Netflix's 'The Umbrella Academy' Is a Great Superhero Show When It Finally Hits Its Stride
We've rocketed past the era of idealized, heroic superheroes, and are now seated firmly in the era of angst-driven deconstructions of the genre. We've had Watchmen, which is being redone as a TV series as we speak; we've had Batman vs. Superman, the epitome of everything excessively grimdark people cite when they criticize the Warner Bros. superhero films. SyFy's Deadly Class has its teenaged assassin anti-heroes. And now, thanks to Netflix and My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, we have The Umbrella Academy.
First, I just want to address that it's honestly hysterical that Way, the emo heartthrob of the early 2000s, made Eisner Award-winning comic books about a team of equally emo superheroes. Way teamed up with illustrator Gabriel Bá and released two limited series that told two distinct stories of the Umbrella Academy universe starting in 2007, and the pair are currently working on two more. The first season of the Netflix show takes its story from the first comic series, Apocalypse Suite, which introduces the characters and their backstories while they scramble to stop the end of the world and, by the end, turns one into a supervillain.
The Umbrella Academy, the show, begins on an otherwise perfectly normal day, during which 43 women who weren't pregnant at the beginning of the day give birth to 43 infants, seven of which are collected by the mysterious Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) and brought to his mansion. (The immaculate conception of all those babies is explained later on, more or less.) The dysfunctional family trains as superheroes, each learning how to use their distinct powers: Number One, a.k.a. Luther (Tom Hopper), is super-strong and has the body of a gorilla. Number Three, a.k.a. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), can alter reality and people's thoughts by lying to them. Nameless Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) can hop through time, initially disappearing without a trace when he was 10 and reappearing 20 years later, still in the body of a young boy. There's also a chimpanzee butler named Pogo and a 1950s housewife robot-mother named Grace. Hargreeves teaches them how to control their powers and creates a team of child superheroes, known as the Umbrella Academy, who work together to stop crimes. All but one: Vanya (Ellen Page) is oddly powerless.
Fast forward a couple decades, and Hargreeves has died under circumstances a few of the siblings deem mysterious, and five of the heroes (one, named Ben, has died and the other, Number Five, is still stuck in the future) are summoned back to their childhood mansion home to take care of his affairs. Five suddenly reappears through a hole in time and reveals to all of them that the end of the world is coming in three days. He knows, because when he hopped through time all those years ago he saw the aftermath firsthand.
It takes all of our heroes a while to negotiate their relationships with one another: It's implied that years ago, one by one, each of them left the Academy, going off to pursue lives in the real world. Allison has become a famous actress, Klaus, a.k.a. Number Four, who can conjure and speak to the dead, has become a hallucinogen junkie, constantly hopped up on some drug or three or four. Luther, the only one who stayed, was sent to the moon by their "father" for seemingly no apparent reason. They hate Hargreeves, and hate each other a little, because they were all robbed of a normal childhood. Meanwhile, Five is being hunted down by two trigger-happy assassins, Hazel and Cha-Cha (Cameron Britton of Mindhunter and Mary J. Blige of legend, respectively), who dress in immaculate suits and hide their faces with cartoon animal masks.
The series is well-shot and actually looks remarkably crisp, dimly lit, but not as dark and muddy as many Netflix originals tend to be (looking at you, Ozark). The cast is strong, Page and Sheehan particular standouts -- both of whom, coincidentally, have played superpowered characters before. The tracklist, on which Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" and "Dancing in the Moonlight" share space with They Might Be Giants' weirdo song "Istanbul" and The Doors' "Soul Kitchen," is appropriately deranged, as if seven precocious children with good taste in music had created a Spotify playlist together.
The season is 10 episodes long, which is both a blessing and a curse. The Umbrella Academy's story is insanely weird, with tons of moving parts. A secret time travel cabal?? A donut shop romance?? A dude? Lived? On the moon?? For four years??? The problem is that that length gives the show time to spread itself out and get unreasonably convoluted. The characters rarely check in with each other and let them know what they're doing and what they know, so you get lots of plot revelations happening multiple times, people running around with no purpose, and a bloated story that's so detailed as to be mostly confusing, even when you watch it all (or as much as you can) in one sitting. There is one entire episode whose events, because of the effects of time travel, are almost completely erased. The show is very dense, but having lots of stuff doesn't necessarily make a story better.
That's not to say it's at all bad. When The Umbrella Academy finally hits its stride (more than a few episodes into the season, unfortunately) the action and the interconnected relationships between all of its characters become much more compelling. By the finale, you're invested; it just takes some trudging to get there. There are a few treats on the way, though: There's a full dance number with two characters twirling around in a romantic park full of sparkly lights, and Britton and Blige share a pretty dope fight scene later on that looks like something out of John Wick. There is a lot of worldbuilding, but none of it is uninteresting. If you're ready to dive in to The Umbrella Academy, just make sure you're paying very, very close attention.