It’s now official that we’re getting a second season of The Umbrella Academy from Netflix. Not that we weren’t confident. This series is one of the streaming network’s best new Originals in recent months.
You’re probably wondering exactly is “different” about The Umbrella Academy. After all, it’s just another comic book screen adaptation, right? Superheroes saving the world, lots of action, and CGI. Guys and gals in Spandex tights with bulging body parts, letting us live vicariously through their larger-than-life screen personas.
The Umbrella Academy? Well … not so much.
Precious few people would be willing to trade places with any member of the Umbrella Academy.
Once upon a time, comic books were for freaks and geeks and outsiders. Then CGI happened, and Stan Lee became a household name. Suddenly, superhero movies and comic book culture became pretty mainstream. In fact, you can rely on a blockbuster comic book adaptation release every season. You can visit a comic book universe at most amusement parks in Orlando.
The Umbrella Academy, I’m happy to say, is a comic book adaptation for freaks and geeks and outsiders. That’s because the Academy is full of them — flawed, damaged characters. And fascinating portrayals of the dangers of being forced to live up to your potential.
Same Old Scene
Some critics have compared the premise of the comic books and this Netflix adaption to the X-Men. After all, it is about an oddball father figure with delusions of grandeur who collects a band of unusual children. He then raises him and teaches them to use their powers to fight evil. But that’s where it ends, for the most part.
In the Umbrella Academy, the superheroes are all drop-outs.
It’s difficult to provide a complete synopsis of the plot of The Umbrella Academy without giving away too many spoilers.
Seven kids were acquired and raised by a sociopathic obsessive who raises them to use their unique skills to fight crime. Current thinking paints the Patriarch — the eccentric and reclusive billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves — as a child abuser. And he really is. He gives these children — whom he purchased, no less — numbers instead of names. The numbers correlate to his importance to his plan.
Finally fed up with their patriarch’s tyrannical ways, they all left home to make their own way. Except for Number One, AKA Spaceboy or Luther, who continues on with his father’s mission in some sort Stockholm Syndrome driven quest to prove his worth.
Kid Number Five slipped into time and disappeared at the age of 13. Child Number Six died in pursuit of truth and justice. Number Four became a junkie. Child Number Two became a vigilante after being evicted from the police academy. Kid Number Three used her powers to become a famous movie star. And Number Seven, Vanya, with no distinguishing talents, plays third violin in a small orchestra.
At the Funeral of Her Father
As the series opens, “Dad” has died, and the former members of the Academy gather to investigate his death and pay their respects (such as they are). Along with the four surviving members of the Academy, their “ordinary” sister, Vanya, also arrives at the Hargreeves Mansion.
And it isn’t the fact that Vanya had no discernable superpower that’s caused her siblings to treat her dismissively when she arrives. It isn’t even the fact that their father persistently excluded her from the family’s mission to fight crime.
Vanya decided to write and publish a tell-all about the once-famous crimefighting cadre of kids. Released five years before the opening of the story, her siblings are still miffed at her for airing the family’s dirty laundry in public.
Also to make a sudden appearance is sibling Number Five, who disappeared 17 years prior when he walked out of the family home and disappeared by traveling forward in time. He’s dumped into the story by a temporal vortex during their dour funeral memorial for “Dad” in the courtyard.
The weird thing is, he appears to be the same age as the day he disappeared.
And he has a mission for them.
Welcome to the End of the World
When Number Five jumped through time, you see, he landed on the day that civilization ends. And that date? Eight days from the day he returns to the Academy.
If you’ve read the graphic novels by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, you already have a good idea of what to expect. Or not. While most critics say it follows the spirit of the original storyline, the adaptation to the screen has meant some necessary changes.
If you haven’t read them, you simply have to make a leap of faith and dive in. You may find following the timeline a little confusing, because the story proceeds in a series of flashbacks, flashforwards, and present-day scenes.
The death of their father forces the siblings to deal with each other, deal with their pain, and process their abusive childhood.
And the appearance of Number Five from an apocalyptic future forces them to try to function as a team again to save the world.
The Umbrella Academy is very much an ensemble piece – and some say it lingers too long on each character’s backstories. Since I haven’t read the graphic novels yet, I welcomed the laid-back exploration of each.
Ellen Page heads the cast as Vanya Hargreeves, Number Seven. She serves as the audience stand-in. At least at first. She seems clueless and confused, and it isn’t until later in the series that we discover the secret behind her passivity. I found Page’s performance beautifully subtle, and it says something for her talent that she can shine so brightly while remaining so perfectly still.
Robert Sheehan steals every scene he’s in as Klaus Hargreeves, the flamboyant and drug-addicted Number Four whose superpower is the ability to speak with the dead. But only when he’s sober. Klaus finds sobriety over-rated, especially when it means being driven to distraction by all those ghosts.
And one of those ghosts includes Number Six, or Ben, whose death happened while he was still a teen. Yet, his presence remains inside the walls of the Hargreeves home. Especially since there’s a morbid stone statue of him in his uniform in the courtyard. And then there’s the fact that Klaus communes with his dead brother on a regular basis. Ben seems to be the one ghost who can break through Klaus’ fugue.
Emmy Raver-Lampman plays Number Three with thoughtful restraint. Allison (the name chosen for her by her robot mother) seems to have everything going for her: She’s got the career, the loving husband, and the great kid. But when we find out whose fault it really is that her family exploded, we can’t help but wonder how many children will suffer because of old Hargreeves’ “experiments.”
Tom Hopper plays Luther, or Number One. And while it’s easy to dismiss the character as emotionally stunted, Luther has his moments. We don’t see Luther’s pain on the surface, but it’s very palpable. Especially when Allison is in the room. In a mission gone wrong, Sir Hargreeves has to save his son’s life with some very experimental medicine. It leaves Luther with the body of a huge, ape-like creature, as well as alone and isolated.
David Castañeda as Diego Hargreeves adds some dangerous sex appeal to the cast. But even with his tough-guy demeanor, Diego has his own secret vulnerability. His relationship with his robot mom and the scenes where she helps him try to overcome his childhood stutter are some of the most touching moments of the entire series.
Yes, a robot mom. And a chimp butler. After all, it is a comic book series.
And then there’s Number Five.
Aidan Gallagher navigates the set and scripts of The Umbrella Academy like an old pro. And old pro he is, although he only rings in at around 14-15. He plays Number Five, who is a 58-year-old man in a 13-year-old body. And it’s completely believable thanks to Gallagher’s superlative performance. Five’s relationship with the mannequin “Delores” is charming, and not at all creepy. Though, that may be because he’s only 13. Or perhaps because his mind is 58.
Gallagher is a real talent to watch…
Along with a fun cast that also features Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton as two disgruntled corporate killers, The Umbrella Academy undoubtedly has another big star in its lineup: the soundtrack.
And some fancy choreography to go along with it.
The show opens with Vanya, the “ordinary” sibling, playing the theme from the Phantom of the Opera, in which our protagonist hides in plain sight. Such foreboding…
And It doesn’t hurt that one of Umbrella’s creators fronted one of the standout bands of the last 20 years, either. Gerad Way recorded two covers for the series: “Happy Together” and “Hazy Shade of Winter.”
One of The Umbrella Academy’s high points is its montage scenes set to some superior tracks. Choose from We Might Be Giants to the Kinks to Heart to Adam Ant to Queen to Radiohead.
And for good measure, you can throw in some dubious choices like the Bay City Rollers and Tiffany. Because it’s really in the most mundane and ordinary moments that we really learn about each other. And each montage moves the story further and helps us get to know each and every one of our superheroes that much better.
Once you fall in love with this series and its amazing soundtrack, you can check out the Spotify playlist for every song.
Don’t You Forget About Me
What’s missing — even for those unfamiliar with the comic books — are the characters code names. The screen writers might have thought audiences couldn’t keep up with yet another set of names. The script mainly use their numbers and the names given to them by Mom. But it would have been nice to have met them by their superhero code names. Only Number One is called “Spaceboy” in Season 1. Hopefully, they’ll remedy that omission in Season 2.
She Likes Surprises
The Umbrella Academy has a unique and dark feel, with its creepy funereal Hargreaves mansion. The old-fashioned British public school uniforms in place of the Spandex tights on our superheroes is a nice touch. The blank-eyed masks the heroes wear as children are a particularly sinister touch.
Another stroke of genius – not one character carries a cellphone. In fact, some are forced to look through old historical records in the local library for information and search phone books to find the bad guys. It’s another artistic touch that gives the show a bit of temporal fluidity. While set in 2019, you’d never know it with the gothic visuals and old-time tech.
Some reviewers weren’t pleased with the stories leisurely pace. However, for fans and potential fans, the reason we love these series adaptions is because they have enough space to linger over character backstories and their family dynamics. While high-action, CGI-stuffed movies deliver a rush and a pretty good date night, the chance to sit back and get to know these characters at a slower pace was a delight.
Perhaps a few plot points tend to shoot off like red herrings into dark corners, but that’s okay. Does it really matter if Klaus gets sent back in time 50 years by a mysterious suitcase? No, not really. Do we care? Yes, we do. Just like we care if Hazel, the hitman hired to kill Number Five, manages to break free from his life of violence and run off with Agnes, the nice doughnut lady.
You see, the Umbrella Academy is full of delightful little surprises and intricately wrought side stories and fascinating characters. And it all comes together and makes sense in the big picture.
With the recent announcement of Season 2, we can look forward to another 10 episodes to explore The Umbrella Academy — freak and geeks and outsiders, every one.
Featured Image: Promotional Poster via IMDb