This article contains spoilers for the first season of “Legion” on FX. Also, “Legion” is weird, and I’m not going to take the time to explain it, so watch the show before reading lest I sound like a lunatic.
There are only two kinds of villains: the devil, and what the devil makes of man.
In every form of story we tell, be it literature, folklore, myth, or film, the hero confronts an enemy who is either the embodiment of evil itself or something evil has forged out of man’s corruptible heart. The hero either faces a force of pure malevolence, like Shakespeare’s Iago or Anton Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men,” or he battles someone seduced or perverted by sin, such as Tolkien’s Saruman or Darth Vader of “Star Wars” fame.
But while all bad guys descend from one of these molds, not all bad guys are equally good (“good” in this instance meaning quality examples of the archetype). A good “pure evil” villain is one the hero must fight with every atom of his being to vanquish—a villain who forces the audience to realize that the power of the devil and his wickedness will consume everything that is precious to us, if the righteous do not fight with all their power to preserve love and purity. A good “fallen figure” is one whose humanity gasps for air beneath the weight of his corruption, forcing us to whisper “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Lousy villains, on the other hand, are the kind of malefactors who exist only to be foils for the hero. They are glorified Storm Troopers, interchangeable miscreants who never fill the audience with true fear, and who fade from memory the moment a protagonist shows off his power and wit. In other words, lousy villains are what you’ll find in most of Marvel’s recent screen adaptations.
None Of Marvel’s Villains Have Been Really Powerful
Loki is fun. Red Skull was fun to look at. Ultron was chilling in every second of the “Avengers 2” trailer (less so in the actual film). But, as Matt Battaglia recently noted, none of these characters offered truly unsettling menace, and the rest of Marvel’s demonic demigods or disgruntled disciples have been utterly unmemorable. Bouncing over to Sony studios, Bryan Singer managed to make one of the most diabolical and powerful mutants in X-Men history a mopey bore. Likewise, current Spiderman Tom Holland was eight years old the last time that franchise made the “good man driven mad by science accident” formula work.
In regards to Marvel’s Netflix series, the results have been rather mixed. “Daredevil’s” Kingpin was good, not great. Kilgrave got boring a few episodes into “Jessica Jones,” and “Luke Cage” killed off its best villain midway through the series. (I gave up after three episodes of Iron Fist. I’m guessing the villain was garbage.)
Granted, so long as Marvel films and series continue amassing mountain ranges of cash, they’ll have no financial incentive to improve their villains. But if producers want to fill future films with a bit more artistic integrity, they’d be wise to follow the example of “Legion,” Noah Hawley’s brilliant TV adaptation of a rather obscure X-Men character.
Hawley’s take on David Haller, the show’s protagonist, is certainly compelling. But the true star of “Legion” is the show’s villain—the devil with the yellow eyes, the angriest boy in the world, Lenny—all different manifestations of a malevolent force known as the Shadow King.
If internet power rankings are to be trusted, the Shadow King is by no means considered one of the premiere on-paper Marvel villains, failing to crack the top 25 on this list and landing a distant 59th place on this one. But at the risk of getting tag-team drop-kicked by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender, Hawley’s take on the brain-infesting menace might well be the greatest Marvel villain ever to hit a screen of any size. So with “Legion’s” villain, where did Noah Hawley go right where so many others went either wrong—or simply went nowhere?
1. The Villain Misdirection Act
Every villain is either the devil or what the devil has made of man. So which kind of villain shows up in “Legion?”
The brilliance of the show lies in the way Hawley takes his time answering that question. For the first several episodes, the struggle appears to be an internal one. The villain is supposedly David’s powerful yet fragile mind—a mind that appears to be conjuring up vengeful hallucinations, intent on amplifying and manifesting the destructive desires of David’s heart.
But by episode five, the show suggests that our hero is not so much battling against the evil impulses of his mind as he is with the evil being embedded in his mind: a psychic parasite that seeks control over his powers by manifesting itself in the various forms, chief among them Lenny Busker, played by Aubrey Plaza (more on her in a minute).
And it’s not until the show’s last few episodes that we firmly know the name and nature of the beast. The Shadow King is a murderous, psychic entity originally intent on destroying the son of his nemesis but now firmly committed to using David’s powers to make himself a rival of God. That, my friends, is a true devil.
By spending most of the show teasing the audience and slowly revealing the nature of the villain, Hawley can play with both villain archetypes—something he also did in the first season of his other brilliant FX series, “Fargo.” As David’s fragile mind appears to be responsible for the bloodshed and horror, we feel the sorrow we’re supposed to feel over the fallen figure, while watching him try not to fall in slow motion (quite literally, at times).
When we learn, however, that the real enemy is the devil lurking in the shadows of David’s mind, we feel a far greater horror than we would have had Hawley revealed that villain right out of the gate. How do you fight the evil one who exists outside of you when he’s already infested you? How do you save yourself from corruption and fight the enemy who already has control of your power? By combining the best bits of each kind of villain, “Legion” serves us a villainous cocktail that’s more potent than virtually everything else Marvel adaptations have offered.
2. The Stakes Are More Visceral And Powerful
Loki and Ultron want to blow up the world. X-Men baddies, Hydra, the Hand, and the Iron Man villains want their special brand of super soldiers to take over the world. Maybe stakes like this are fun for special effects animators. But for those of us not living in constant fear of a nuclear holocaust or an alien invasion, it’s hard to relate to the hero as he faces these threats.
All of us, however, know the seductive powers of our sinful nature, just as we’ve seen the work of the devil in our own lives. The Shadow King may want to terrorize the world, but his primary focus is on terrorizing David: seizing his mind and using his body as the means for manifesting his evil. For those who have seen loved ones turn against them through drug addiction, for those who have torn their families apart through pride and anger, they can identify with this far more than with more explosive villainy.
Other marvel superheroes fight against wealthy tycoons and alien overlords. We watch and enjoy, but we don’t identify with this. David Haller fights against an evil that is within him, but isn’t him. We know that villain. In “The Avengers,” Loki made a slave of Hawkeye’s body, but we were never really worried that the archer was going to slaughter his friends. In “Legion,” the Shadow King makes soup out of David’s mind, and we genuinely fear that love and family won’t be enough to put him back together. We know that struggle.
Most of Marvel’s heroes fight an enemy who has the power to destroy them. David Haller must fight an enemy whose can destroy his agency, and use his body as a weapon against those he holds most dear. For people who’ve felt a foreign hatred overcome them as they lashed out in cruelty towards those they love, that’s a fight they understand. Legion may have far fewer explosions, but it has far more explosions that matter.
3. Aubrey Plaza Is Amazing
Back in 2010, as I watched Aubrey Plaza play mush-mouthed slacker April Ludgate on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” I never would have guessed that she would one day offer up the best on screen comic villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. But, much to my surprise, here we are.
Plaza has, until now, generally played a series of awkward, sarcastic characters. While she clearly has more range than she’s shown in previous roles, what makes her performance as Lenny work so well is not so much that she’s been cast against type, but that she’s been cast adjacent to type: able to take the eye-rolling, despiser-of-men character she plays so well and combine it with Lenny’s more frenetic and malevolent elements. Plaza’s Lenny is part snark queen, part tweaker, part Beetlejuice, part seductress. The end result is a character who is pure evil. Her performance is purely mesmerizing.
I don’t know whether Plaza could pull off Shakespeare, but “Legion” proves that she’s more than qualified to perform Milton. As she monologues to David, announcing her desire to join forces and challenge the omnipotence of God, Plaza channels Satan’s fiendish speeches to the fallen angels of “Paradise Lost,” urging his disciples to make “a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” As she dances and prances through the hallways of David’s mind, Plaza displays a physicality perfectly befitting a villain that Milton once described as “the wily adder, blithe and glad.”
‘Legion’ Shows Us How To Make A Bad Guy Good
The test of a good villain is that you want him to lose, but don’t want him to disappear until the story is over. Without Loki, Thor might get boring. Without Magneto, the X-Men might lose some direction. But without Aubrey Plaza as Lenny, “Legion” simply wouldn’t be “Legion.” Here’s hoping Hawley keeps her around for the show’s duration.
By spending more time unpeeling the wicked layers of the enemy, by making the conflict matter instead of making it massive, and by getting the most out of an unexpected actor, Noah Hawley has given us Marvel’s greatest onscreen villain to date. I don’t know whether Marvel’s other films and TV series will follow suit. But whether their next villain is the devil, or what the devil has made of man, “Legion” has shown filmmakers and showrunners how to make a bad guy very, very good.