Viewers are drawn into a world seen by a schizophrenic patient in Legion
There were more than 20 superhero films and television shows last year, so the last thing viewers desperately need is a new comic-book adaptation, especially one with yet another white male protagonist.
Just as well, then, that Marvel put its latest offering in the hands of hotshot writer-director-producer Noah Hawley, who has a proven track record when it comes to stories no one thought needed retelling - he managed to turn the near-perfect 1996 film Fargo into the widely acclaimed crime series of the same name (2014 to present).
He brings both dark drama and whimsy to Legion, the Marvel X-Men character who, in the comics, has multiple alter egos and the ability to move objects with his mind.
Legion began life as David Haller, played here by Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens. Diagnosed with schizophrenia since he was a child, he ends up in a mental institution drugged up to his eyeballs and with no apparent hope of getting better.
Then he falls in love with another patient, Syd (Rachel Keller), who suggests that the cacophony of visions and voices in his head might not only be real, but are also a powerful gift.
In some ways, this is a classic retread of the X-Men films and other superhero tales: The hero has special abilities and does not fit in, is then feared or persecuted, but ultimately triumphs because he is different.
But here, those abilities aren't fast-tracked into him becoming a masked, costumed crime-fighter tossing off snarky one-liners as he takes down bad guys.
Instead, Hawley offers a stylish, genre-flouting window into a tortured soul, drawing the viewer into the world as seen by David, who is either heavily medicated, unhinged, superhuman or some combination thereof.
As he and others question his sanity, Stevens plays the unreliable narrator to perfection and with just the right measure of crazy.
The three episodes previewed look like no other Marvel outing. From the mental asylum to the retreat where David takes refuge, a tasteful mid-century aesthetic recalls Stanley Kubrick films from the 1960s and 1970s, but with deliberately anachronistic touches to throw the viewer off balance and establish this in its own time and place.
Dreamlike sequences featuring Bollywood dance moves and retro-cool songs by French crooner Serge Gainsbourg are not from your standard superhero playbook, either, which further underscores how homogeneous the genre has become.
Best of all, the writers appear in no hurry for David to figure out if he really has powers, much less use them to save the world.
They are far more interested in peering inside his head, especially when Syd takes him to a sanctuary where a Dr Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) coaxes him into what amounts to psychotherapy for newly outed mutants: they revisit and analyse his memories so he can work out what triggers his powers.
Even if it seems a foregone conclusion that the powers are real, this suspenseful and, at times, truly scary discovery process is more compelling than any action set-piece governed by gravity-defying superhero physics.
Another new show, 24: Legacy, musters a less convincing interpretation of an equally overworked genre: the counterrorism-espionage drama.
It is, in part, a victim of its own success. The opening scenes of the original 24's 2001 pilot - where a woman plants a bomb on an airplane, then parachutes off before it explodes - were so startling I remember them vividly 16 years on.
That and the then-novel conceit of seeing a show unfold in real time, with a clock counting down the hour on screen, made 24 and its original hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) must-see prime-time TV back in the day. The creators of Legacy have copy-and-pasted tropes from 24 and similar stories to create, at best, a serviceable thriller revolving around war hero Eric Carter (Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins).
VIEW IT / LEGION
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Fox HD (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505), Tuesdays, 9pm
Once again, the villains are Islamic terrorists, this time hunting down Carter and other army rangers who killed their leader and stole a list of codes that would activate sleeper cells all over the country.
The pilot does not even dazzle us with any new spycraft and surveillance tricks we haven't seen before, and an Indiana Jones-like scene with a massive rolling pipe is not nearly as impressive as the makers of the show clearly thinks it is. Plus, Hawkins feels like too much of a nice guy to give the show some much-needed edge. After a while, you start looking at that ticking clock just to see how much longer you have to sit through this.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Window to a tortured soul'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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