If you were just a young laddie or lass entering adolescence when the mid-2000’s rolled around, you probably heard about a little “emo” band named My Chemical Romance. This band, probably known best for their album The Black Parade and it’s title track, embraced the melodramatic and the idea of art being a true spectacle. In their later years they threw aside the mascara and the gloom and embraced a post apocalyptic aesthetic with fast cars, laser guns, and masked killers.
But why is any of that relevant in a review for Netflix’s new show The Umbrella Academy? Well, The Umbrella Academy is itself based on a graphic novel from 2007 and that graphic novel is written by My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way. Netflix’s adaptation changes a few details here and there, but keeps most of Gerard Way’s artistic vision intact in the transition from panel to screen. Like the band’s music, the show is almost like an over the top spectacle or performance, and it’s hard not to feel the band’s influence while watching.
The Umbrella Academy is a superhero story, first and foremost. But it has more in common with something like Alan Moore’s Watchmen than something you might see from Marvel Studios.
Things start off with 43 women around the world spontaneously becoming pregnant and immediately giving birth, and this results in 43 babies born with extraordinary superpowers. An eccentric billionaire named Reginald Hargreeves tries to get as many of these children as possible, and seven of the children end up in his care. He raises them to adulthood, fostering their superpowers in whatever ways necessary in order to prepare them for some mysterious future apocalypse.
The bulk of The Umbrella Academy‘s 10 episode run-time is devoted to these seven children as adults, but there are a few flashbacks to their glory days as childhood superheroes. But all this really takes a back seat to the psychological effects that being raised as a superhero can have on a person, and the ramifications of the children’s unusual upbringing are apparent one way or another in nearly every scene. Without giving away too much, these kids had a very hard time growing up and it more or less scarred them all in various ways. A lot of The Umbrella Academy is spent diving into these issues and dissecting each character, and there are surprisingly few huge action set-pieces for a “superhero” show.
The heroes themselves are pretty cool and all played decently well by their actors. They were given only numbers by Reginald Hargreeves, but eventually were given proper names down the line. Luther (#1) is super-strong. Diego (#2) can guide any thrown object wherever he chooses, giving him lethal accuracy with his throwing knives. Allison (#3) can alter reality itself by lying about it, making her lie come true. Klaus (#4) can communicate with the dead. Number Five still lacks a proper name, but can teleport through both space and time. Ben (#6) unfortunately is deceased as the story begins, and his powers are never really explained in depth, but he can summon monstrous tentacles from within. And Vanya (#7) has no powers at all.
Klaus and Number Five are the two most interesting characters, and it’s not even close. Robert Sheeran and Aidan Gallagher bring each of these characters to life and they also demonstrate the most emotional range of the lot. Klaus on the surface looks to be a shallow junkie only out to have a good time, but the character actually has a huge amount of depth and is probably the most sympathetic character on the show when all is said and done. And Number Five is just so damn cool that it’s hard not to have a grin each time he’s on-screen. Whether he’s teleporting all over the place in a fight or spouting some profane dialogue a kid his age probably shouldn’t be saying, he’s the character carrying the show the hardest both in terms of entertainment and plot. Aidan Gallagher has a bright future ahead of him in Hollywood because he’s an immensely talented 15 year old.
An honorable mention also goes out to the actors behind the two colorful assassins known as Hazel and Cha Cha. Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige bring to life characters who, in the comics, were completely deranged psychopaths only out for “red licorice whips and instant armageddon.” In the Netflix adaptation, they are both far more human (and only wear their signature masks a few times). They comprise a surprising amount of the show, but their sub-plot is a lot of fun and the characters are a blast to follow.
Some viewers might be a little turned off by the “timey-wimey”ness of the plot and I’d almost have to agree with them. Time-travel is something that can quickly get out of hand when used as a plot device, and it’s really no different here. There are a few confusing things that happen and a couple of paradoxes that made me pause the show and work them out logically in my head before they made any sense. There’s nothing too altogether egregious, but if this kind of storytelling gives you a headache then The Umbrella Academy might not be for you.
It also might not be for people who are uncomfortable with violence and all different kinds of abuse. It’s not a crazy violent show, but there are definitely some pretty gory things that happen that might make a few of you squeamish. As hard as this is to say, this show also might not appeal to it’s very demographic. If you’re looking for that gritty and emotional take on superhero stories, just be aware that this show has a few things that might pull you out of the story. It’s based on a graphic novel by a rock band frontman but it still actually contains more song and dance numbers than I thought a show like this would. There’s also an intelligent chimpanzee with a British accent who wears a fancy suit and I even told my girlfriend “any casual viewer still on board with this show’s premise just bailed” when he came on-screen. So if you’re looking for that grim-dark DC Universe take on superheroes, The Umbrella Academy does contain a lot of that kind of storytelling…it just also gets really silly sometimes.
There’s a lot of ridiculous things going on in this show. But trust me when I say that somehow it all just works. If you can push through and buy into some of it’s more outrageous ideas, you’ll be rewarded with a clever and entertaining show that does a lot of things right. It isn’t perfect and it still suffers through those signature Netflix pacing issues (a slow-burn of a plot wrapped up all too hastily when they run out of episodes) but this is my favorite Netflix original since Stranger Things. I was a bit biased going in, having read the comic and listened religiously to the music of Way’s band back in the day, but I think that most people who watch this show will come away impressed with what they managed to do with a pretty crazy premise.
Oh, and there’s a cliffhanger ending.