I want to talk about the TV show Legion, which I finally finished all of a while ago, but also more in general about the concepts of superhero stories and action and all the other ways you can tell a story than what we get.
NOTE - MILD SPOILERS FOR LEGION AHEAD
Legion, the Noah Hawley vehicle, ran for a few years in the late 2010s and came to an end in 2019. The first season, I bought in 2018, and I found it interesting and visually colorful, but I’d be lying if I said I really connected with the characters. I put it in mind to check the rest but it wasn’t a priority.
But now, of course, I had more time. So I delved into the rest of the show. I found season 2 to be an arresting display, arthouse cinema meets superhero fantasy. I’d never seen anything like it from a superhero medium. It was like they'd taken influence from the old avant garde filmmakers of the '60s and '70s and applied it to this modern thing. I found the ways Hawley and the writers portrayed the various characters and showed development to be kooky and off-beat but also artful, communicating truths and ideas in vivid ways. And the action scenes were interesting because they were pretty much the inverse of what you would expect. In one scene, two characters do an impromptu old-school wrestling match in a dream realm. In another, you get singing, a dance battle and cartoon animations laid over what’s really happening.
It’s all very conceptual. Me describing it here won’t do it justice. But it’s like taking the essence of conflict itself and just doing these creative things with it. Instead of typing out a lot more word salad, I’ll just paste what Hawley himself said, which has in turn inspired my own creative juices for writing recently…
"A fight is a very black and white, two-dimensional thing. We're fighting and I'm trying to beat you and you're trying to beat me. But what if the scene is... part of it is peacocking and part of it is a courtship dance and part of it is fighting because 'I hate that I have to work with you' etc. You can't express that in a fight sequence, but in a dance fight you can.”
I’m just drawn to the idea of conflict being resolved in other ways beyond fighting. Fight scenes have long been a weird thing for me. I like action, sure – but for a long time since I was younger, some types of action just came off perfunctory, even boring. I found myself longing more for good dialogue and themes. You can show a big fight and it’ll look good on the big screen for everyone with their popcorn, but that doesn’t always stick with you forever. Or it doesn’t for me. A lot of the recent MCU movies have this problem – I just find myself sucking in breath and waiting for the fight to be over. Like it’s just obligatory, a fill-in-the-blanks thing that has to be there. They’re also so bloodless and predictable that it isn’t like it adds much anyway.
Don’t get me wrong here. I like violent media as much as anybody. I like stuff brutal and quick and realistic. I love Sicario’s pitch-black bile, and Mad Max Fury Road is a high octane burst of insanity. Blue Ruin is more my speed for a revenge film because it shows you how ugly violence and revenge really are. There's an underlying reason for every horrific thing that happens. That’s worth a lot more to me than your John Wicks, polished and pristine to the point where I just can’t really get invested.
The essence of stories is always one where things are resolved at the end. And not everything needs to be resolved with a big fight scene, as the shows and stories from our childhood told us. I grew up watching a lot of anime – all these big flashy colorful fight scenes to determine everything. In the end, though, it becomes a formula, rigid and ramrod-stiff. Maybe this sounds like me trying to tell you your taste is shit. But really it's more that I am trying to break my own biases from when I was younger. Freeing from a thought-cage, if you will.
As I got older, other stuff just became more compelling to me. Twin Peaks: The Return has a few scenes of utterly warped, psychedelic action in its last few episodes, but that isn’t what the whole series hinges on either. That’s another example that’s inspired me lately. The conflict is fluid and metaphorical, and gives me ideas of transformation and righting the wrongs of the past. The violence is never the focal point.
Legion ends with its third season, which is the most action-packed of all of them, with the most traditional fight scenes (though I guess ‘traditional’ for this show is still utterly weird for any other one). They’re well done and don’t take away from anything. But the actual end isn’t based on violence – the characters end up subverting things pretty blatantly, and love and forgiveness wins out. That sounds like hippie shit, I know. But it allows the story to come full circle, and makes a stronger point about damage done through the years, about the ways we can grow and change and maybe everything bad isn’t permanent after all.
More interesting ending to me than ‘good guy beats the bad guy,’ you know? This is the kind of thing I’d like to explore more. Stories are damn fascinating to me. There are infinite ways to do them.