Monday, February 20, 2017

Legion and the Trauma of Metaphysics

It's just about ten years ago that I finished my manuscript for Our Gods Wear Spandex and the perspective that I spelled out in it has become, if not the dominant pop cultural paradigm, then certainly a predominant current within it. 

Superhero movies make billions and keep studios solvent. Superhero TV shows are reliable moneymakers. Conventions attract millions of fans every year. Superhero cosplay is now a major cultural phenomenon. But it wasn't always this way. The entire superhero archetype was gasping for air at the dawn of the new millennium, and a lot of qualified observers were predicting its imminent demise. Funny how times change.

For a while there those same observers were getting a whiff of Batmania Redux. Comics and superhero people are pessimists by default, having seen one too many bubbles burst, one too many promises broken. They were the traumatized stepchildren of pop culture.

But the train just kept on rolling and shows no signs of going off the rails. As I wrote in Spandex, superheroes are essentially palliatives for anxiety, and the superhero renaissance will last as long as widespread anxiety does. 

And if there's anything everyone seems to have in abundance these days, it's definitely anxiety.

Even so, the archetype is mutating. There are a number of TV series, either live or streaming, and some seem to be evolving towards a kind of modern urban noir. Of course, this is simply a return to first principles, since the first modern superheroes weren't in the comics but in the pulp magazines. DC's adaptions still fly the spandex flag (aside from Gotham and Lucifer, of course) but attempt to place their stories in a world at least vaguely familiar in the context of series television.

Then there's Legion.

This has been a radical departure for Marvel Television, which specializes in radical departures. MvTV has been cultivating the less-prominent characters of the comic's vast catalog of characters and making hits out of heroes who aren't perfect, aren't godlike, and seem to suffer like you and I.

Daredevil is blind, Jessica Jones suffers from PTSD, Luke Cage is a former convict. None of them are particularly cheerful, probably because things don't usually work out all that well for them, superpowers or not. 

This is all working off a postmodernist refinement of Stan Lee's "heroes with problems" dictum that helped Marvel crush its competition in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Needless to say, it presents an interesting contrast to the more conventional heroics of the tentpole franchises.

Then we have Legion, a new series based on a character no one outside of comics will have heard of and one that probably never topped anyone's TV adaption wishlist. 

And boy, he's got problems.

Legion's near-perfect pilot is based on a New Mutants (being the first X-Men spinoff, started back in the early 80s) character whose mutant power is multiple personality, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, as it's now called in the DSM-5. Interesting to note that that the series' release follows shortly on the heels of M.Night Shyamalan's controversial DID thriller, Split.

But Legion seems to dispense with the DID aspect of the character in the pilot and presents a character who seems to have gone on a shopping spree at the psychic supermarket. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Legion seems able to tune into a dizzying spectrum of potential realities and that's his problem: he can't seem to control it. 

He's also a powerful telepath and given to violent explosions of telekinesis when it all gets to be a bit too much for him. This is an old trope, dating back to 70s classics like Carrie and The Fury, but it's rendered beautifully here nonetheless.

If you haven't yet watch the Legion pilot (it's available for free on Amazon Video). Its sixty-eight minutes play more like a feature film, serving up some eye-catching, Kubrick-influenced, widescreen cinematography. 

As with The OA, its sensibility is more pomo than pulp, almost like what a superhero movie would play like as directed by Wes Anderson (the vintage Who and Stones tracks certainly help in that regard). More conventional fans might have a hard time with it.

But at the same time there's a heapin' helping of style on loan from Zack Snyder's criminally-underrated Watchmen movie, particularly in the opening montage. The use of Jane's Addiction's "Up the Beach" in a pivotal scene feels very Watchmen, as does the glossy camera work (and again, use of montage).

Watchmen was targeted- unfairly, in my view- for breaking two unspoken laws of comic adaptions. On one hand Snyder was pilloried by the purists for hammering Alan Moore's sprawling epic into a coherent, self-contained document. And on the other he was slagged off by fans terrified the superhero movie bubble would pop for commercial underperformance (thanks mainly to its hard-R rating).  

But I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Legion writer/director Noah Hawley probably gave Watchmen a viewing or three. And here I'd like to give Hawley due props, not only for the bullet-proof dialog, but also for the meticulous handling of the pilot's many tonal shifts and mood swings. It only feels a little discordant at the very end, when all of a sudden you're wondering if the characters wandered into another show entirely.

But more importantly Legion seems to fit in with a mini-movement of series mining the narrative possibilities of psi in a way that cheesier and more simplistic treatments a few years earlier failed to do. There are vague yet not-insubstantial echoes of Stranger Things and The OA swimming just below the surface.

It's interesting to note then that Legion premiered just as stories about CIA remote viewing programs have been hitting the mainstream news.

But its conscious tributes to the Sixties- through the musical drops and the visual style- also call to mind the unresolved traumas of MKULTRA, particularly its exploitation of mental patients and other captive subjects. You can practically feel the shade of Ewan Cameron wandering the halls. The name of the hospital-- "Clockwork"-- is an obvious nod to Kubrick's own MKULTRA parable. 

Interesting then that a recent story has it that Congress killed the STARGATE remote viewing program out of concern it could become a new MKULTRA.

And who's to say it wasn't?

Legion doesn't shy away from these implications, as the main character is clearly the victim of a dense, covert and ruthless government conspiracy. The MKULTRA stand-ins are the unambiguous villains of the piece and there's even a mustache-twirling Gottlieb/Cameron analog. There's no question that powerful people are still looking for psychics like main character David (Legion), not to research them but to weaponize them.

The Sixties ambiance of the pilot and the connections to the X-Men Universe can't help but call up memories of hippies latching on to the mutant archetype in order to concretize the vague ambitions of conscious evolution they believed the Aquarian Age represented.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way.

David's incarceration feels like a metaphor for an increasingly hemmed-in world, where the individual is given less and less room to explore, to self-actualize. There's an entire generation who've grown up unaccustomed to concepts of true autonomy, having been raised in daycare centers and acclimatized to social media. 

It's no accident then that David's powers- which set him far above the herd- feel like a curse, and exercising them is pure torture.

As powerful an ambition as on-call psychic powers are we don't usually think much about the downsides, of the pain such heightened sensitivity would necessarily inflict in an over-saturated, stressed-out, anxiety-drenched world. We don't think about how difficult it might be to switch these perceptions off and how they might expose one to a never-ending deluge of information and emotion. 

That's the power of the Legion pilot, how it rather ruthlessly plays out the implications of broad-spectrum psi and the terrible damage it might inflict on minds that haven't evolved to handle such incredible potential. 

We also don't think about how intolerable it might be if government-controlled psychics were monitoring every passing thought. After all, every technology and human ability is eventually weaponized, isn't it? And if our inner dialogues weren't even safe then I believe we'd all turn into vegetables.

I think we can be grateful that psi doesn't work like it does on TV then. I think we have a lot more potential than we're aware of and I think you can develop your innate sensitivities to a much higher lever than we're presently capable of on the whole, but we should be grateful that Nature seems to have put these potentials in a kind of neural lockbox. For now, at least.

The Surrealist poet Andre Breton thought that schizophrenia was a kind of frontier of genius, and that schizophrenics simply became incapable of processing the barrage of information that geniuses were able to. It's probably no accident that schizophrenia often strikes the highly-intelligent. 

Does it also strike the highly psi-capable? 

How many people- children, especially- are being drugged into stupors simply because they're operating on levels that they can't navigate, processing information coming from channels that the rest of society fails to recognize? We don't even bother with therapy anymore, with finding out just what they might be perceiving. All the major psi operations have been defunded or hounded out of existence.

Is it simply because it's been decided whatever information they might be receiving can't be melted down into a bullet?

SYNC LOG: I  met Legion co-creator Bill Sienkiewicz just as the issue of New Mutants premiering the character hit the stands. He taught for a semester at the Kubert School. He later offered me a job as art assistant but I was unable to relocate to Connecticut (he eventually hired comics artist Amanda Conner). But I later got him to illustrate a New Mutants toy package I designed, working off my layout.  He blew everyone away with the final art. Incredible, one of a kind talent.