A dysfunctional family of superheroes reunites to save the world, but from whom?
Warning: This review attempts to be spoiler-free, but may contain spoilers.
We live in a time of superhero saturation on the small and big screen.
Every couple of months there’s a new show or movie about a new hero or a group of heroes that have to save the world from this new threat, but what if the addition of superpowers into the world didn’t make things better? What if things went a little sideways? The Umbrella Academy shows that having superpowers don’t necessarily make you a hero or villain, but instead can magnify ordinary problems such as sibling rivalry and family squabbles into a potentially apocalyptic scenario.
The show largely follows the same basic principle as the comic: After 47 extraordinary children were born simultaneously to women who are not previously pregnant, billionaire Reginald Hargreaves adopts seven of them to form a dysfunctional family of super-powered individuals known as The Umbrella Academy. After years of fighting crime, each family member goes their separate ways only to be reunited over a decade later by the death of their father. Now, the family must learn to put up with one another while trying save the world from the impending apocalypse.
The first episode is a disappointment in terms of portraying what the story and characters really have to offer. It tries to introduce the universe as well as each member of the Umbrella Academy and their powers. The show’s premise is weird, quirky, and a little f**ked up. A few of the characters fall flat in the pilot, and some aren’t able to recover well.
All seven siblings are emotionally stunted as part of their upbringing, but Luthor and Allison are the weakest of the bunch, and unfortunately, a large focus for the series. One comes back from living four years alone on the moon and the other returns from a messy divorce and forced separation from her daughter — but neither performance is convincing enough to the viewer. Luthor’s righteous attitude and brooding persona leave a bad taste in most of his scenes until his big realization late in the season, and Allison’s need to be a caring sister to Vanya as a way to cope after being unable to see her daughter is largely unfounded.
The best characters in the show are Klaus, Number 5, and Pogo. Robert Sheehan gives a raw, loud, and eccentric performance as Klaus, that clearly comes from his earlier work as Nathan from his time on Misfits. Klaus is forever scarred by his superpower, and turns to drugs in order to cope — Sheehan does a great job portraying the volatility and struggles that come with his addiction.
Aiden Gallagher does a great job in his performance as Number 5 in portraying an old man trapped in the body of a 13-year-old. It never gets old seeing people’s faces as they realize the innocent looking child they’re staring at is actually a cold-blooded killer.
Pogo however, may be the most important character on the series because he is proof of what the television adaptation can contribute that the comic book source cannot. Despite being entirely CG, Pogo’s expressions and mannerisms convey more emotion than any other character in the show, and his role as the family’s caretaker and Reginald’s loyal assistant is truly touching.
The rest of the characters fall somewhere in between. Some give mediocre performances, but are nevertheless compelling because of how they tie in with the story, while others did the best they could but weren’t written with enough room for their character to grow and express themselves. The most frustrating performance comes from the show’s lead, Ellen Page. The powerless Page gives an extremely heart-wrenching performance towards the end of the season, but is emotionally stunted through the first half of the show due to how Vanya was adapted from the comics. If she were given some happier moments early on, it would have given the hard-hitting scenes late in the season a bigger impact.
It’s hard to analyze how well or poorly this show adapts the source material. The comic provided a treasure trove of ideas but never explored the potentials of many of them. The show however, chooses a few of those ideas and dives deeply into their consequences while also introducing new ones.
There are many differences between the show and the source material. Some characters are introduced right away that don’t appear during the first arc of the comics, and some new characters are created out of thin air. Some performances, such as Cameron Britton’s Hazel and Mary J. Blige’s Cha-Cha, add a lot of extra depth to the show, especially the less-defined villain aspect. Other characters such as Joe Magaro’s Leonard Peabody are a bit more irritating and sometimes detract from the potential of the characters they share scenes with. Another welcome addition is Justin H. Min as Ben, who almost never appears in the comics, but is given a great role beside Klaus in the show and is a character I hope gets more screen-time in the potential season 2.
The best aspect, however, is the very nature of the television show that enhances the comic material. The Umbrella Academy‘s soundtrack enhances the quality of the show to a new level whenever there is music playing and defines how important music can be to a person or show’s mood. From a hyper-violent action sequence set to “Istanbul,” to a quirky character scene set to “I Think We’re Alone Now,” to a sad scene set to Mary J. Blige’s cover of Rod Stewart’s “Stay with Me,” there is no Umbrella Academy without the music that goes with it. After all, a large subplot of the series is set around an orchestra concert, so music is a focal point of the show.
Ultimately, the show’s greatest strength is the time it devotes to subtlety. The show ends in a manner very dissimilar from other comic book media, and is not likely to be perceived as a “win.” Yet upon rewatching certain scenes, it becomes clear how and why events occur as they do. Everything is connected, and actions and attitudes matter, and this show does a great job at displaying that above the novelty of capes and saving the day. The show is driven by dysfunction. This is not a show about teamwork or a group of heroes that fight for a common good. It’s about a family brought together after a decade apart only to find a bunch of strangers they used to share a house with. It shows that family is something that people put meaning into and it doesn’t have an inherent meaning on its own.
It is important to note the show is not the comic nor is it meant to be. There are different themes presented and different choices made. Some people will love everything that comes with the comic book medium and adore Gerard Way’s and Gabriel Ba’s original work, while others will appreciate what Steve Blackman has brought to the small screen. Neither opinion is incorrect, and both versions portray certain elements better than the other. The Umbrella Academy is its own thing, and there are good and bad elements, but ultimately, it is a show that will leave an imprint in the history of comic book entertainment.