Let’s start this all off by assuming, with good cause, that you have no idea who David Haller is in the X-Men universe. His relations – well, at least one of them – are major figures in the mythology of that particular Marvel series but there aren’t any clear touchstones to that source material in Legion, which centers on Mr. Haller. After years of packing each movie released in the MCU with a truly detrimental amount of references toward the mythology of the comics, Legion seems to flaunt no such need to stoke the anticipation of fanboys worldwide. In this alone, Fargo creator Noah Hawley‘s astonishing Marvel adaptation could be classified as a kind of miracle.
The surprisingly unencumbered narrative and its backstory is certainly not the only thing that draws one in throughout the 68 minutes of “Chapter 1,” which introduces us to Haller, played by Downton Abbey breakout Dan Stevens, and the splintered world he finds himself living in. Directed and written by Hawley, the pilot opens with a rapturous tracking of Haller’s life up to when we meet him, soundtracked by The Who’s “Happy Jack.” It’s in this stretch, which begins with him as a baby, that we first get a sense of his telekinetic powers, as well as the voices that are forever picking at his mental cohesiveness. It’s first shown as a gathering of people crowded around an adolescent David, whispering various streams of consciousness. Hawley, a robust yet measured stylist, uses a variety of visual and auditory tricks to express the bedlam that is David’s psyche and none of his ideas feels like a stretch or unconvincing.
When we first see him at the Clockworks Hospital, where he is being kept as a schizophrenic, Hawley fades in from Haller hanging himself with a red-rope-licorice-colored wire to a red sparkler sticking out of a birthday cupcake that he’s not allowed to eat. Death, for him, was the only way out and he saw it as a kind of mortal relief, but even this hopeful peace could not be enjoyed, landing him in a medicated limbo. There’s a thicket of allusions to who Haller is in just this one transition and Hawley adds even more expressive, explosive visual cues to the thematic and emotional undercurrents of this story as “Chapter 1” moves on. Even the sickly yet detailed and organized look of Clockworks, where David spends most of his days shooting the shit with Aubrey Plaza‘s music-obsessed Lenny, say something about what’s going on beyond the turns of the plot.
Both the aesthetic and the characters get more wound up with the arrival of Sydney Barrett, played by Fargo Season 2’s Rachel Keller, a new patient who doesn’t like being touched. It’s the romance that blooms between Syd and David that becomes the core of the episode and, it would seem, the series beyond this. It’s in their immediate connection to one another that David is spurred to more aggressively challenge his surroundings and certainties with a newfound acceptance of his destructive yet miraculous powers. Hawley makes life in Clockworks feel just inane enough that escape would be a constant desire but never suggests that the staff are anything but dutiful and understanding, if also a bit condescending and forgetful at moments. There’s no attempt to suggest any kind of abuse or corruption that would give Stevens’ character the moral high ground when the “event” happens.
Suddenly, we’re no longer in Clockworks but rather in what feels like a governmental black site, and the event is the topic of conversation between an imprisoned Haller and his interrogator (Hamish Linklater). Where the scenes between Syd and David were notable for rapturous transitions, seductively rhythmic editing, long, gorgeous fades, and other kinds of intoxicating visual practices, the scenes with the interrogator are more sobering, lightened by at least one exquisite tracking shot that takes the interrogator outside of David’s room and over to the command center where his boss awaits word. And yet Hawley and editor Regis Kimble are also able to make the time in Clockworks and the black site seem as if they’re happening at the same time, mixing memory with reality and flashes of psychotic dreams, imagined monsters, and other tricks of perspective.
Though not always easy to follow, this radical, radiant style constantly conveys the feeling of being at war with one’s self and possibly other selves inside one’s own head. The inability to take what’s in front of you at face value is something that’s often brought up in show’s about the super-powered or any otherworldly gifted crime solvers but it’s almost never expressed in the imagery. And none of this destabilization of time and space distracts from the wit and physical action of the series. When David makes rooms explode, Hawley and his effects team go all out and cover the screen with exploding mechanisms, flying foods, shattered glass, and tossed onlookers. When we survey the surreal damage of David’s first kiss with Syd, the aftermath is genuinely beguiling and, in the case of how we find Lenny, horrifying and sad. It makes Plaza’s return as a more lithe, happy, and quite dead Lenny at once galvanizing and legitimately eerie.
Indeed, the daring, near-impulsive visuals is not what makes Legion and “Chapter 1” the most astonishing debut since the Hannibal pilot. Like Bryan Fuller‘s mighty series, Hawley’s latest sports a superb regular cast, which also includes Fargo‘s Jean Smart, Katie Aselton, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Gray, and Jeremie Harris, that gives each odd character both distinguishing idiosyncrasies but also an emotional anchor. Everything down to the wardrobe seems to be saying something about how these characters see the world and who they are, ultimately. There’s a sweetness that goes beyond the simple quirkiness of Syd and David’s connection, although one quickly figures out that she has more interest in him than he could ever know. And David’s confusion, vulnerability, and humor come through with constant grace in Stevens’ exquisite performance, as does his fear after his explosive kiss with Syd.
That Hawley decides to cap this awe-inspiring work of visual storytelling off with a thrilling escape that includes telekinetic tosses, burnt corpses, and a beachfront rescue via helicopter should show just how much ambition the young visionary has culled from here. With “Chapter 1,” he’s not only issued a serious challenge to any Marvel adaptation that thinks exclusively in terms of plot – that would be most of them – but has also crafted one of the most thoughtful, breathtaking, and cinematic pilots of this or any other decade.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent