Netflix is no stranger to superhero shows.
Before breaking ties with Marvel, the streaming platform churned out a handful of brilliant comic book series. Sure there were duds like the nauseatingly-bland Iron Fist and a bogged-down second season of Luke Cage, but there were success stories too – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Punisher. Those series were carefully-crafted, contained dramas that could trade punches with their big-screen counterparts.
I want you to think of those superhero shows, the good and bad, and think about them hard – their storylines, how “inventive” and “revolutionary” they were — and then I want you to throw those ideas of what a superhero show should be in the trash. Douse them in gasoline. Light them on fire.
Because The Umbrella Academy is about as far from typical superhero fare that you’ll ever get.
Based on the graphic novels by Gabriel Ba and Gerard Way – yes, the front-man of My Chemical Romance – The Umbrella Academy charts the story of seven gifted orphans adopted by an eccentric billionaire who has dreams of creating his own personal superhero league. The kids were all born on the same day, to mothers who weren’t pregnant just hours before they gave birth. Each is identified by a number and has their own set of unique powers which we will now list below because simply summarizing them wouldn’t do justice to the level of weird this series is attempting to conquer.
Luther Hargreeves (Tom Hopper) is #1, the leader of the group. He’s spent years in space following a disastrous mission that nearly killed him. A life-saving procedure was performed, stitching his head to the body of a massive ape which explains his physical dominance and his extremely large shoe size.
Diego Hargreeves (David Castaneda) is #2, a Batman-wannabe with serious issues. He harbors some resentment towards Luther and his adoptive father and prefers to vent his frustrations through knife-throwing and some shoddy vigilante work.
Allison Hargreeves (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is #3, a young woman who can bend reality to her will by simply whispering rumors into someone’s ear. It’s the gift every teenage girl would kill for, honestly, but Allison doesn’t use it anymore after it wrecked her personal life.
Klaus Hargreeves (Robert Sheehan) is #4, a quirky Goth who can commune with the dead. Obviously, entertaining spirits is not a fun time, so he heavily abuses drugs to drown out the noise. He’s also gender non-binary, queer, and a hell of a fun time.
The Boy (Aidan Gallagher) is #5, a kid who went missing after using his time-traveling abilities to jump to the future. Turns out, the apocalypse is nigh and #5 finds a way to return to his family to help prevent it, but he’s trapped in his younger body which means going through puberty all over again.
Ben Hargreeves (Ethan Hwang) is #6, who died of unknown causes long before we meet the Academy kids. We get glimpses of him as a child that suggest his ability included transforming into various monsters at will, and he pops up every now and then thanks to Klaus séance skills.
Vanya Hargreeves (Ellen Page) is the youngest of the siblings, an unextraordinary girl with no known powers and a mediocre talent for the violin. She’s meek and mild-mannered and wholly uninteresting so of course, she’s probably the most threatening of the group because you don’t have Ellen Page in your show and not give her something to do.
There’s also a talking chimpanzee that serves as the family’s butler and a life-like A.I. that subs as the group’s mother and primary caretaker growing up because dad was a deadbeat.
So yes, we’ve got supernatural powers and an impending apocalypse, typical superhero ingredients, but where The Umbrella Academy really soars is when it ditches the strange sci-fi and decides to play up the offbeat, dysfunctional family storyline. Because as interesting as it is to see a group of weirdos fight bad guys, it’s even more thrilling to watch a show with something to say about unconventional family dynamics and how people choose to connect and interact with a world that constantly tries to alienate them.
For Vanya, a young woman always relegated to the shadows, the news of her father’s mysterious death and the forced reunion with her siblings that inevitably follows dredges up painful childhood trauma. She was ostracized by her adoptive family, emotionally abused by her father, erased from the narrative. Even when she tries to take control of her life, writing a book about her experiences, pursuing her passion for music, she’s criticized by her peers and bullied by her family members. And yet, they are the only family she has. How does someone reconcile cutting ties when they’re the only thing rooting you in reality?
Number five, which is the only name he goes by on the show, is perhaps the only member of the family that’s even more of an outsider than his sister. A time-jump gone wrong leaves him trapped in the future for decades. He’s forced to survive in the worst of ways. He forms an emotional attachment to a half-destroyed mannequin seeking human comfort. He returns to help save the world, but the real struggle is in relating to a group of people who used to be the most important thing in his life. Make no mistake, The Umbrella Academy is number five’s story. He fuels the action, he gets the best comebacks, and Gallagher is given the big task of portraying a 50-something-year-old man trapped in a preteen’s body. He does it with a thick New York accent and a charisma that actors triple his age would kill for.
The rest of the family suitably struggles with their respective “gifts” and the consequences they bring. Series creator Jeremy Slater weaves character development through layers of flashbacks that show more often than tell of the retained trauma these grown-ups are still living with.
Klaus is perhaps the most heartbreaking case, a kid who can communicate with the dead, an ability that wrecks his life. He abuses drugs, overdosing twice in the show’s first episode, but instead of being met with compassion and concern from his siblings, he’s characterized as a flailing junkie, the screw-up every family is inevitably burdened with. Sheehan brings some much-needed humor to the character’s darker turns, almost refusing to let us pity him and, instead, honestly examine how we view addiction and those afflicted with it. It’s not always the problem, sometimes it’s just the symptom.
The show is admittedly weighed down by its grander aspirations. Every episode hits a wall of sorts when it’s faced with carrying out expected superhero tropes – the saving of the world, the bagging of bad guys, the escaping of mysterious assassins – but if you can get over the hump, there are some fantastic moments to be enjoyed. Mary J. Blige plays a hitwoman who dons a blow-up animal mask and, at one point, gets ridiculously stoned just to burn down a prosthetics lab. Gallagher survives some impressive shoot-outs, playing a game of cat-and-mouse set to a killer soundtrack with just enough slo-mo sequences to make it seem like the show’s not actually trying to be cool.
It’d be nice to give you a review that’s a quirky and hellishly fun and singular as The Umbrella Academy is but if this show proves anything, it’s that phenomenally creative people exist in the world, people more creative than me, who look at a comic book story filled with half-human-half-ape superheroes and time-travellers and talking monkeys and doughnut-loving assassins and angst-ridden Emo kids who can talk to the dead and think, “Huh, that would make a good TV series.”
Watch the things those people make. Specifically, watch The Umbrella Academy.
‘The Umbrella Academy’ begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 15th.