The latest additions to the X-Men Cinematic Universe take the franchise in different, and distinctly grown up, directions.
Logan features the swan song of key franchise star Hugh Jackman as the iconic Wolverine. It’s an exercise in R-rated action intensity that sports a surprising amount of introspective character moments. Legion is a niche TV hit for F/X, focusing on David Haller, the mentally ill son of Professor X, as he comes to grips with his powers.
In some ways, Logan and Legion are very different. That’s partly a function of their different mediums. With just over two hours allotted on the big screen, Logan needed to face its central plot themes head on. While it afforded a surprisingly generous amount of the run time to character introspection, including some sterling interactions between Logan and the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), it sports several big ticket action sequences that make the best use of its large scale playing field.
As a TV production with ten hours to play with and a more intimate focus, Legion has room to play around. Its storytelling approach is often non-linear, bordering on stream-of-consciousness. Scenes play out languidly, often stretching beyond typical television conventions. The proceedings are highly impressionistic and symbolism-laden. Action intrudes into the character study, but often at the edges or even offscreen.
Logan takes place in a near-future that’s not really so much a dystopia as a logically potential end road of the past decade. Legion has a deliberately non-specific retro sensibility that could place it in any decade from the past forty or so years.
But both have a lot in common. Each production is interested in using the tropes of a comic book adaptation as a vehicle to explore a very damaged lead character. Not that building a comic book adaptation around a damaged lead is new ground; it’s practically baked into the genre. But Logan and Legion seem to take their protagonists’ troubled souls very much to heart. Each is interested in its anti-hero’s damage for its own sake, not merely as the excuse to don a colorful costume and go save the world.
Logan has an autumnal feel. If the erstwhile Wolverine is still ready to throw down at a moment’s notice, he’s also weary, slowly weakening and haunted by a lifetime of losses, hard choices and miseries. Logan and Charles both wrestle with the questionable legacies they’re to leave behind. A sense of mortality accompanies them everywhere, punctuated by rare moments of grace. It’s probably the first movie in the X-Men franchise to really give its central actors a showcase for some “capital A” Acting. Jackman and Stewart make the most of it.
Legion starts with the premise that David isn’t actually mentally ill, it’s just his immense power set that makes him seem unstable. But over the first half of the season, as the plot moves forward languidly, the show makes clear that David actually is as troubled as he seemed at first, though the genesis is a lot more insidious. Star Dan Stevens is a long way from his beloved Downton Abbey role, but provides a firm anchor for some very challenging, often defiantly weird, material. The actor’s inherent likability provides viewers with an interface to withstand some of the production’s odder touches (like the occasional Bollywood-style dance breakdown or David strumming a sad banjo and crooning “The Rainbow Connection”).
Both productions are squarely aimed at adults. Logan’s action takes full advantage of its R rating, with some brutal action sequences and heavy profanity. This grittier approach really works for the character, aligning it with some of the more adult-oriented Wolverine comic book stories.
Legion features almost casual acts of violence, a bit of profanity, some sex, some drug use and a pace that is almost entirely unsuited to young viewers. It may be set in the same world as the X-franchise, but it has neither the intent nor the interest of engaging the younger part of the X-Universe’s audience.
Logan and Legion also demonstrate how effective the genre can be when producers give an auteur room to do his thing. Director/co-writer James Mangold communicates a singular vision for Logan. The outré ethos of Legion is almost entirely thanks to series creator Noah Hawley, who’s written or co-written most episodes and directed the pilot. The superhero genre doesn’t always lend itself to the auteur approach. Given the big stakes usually at play, studios tend to exert tight control and enforce specific parameters. Logan and Legion both mine strong results from letting a creative mind execute his vision and pushing against the genre’s conventions.
And that might be the biggest lesson studios can take from the relative success of Logan and Legion. Taking chances and allowing creative minds to run with their distinctive ideas can yield strong, possibly very offbeat, results.