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…

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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.

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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

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Mangold Paints His Masterpiece: A Spoiler-free Review of Logan

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I was going to title this “Holy Fucking Shit! I Just Saw ‘Logan’!” or words to that effect.

But I went a different way.

“Elegaic” is not a word I ever thought I’d be using to describe a movie set in the 20th Century Fox take on the X-Men Universe. I remember sitting in a theater seventeen years ago thinking, “Wow, that’s a better X-Men movie than I ever thought I’d get to see in my lifetime. And that Hugh Jackman guy’s a pretty okay Wolverine. He’s not the ‘Jack Nicholson circa The Shining version of Logan I dreamed of when I read these funny books in the early ’80s, but he’ll do.” I figured he’d do his three movies and be done, y’know?

wolverine-hugh-jackman.jpgA lot has happened in the intervening years since the X-Men ushered in the modern era of superhero filmmaking, for better and for worse, in my life and theirs. Rollercoaster highs and lows, creative swings for the fences and indifferent franchise regurgitations, big money hits and narrative misses. While Disney/Marvel became the fire-breathing synergy dragon, completely upending the idea of what a megafranchise could be, Fox’s X-movies stumbled in and out of the shadows, scrambling not just to keep their licensing rights but to put a creative foot down and do a little territorial pissing of their own. And while Chris Nolan was bringing dour seriousness to Batman to a degree that made it seem like he was slightly embarrassed to be associating with a comic book world, James Mangold was trying to make contemporary Westerns (Copland, 3:10 to Yuma) that felt important, even if they weren’t. But I’ll be damned if he and Jackman haven’t beaten everyone at their own game and made, if not the greatest superhero comic book movie of all time, just a goddamn great movie that happens to be about superpowered people (but is really about aging, mortality and the importance of love and family in giving meaning to a chaotic life). Seriously, Logan makes The Dark Knight look like a Porky’s sequel.

This is Mangold’s Unforgiven meets Children of Men with some No Country for Old Men and Mad Max: Fury Road for good measure, and not just because those films could be counted as influences, but because I left the theater with the same feeling those movies gave me-I just watched a masterpiece. A perfectly controlled piece of smart, propulsive, thoughtful, philosophical, near-perfect storytelling. A movie that was “about something,” while in no way shying away from being a terrific piece of comic book-inspired pop entertainment. A movie drenched in ’70s crime noir and post-modern Western mythology, but also populated with cyborg bounty hunters and borderline feral adorable badass murder children.

LOGAN, Dafne Keen, 2017. ph: Ben Rothstein/TM & copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights

It’s like Alexander Graham Bell never existed in whatever perfect dimension this movie got made in, so no one could phone anything in. The script, first and foremost, is just fantastic. Every line actually means something. It’s all there for a reason. This is capital F for Fuck Yeah Filmmaking where it all matters to everyone involved and they’re taking it seriously because they love it and themselves and you.

The dialogue is great, and not only that, it never feels like it’s just there because that’s what a scriptwriting formula says you have to put in between the big action set pieces. In fact, sometimes it feels like the big action set pieces are just kinda there to sew together all the important scenes of people talking, revealing, misunderstanding and bonding, while they contemplate their histories and sort out their existential dread. And in case you miss my meaning, those action set pieces are INCREDIBLE, and as crucial to the story as anything else that happens.logan-trailer-2-image-9

And the acting is soooo good. Patrick Stewart should be up for some of those awards-type things (he won’t, because we all live in the Darkest Timeline). The young actress who plays X23, Dafne Keen, is a fuckin’ revelation. If George Lucas had looked this hard for his Anakin we’d still be kissing his ass to make more Star Wars movies. Hell, if Abrams had shown this much love for any of the franchises he inherited and got to play with, we’d want him to own all the sandboxes.

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Stephen Merchant kills it so hard as Caliban (a character I never even read a book or story about) that I retroactively wish he’d always been around in the X-movies because I love Caliban so much now. Boyd Holbrook (from Netflix so-so Narcos series) is so great as the bad guy he made me forget Tom Hiddleston’s name for a second. As is Richard E. Grant (from Withnail and I!) as another bad guy who brings so much to a two dimensional character you almost forget you’re supposed to hate him.

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And as for Jackman, well, the only other character/actor I can think of that’s been through this kind of narrative ringer–starting strong, getting dragged through some creative mud and raked over some narrative coals–only to finish up on a high note is maybe Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Creed. But he wasn’t even the main protagonist of that movie! Other than that, there’s no one, not Connery or anyone else as James Bond, not even Harrison Ford as Han Solo, who’s been able to take a franchise character to a place like this and against all possible odds leave on a note so high it’s almost painful in its perfection. And over the course of two decades he had to do a lot of just, y’know, showing up and being Wolverine when they asked him to to get to be able to really do one that did and said everything he could with the character.

It’s hard to even wrap my head around the idea that Mangold and Jackman took their inspiration from that piece of shit Mark Millar graphic novel Old Man Logan. This is the realization of the promise that title teased me with, and where Millar shamelessly aped the moves of Eastwood Westerns and layered it with post-apocalypse grotesquerie, these guys throw every genre in the blender and take it for a heady spin.

old-man-loganI could just be swimming in the pink cloud of post-orgasmic movie-joy afterglow, but not only were there little to none of the “third act problems” that plague even some of my favorite movies in this genre (I’ve watched Winter Soldier at least ten times and I’m still not sure why making everything go ‘splodey-‘splodey over downtown D.C. is the best solution there), I’m not sure this movie had problems at all.

It comes on strong, gives itself room to breathe in the middle, and totally sticks the landing, while retroactively making 17 years of ups and downs in X-moviemaking all seem more significant just by association. It’s almost absurd that it exists, and for an aging nerd like myself, it’s super-gratifying that it does.
See the living fuck out of it.
Yesterday.

Real Human Stories and Other Fallacies

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As a long-time member of SAG/AFTRA (and a soon-to-be-ex-member of the Writer’s Guild), the holiday season officially begins when the awards screeners start to trickle in, appearing sporadically in my mailbox from early November to late December. This is the time of year that ostensibly gives the lie to the notion that all Hollywood produces is superhero movies and CGI blockbusters. The movies that arrive, the ones comprised of scripts and performances allegedly worthy of consideration among the pantheon of serious, award-worthy efforts, range from the heavily heralded (Angelina Jolie’s tale of WW2-era triumph of the spirit “Unbroken”) to the borderline invisible (Julianne Moore as an early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferer in “Still Alice”). Packaged in tasteful boxes or indifferently stuffed into generic slipcovers, these are the real gifts that my family looks forward to me dutifully packing into my luggage and bringing home to Texas so they can enjoy or dismiss them all from the comfort of my parents’ living room before their friends can even get out to see them in theaters. Inevitably, one of the “must-sees” always gets lost in the shuffle and left behind at home (this year, it was the Reese Witherspoon-goes-walkabout character drama “Wild”) and I feel guilt disproportionate to the crime for not being able to give them this rare and special treat.

We gather and watch them one and sometimes two a night, working through the stack and ticking them off the list. Most of them are entirely watchable, even the ones that I had little personal interest in seeing based on mediocre reviews or tepid-seeming subject matter (Robert Downey Jr.’s foray into intimate family drama “The Judge,” which boasts fine performances from a cast of ringers including Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio and Vera Farmiga). Some of them are mildly interesting variations on an expected genre or theme (“A Most Violent Year,” despite its title, is intentionally as near-bloodless as a crime drama about a mob-averse businessman can be; de rigeur disease pic “Still Alice” contains an incredibly nuanced and sympathetic performance from Moore; as for “Unbroken,” I liked it better 30 years ago when it was called “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”). Some of them I know are not going to be for everyone, or maybe anyone (creepy “Nightcrawler” was reserved for just me and my old man to view, and we enjoyed it well enough, though it’s not the second coming of “Taxi Driver” early previews might have suggested, and I still haven’t found the right time to pop in PTA’s “Inherent Vice”).

The point here is, somehow, year after year, despite the dire pronouncements of friends, family and film reviewers, small human stories still get made, somehow. And while it’s impossible to argue that the big Hollywood machine has shifted focus to superheroes in a way that’s not only extreme, but borderline absurd, I bristle when I hear cinema snobs blame the fanboys for that fact. Obviously, the movie business is about the bottom dollar now more than ever, but if superhero movies are what’s dominating the global box office, there aren’t enough fanboys in the known multiverse to account for all that money. It’s the average filmgoer, looking for adrenaline-fueled escapism just as they did during the action movie dominance of the ’80s, or the better part of the 20th century, when something like 70-80% of movies produced in Hollywood were Westerns (before CGI, what gave you more bang for your epic Cinemascope buck than Monument Valley teeming with a thousand extras, herds of buffalo, and galloping horses being run to death). And many of those much-derided genre movies are now beloved timeless classics, from “The Searchers” or “My Darling Clementine” to “Die Hard” and the early Terminators, while a multitude of the “intimate human stories” and art house favorites of those eras have tumbled into obscurity along with all the other piles of pure product.

As a part-time fanboy, I love quality small scale, art house and original cinema as much as I enjoy the Marvel Universe. One of the best movies I’ve seen in the past two decades is Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough “Winter’s Bone,” and I could watch it a thousand times to the single viewing any of the “Hunger Games” movies deserve. Conversely, my favorite movie of 2014 was and remains “The Winter Soldier,” as good a piece of smart high-dollar cinema as the Big Machine has ever produced, “The Searchers” of the superhero genre, and it doesn’t hurt that its filmmakers boldly chose one of the greatest periods of American cinema, the dark, paranoid ’70s of “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View,” as its main source of inspiration. I rewatched it with my dad this Xmas–one of the few movies he hadn’t already seen, because my septugenarian and semi-retired parents go to see EVERYTHING–and he loved it as much as I knew he would. For me, it holds up to repeat viewings in a way that none of these awards-bait pics has so far. Sure, “A Most Violent Year” was completely watchable, but was it rewatchable? Not really. Even if you love “Unbroken” (which I didn’t because see above), would you want to sit through that highbrow torture porn twice? I thought last year’s “12 Years a Slave” was fantastic and essential and important, but do I want to tune it in on late-night cable and fall asleep to it? No thanks–I’ll let “Django Unchained” be my slave-narrative lullaby. Does that make me shallow? Maybe, but it also makes me pretty normal. I don’t think all film needs to be comfort food, obviously, and I frequently get “more” out of those films that are anything but, but I don’t tend to revisit them, and therefore they don’t become favorites. Oftentimes, they just feel like chores.

“The Judge”–an unfortunate box office failure for Downey–is a very watchable, at times highly entertaining piece of fluff masquerading as “human drama,” every bit as much a slice of comfort food pie as any superhero flick, and every inch its own kind of Hollywood fantasy–the big city slicky returns to his small town and his dysfunctional family to recover the soul he left behind, and find a little redemption for everyone in the bargain. In terms of RDJ’s performance, it’s basically Iron Man Goes Home, his fast-talking lawyer spouting Tony Stark quality laugh-lines several times per scene. It’s an enjoyably crowd-pleasing star turn that he could deliver in his sleep at this point, and for my fanboy money, his emotional arc in “Iron Man 3” is still more satisfying. And rewatchable.

If you’re looking for real outside-the-box (and outside-the-box-office) human stories, which do somehow continue to defy the odds and get made despite the total global domination of special effects and spandex, I recommend trawling Netflix for the endless stream of amazing foreign and independent films across all genres that I stumble across on a weekly basis. In the coming weeks I’ll recommend a few of my favorites by genre as definitive proof that if you love film, and regardless of your feelings regarding Hollywood product, genuine original cinema is alive and well in the world, and there seems to be as much or more of it than ever.

In the meantime, hey Academy, where the hell is my awards-season screener of the best indie movie of the year, “Blue Ruin”? It’s almost like these award things are complete bullshit or something.