“The Umbrella Academy” provides a fresh and heartfelt take on the superhero genre
It is 2019, and I am sick of superhero movies. Trust me, I’ve tried — I’ve faked my way through arguments on who was right in “Civil War,” speculated on whether cryptic tweets from Chris Evans meant an impending death in “Infinity War,” and even subjected myself to watching Scarlett Johansson swoon into the Hulk’s giant sweaty green palm in theaters. And outside of the theater, the subculture is fun, a conversation nearly everyone can join in on — there have been so many iterations of all our favorite heroes that more people are familiar with Superman and friends than they are with Harry Potter. But at the end of the day, there’s just something about once the screen goes black and the Spandex tights are donned, that, with a few shining exceptions, just feels … well, missing. I didn’t know what this was for a long time. Maybe it was the fight scenes, maybe the villains. It wasn’t until very recently that a friend of mine put into words what I couldn’t: “None of the Avengers seem like they actually like each other.”
This isn’t a dig on the Avengers or anyone who loves them; this isn’t actually about the Avengers. It is about a world in which, for everyone below age 25, superhero films have become less of a cohesive storyline we can choose to follow than a permanent fixture of life. Every four years we have a presidential election. Every four months we get a new MCU film. It’s the way of the world. But mostly, this is about “The Umbrella Academy,” a show that is about superheroes but is very much not the Avengers.
“The Umbrella Academy” is a cartoon burst into live action. It hits hard, emotional truths, but there is no attempt at gritty realism, nor is there at making the show appear like a comic book a la “Spiderverse” (not that that wasn’t very cool). The larger than life aesthetics are taken in stride, daring you to comment on the genetically modified monkey butler or the time-traveling assassins who wear Chuck-E-Cheese-esque animal masks. The world of “The Umbrella Academy” is a place far more akin to “A Series of Unfortunate Events” than it is to “Batman.”
On an inauspicious day in October 1989, 43 women around the world, all of whom had begun the day comfortably not pregnant, remarkably gave birth. Many of these babies, equally remarkably, had superpowers. Seven of them were adopted by Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), an eccentric billionaire and reigning overlord of emotionally distant fathers. They were raised as part of his Umbrella Academy, an elite group of children dressed in picture-perfect blazers and child-sized masks who would use their powers to stop crime and maybe, one day, the end of the world.
But what happens when childhood ends? What happens when it was never really allowed to begin? The adopted Hargreeves siblings, raised as photogenic cogs in a violent machine, emerge into adulthood in twisted, uncomfortable ways, trying to forge identities on their own terms. They each move in their own direction, distancing themselves from their family as much as possible in an effort to reclaim their lives, when two events bring them back together: the mysterious death of their father and the reappearance of their brother, Five, who has been time traveling for the past decade or so, as 13-year-olds with superpowers are wont to do. He brings home a grisly message after four decades of time-travel (from his perspective): He has seen the end of the world, and it’s coming in eight days.
Yes, it’s based on a series of comic books by Gerard Way. Yes, that Gerard Way.
As you might expect, the soundtrack is a force to be reckoned with. Not only are the songs fantastic picks, Way proving an excellent taste in music that extends far beyond My Chemical Romance’s genre contemporaries, but the way they are paired with the show’s visual content is genuinely brilliant. Where do I even begin? With the Phantom of the Opera rock medley that introduces us to our heroes? The Hargreeves siblings’ spiritual reunion as, alone in their own rooms, they separately jam out to “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany? Fifteen-year-old Aidan Gallagher single-handedly murdering a crack team of hitmen in a donut shop to the jaunty tune of They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul”? I could go on; this is just from the first episode.
Aside from the sheer aesthetics, “The Umbrella Academy” distinguishes itself from its superhero brethren with the powers themselves. The characters don’t have powers merely for the sake of genre; Luther (Tom Hopper) doesn’t have super strength because the writers thought that would be, like, really cool or whatever – he has super strength because he’s trying to keep together a family that was doomed to fall apart. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) controls people’s minds because she is terrified of presenting herself on merit alone after a lifetime of being used. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) speaks to the dead as the bearer of a shared family trauma over their brother’s death. Of course, these are vast simplifications; the show isn’t nearly this tongue-in-cheek about the Hargreeves family’s powers, but ultimately, the supernatural of “The Umbrella Academy” is less “radioactive spider” than it is a nod to the notions of magical realism, a tool to understand these characters as they struggle to understand themselves. When the characters learn to grow and restrain their powers, it’s rarely an exercise in simply growth or restraint, but instead in learning to confront these complicated elements of their own pasts.
Credit where credit is due — all of the cast encapsulates a diverse range of characters, but I would be remiss to not mention Aiden Gallagher, who plays Five Hargreeves, a 58-year-old man who spent his formative years in an apocalyptic wasteland with only the love of his life, a discount store mannequin named Dolores, and then travels back in time to find himself in the body of his thirteen-year-old self. A bizarrely specific and unrelatable series of events, but the teenaged Gallagher portrays it as naturally as if it were his own life story. Also notable, Robert Sheehan plays Klaus Hargreeves, a constantly fluctuating junkie haunted by the ghost of his dead brother, and shoots up in order to keep the voices of the dead out of his mind. Balancing the part with an almost Shakespearean take on wacky humor and genuine emotion, Sheehan makes Klaus easily one of the show’s most memorable characters. And where would we be without Ellen Page as Vanya Hargreeves, the sole non-superpowered Hargreeves, mumbling and slouching her way through the majority of the ten episodes, with occasional bouts of righteous and well-deserved fury, and straight into my heart.
Of course, as might be expected from a show where the characters were for the most part raised by a sexy robot and a genetically modified monkey, it’s not perfect. The out-of-time aesthetic, while a definite high point, occasionally falters, not quite embracing it enough to fully earn it. It seems like a safe guess that it was less an aesthetic concern and more a decision made out of fear that whatever iPhone they showed Allison using would feel dated by the time season two rolled around – but in a show where time travel features so prominently, is pinning the events to a particular year necessarily a bad thing? Likewise, it’s hard not to question some of the characterization choices that were made in the season finale, or wonder why superpower-less Vanya was not allowed to join her siblings on crime-fighting missions, when Klaus, whose only ability is to talk to ghosts, can tag along.
These are small problems, however, especially minute in the oversized reality of “The Umbrella Academy,” a world in which all our traumas are reenacted on the enhanced stage of Hargreeves family drama. This is a show about superheroes, yes, but more than anything, it’s a show about family – and not the feel-good, found family depicted on much of television. The Umbrella Academy (the in-universe institution, not the show) is both a school and an inflated imitation of the nuclear family, and in true form to both, prides itself on regimen, sameness, and optics, all at the threat of the individual. There is a real, larger than life body count to this in the show — Ben (Justin H. Min), who dies on a mission years before the story begins, and Five, who loses his childhood to the apocalypse. But the effects are shown in several, more “real” ways, be it Klaus — who is LGBT and in many other ways an outsider to these institutions — relying on drugs to cope with a power that in any other circumstance would be considered a mental illness, Vanya’s traumatic sense of inferiority after a lifetime of being compared to super-powered siblings, or Luther throwing his life away to impress a father who refused to show he cared. The Hargreeveses’ dysfunctions are our own; no matter how loving or well-adjusted our families may be, there is still that spark of truth in Diego (David Castañeda) navigating an understanding of his mother’s interiority beyond being the nurturing figure from his childhood, or in Allison negotiating what it means to be a sister and to consider how your siblings’ childhoods line up with your own. It is the trauma of being born into a family. It is the trauma of being a person.
Once again, I find myself thinking about the Avengers, and how I might have liked them better if I had felt like they actually liked each other. Does the super team of “The Umbrella Academy” really like each other? Perhaps not. We certainly see enough near deaths at the hands of each other’s melodramatics to hazard the fair guess that, if it were not for the impending apocalypse and their shared last name, these people would probably not be spending much time together. But “The Umbrella Academy” also seems to understand something that goes beyond words, that goes beyond onscreen dysfunction and dramatics. It’s something I think about as I watch the show’s final scene — no spoilers, I promise — I watch all seven of the Hargreeves siblings in a circle, holding hands, the camera spinning in this penultimate moment, and the faces of our heroes flashing between their 2019 visages and the children we have only seen in flashbacks. I watch this scene, their earnestness, the genuine intensity but unmistakable care of this moment, and I wonder if I would have liked the Avengers better if, like the Hargreeves, I had believed that they knew what it means to love.
Created by: Gerard Way
Starring: Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher
Premiered: February 15, 2019 on Netflix