FX’s Legion has always been the weirdest superhero story ever, thanks to creator Noah Hawley’s penchant for abstract insanity, and through that unique aesthetic, Legion Season 3 explores time travel as a narrative device in a way that’s more compelling than anything Avengers: Endgame tried to do with the heady sci-fi concept.
Legion Season 2 ended with David Haller (Dan Stevens) breaking bad. After defeating Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban), aka the Shadow King, and realizing the full extent of his power, David took things too far and used his powers to manipulate the thoughts of his friends. When they tried to capture David, he escaped with Lenny (Aubrey Plaza). These days, he’s leading a hippie cult where his followers get high off of a magic potion produced by his powerful psychic vibes … or something.
Per usual, Legion cares more about style than it does a comprehensible narrative, but this flaw is forgivable when Season 3 uses time travel in such an interesting way. After a dour end to Season 2, the new season instead makes a new mutant nicknamed Switch the new protagonist. She can travel through time. David needs that power to protect himself — and to maybe undo all of these terrible things that he’s done.
It’s starting to feel like it’s the responsibility of the contemporary time travel story to deconstruct the viewer’s preconceived notions about how time travel works.
That’s why Professor Hulk shat upon War Machine and Ant-Man’s Back to the Future references about time travel in Avengers: Endgame. That’s also why early in the first episode of Legion Season 3, Switch listens to a recording called “Lessons in Time Travel — Chapter 13.”
“Time is not a river,” the voice on the recording says. “Time is a jungle filled with monsters.” Switch’s powers have limits. Later in “Chapter 14,” the voice notes that the time traveler can’t land too close to the events they’re looking to change or they might “awaken the demon.”
It couldn’t be more different from the barely explained Avengers: Endgame MacGuffin that allows Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Professor Hulk, and other heroes to video game fast-travel through time in a nostalgia-filled trip through 10 years of MCU history. In Legion, Switch can only move through the recent past, or she risks attracting the attention of something akin to a time demon, a mechanic that The Flash on The CW has used many times before.
Superhero stories like Avengers: Endgame and The Flash in its 100th episode use time travel as a reason to revisit moments from the past. For these stories, it’s often all about nostalgia, retreading through well-worn paths to deliver a heaping dose of fan service.
Legion DGAF about nostalgia, and it’s all the better for it as a result.
In Legion Season 3, time is a weapon. Time is a problem. Time is a solution. Time is a source of confusion. Time is also the means through which we can to watch violent, super-powered battles to the death over and over again. We want to see David get his arm lopped off and for Syd to shoot him to death. It’s satisfying to watch yet safe for the show to do when time travel can easily reverse such a dire event.
Twice in the Legion Season 3 premiere, we see horrifying scenes of epic violence meant to deliberately riff on X-Men: Days of Future Past — the comics story, but much more recently the 2014 live-action movie. Legion emulates Days of Future Past rather than Endgame when it comes to time travel, and it’s that much better for it.
“How do you surprise someone who can go back in time and warn himself?” Farouk asks of the good guys (mainly Syd, Cary, Kerry, and Clark) who’ve teamed up to take David down. We watch them all assault David’s hippie commune twice in the premiere. Everybody dies. But thanks to Switch’s powers, she goes back in time and tries to make things turn out differently. The episode only ends when she gets the timing right and David teleports all his followers to safety.
The way Legion complicates time travel doesn’t stop there. On the astral plane, Amahl Farouk explains to Switch that “the realms of time and space collide” there. He later calls it the “crux” between those two dimensions.
Endgame uses time travel to get somewhere, but Legion uses it to explore complex notions about human nature. The premiere was only the beginning. The entire final season hones in on what time travel means for David’s journey.
“Like any other storytelling device, the question is, how can we use it to solve these characters and explore these characters,” series creator Noah Hawley says about bringing time travel to The Hollywood Reporter.
“If you could go back in time, what would you do? Is this a way to reveal who David really is to us? I think when we see him in the first hour, he’s gone off to start a new life in this commune where everyone loves him unconditionally, most likely because he’s planted that in their minds to love him unconditionally. He’s not trying to hurt anyone. Then Division 3 comes calling, because as far as they know, he’s going to destroy the world some day. He realizes they are never going to leave him alone, so he has this idea that he needs to go back in time to change something important. The question becomes, how do we play with time? Everything has consequences, so time travel has consequences, and our consequences are a little more literal; there are things in the time stream you do not want to wake up. The fun of that is how it plays with the structure of the show, and how it reflects how we play with time itself, both from the characters’ and the audience’s point of view.”
For Legion, time travel has serious consequences that cannot be ignored, and the mechanic is used as a spectacle to do something interesting. In Endgame, it was little more than a trip down memory lane that failed to recognize the inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies it created.
Legion airs Monday nights on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.