Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Legion" on FX - Breaking out of the Superhero Box

You'll hear a lot about how 90's comic books were all about Chromium covers, Rob Liefeld and .  There's some truth to that.  But that's like saying 90's music was all Garth Brooks and Hootie and the Blowfish.  The 90's brought us Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, and a host of others who came to comics mostly via the guiding hand of Karen Berger and the Vertigo imprint.

Titles like Hellblazer, Kid Eternity and Invisibles kept me in comics when I was hitting that crucial point where I might have moved on.  And, totally honestly, had I not stumbled across the "Ramadan" issue of Sandman during the final months of my senior year of high school, I suspect me and comics were headed for a bitter break-up.

Part of that break-up was what was happening in the X-Men titles, which had lost the guiding hand of Chris Claremont,  whose writing I was ready to leave behind, I suspect, but who had created multi-dimensional characters in a way that, to this day, I cannot believe comics in general haven't learned from.

FX's new series, Legion, is going to confuse folks who head to the comic shop to find issues of the series, or a nice trade paperback.  The character, David Haller, appeared briefly in a few runs of various X-books dating back to the mid-1980's, including his first appearances in the surprisingly weird New Mutants title, giving Chris Claremont's writing and the artistry of Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin, Stray Toasters, numerous other projects) co-creator status.

He appeared before I started reading New Mutants and re-appeared when I'd moved on to other books, so my knowledge of the character was mostly from role-playing game supplements which used the Marvel Handbook text and art and coupled them with stats.

But I'd mostly forgotten Legion until the ads started popping up on television for a new series by Noah Hawley, the mind behind FX's Fargo TV series.  I think it's worth mentioning that I sincerely believe that the Fargo TV series is one of the best things on screens big or small of the last fifteen years, so Hawley's involvement certainly piqued my interest.

But, basically, if Legion has anything to do with the comics, I can't tell.   Nor do I think it really matters one way or another.  One of the very neat tricks Marvel has managed as a studio is to improve on and expand on material that was either a little thin or could take the punch-up.  I loved Alias as a comic.  I thought the TV show Jessica Jones was a step better.  I mostly don't actually enjoy the Guardians of the Galaxy comics, original formula or the most recent configuration, but ask me how much I'm looking forward to the sequel.*

If I referenced 90's comics - I'm thinking of the house that Karen Berger built and the books like Animal ManKid Eternity, Doom PatrolShade the Changing Man and even Sandman that used the forgotten corners of the DCU to do something entirely new in comics, with mature storytelling and expanding beyond punch-ups to psychological exploration and interpersonal issues for characters that didn't match the B-plots of B-movies.  Scarred characters, pushing the envelope on the implications of the super-powered, people who drank and swore and were probably better off before they could bend reality with their willpower.

From Morrison's Buddy Baker looking out past the frame to see the reader, to the reality bending melodrama of Shade the Changing Man, these were more than black and white hat stories outfitted with nifty super powers.  They played with story and structure - Invisibles read like a fever dream most of the time and - with audience expectation of comic book protagonist heroism.  In an era of post-modern story, they shook the rafters with ideas, with understanding formalism enough to understand what would change if the pieces were re-arranged.

And that's where we pick up with Legion.

The pilot is one of the finest I've seen, not just a superhero program, but for television in general, and I watched the 90 minute show twice in one weekend.  I don't recognize much in the way of the standard-issue Marvel lore in the show and only loosely see what I remember from the Marvel Handbook in the character.  Instead, especially that 90 minute pilot, written and directed by Fargo's Noah Hawley, reimagines the genre, understanding that the audience must be as off-kilter as David Haller himself.

It's Wes Anderson meets George Miller by way of Terry Gilliam (as was mentioned to me by a co-worker, and to which I agreed immediately), and I say that in the best of all possible ways.  And, of course, echoes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but if there's a Nurse Ratchet, it's not obvious quite yet.

Without giving too much away, the pilot finds David Haller in his mid-20's having had lived in a mental hospital for the last several years where he lives a simple routine of taking pills and going to therapy.  He hears voices, and at some point, there was an incident or three that pointed to his troubles.  His sister visits him, but she's clearly a bit afraid of him, but she loves him more than she fears him.

One day a lovely female patient, Sydney, arrives and David and she fall in love - despite the fact they can't make physical contact.  But as she is soon discharged, things take a turn for the surprising.

The scenes and design have some of the Wes Anderson vibe of the oddly modernist retro, embedded in mid-Century geometry and with spot-on musical selection from The Who to Jane's Addiction to Talking Heads (it feels a bit like Hawley raided my tape collection circa 1991).  Characters communicate in stunted passages, talking past each other - the difference here being that the audience's delight is not in our understanding and relishing the irony.  We're watching mad men.  Shots follow Miller's Mad Max rule of putting everything in the middle of the frame for easier cutting, faster focus by the viewer and  the ability to rapidly cut - absolutely necessary as the show plays with time and space.  And, you'll get a taste of 12 Monkeys in here as our protagonist seems to be grappling quite heartily with reality around him as it shifts and turns, maybe at his own hand or someone else's.

Like anyone else, I was skeptical of a Fargo TV show, but before the end of the pilot of Fargo, I understood that this was a pastiche, existing in that same world but not outright mimickery.  Hawley would use what he found and make something new, and using the pieces of something as rich as the work of the Coens, he was able to build something new and extraordinary.  I suspect he's doing the same now with what should have been a third-tier knock off series living in deep-cable oblivion and managed to turn it into one of the great surprises of this calendar year.

The cast contains veterans of the Fargo series, including Jean Smart and Rachel Keller (Keller plays a character named Syd Barrett - a nod to the show's issues with mental illness, I suppose, as that's the name of Pink Floyd's original frontman who left the band with mental issues, likely schizophrenia.  I haven't made many connections, otherwise, with character names).  Aubrey Plaza plays a friend, Lenny Busker, Bill Irwin returns to TV as Cary Loudermilk.  I was a fan of Katie Aselton during her time on The League (also on FX), and am very glad to see her show up again.  And, really, Dan Stevens is doing a phenomenal job of playing David Haller himself.

There's still a lot of Legion left to go.   It's Noah Hawley, so it's likely this will be a self-contained 8 episode run, and if he likes it and ratings are there, we'll get 8 more.  And then maybe eight more.  We'll see.  Really, after watching Netflix stretch so many series to 13 episodes, I'm good with 8.

On a personal note:  

And I feel a bit silly talking about it, back when I was in film school (those selfsame go-go 90's) and reading those comics mentioned above, I worked on a screenplay called The Hypothetical Elevator.  I wrote it mostly during the Fall 1997 semester as part of a screenwriting course I took with JimD, and there were certainly echoes of what I was trying to do back then that showed up in Legion.  But, I'd argue, Legion did them very, very well.  Much better than I'd ever conceptualized.

The scripts are vastly different, the characters don't have that much in common, and you can definitely see aspects what I was reading at the time littered throughout, from Preacher to Invisibles to getting my head around what an RTF major could scrape together about some fairly commonly discussed scientific principles that weren't quite as much in the zeitgeist at the time, but were making their way out there.  But I do think there are enough points in common, you couldn't put that script out next year as a flick and not expect unfavorable comparisons.

Anyway, screw it.  I've been ripping up the creative works of others for years.  If you guys want to read a draft of it, you can find it here.  The writing is immature, it's full of swears, I'd keep the basics and re-write a lot of the dialog now if I had a reason to do so.  But this should give you an idea of what I was up to back then.

*a lot.  I am very much looking forward to a second installment.

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