Legion of Damn! Thoughts on the Best Thing to Ever Happen to TV in the History of Recorded Time

Back in the 1990s, when I was a flat-dwelling San Francisco Gen X slacktivist too busy falling in futile love with lesbians and smoking speed out of broken lightbulbs to do something as mundane as, ugh, watch TV, there was a live action series inspired by the X-Men comics I’d loved as a kid. Apparently, it looked something like this…

kinopoisk.ru

It’s as if they managed to capture the essence of everything questionable, wrong-headed and lame about the decade and distill it into a single syndicated television program. (Hopefully they later jettisoned it into the far reaches of space.) Granted, I also thought I was too cool for comics at the time, but even if I hadn’t been, I doubt I’d have been slavering at the mouth for a weekly taste of whatever this is pictured here to satisfy my cravings for supertainment.

Four years later Bryan Singer’s X-Men would arrive and upend everything about the moribund live action superhero film that the ’90s Bat-franchise had so successfully driven to the edge of its grave.

Xmen-Featured

That’s a massive leap forward in less than half a decade, but it made a promise that the the 2ks would be lot more interesting for mutant-lovers and comics geeks, and it re-inspired my appreciation for those old funnybooks by using the Claremont/Byrne era I read and loved as a touchstone.

But countless superhero franchise flicks later, and after the dull thud of Age of Apocalypse, you might forgive me for summoning images of Generation X‘s ’90s-era awfulness when I heard that FX was going to do a live-action X-Men show based on an obscure character (to me, at least) from the ’80s New Mutants books (I never read those).  

Of course, I had a glimmer of interest when I heard that Noah Hawley was going to be the guiding force behind it, not least because I’d had such a similar reaction when I first heard that someone was going to make a TV version of the Coen brothers classic film Fargo. After all, someone had already tried that idea years earlier, too, and it did not meet with what you might call success.

But Hawley somehow managed to nail the language and storytelling rhythms of the Coens so well, I was convinced they had a heavy creative hand in the whole endeavor, only to learn later that beyond their exec producer credits they had next to none.

So I had confidence Hawley would at least do something noteworthy with his little slice of the X-franchise. And the casting of Dan Stevens (so great as a kind of sociopathic Steve Rogers in the underseen thriller gem The Guest ), Aubrey Plaza (an out-of-nowhere sensation from Parks & Recreation who really needed to prove that she could do something more than drip dry slacker sarcasm over any and all proceedings), and Jemaine Clement (who’d already busted out of his Flight of the Conchords comedy-music box by tearing it up as a sexy vampire in What We Do in the Shadows) seemed reasonably intriguing, if not outright inspired. So yeah, I figured I’d give it a look. Maybe Hawley would give me something to look forward to on Wednesday nights since I’d abandoned Arrow. Boy, was I underestimating that mad fuckin’ genius.

The pilot for his Legion announced its intentions pretty much from the first scene, introducing the viewer to a bugfuck puzzlebox where it was hard to tell what year, decade or mental facility we were in, or whether we were ever in reality at all. I had to watch the whole thing twice just to try and decide for myself what was happening in 3D reality and what was going on exclusively in the confines of David Haller’s (Stevens) mind. Happily, as art-rocked as the episode was, there were definitive answers to those questions, and David even expressly asked, “Is this real? This is real, right?” at the appropriate moment. And the response he received was not a narrative cheat, but a direct testament to both character and viewer. Basically Hawley saying, “Yes, we’re fucking with you, but no, we’re not.” After that rewatch, I knew that this pretty, occasionally Lynchian multimedia indulgence, with its spot-on music choices and psychodelicate visuals was actually going to tell me a story, and wasn’t just yanking my chain for the sake of getting away with high weirdness on the TV (though that was a pleasant side effect).

I knew it wouldn’t be a show for everybody, but I knew most of my comics-reading friends would love the shit out of it, and even better, it was one I could happily recommend to certain non-comics friends who were more literate in things like Kubrick, David Lynch, David Bowie, and other things arty, entertaining, offbeat and good.

Much like in Logan, Hawley’s show thrives on solid writing, spinning out character beats and scenes about human connection that almost make you forget you’re watching a sci-fi suspense series based on a comic book. And the mutants they’ve contrived for this corner of the X-verse are unique and metaphorical in ways that tend to serve both story and theme. Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller, a full-bodied, full-blooded star in the making forged in the fires of Fargo, and that character name is no accident, Pink Floyd fans) can’t touch anyone lest they switch bodies/identities. So of course she and David have to fall in love. Cary/Kerry Loudermilk (the always-amazing Bill Irwin whose film career stretches back to Robert Altman’s superweird Popeye movie) is a middle-aged man with a kind of parasitic female twin (Amber Midthunder, a lovely young actress with sixteen years of work behind her already and the best surname I’ve ever heard in my life) who can leave his body at will, but generally doesn’t like to, so has aged much slower than him. She’s also kind of a badass. Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris, who can wear the hell out of some clothes) can enter people’s memories, which proves really useful in parsing out what’s going on in David’s brain (the central question being, is he schizophrenic, or a superpowerful mutant that can rewrite the world?). Ptonomy also has an awesome Thompson machine gun.

As much as I’d love to write an episode-by-episode breakdown of why this is the greatest thing to come out of the Farnsworth box and enter the center of my brain like one of Brian O’Blivion’s Videodrome tumors, I know we live in an age where even the most voracious of readers are devolving to have the attention spans of sugar-stimulated gnats, so I’ll try to just brushstroke its greatness in a few more hyperbolic paragraphs of praise.

Back in 2012, X-Men: First Class Screenwriter Zack Stentz tweeted:

“My goal in life is to get “Oh! You Pretty Things” into an X-Men movie. I think I’ve got a good shot at succeeding.”

For those that don’t know, “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a classic David Bowie song from his early masterpiece (just one of many) Hunky Dory. It contains the following lyrics:
Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stayOh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Oh you Pretty Things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

I have no idea if David Bowie ever read an X-Men comic, or whether he would have wanted his beautiful song used in a giant mega-blockbuster comic book franchise movie (for enough Euros, though, probably sure). But I do know that those lyrics, by happenstance or design, pretty much summarize the entire reason for being of the X-franchise. That is the very essence of what every really good X-men story is ultimately about. The freaks represent an evolution, and mankind in all its tremulous fearfulness just ain’t fuckin’ ready.

When I read Stentz’s tweet, just after Days of Future Past was announced as the next X-Men flick, I thought, This guy gets it. This is EXACTLY what the soundtrack to a ’70s-set X-movie needs. This is style and attitude and a connection to something bigger than this insular comic book multiverse. 

Then the movie came out, with neither Stentz’s name in the credits nor the song on the soundtrack, and those are not the only ways Days of Future Past disappointed me. But I won’t go into that here. For whatever reason, Stentz has had nothing to do with the franchise since, though I’m sure he’s having a fine career, and no one else in the movie side of X-world seemed to give a shit about his inspired pop musical idea. But over in Hawley’s world…

BAM! A beautiful cover, an expressionistic montage, a pointed use of this terrific song at an integral moment in the show. And that’s just one of the many examples of Hawley’s brilliant use of music to augment and underscore his high-art pop confection, which honestly has a David Bowie feeling all over it, from production design to wardrobe selection to just a general vibe. But back to the music: Pink Floyd’s “Breathe (In the Air)/On the Run” scores a crucial moment in the season finale, and they are another musical force whose artistic identity infuses the show. As musical acts, Floyd and Bowie didn’t shy from scifi concepts; rather they fully embraced them, and they’ve obviously had a profound influence on Hawley’s approach to the genre, to which I can fully relateAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did something similar in a recent episode with the Moody Blues “Have You Heard?” and it was terrific. Likewise Winter Soldier’s use of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” in its closing montage. I just wish more of these comic book shows and films would engage with deep-cut pop culture in this way (and not the wall-to-hall first-flapjack-off-the-griddle song selection of Suicide Squad).

The show doesn’t look like anything else, doesn’t cut together like anything else, says fuck-you to the idea of “where is this?” or “when are we?” It’s overloaded with style, and some might bristle at that, but it’s style worn comfortably over intriguing substance. It’s not afraid to be sentimental, hilarious, terrifying, outrageous, disturbed, distracting, profound and irrelevant, always in the same episode, often in the same moment.

In the early going, I thought Hawley was perhaps just using the Fox/Marvel franchise as a stepping-off point to indulge some weird experimental boundary-pushing televised mindscrew that would have very little relevance to or reverence for the source material. But while it definitely feels like he’s getting away with something, there’s no way that giant synergy machine would ever let him get away with all of that. So for those looking for a fullblown high concept comic booky genre show, it’s definitely there. In spades. With inscrutable government agents and spooky organizations and demonic presences and superpowered showdowns and carnage galore. For those who might watch the first one or two and think, Where is this going? It’s going nowhere, right? like it’s Lost all over again, you needn’t worry. Just as with Fargo, there’s nary an i un-dotted or a t uncrossed in the tightly plotted, flab-free eight episode arc. Why more shows don’t keep things to this manageable number is beyond me (I’m looking at you Netflix/Marvel).

Needless to say after all that emotive gushing, this is not Generation X’s Generation X. It’s post-millennial post-modern high art for lowbrow lovers of pop wonderment. If I ever get a chance to turn The Villain’s Sidekick into a TV series I’d want to do something as tight and well-defined and satisfyingly one-and-done as Hawley’s done with this flagship season. It’s like he’s taken the best lessons of indie film, art school, mini-series, his record collection and serialized soap operatic funnybook storytelling and put it in one of those blenders people pay a thousand bucks for because it can even make hot soup.

Go taste the perfection.

Legion

Advertisements

It Ain’t Shakespeare, but It’s Definitely Suicide Squad

SUICIDE SQUAD

Maybe I was just seduced by the tantalizing marketing, but up until very recently, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad marked the first time I was genuinely excited about an upcoming DC/Warner Bros. property since at least The Dark Knight. Critical response, and feeling pretty burned by Green Lantern  and The Dark Knight Rises, was enough to keep me from experiencing Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Suckness in theaters, and watching them later on home video did neither film any favors. If the BvS director’s cut was really the more coherent version of that story, I can’t imagine the mess laid at the feet of those of you who did deign to watch it on the big screen. Not only was that movie all over the place, tonally and plotwise, but the behavior of its so-called “heroes” made the impending “get ready to root for the bad guys” aspect of Suicide Squad seem almost redundant.

But it’s exactly that Dirty Dozen with Supervillains concept that had me hooked early in regards to the Squad. After all, as my own book The Villain’s Sidekick and its sequels ought to prove, I’m a sucker for a supervillain redemption story. Full disclosure:  I never read John Ostrander’s seminal ’80s run and in fact only really got drawn in to the book by Ales Kot’s brief sojourn with the team from a few years back. In many ways, though, it’s that version of the team that is reflected in the movie version, so between that, the intriguing portrayal of Task Force X on a few episodes of Arrow’s high-point second season, and the animated Assault on Arkham (far and away my favorite of the DC animated films so far, and unlike Ayer’s film, deserving of a strong R rating), I felt pretty primed for the big-screen adaptation.

I was able to ignore the more irritating details of Jared Leto’s fratboy-on-crack on-and-off-set behavior, the stories of panicky post-Deadpool/BvS reshoots and other potential red flags coming out of the geek press and just focus on the stellar trailers (hoping as usual that all the best gags and plot points weren’t being revealed with every teaser and TV spot). But then the reviews started to roll in and it felt like BvS all over again. “Cool your jets, fanboys,” those reviews seemed to say, “not only is Suicide Squad not all that, it’s pretty much a digital shit-show.” I had the sinking feeling I’d only ever watch it half-distracted in a late-night on-demand viewing.

Well, praise be to the God of Managed Expectations, because I went ahead and took the plunge with a couple of ten-year-olds in tow, and much to my surprise, the movie that unfolded in front of me was almost exactly what I’d hoped for/expected when I first saw those high-energy trailers. It’s mostly a light-hearted, fleet-footed action-comedy romp with terrific performances, particularly from the luminous Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and a let’s-have-fun-again Will Smith as Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton. I also thoroughly enjoyed what the underserved Jai Courtney, who I usually find quite bland, brought to Captain Boomerang (who would guess that he’s a better actor when he’s allowed to play a born Australian?), and likewise Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s very earthy Cajun take on Waylon “Killer Croc” Jones, whose brown velour pimp hoodie may be my favorite costume detail in the whole movie. Critics and more than a few fans have complained about the extended “intro” sequences for most of the core characters, but I found that this first act moved with the rhythm and style of a comic book, embracing that energy in a very similar manner to the much-loved Deadpool. 

A major complaint about this film, much like Bvs, has been its purported incoherence, but I found it to be pretty streamlined, easy to follow (maybe even a bit simplistic) and moved from A to Z without a lot of unnecessary filler. Was character development sacrificed here and there to keep the story bulldozing ahead? No doubt. I would have loved to know a little more about Croc’s inner life, and the significance of Boomerang’s stuffed unicorn. Did the Joker sequences detract from the main story to a degree that rendered them all-but-superfluous? Abso-freakin’-lutely. It didn’t help that Leto’s performance was so hammy that he left the scenery sticky with his saliva; he ‘s earned his seat at the horshoe-shaped table in a Legion of Doomed Characterization alongside Jesse Eisenberg’s equally ridiculous take on Luthor. Was the hypersexualized male-gaze nature of Harley’s portrayal problematic? A case could most certainly be made, but I still enjoyed everything from Robbie’s off-kilter line deliveries to the way she frequently allowed the broken woman to peek out from behind the stream of sassy banter. (SPOILER AHEAD) Could they have given Slipknot maybe one more thing to do than just die without making an impression? Yes, dammit. I’m not some gigantic Adam Beach fan or anything, and I don’t even know who Slipknot is, but the poor guy deserves better than what he got.

Probably the most disappointing aspect from a story perspective is that, much like so many of these comic book movies, the Big Bad is a bit of an underwritten disappointment, though the connection between Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) at least gave his subplot some emotional momentum. And yes, the fact that our anti-heroes have to save the world from a big cross-dimensional laser-pointer aimed at the sky was an unkind reminder of The Avengers’ third-act problems, but again, that’s a frequently committed sin, and the short-sightedness of rarely allowing these films to have even slightly smaller-scale problems. Part of what worked so well for me in Civil War was that the final confrontation came down to three guys in a room tearing each other apart because one wounded man wanted to make it happen. But in the end, the Squad’s final confrontation wasn’t any more preposterous than the climax of Hellboy II, and I’ll watch the hell out of that movie just about any time.

I’m not saying rush out and see it, because I don’t want to shoulder the blame if you hate it as much as so many others seem to, but for my money, I got my Dirty Dozen with Supervillains, and in the end, the Squad proved to be much less reluctant, much less disturbing, and significantly more entertaining heroes than those cape-clad mopes in that other big DC release.