New X-Men spinoff TV series Legion's superhero could be an inmate in a mental hospital

Dan Stevens (above, with Rachel Keller) plays protagonist David Haller in Legion.
Dan Stevens (above, with Rachel Keller) plays protagonist David Haller in Legion.PHOTO: FOX NETWORKS GROUP

New series Legion shuns well-covered territory in its portrayal of a man locked up in a mental hospital as a superhero

When trailers for the X-Men spin-off, Legion, were screened at comic-book conventions last year, fans sat up and took notice because it looked more like a Stanley Kubrick or Wes Anderson film than a superhero show.

And that is the whole point, according to creator Noah Hawley, who says the last thing he wants to do is duplicate the "well-covered territory" represented by the many titles in this genre.

This is why the protagonist here is no quippy costumed crimefighter, but a troubled man locked up in a mental hospital, where he is tormented by what he believes are schizophrenic hallucinations.

Based on the Legion character from the Marvel comics, David Haller (Dan Stevens) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child. But he falls in love with another patient, Syd (Rachel Keller), and believes his visions may, in fact, be the result of telekinetic and telepathic powers.

The much-anticipated series - which debuts in Singapore on Thursday - will follow David on this existential journey as he figures out what is real and what is not.

Hawley, 49, says: "What drove me was to tell an accessible story in which you saw a man yearning to be healthy and have what everybody else has, which is manifested by this woman he meets and this love story.

"And against that love story, there are darker elements haunting him. It's this idea that our identity is created in the stories that we tell ourselves. With David, is this identity he believes in fake? Maybe he doesn't have a mental illness, maybe he has these abilities and, if so, he has to go back and rewrite the story of himself. And this fascinating existential journey turns out to be dangerous for him."

Marvel fans should not hold their breath for David to start beating up lots of bad guys like the garden-variety superhero.

Hawley, who also created acclaimed crime drama Fargo (2014-present), says: "Shows like Netflix's Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Daredevil tend to have a crime-fighting component to them and this isn't that story at all."

Instead, the viewer will be struggling to figure things out as David is doing the same. "It's a subjective show - you have a main character who doesn't know what's real and what's not and the idea was to create a subjective experience for the audience as well to try and put them in David's shoes."

This lends itself to a deliberately ambiguous aesthetic style, with fashion, architecture and music and film references that recall "1960s British movies", but with futuristic touches as well, so "we're not sure exactly when we are in time or where in the world we are", Hawley explains.

This eclecticism extended to the scenes themselves, many of which take place in David's mind or in a distorted perception of reality.

For the cast, this meant enacting everything from nightmarish horror scenes to trippy, comical dance sequences.

Stevens, the show's star, says Hawley and the crew approached this with "a lot of playfulness".

Speaking to reporters in Vancouver, where the show is filmed, he says: "The camera department, costumes and production design have all been having a field day with this world, bending our perception of our immediate reality as well as bending yours in viewing it. And for us as actors, it's just a playful space," says the 34-year-old, who is best known for period drama Downton Abbey (2010-2012).

At the same time, he felt compelled to research mental illness to understand what it is like to be diagnosed as schizophrenic.

"When something is set in a fantastical realm, it helps if you can root it in some sort of human truth and experience. Whether David has or hasn't been misdiagnosed his whole life is a question in the show.

"But the paranoid schizophrenia that a lot of people suffer from is a real thing and I spoke to patients and psychologists to get some insight," says the actor, who has two children, aged four and seven, with jazz singer Suzie Hariet, 41.

The series is a collaboration with Marvel Television, the studio behind numerous ongoing superhero shows, such as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil, which are all set in a shared mythological world referred to as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe".

In the comics, David is the son of Professor Charles Xavier - leader of the group of superhuman mutants known as the X-Men - and Legion producer Bryan Singer has hinted the series may also tie in with future films in the X-Men franchise (2000-present)

But Hawley insists that the show will largely stand alone for now. While Legion will be "true to the origin stories of the character… this is less of a literal adaptation and more of a dive into my own story that is inspired by that Legion character, but not necessarily a slave to the mythology".

And Marvel Television is giving him a lot of room to improvise.

"Now that we've established the basic language of this superhero comic-book genre, what else can you do with it? Can you turn it into a real character piece that's not necessarily conflict-driven?

"Can you make something existential or surreal? How far will the audience go with you in taking this material to its boundaries?"

•Legion debuts in Singapore on Thursday at 9pm on Fox (HD) (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Tortured soul to the rescue'. Print Edition | Subscribe