The world of the X-Men is wild, wooly, and occasionally full tilt crazy, right?
Then why doesn’t it ever feel like when you watch their movies?
Welcome to the post mortem of season one of FX’s Legion, mutantkind’s first major foray into the world of television. Now, the show itself has been written about a few times by now, but this postmortem (or post mutant-em, if you will) is about the real reason that this show has hit as hard as it has, because of its unabashed love for the X-Men; their style, their heart, and their weirdness. Throughout this piece, we will delve into what makes this show tick, revealing the major pillars of the show’s success and exactly how they compare in relation to what we all recognize as the X-film universe. The mutants finally got a fair shake on TV, spreading its wings in a way it never could in cinemas and I am going to lay out why right here.
Shall we begin?
The Chains of Continuity
We should get one thing out of the way. The X-Men movie continuity is garbage and anyone who tells you that it isn’t is either okay with that or one more retcon away from becoming the sandwich board guy in the opening of The Stand. Aside from stand outs like X-Men: First Class and Logan, most X-Men movies were constantly tripping over themselves to justify their own time travel hijinks or plot deviations.
This constant damage control hamstrung the movies in two ways. First, it locked them into a set of characters that they couldn’t really ever expand on. And two, it kept them in a constant state of flux, as the supposed clean slate of X-Men: First Class was quickly filled with the dour, self-serious tone of the previous Bryan Singer trilogy thanks to the subsequent Singer-directed sequels.
However, despite some set dressing about David Haller’s parentage, Legion was free of those restrictions, both from the Fox films and the co-producing universe of Marvel Studios. It was tremendous actually watching an X-Men related bit of media that was as focused, narratively and thematically, as Legion was. Better still, the show didn’t have to adhere to the constantly shifting rules and touchstones of the outside X-universe, leaving it open to not only develop its own characters, but leaving itself a multitude of space to grow while the movies quickly reached a peak and was constrained by said peak.
Of course, the show might have benefitted from a bit more juice when it came to the Xavier connection and I wouldn’t have been opposed to maybe one or two winking nods to this universe’s version of X-highlights, but its clear that Legion was able to stand on its own, without the burden of Fox’s spotty cinematic past. Standing on its own also poises it for a brighter future than the movies ever had thanks to its singularity and breathing room it gave itself throughout season one. With the movies, we knew we were getting Wolverine or Magneto, but with Legion, we haven’t the slightest clue who could show up. The final shot of season one had the internet buzzing about the possibility of the Orb and Mojo and his hellish network, and for the first time, it doesn’t feel like that is out of the realm of possibility.
Everyone's A Lil' Bit Crazy
Another thing that won’t be a shock for regular viewers of the Fox films to hear is that they are kind of bad. With a muddy color palette and costume designs that are always two shades too dark (excluding the stellar X_Men: First Class uniforms), they quickly adapted a house style and never much strayed from it. Worse than that, they always seemed so ashamed of their most fantastical elements, opting to use the same rotating set of villains in the first trilogy and then quickly playing them down in the second and third installments of the new possibly prime timeline films.
The example that I often use is the Marvel Netflix shows... you know what I am talking about. The kind of attitude that gets us jokes like Luke Cage escaping from prison and putting on his classic original costume (a costume that gets you some damn fine stat buffs on Marvel Ultimate Alliance I might add), and then he instantly makes fun of it. A more explicit example for the X-Men movies would be the famous, or perhaps infamous exchange in the first film between Wolverine and Cyclops. As they sit in the Blackbird, poised to confront the Brotherhood, Logan scoffs at their oh, so, 2000s black leather get-ups and Scott replies, “What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?"
Um, yeah, I would, Scott.
I am pretty sure I'm not the only one either.
And while we never really got yellow spandex, Legion was and is all about how weird mutants are and how cool they could look. The only thing that could have made it more stylish would be if they actually had uniforms. But they may as well had because every episode was stocked with sartorial goodness reminiscent of the high fashion superheroics of the original X-Factor and various run of Uncanny X-Men. Legion doubles down too, making use of the long neglected roster of villains the X-Men had to offer. While the movies were locked in this push-pull relationship with the doctrine of Magneto and boasted an interchangeable roster of baddies, Legion went for the gusto right out of the gate and posits a world in which the more outlandish X-villains wouldn’t be beyond the pale. I mean, can you possibly imagine a Bryan Singer movie where the Shadow King was the villain and most of the action was based around either psychic warfare or intricate music video-like set pieces? I know I can’t, but showrunner Noah Hawley did it and his show wears its weird heart on its sleeves to much acclaim.
But while Legion carried with it all the bells and whistles of a slickly produced mutant adventure, it never lost sight of what really makes the X-Men special; they are a family. Again, aside from the propulsive and endlessly shippable X-Men: First Class, most of the movies felt like they were always more concerned about the larger issue at hand or highlighting certain key characters. The animated shows have consistently played up the dynamic between the characters, giving our generation our first 'One True Pairings' and a real taste of the kind of ensemble at work at various times in the comic books, the movies opted to become more spotlight affairs.
The original trilogy was clearly more enamored with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and his relationships with Famke Janssen's Jean Grey and his butting heads with James Marsden’s stuffy Scott than with the overall thematic arc of mutant equality and human suspicions. Matthew Vaughn righted the ship at least for a while in X-Men: First Class, giving us a true team facing a global threat that endangered both mutant and humankind. However, once Singer got back behind the camera all that was dissipated in favor of retcons and bombastic, city-destroying chaos.
Though Dan Stevens’ David was the focal point of the show, the writers still took the time to cultivate a real sense of togetherness for the characters, leaning into the more soapy, character-focused stories of the Uncanny eras. That is the kind of X-Men story I want to see. Sure, giant spectacle is great and the movies have done their best to supply that, but none of those stories ever felt like I was watching a team standing with one another. Legion built a Greendale study group of mutants, much like the ones we have enjoyed throughout pages and pages of X-Men comic books and the world, in large part, embraced them.
And there you have it, Legion's first season neatly and systematically dissected for all our benefit because the mutants deserve a win this big to be celebrated. And who knows? Maybe in a year’s time we will be talking this highly of the incoming New Mutants movie or the in-production Fox pilot starring noted vampire dreamboat Stephen Moyer. For once, I am optimistic of the Children of the Atom’s chances and in the mean time, we have Legion and the mutants are back in the win column.