Dropping into Netflix right after V-Day, Umbrella Academy joins shows like Runaways, Deadly Class, Doom Patrol, Young Justice, Titans, Legends of Tomorrow, and The Gifted that are still currently running in 2019 with the band of misfits save the world trope.
Ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed how the typical audience consumes superhero media, shows based off comics that were stuck in development for years have finally found their niche. Admittedly, people have started discussing the idea of superhero fatigue in popular media. Regardless, some of us geeks have just started to live the best time of our lives.
DISCLAIMER: Spoilers ahead, so if you want to head into the series fresh, come back later! If not, here’s my take.
Umbrella Academy: A Birthday Near The Apocalypse
Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance and Gabriel Ba (Daytripper, BPRD: 1947) became the minds responsible for Umbrella Academy, with Way writing and Ba illustrating the series, respectively. The duo published the first issue of Umbrella Academy last September 2007, with a premise as absurd as it is simple.
Long and short of it, 42 babies were born on the same day to mostly single women. Thing is, they weren’t pregnant when the day started, but still became mothers by the end of it.
Sir Reginald Hargreeves (portrayed by Colm Feore in the adaptation) adopts seven of the children, all of which with specially-absurd “gifts.” These children become the Umbrella Academy, with Sir Hargreeves raising and training them to be heroes.
Seven kids, seven numbers, going down the line by how useful one is. Seems fair for the emotionally-detached scientist.
The Adaptation: A Backgrounder
Jeremy Slater (Death Note, Fantastic Four) developed the comic book’s Netflix television adaptation. One might be nervous at the idea of Slater handling the much-beloved franchise – after all, some titles in his filmography did have extremely mixed reception.
Of course, performances from stars like Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, and Emmy Raver-Lampman would hopefully help bring the cast to life. And with Universal Cable Productions, Dark Horse Entertainment, and Borderline Entertainment handling production, we managed to get an adaptation perhaps a bit decent enough to watch.
(Granted, Slater did comment that “most” of what he’s written for the Fantastic Four script didn’t make it to the actual film. And he wrote a draft for the Death Note Netflix adaptation. So, there’s that.)
The show draws from both The Apocalypse Suite and Dallas, the first two volumes of the limited series. From the get go, fans of the comics might notice that Season 1 of the Netflix show has combined concepts from both books. Showmakers likely did this to fill up the season’s 10-episode order.
This format of course helped the show build up with more plot. Sadly, this had become really cumbersome by the time threads have begun straining on overall storytelling. Much of the show took most of its main ideas from the comics, and it did add its own set of new character backstories. As a result, this helped flesh out the character’s personalities, and make them more sympathetic.
What Happens When A Bit Of Crazy Tries Saving The World?
Comic fans will be surprised at the absence of The Conductor’s Orchestra
Then again, Umbrella Academy as a book didn’t rely much on its depth, but on the wacky.
The comic relies heavily on being a parody of superhero team comics, mostly from the X-Men. Their family is dysfunctional but powerful. Writers for the adaptation took this to heart as well. And while they took some liberties to create some background explaining why they’re dysfunctional, it honestly lent more melodrama than it should’ve.
The series had a talking chimp, a robot mom named Grace, and time-travelling assassins. They really didn’t need to be “grounded.” The comics needed them to be wacky, and it worked. And when you try to push “elevating” what doesn’t need elevation, viewers can really notice the “effort” outside results. In the context of this adaptation, it really did appear as though writers tried grounding members of the cast simply because the comics didn’t.
From a storytelling perspective, there’s already more than enough material to run with. However, the show does take liberties in making the characters grow throughout the season, which I truly appreciate. You can’t have a dysfunctional family if there’s no reason to be.
Even Heroes Need A Functional Family
It helps to look at Umbrella Academy beyond the family’s need to “save the world.” One can giggle at the wacky, especially you look at them as characters with their “own brand of crazy.” And one could say it’s precisely because they’re dysfunctional that they “work.” However, perhaps we can appreciate Umbrella Academy better when we take time to explore the characters in the context of their personalities. This works especially given how the Netflix adaptation did put a lot of focus in emphasizing these relationships.
Number Three’s (Emmy Raver-Lampman) daughter gets to be mentioned twice in the comics. For Netflix, there needs to be answer as to why she’s apart from her daughter. It’s a good touch, and one of the better ones next to how unhinged Klaus (Robert Sheehan, Misfits, Love/Hate) is. In speaking of,
Number Four was already ridiculous to start with, but Robert Sheehan is a delight to watch. While he’s essentially playing Nathan Young from Misfits again, how he gets from sweet kid to druggie is…understandable.
Number Five (Aidan Gallagher, Nicky, Ricky, Dicky, & Dawn) steals the show. Sarcastic and off-beat, Number Five accidentally travelled too far into the future and came back to stop it from happening. With some bad calculations, he ends up in his thirteen-year-old body. Wibby-wobbly timey-wimey, as they say. Aidan Gallagher plays a convincing 60-year-old man trapped in his younger self, and he’s often looking for booze and coffee to cope with just how poorly the entire situation is getting. I’m slightly jealous at how well stocked that mansion is with alcohol.
…sadly, character development can fall short
If you’ve noticed, it appears Netflix makes an effort to at least try developing these characters. Or at least, put them in a position to grow. Unfortunately, what happened to the rest of the siblings in Umbrella Academy does need better work.
Number One (Tom Hopper, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who) suffers from the same flat character construction. He’s the leader, and basically Cyclops from X-Men transplanted on a Martian Ape’s body. There’s really not much to talk about. He’s the emotionally-stunted brother, which doesn’t really catch my attention.
Number Two (David Castañeda, Jane the Virgin) gets a past love interest, which while it lends motive for his character – it falls a bit flat. How many comic characters have found their purpose after the death of someone they care about? Err.
Number Seven (Ellen Page, X-Men Series) is perhaps the most unsurprising of the siblings. They thought she was normal but she has powers?! What a revelation. Ellen Page plays the same deadpan outcast again and again. And sadly, it’s become run of the mill to see her in these roles. When she turns out to be the cause of the apocalypse, it really just boils down to: who didn’t see that one coming? The creepy addition of a stalker-boyfriend also wasn’t as pleasant. I liked the megalomaniac conductor better.
At The End Of The Day/World (?)…
At the heart of it all though, Umbrella Academy is partly superhero team satire. They don’t have the typical morals, super powers, or cultural icon status that the Justice League or the X-Men have. They lack motivation to save the world. Rather, they’re thrown into doing it and they grow out of it.
They’re science experiments running away from their own lives. The kooky aesthetic that Gabriel Ba evoked in his art lends to how comedic and ridiculous the entire premise is. I’m disappointed that this got the dark, gritty treatment some superhero shows have. In fact, this resembles the flavor that DC tended to favour for their Justice League films. I guess it feels a little bit more relatable than the source material.
General audience members can consider Umbrella Academy another attempt at a superhero team gone mad. It’s mostly fun with murderous intent and sarcastic, witty dialogue thrown in. I tried really hard not to compare this to the comics, but expectations from the trailer were really hard to bypass.
Is this show still worth watching? Absolutely, it’s still a good binge watch despite its flaws and the effects from Weta help immensely. The plot has its ups and downs with some haphazard pacing, but it’s entirely digestible. But if you’re expecting something mind bendy like the comics, this maybe a little bit bland.
RATING: 3.5/5 doughnuts from Griddy’s: Sweet but nothing new.