While you could always see flashes of the X-Men and other comics that inspired writer Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá in their Eisner award-winning limited series The Umbrella Academy, the book always felt like its own unique animal. It drew on classic cape tropes to tell a fresh story about the struggles that’d come with being a world-famous child superhero. But did that translate to the small screen adaptation?
Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the series comes at a time when the kinds of body horror and grimdark reflections on life that made the original comic distinct (back in 2007) are becoming increasingly common in superhero tv shows and films. So, The Umbrella Academy ends up feeling like something of a mixed bag: some things feel fresh, while others feel dated, and the whole of the show can’t quite nail down a consistent tone. But that’s not to say that The Umbrella Academy isn’t an ambitious show. Far from it.
As in the comics, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) becomes the adoptive father of seven miraculous children who, along with 36 other children around the world, are all suddenly born on the same day to mothers who had not been pregnant the previous day. While the other children don’t factor into the series, the Hargreeves siblings become the first and only class of the Umbrella Academy, Hargreeves’ unconventional “school” (if it can really be called that) where he raises the kids to master their superpowers and foil the occasional robbery here and there.
Like most gifted youngsters with extraordinary abilities who are fated to save the world, none of the Hargreeves siblings chose to be special, but the circumstances of their curious births all make that their collective lot in life no matter how badly they wish that weren’t the case. As children, they become a global phenomenon thanks to their heroics, and to the outside world, they seem like a modern-day Benetton ad brought to life—the picture of a progressive, ass-kicking family. But as is always the case with families, things are much more complicated behind closed doors and by the time the Hargreeves kids are well into their adulthood, they’ve each gone their separate ways and left vigilantism behind.
The Umbrella Academy kicks off when Sir Hargreeve’s death causes his surviving children to return to their familial estate where they’re all shocked to reunite with their unnamed brother Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), a man who can jump through space and time...and is also trapped in his teenaged body after a freak time-traveling accident. The apocalypse is a-coming, Number Five informs his brothers and sisters, and if they can’t all get their shit together, there’s no way in hell they’re going to stop it.
Luther (Tom Hooper) is a famous astronaut who was blessed with inhuman strength that was only further enhanced later in his life after an emergency medical procedure leaves him with an ape-like upper body. Diego (David Castañeda), the hothead of the family with a fondness for knives, is the only sibling who still believes in earnest that his talents are best put to fighting crime. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) can bend people to her will by lying to them and she’s unsure of how much her professional success as an actress is a result of her powers, and Klaus (Robert Sheehan) spends his days getting drunk and high in order to cope with his ability to see the dead. Ben, the only member of the family to die, spends his time haunting Klaus, and Vanya (Ellen Page), a talented violinist does everything in her power not to resent her siblings for having special abilities while she, seemingly does not.
Though their father’s gone, the Hargreeves children still look to Pogo (Adam Godley), a hyper-intelligent, talking chimpanzee, and Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins), an advanced robotic homemaker, as their surrogate parents.
The Umbrella Academy’s sizable cast ends up being one of its greatest strengths, but also what ultimately weighs the show down. It’s not that any one of the Hargreeves’ subplots are uninteresting, exactly. Number Five’s on the run from time-hopping assassins Cha Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton), Luther and Allison are trying to figure out their creepy romantic feelings for one another while also acting as the most mature members of the family. But each of the heroes’ stories feels almost too large to fit into the season’s densely-packed 10 episodes.
Showrunner Steve Blackman’s (Fargo, Altered Carbon) fondness of The Umbrella Academy’s weirdos is evident in the time each character is given to become to series’ focus over the course of the season, but that doesn’t exactly translate to it giving us much to bond with any of them over. Just as one character gets to a point where it feels like they’re ready to grow and push the larger plot forward, you’re already being shuffled along to another one of the Hargreeves’ soap operas, and the show’s pace makes it difficult to really emotionally connect.
Something else that might bother fans of the original comic is that Netflix’s series feels markedly more grounded than the source material save for a few nods to The Umbrella Academy’s weirder canonical bits. Aside from one bank robbery and an excellent scene where we kinda see Ben’s monstrous true form take out a bunch of baddies, you never really see all that much of the Hargreeves family getting into good, old-fashioned superhero nonsense.
Instead, The Umbrella Academy feels like a slightly darker, more blood-soaked answer to The Royal Tenenbaums with the slightest splash of the sort of comic book whimsy that makes the series’ characters come alive on the page. Because of that, the comic book tropes the series relies on to prod its characters into action—the apocalypse, the neglected sibling’s shady love interest, etc.—all feel derivative and revelations meant to be shocking are pretty much anything but. Strong as The Umbrella Academy’s impressive cast is, the actors don’t have the kind of chemistry suggesting their characters spent years getting to know one another’s eccentricities, and scenes with all of the siblings frequently come across like a hodgepodge of moments from wildly different television shows.
Like all of Netflix’s cape dramas, The Umbrella Academy definitely feels overlong, which doesn’t work in its favor considering how, oftentimes, it doesn’t feel like all that much important is happening. By the time things really begin to kick into gear, fatigue with the show’s story is already in full swing. The Umbrella Academy has a lot of ideas it wants to play around with to be as substantive as it is occasionally stylish, and that’s a more than admirable trait, but it’s tough to argue it makes up for its overall lack of inventiveness.
The Umbrella Academy is now streaming on Netflix.
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