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‘Legion’ and ‘Powerless’ shake up the TV superhero narrative

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The staff of Wayne Security in Powerless
Photo: NBC / Courtesy

Three stars

Legion Wednesdays, 10 p.m., FX. Premieres February 8.

Two stars

Powerless Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., NBC. Premieres February 2.

Superheroes have become so prevalent in movies and TV series, it’s hard to get excited about yet another comics adaptation. But two new shows based on Marvel and DC characters are working to set themselves apart in both tone and continuity.

On the DC side, where films and shows already exist in separate universes, the NBC sitcom Powerless puts ordinary people in the shadow of heroes like Superman and Batman, just trying to survive as superpowered beings battle around them. The idea of a company providing equipment to protect average people from superhero collateral damage is a funny throwaway joke, but it’s a questionable premise for an entire series, and the first episode of Powerless doesn’t indicate much ongoing potential.

Already heavily retooled before its premiere, Powerless has a likable cast that includes Alan Tudyk as Van Wayne, the vain cousin of Bruce Wayne and head of Wayne Security, along with Vanessa Hudgens as his fresh-faced new head of research and development and Community’s Danny Pudi as one of her cynical product engineers. But even their enthusiasm can’t give life to the stale workplace humor and the half-hearted comic-book references. There’s plenty to make fun of in the world of comics and superheroes (as Deadpool proved last year), but Powerless finds almost none of it.

From Marvel, which generally keeps a tight rein on its movie/TV continuity, comes the FX drama Legion, produced via the company’s licensing arrangement with 20th Century Fox. Fox is also responsible for the X-Men movies (including Deadpool), which take a much looser approach to continuity, and Legion is the kind of bold show Marvel probably wouldn’t produce on its own. Created by Fargo’s Noah Hawley, it’s a trippy, complicated and sometimes incomprehensible sci-fi series about a young man with a combination of schizophrenia and telekinetic/telepathic powers. David Haller (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) begins the show in a mental institution, but he’s soon broken out by a team of misfits with superpowers, who gather together in a secret location, honing their powers with the help of a stern but nurturing mentor.

They’re not the X-Men, though: The word “mutant” is mentioned only twice in the first three episodes, and the supporting characters are all original to the series. Hawley is less interested in superheroics than he is in the mysteries and depths of the mind, and the show’s narrative trickery is a reflection of David’s fractured psyche. That can be more frustrating than illuminating, but the dazzling visual style makes the deliberately confusing narrative easier to embrace, and Stevens is fantastic as the conflicted but eager title character. While Powerless recycles musty sitcom clichés in its efforts to add something different to the superhero genre, Legion takes much more daring artistic leaps.

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