As we are enjoying the golden age of comic book adaptations, it’s worth remembering not every superhero property is Marvel or DC. We have the Incredibles, Hellboy, Dredd and many more making the genre interesting and diverse. Netflix’s latest smash hit (you can how much of a success a show is based on the amount of memes, which this show has lots of) The Umbrella Academy is such a property, based on the Dark Horse comic book by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba that presents a family of super-heroic characters who are so dysfunctional the X-Men look like a perfectly functioning team in comparison.
In 1989, 43 women give birth at the exact same time. Of these miracle births, seven are found and taken by Sir Reginald Hargreaves, an eccentric millionaire who trains them to be a superhero team. Under the team mantle of The Umbrella Academy, the children become celebrities and lose two members before they grow up and eventually go separate paths. When their father dies, the remaining five return for his funeral, only for events to grow from there into a vast conspiracy that crosses timelines and encompasses a wide range of characters. In short, it’s a show that’s perfect for the Netflix formula. And when I say this show is weird, I mean weird. The talking chimpanzee butler isn’t even the strangest thing that happens. It’s the sixty year old, time travelling fifth sibling who looks like a twelve year old desperate to prevent the apocalypse that is. And this is just the first episode.
This is a show that wears its influences on its sleeves proudly. One obvious shoutout is Alan Moore’s magnum opus Watchmen, with a similar plot about an upcoming apocalypse and the idea of super powered dysfunctional characters who feel more like real people rather than full on superheroes. It also feels more like the X-Men then the actual X-Men movies have been recently (bonus points for having X-Men film alumni Ellen Page in the cast and using her far better than the films ever did). It asks the question “what if the X-Men were celebrities?” and plays with that very well. And of course the most obvious influence is DC’s Doom Patrol, which Gerard Way has also written for. Coincidentally, the Doom Patrol TV show hit DC Universe the exact same day Umbrella Academy hit Netflix. 2019 is the year of the weird comic book properties coming to life and I’m all for it. This show is the insane version of the insane version of the X-Men, if that makes any sense.
So what of the Hargreave children? There are seven, technically six in the actual series. Number One is Luther, the super strong one who has an inferiority complex and sees himself as the leader of the group, who has spent the last four years on the Moon. Number Two is Diego, who can throw knifes and hit anything with them and has a short temper, currently acting as a vigilante at odds with the law. Number Three is Allison, who can control people’s minds with the phrase “I heard a rumour” and who is recovering from a terrible personal life related to her life as an actress. Number Four is Klaus, the manic and hilarious drug addict who can talk to the dead. Number Five is… number five. He ran away from the Academy as a child and disappeared with his teleportation, ending up being caught in a devastated future Earth. Number Six is Ben, who is dead but still communicates to Klaus. And Number Seven is Vanya, who has no powers and has been isolated from the group since the beginning. It’s rare for a show to have so many lead roles which I like equally, but miraculously this show pulled it off. All of these characters are interesting and compelling, but my favourite is Five. His wit and humour is matched by the fascinating idea of an old man trapped in a child’s body, and his regret at not having grown up with the rest of his family is a key part of his arc. It’s also Number Five who kickstarts the plot, as he returns seven days before the world is due to end and is desperate to stop it. To reveal more would spoil the fun.
Every episode is intriguing in its own way. There are so many twists and turns within the narrative that every time you think something will happen… it doesn’t, and something wackier happens. One of the things that caught my interest was the way in which the narrative subverts expectations. For example, the second episode introduces two agents sent to assassinate Five- Hazel and Cha-Cha. You would expect them to be periphery characters who are disposed of within a handful of characters but the show spends a lot of time with these two, exposing them to be equally interesting and well defined as the lead roles. I also love how the event that brings the Hargreaves back together- the death of their father- shifts from being a non-event to a conspiracy to nothing to a really insane chain of events, once again defying traditional norm. There is not one genre you can place The Umbrella Academy in- in one episode you can get mystery, drama, comedy and just plain madness in one go. For peak madness, pay close attention to episodes 6 and 7 in particular. In two episodes, this show has more ideas than entire seasons of television. It is entirely unpredictable.
I really, really do not reveal to much about specific details of the show. It is best to go in knowing as little as possible and then reveling in the mayhem that ensues. It is perfect for binge watching and watching more than one episode in a single viewing is practically mandatory as every single episode ends in a cliffhanger which leaves you wanting to keep watching. With ten episodes it takes time establishing the characters and the world before embracing the zany nature of comic books and science fiction. I’m very glad a Season 2 has been confirmed and I’ll be sure to read the comics now to gain further insight into the world of the Umbrella Academy, and I’m happy to report that the show has become one of my go-to Netflix originals along with Stranger Things and Castlevania (and by originals I mean shows created exclusively for Netflix, not just distributed by them for non-American audiences). By this point the memes have become impossible to avoid so drop what you’re doing and watch The Umbrella Academy. It is worth every second.