Review: 'The Umbrella Academy' Proves Netflix Doesn't Need Marvel Anyway
If you’ve ever felt like Netflix shows — especially their comic book adaptations (*coughMarvelcough*) — tend to pad out their seasons with too many episodes, then The Umbrella Academy sees you. Which isn’t to say that the series is going to do anything about that trend, but it certainly does acknowledge it. In fact, the sixth episode, appropriately titled “The Day That Wasn’t,” finds all the main characters finally approaching moments of serious personal growth or dramatic revelations, only to have the entire thing undone by timeline shenanigans and rebooted (the seventh episode is then called “The Day That Was”).
And it’s to the show’s credit that this obvious, intentional bit of manipulation feels pretty damn delightful, rather than infuriating.
Based on the Eisner Award-winning comics by Gerard Way (from My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy is a superhero story about the Apocalypse… only the end of the world keeps taking a back seat to the dysfunctional dynamics of the Hargreeves family. In 1989 there was an incident involving the unexpected birth of 43 children around the world — unexpected because the mothers hadn’t been pregnant when the day started. Intrigued by this oddity, a mysterious and eccentric rich guy named Reginald Hargreeves set out to adopt as many of the babies as he could, and succeeded in bringing home five boys and two girls to his “Umbrella Academy.” He raised them not only as siblings but as a super-team, designed to save the world from… stuff, because it turned out that each of them had some kind of superpower. Number One, Luther (Tom Hopper), has super strength and an affinity for leadership. Number Two, Diego (David Castañeda), is a hot-headed knife-thrower with impeccable aim. Number Three, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), can alter reality and influence people with her words. Number Four, Klaus (Robert Sheehan), can talk to dead people. Number Five, who simply goes by Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), can jump through space and time. Number Six, Ben (Justin H. Min), can extend monstrous tentacles from his torso. And Number Seven, Vanya (Ellen Page)… isn’t really on the team at all, because she doesn’t have any powers.
As you can imagine, this sort of set-up did not lead to a normal and happy childhood. Each of the children grew up with their own specific baggage from years of being treated like tools rather than kids. Luther constantly sought Reginald’s approval, while Diego was jealous of his brother for being the leader and became a total momma’s boy (Mom, it should be noted, is a caregiving robot designed by Reginald). Allison became used to getting everything handed to her — all she had to do was put her desires into words. Klaus, who is literally haunted, was so afraid of his powers that he never learned to control them and instead numbed himself using drugs and alcohol. Number Five disappeared at the age of thirteen. Ben, at some point, died. And Vanya grew to resent her father, and perhaps even her siblings, for her constant state of neglect.
The series kicks off with the death of Reginald Hargreeves, which brings the remaining siblings together for his funeral. Now 30 years old, they have grown somewhat estranged as life has taken them farther from their superhero pasts. Luther, the only one who stayed loyal to Reginald, moved to the moon on a special mission from his father. Diego washed out as a cop, and became a vigilante instead. Allison is a celebrity who has lost her daughter in a custody battle with her husband. Klaus has been in and out of rehab (though he’s still in touch with Ben’s ghost). And Vanya, who ended up airing all the family’s secrets in an explosive autobiography, is now a violin teacher and third chair in a local orchestra.
And then, at the funeral, a rift opens in the sky and out pops Number Five, still in the body of a thirteen-year-old boy — only it turns out he’s spent decades stuck in a post-apocalyptic future. He’s returned to stop the end of the world, which is going to happen in about a week, and he needs his family’s help. If they’ll stop fighting long enough to focus.
For fans of the comic series, this is all par for the course, but the way it plays out from here may be somewhat unexpected. Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at the ways the show diverges from the source material (I’ll dig into all that in a separate article, to avoid spoilers), but what Steven Blackman and Jeremy Slater have achieved is a pretty shrewd adaptation. The series is in some ways a more grounded telling of the story, mostly dropping the superhero pseudonyms and instead offering far more nuance on the characters and logic behind the plot twists. But that’s not to say the show is without its share of quirks. This is not a gritty show — it’s embellished with absurdity and humor and ridiculous, bloody action. One major element of its unique stylization is the soundtrack, which is top notch. The song choices range from classics to deep cuts, all chosen to perfectly underscore the scenes you’re watching. You’ll hear Radiohead, Morcheeba, Nina Simone, and The Hollies. There’s an introductory dance sequence set to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Mary J. Blige, who stars as a hit-woman named Cha-Cha, hunts for her partner Hazel (Cameron Britton) while her cover of “Stay With Me” plays. In another scene, Allison reflects on her past mistakes while driving in the rain, all set to a cover of “Stormy Weather” performed by actress Emmy Raver-Lampman (who played Angelica Schuyler in the US tour of Hamilton). Gerard Way has a few covers of his own in the soundtrack.
But aside from the music, the highlight of the show is definitely star Aidan Gallagher as Number Five. It’s a tough character to nail — an old man who has returned to his family in a child’s body and with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s a bloodthirsty killer with a knack for survival, and there is genuine pathos beneath every “Oh look, it’s a kid swearing and drinking” sight gag. And Gallagher, with his dimpled cheeks and cold eyes, is a genuine happy surprise. Of course, he faces stiff competition from Robert Sheehan as Klaus, who injects chaos into every scene he’s in — but if you’ve ever scene him in Misfits, you won’t be surprised by his performance here. Of course he’s great! Ellen Page plays Vanya as almost frustratingly meek and broken, looking so slight against her hardier siblings, and for most of the season I wondered what drew her to this role. And then I got to the finale, and her appeal (and her casting) suddenly became all too clear. Blige is absolutely brutal, while Britton plays Hazel with a sort of wistfulness that pairs well against her. In fact, everyone does a great job — even Pogo, the Hargreeves family talking chimp friend (played by Adam Godley), who on the surface looks like just another stray eccentricity of the material but is actually a thriving heart in the center of it all. But Number Five is still the true standout — especially when he comes back into the orbit of The Handler (played by a platinum-haired, scenery-stomping Kate Walsh), who recruited him for the same temporal management company that employs Hazel and Cha Cha. I can’t wait to see what Gallagher’s career looks like after this show, because that kid deserves big things.
Does the season run too long? Perhaps. There’s plenty of unnecessarily bickering, and characters searching for each while failing to check the one place it would make sense to look — all of which does tend to give off a whiff of that classic Netflix wheel-spinning. But there’s always enough going on — between the characters and the plot threads and the secrets being steadily revealed — that you never get too bored, and progress comes in reliable and satisfying ways. Despite whatever quibbles I could lob at this show, it all feels kinda moot. Because the fact is, I had fun watching it. I had a blast! And it made me realize that I don’t think I ever felt that way about one of the Netflix/Marvel joints. I mean, I’ve enjoyed them, and some have even been genuinely impressive (looking at you, Jessica Jones season one), but none of them made me just kinda happy. This is a weird, wonderful show, and it works — and the finale is perfectly designed to leave you waiting for the season two that I’m sure will be announced any day now.
ADDENDUM: After I’d written my review, I got a call from my mom, who just wanted to let me know that she’d just finished the season finale and she f*cking loved it. “It just kept getting better and better!” Which I think means this show qualifies as family entertainment? Is that how that works? All I know is that if you don’t trust my assessment, you’ll have to take it up with Momma Preston.
Header Image Source: Netflix