazy,” wondering if those deemed mentally unsound simply possess a different means of looking at the world.

Haller’s suspicions about himself and his supposed “illness” are finally avenged when an incident at Clockworks leads to him learn that not only are both he and Barrett sane, but they are part of a group of superpowered humans known as “mutants” that are being hunted down by the government.

Haller is taken into the custody of Division 3, a classified branch of the U.S. military whose aim is to neutralize the threat that mutants supposedly pose to humanity; however, he is soon rescued by Barrett and the agents of Summerland, an institution dedicated to assisting people with strange abilities.

In the heaven-on-Earth that is Summerland, psychiatrist Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) explains that the voices Haller has been hearing are actually the thoughts of others, a manifestation of his power of telepathy. Haller’s formidable psychic powers make him one of the strongest mutants the world has ever seen, and Bird wants to help Haller reach his full potential.

While Haller’s fortunes seem to have finally turned, he still finds himself facing the external threat of Division 3 and the even graver internal threat of the dark presence that has haunted him since he was a child.

“Legion” deals a lot with mental illness, both the struggle of living with it and the assumptions people often make about it. While Haller is not technically schizophrenic, he still must cope with a number of mental issues, including stress, anxiety and trauma.

But Haller’s inner struggles do not decrease his worth as an individual. Indeed, for the people of Summerland, Haller is perhaps the only hope for a future where mutants will be free from oppression.

Moreover, for his girlfriend Barrett, whose powers prevent her from making physical contact with others, Haller’s newfound ability to create psychic projections offers her one of the first real chances at romantic and sexual intimacy she has ever had.

This is not to say Haller is perfect. Certainly, he might not initially seem like what one would think as a “superhero.” While he has good in him, he is also bitter, cynical and deeply flawed.

He is often motivated by anger, and his ignorance of his own limits, coupled with his penchant for making rash decisions, puts both himself and others in danger more than once.

Yet Haller’s flaws are arguably the reason he is likable. Despite being repeatedly described as godlike in his power, Haller is ineffably human, prone to the same shortsightedness that human beings are so well known for.

Haller is not some all-powerful alien or genius billionaire, but instead an otherwise normal young man who is forced to deal with exceptionally abnormal circumstances. Furthermore, because his character is so believable, the incredible situations he finds himself in are given an odd verisimilitude.

And there are plenty of incredible situations to be found in “Legion.” The first episode alone features everything from monstrous hallucinations to superpowered action to a Bollywood dance number.

But, despite all the weirdness, “Legion” maintains an engaging story through a combination of eerie and fascinating visuals, unconventional narrative structures and, above all, compelling characters.

The latter includes not only Haller, but the amiable and often enigmatic Barret; quirky fraternal twins Cary and Kerry Loudermilk (Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder); “memory artist” Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), whose powers allow Haller to explore his past; and the vengeful, yet strangely sympathetic Division 3 agent Clark Debussy (Hamish Linklater).

The trailer for the third season of “Legion” contains visual references to everything from dangerous cults like the Manson Family to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and a dedicated show-watcher knows that this is all simply par for the course.

So for a world filled with fantastic situations, real drama and a wonderfully refreshing take on superpowers, look no further than “Legion.”

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