I’ve heard it said that lately, Netflix hasn’t been doing so well with its comic book adaptations. There’s been a lot of ups and downs with the Marvel shows, the majority of which haven’t maintained their original strengths from season to season and are currently dropping like flies. Never mind the recent spate of let-downs on the movies front, including Mads Mikkleson’s Polar. So how did Netflix fair when adapting The Umbrella Academy, the surreal, off-beat Dark Horse comic written by Gerard Way and drawn by Gabriel Bá?
Both the original comic and the show have the same elevator pitch: forty-three infants are inexplicably born to random, unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven of these children are adopted by billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who creates The Umbrella Academy to prepares his “children” for a mission to save the world.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and billionaire industrialists often go awry. In their teen years, the family splits apart, and the Umbrella Academy team is disbanded for good. Fast-forward to today, and the five surviving members, now adults, reunite when they receive the news of Hargreeves’s death.
As far as “quirky” adaptations go, so far The Umbrella Academy has other adaptations beat, hands-down. Not only does it expand much further on some concepts barely touched on in the comic, but the cast fully, and delightfully, embody their characters in a way that’s starkly realistic. Each of the former Academy members is given the breathing space to expand on their individual stories. It wasn’t easy growing up in the Hargreeves household, and each of the team have accumulated a few hang-ups over the course of their rocky path to adulthood. Least of all that they weren’t given names (their robot “mother” did that), but rather numbered by Hargreeves in order of usefulness.
In the mix are Number One, a.k.a. Spaceboy/Luther (Tom Hopper), with the gift of super-strength. Hargreeves raised him to be the leader of the group, which in turn kept Luther as the last loyalist to the family. Number Two, a.k.a. The Kraken/Diego (David Castañeda), is a hard-headed vigilante with unerring knife-throwing powers who resented Luther’s position and forged his own way.
Number Three, a.k.a. The Rumor/Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampma) can manipulate reality by starting a sentence with “I heard a rumour…”, a talent that brought Allison fame, fortune and a fair amount of pain. Number Four, a.k.a. The Séance/Klaus (Robert Sheehan) can speak with the dead, a traumatic superpower that he suppresses with drugs and alcohol.
Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) didn’t earn a name, as he accidentally time-travelled into the future, and is missing – presumed dead. Thanks to some timey-wimey manipulations, Number Five manages to return to the present day, but retains the appearance of the day he left as a child. Number Six, a.k.a. The Horror/Ben (Ethan Hwang), really is dead and appears regularly only to Klaus.
Lastly, Number Seven, a.k.a. Vanya (Ellen Page), is the only “normal” one of the family. Born without powers, Vanya grew up as the outcast of The Academy, with little to no say in family matters. Quiet, unconfident and on anxiety medication, Vanya takes solace in her only real talent – the violin.
So that’s our dysfunctional family, warts, superpowers and all. Told in a combination of flash-backs and present-day happenings, The Umbrella Academy takes no prisoners with the way it kicks off this tumultuous rollercoaster. The show doesn’t linger on unimportant questions, like, “How did these children even come into existence?”. There’s enough going on here as is, from the circumstances surrounding Hargreeves’s death to time-travelling assassins, mysterious missing documents, familial conflicts, and, of course, an apocalypse that needs preventing.
While death might normally bring a few skeletons out of the closet, it’s going to be far more interesting when that family has superpowers. The show deals masterfully with these famous children as adults, along with dealing with all the issues and baggage that come from their upbringing, their talents and their strained relationships with each other.
In a lot of science fiction/fantasy movies and TV shows, there’s a common trope known as “Mr. Exposition.” This is generally a character in a “fish-out-of-water” role who needs to have everything explained to him/her, helping the script deliver exposition in a way that’s slightly less forced than usual. Here, there’s no such character. You’re basically thrown in the deep end when it comes to the plot, but trust me, this is a good thing.
In a way, all we are is somewhat guilty voyeurs into an estranged family going through a dark and troubled time. We learn about the family’s secrets, tragedies and triumphs as we go, and for the most part (unless you’ve read the comics or you’re just really good at guessing) we discover these things at the same time as the team. We learn about them as much as they learn about each other.
Interspersed with the all the family drama, there’s also a generous amount of action, with flashy coordinated fight scenes showing off the powers of the siblings, both as children and as adults. These action scenes are explosive, violent and usually backed by some good music. Oh, and there’s quite a bit of dancing, but I’ll let you see that for yourselves.
The Umbrella Academy also has an unusual aesthetic, kind of like our reality but not really. It’s the little things that add up, or don’t add up in some cases. This adds extra flavour to the experience and is something else to appreciate.
The pacing might be a bit on the slow side in the beginning for some, but I’ve never particularly minded a slow start, especially if the premise is interesting from the get-go. It certainly doesn’t stay slow, and by the end of the first episode I was admittedly hooked. We only got up to episode 6 with the review screener, and when I finished watching the last episode I was mad. Not at the show, but at the fact that I now have to wait another two weeks to find out what happens. That, for me, means the show gets a big stamp of approval.
Last Updated: February 1, 2019