Forget What Comes Next – The First Season of Legion is a Standalone Achievement
Legion didn’t need a post-credits scene after its finale, but the show simply couldn’t help itself. Comic DNA can apparently be harder to expel than demonic mutant parasites, which explains the appearance of this tired fan-service ploy after a nearly flawless debut season, one capped by a characteristically eccentric and suspenseful episode that – as much as any great finale – provided resolution and confusion in equal measure. Of course, the show earned the right to indulge in some fanboy pandering after a breathtaking eight-episode run that heralded David Haller’s story as the most unique and compelling in the current comic-media landscape – which is exactly why that post-credits sequence felt debased, somehow beneath Legion.
The fatal flaw of comic movies and television, no matter how enjoyable or truly valuable they are, is that they mostly always feel like a prelude to something greater. Captain America’s first film, for example, was saddled with the literal subtitle, The First Avenger. The machinery of expanded universes and sequels with sequels that have sequels isn’t confined to YouTube comment sections and industry conventional halls – it exists on the screen, embodied especially by those pesky sequences that force eager superhero sponges to sit patiently, rooting around for their last edible popcorn kernels while byzantine credits roll over a black screen.
Legion, though, in almost every respect, is different. This season was only nominally concerned with comic lore, set in an indefinable time period, and presented with visual and storytelling flair unprecedented in the larger superhero tradition.
The show has earned all the superlatives that have been heaped upon it – experimental, groundbreaking, beautiful, stylish – as they are all accurate, but somehow they’re also dismissive. They don’t tell the whole story. Most of the attention Legion has commanded is focused on form, and deservedly so – but it succeeded just as its X-Men relative, Logan, succeeded: by tapering its vision, stripping its characters of symbolism, and allowing them to exist, to interact, and to blossom in a way that felt organic and informative.
So much of superhero filmography is bogged down in origin stories, the perfunctory maiden movies and seasons that breeze through well-known storylines and swat away lesser villains so that a franchise can eventually dig into to the meaty stuff. Easter eggs and trivial lore – “will so-and-so even wear their signature mask in this one?” – make these installments palatable to fans of the source material, but mostly they are as rote as any orientation. Meet the principles, get the syllabus, read a mission statement, and so forth. The effect is mechanical; superhero origins stop once the film ends and the credits roll, and studios assume that audiences now have all the information they need to be informed once the real shooting starts. Batman will always be a rage monster with a victim complex and a hunger for righteous vengeance, Captain America remains forever a boy scout with an underdog’s chip on his hulking shoulder, and Tony Stark stays forever the pragmatic playboy with a conscience. It’s baked into these characters by their origins; they effectively stop developing once the lights come up after their first film or season. Truly, they cease to be characters at all, morphing instead into easily understandable symbols and avatars.
Was Legion an origin story? The show didn’t concern itself with superhero tradition enough to make even that clear, instead focusing on David Haller as a character with an arc, not another super-suit in the making. That’s largely what is missed when you focus only on the immense visual achievement of Legion’s first season: the events on screen don’t merely build the David that will appear in season two – they inform his character, and are likewise informed by his character, just as the show’s visuals are as much a stylish reflection of his fractured mind as they are literal consequence of his actions. Some of season one’s most memorable sequences – the haunted-house trip through David’s memories, the aftermath of his assault on District 3, the final rupturing of his consciousness and expulsion of his dark passenger – propelled not only the plot of the series, but also an understanding of David. The character’s history, his condition, his principles – they were treated as somewhat definable, but constantly in flux, responsive to the show’s vivid environment.
Still, Legion is defined by more than its titular character, or the singular aesthetic of his surroundings. Relationships provide the show’s strongest connective tissue – the improbable relationship between David and Syd, the strange symbiosis of Cary and Kerry, the longing distance between Melanie and Oliver, and even the destructive connection between David and The Shadow King. The show is rightly lauded for daring to include a choreographed dance sequence, or for its bonkers cinematography, but its boldest feat was peppering the narrative with substantive relationships that existed as more than emotional cannon fodder or impermanent features of circumstance. Legion was as concerned with David and Syd as it was with mutants and their enemies. It was more fascinated with the bonds – healing or toxic – formed by people than with the eternal dance of good and evil.
Legion only introduces a real, whole David to viewers in the final minutes of his finale, the first time the character appears to have control over his reality and his actions. This, like the show’s ability to build relationships among its primary and secondary characters, is a luxury afforded by delivery method. Films are large bursts of creative energy, meant to sustain franchises for periods of inaction that last many months, or even years. TV, though, is a serial structure more naturally fitting for comic book stories. Legion is the first series to fully harness that power. However, as a cursory glance at Netflix’s uneven Marvel properties reveals, the television canvas alone isn’t enough. Hours amassed don’t necessarily equal quality. Legion narrowed its focus, beholden only to the story it was telling, damn the stories of other New Mutants, or of the X-Men that appear in movie theaters. Every other facet of the show is a consequence of that choice – the visuals, the plot, the pacing and the tone – and they all served Legion primarily, allowing David Haller to exist as something more than a symbol; no fetishized suit reveal required.
The season’s rousing finale – and the entire first season as a whole – require time to unpack and reflect upon. That such time was pilfered by an abrupt post-credits stinger is hardly lamentable. Legion succeeded by being exactly what it wanted to be, and if that should include an homage to the commercial slavishness of its superhero brethren, so be it. The show’s first season will deservedly be remembered for what it was, instead of what came after. That is the Legion‘s truly superhuman accomplishment.