The Umbrella Academy Review: An interesting addition to the superhero oeuvre
Though this Netflix show falls short as an adaptation, it is still a good standalone origin series for a new brand of superheroes
When rumours first started about a new Dark Horse comic being adapted as a Netflix series, little did I expect it to be The Umbrella Academy. Even amongst the unique titles that Dark Horse has published (Sin City, Hellboy, 300), The Umbrella Academy is special. And while the Netflix adaptation tries its best to recreate the feel of that comic, which was equal parts crazy and brilliant, it ultimately falls short.
Cast: Ellen Page, Aidan Gallagher, Robert Sheehan, Mary J Blige, Cameron Britton
Created by: Steve Blackman
However, it is still a good standalone origin series for a new brand of superheroes. Unlike the origin stories found in DC and Marvel, The Umbrella Academy’s opening is reminiscent of Indian mythological stories like Ramayana and Mahabharata -- 43 women across the world get pregnant at the same time magically, and give birth to children with superpowers. Then we have our typical Marvel sprinkling. A reclusive aristocratic billionaire, Reginald Hargreaves, adopts seven of these children and raises them as masked superheroes. After we get introduced to this overbearing patriarch, we see that he is psychologically and emotionally manipulative of his wards. He doesn’t even have names for ‘his children’. They are called Number 1 through Number 7 and the children have to come up with names for themselves. Fans of DC comics and their brooding superheroes can rejoice as there is plenty of darkness to go around amongst the seven. For instance, Number 4 aka Klaus (Robert Sheehan) is The Séance, but he is also a druggie who uses his addiction to numb his powers.
The Umbrella Academy has a cast that performs veritably. Of the seven, Ellen Page as Number 7/Vanya and Aidan Gallagher as Number 5 are standouts. Vanya doesn’t exhibit any specific powers, and she is kept aside from the training sessions and constantly told she isn’t special. Ellen plays this brooding, sullen, obedient character without missing a beat. Number 5 has the powers to jump through space and time. He doesn’t obey the rules set down by Reginald and jumps through time and goes missing for 16 years only to return after the death of his dad. Oh, and he comes back to a specific day, in time to say that in eight days, the world is going to end. Time travel is always a tricky concept to execute because the loopholes, if not managed well, can make you lose interest in the story. But Aidan plays Number 5 with such infectious enthusiasm that you are distracted from asking such questions as long as he is on screen.
But what is a Dark Horse comic adaptation without the quintessential wacky side villains, heroic elements with a twist and the grey areas that both villains and heroes operate in? Also, a TV series can only sustain in the long run if it has interesting supporting characters, and in Cameron Britton and Mary J Blige’s Hazel and Cha-Cha, we have a riotous double act. Time-travelling mercenaries, they constantly bitch about the treatment meted out to them, the blue-collar workers, by the white-collar upper management from whom they receive their orders.
To me, the USP of The Umbrella Academy is its songs. What if Disney made a superhero series directed by Tim Burton? That is what I was reminded of in the very first episode when Number 1 puts on an old record that blares out Tiffany’s I Think We're Alone Now, and each of the seven dance to it all alone in their respective rooms. The cardboard cutout cinematography of the house is easily one of the coolest scenes in the series, and it doesn’t disappoint at all with each episode having at least one such scene.
But between these cool scenes, the plot is too deliberately paced. Yes, character development is necessary, but a sense of urgency, given the world is ending in eight days, is largely missing. Also, when every single character is mysterious and every single reveal fails to build on the overarching story arc, it does feel a little underwhelming. This series could have done with some taut storytelling to get to the standard set by other Netflix superhero shows such as the now-cancelled The Daredevil. A six-episode run instead of ten would have been perfect.
Still, the inaugural season of The Umbrella Academy, with its great climax, has much to offer. And I, for one, am definitely awaiting the sophomore year of these graduates.