Legion marks the end of Fox's version of the X-Men franchise, and it's the perfect embodiment of what the company did best with Marvel's merry mutants. The critically-acclaimed, ratings-challenged FX series told the story of Marvel mutant David Haller over the course of three seasons. A young man suffering from debilitating mental illness, David is eventually revealed to be a powerful mutant who's the biological offspring of future X-Men leader Charles Xavier.
David was infected with the spirit of the Shadow King, one of Xavier's first rivals; the Shadow King amplified David's mental illness in its infancy, leading him to a life spent in drug dens and asylums. But when David finally realizes what he's capable of, the story doesn't go exactly as viewers might expect it to.
Beyond Legion's solid plotting and interesting characters, the show made its true mark with its dazzling visual style; nothing on TV has ever looked like Legion. David is presented to the audience as an unreliable narrator, with the world filtered through his own eccentricities. Technological anachronisms, shifts in aspect ratio, and elaborate musical numbers were all hallmarks of Legion, which was often more concerned with presenting the world's most delicious eye-candy than telling a completely coherent narrative. It was refreshing for a superhero adaptation.
The End Of Fox's X-Men Era Was A Creative High
While Legion has been Fox's most impressive small-screen X-Men effort by a long distance, it's easy to forget they also kicked off the modern superhero film era; 2000's X-Men legitimized the genre in a way it desperately needed after the dark days of Batman & Robin and Steel. And While X2: X-Men United surpassed the first film in quality, it took awhile after that for Fox to figure out where they wanted to take the franchise, and suffered two underperforming, critically savaged films in X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. By the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe was getting off the ground, the X-Men film franchise felt outdated, still too embarrassed of its source material to embrace colorful costumes or alien threats.
But something happened on the series' way to its inevitable death march - it got good again, arguably better than it ever was. The long-gestating Deadpool finally got off the ground in 2016 and became a cultural and box office behemoth, one of the most successful R-rated films of all time. The 2018 sequel - the aptly titled Deadpool 2 - was just as impressive, and solidified Ryan Reynolds' foulmouthed antihero as a legitimate cultural icon. Even Disney is considering continuing the Deadpool series, while closing out everything else.
And while it couldn't be much more different than Deadpool, Logan was no less stunning. Another R-rated adventure, Logan eschewed Deadpool's toilet humor and cartoonish blood splatters for a grounded, grizzled vignette of a complicated man's final days. Hugh Jackman does his career-best work in this loose adaptation of the Old Man Logan comic, his final time wearing the adamantium claws. Patrick Stewart almost bests him, playing an aged, senile version of Charles Xavier haunted by the tragic way his twilight years have played out. It remains a high point not only in the superhero genre, but in mainstream 21st century film.
The psychedelic, delightfully fractured Legion formed a kind of thematic trilogy with Deadpool and Logan, showing what the genre is truly capable of when it's removed from the concerns of a shared cinematic universe and strict corporate synergy; these projects simply told the story they set out to, with no regard to how another project might react to it. It's essentially the opposite of how the MCU plays out, which may be a grim sign for fans of those types of stories.
Disney Will Never Make Something Like Legion
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Disney's acquisition of Fox and, along with it, the rights to the X-Men. This will be the first true onscreen reboot of the mutants in 20 years, and they were in need of it - as evidenced by lackluster entries like X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix. That version of the mutants had run its course, and it was beginning to buckle under the weight of Fox's convoluted X-Men timeline. Surely we can find better uses for Michael Fassbender's talents than lifting his hand in the air and gritting his teeth as Magneto for the fifth time.
Disney's iteration of the X-Men will almost certainly prove more consistent quality-wise, and will be more faithful to the source material in both themes and style; fans can bank on the new Wolverine and Cyclops suiting up in their classic blue and yellows. And the X-Men will likely thrive on the small screen as well - it's easy to imagine Disney+ touting an X-Men series soon. But the price of Disney's consistency and fan-pleasing aesthetics is obvious - they're either unwilling or incapable of making something like Legion. Legion's subversions of the genre - David's heel turn, the murky morality, the big finale twist - would never fly with Disney's current management. Legion is simply too much of a creative gamble for Disney to ever take a chance on something in the same vein.
And indeed, Disney could rightly make the claim that Legion was a show that never developed a big audience and had no real cultural impact. But that's exactly the point; it's a roll of the dice Disney never would have made, and when these massive corporate entities start treating entertainment as something that exists only to maximize profits and promote the next big thing, we often lose art we never even knew we needed. Would Disney have rolled the dice on something like Deadpool or Logan? It seems unlikely, but with the MCU's inevitable version of the X-Men coming, we'll likely know soon enough.
Legion is likely destined to go down as something of a footnote. It aired mostly in the zombie period where it was obvious most existing non-Disney Marvel projects would soon end. It will never have the kind of visibility that the X-Men films enjoyed, including the truly awful ones. It wasn't even the most popular show its creator made, as that honor would go to Noah Hawley's Fargo. But Legion's legacy will be felt in other ways - its inventive style, its mashup of genres, and its bravado performance by Aubrey Plaza, all of this will inspire others to make similarly wild, enjoyably unpredictable art.
The question is whether or not they'll get to filter that art through the prism of superhero adaptations. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is good at what it does, but it's not the only way to adapt comics. For every linear, traditional comic storyteller like Stan Lee or Gil Kane, there were wildly different visionaries like Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko, who attempted to push the limits of what superhero stories could be, both thematically and aesthetically. Legion carries on the tradition of those artists, as well as auteur filmmakers like David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. Disney has yet to show a tremendous interest in auteurs, certainly on the small screen, opting for crowd pleasing star power and fairly traditional storytelling tropes. That clearly works for many people - the MCU is huge for a reason - but spare a thought for the stylish, left-of-center Fox works like Legion, which we may never see the likes of again from this little corner of the superhero world.