The Umbrella Academy is a delightful comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, which basically answers the question, “What if Professor X was a complete and total asshole?” It’s won awards and received praise, and all of it is deserved.
Netflix has just dropped the first season of a live-action adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, and it has improved on the source material in pretty much every way, which is a rare and impressive accomplishment.
[Some spoilers for the series discussed below.]
Both the comics and the TV series have lots of goofy features drawn from pulp classics, like a talking chimpanzee and a sentient robot and a brilliant scientist who comes up with all manner of gadgets that are inexplicably only used by the heroes and not sold and mass produced. The comic book also features a quiet Indian assistant who wears a turban, an ethnic stereotype that the TV series thankfully dispenses with.
The Umbrella Academy shares a great deal of DNA with The Venture Bros. Both are about adult versions of child adventurers, and both do a great deal of deconstructing when it comes to those selfsame pulp classics on which they’re based. Both also have deceased mentor/leader characters who are publicly considered philanthropists and gentlemen heroes but who, in reality, are total shitheads.
The basic premise is that 43 children were all born on the same day to women who were not pregnant when the day started. Famous scientist Sir Reginald Hargreeves tracks the children down, and is able to adopt seven of them and raise them as his own in the Umbrella Academy. Initially they all only have numbers, though they get names later. They also all have superpowers of some sort, and as adolescents they go on missions to protect humanity. One of them (#5) disappears, another dies (Ben, #6), and four of the remaining five leave the Academy, with only Luther (#1) remaining—and he winds up with a simian body under his human head after a mission gone awry.
(One odd feature of both the TV show and the comic books is that the fate of the other 36 children is never mentioned. Not even in passing.)
The first season of the TV series loosely follows the general plot of the first miniseries, Apocalypse Suite, with bits of the second, Dallas, woven throughout (mostly involving Five’s storyline, not to mention the characters of Hazel and Cha-Cha). The comics give us some magnificent visuals, the bickering amongst the siblings, and the general acceptance of all kinds of crazy stuff. I particularly love that the comic depicts such early-20th-century pulp tropes as Mars being inhabited and talking chimps being commonplace. (One of the police detectives who occasionally clashes with the Umbrella Academy students is a talking chimp.) The head of the temporal police that Five worked for (and who sends Hazel and Cha-Cha after him) is a talking goldfish.
However, the comic book suffers from too big of a cast. Aside from Hargreeves—who’s pretty much just a self-centered asshole—and Five, the characters only really have surface characterizations, plus they’re really only differentiated by their hair color, as they’re all drawn as relatively generic white folks.
The TV series goes into considerably more depth, to good effect. It also recognizes that seven random people culled from all around the world would not all be white. Diego (#2) is Latino, Allison (#3) is black, and Ben is Asian. For that matter, while Hazel and Cha-Cha are just two men who wear cartoon masks and are totally batshit in the comics, Cha-Cha is played by Mary J. Blige, paired up with Cameron Britton as Hazel.
A lot of the show’s extra depth is courtesy of Hazel and Cha-Cha, who actually have a genuine story arc. Hazel has become disillusioned with their endless travels through time killing people and wants to settle down. Cha-Cha doesn’t want to break up a good partnership. Britton (who was overwhelmingly brilliant as Ed Kemper in Mindhunter) beautifully plays Hazel’s exhausted cynicism, while Blige is equally spectacular as the much less apologetic Cha-Cha, who is genuinely befuddled by her partner’s change of heart. What’s especially hilarious about their arc is that, while it’s about friendship and disillusionment and falling in love and all that stuff, it still involves two total psychopaths. (Hazel’s idea of a great second act, as it were, is to be able to kill whoever he wants, not who the bosses tell him to kill.)
Many of the other kids also get stronger motivations and characterizations. In the comics, the two girls have tragedies, which are mentioned and serve as motivations but really aren’t dug into. In the TV series, both Allison’s broken family and Vanya’s (#7) ostracization from the rest of the family are given much more weight. (To be fair, the currently running comics miniseries, Hotel Oblivion, is exploring Allison’s relationship with her ex-husband and daughter a bit more.) As played by Emmy Raver-Lampman, Allison is the most sympathetic of Hargreeves’s adopted children, trying very hard to maintain a good relationship with all of them—and particularly with Vanya.
Vanya is one of the standouts in the series. While her top billing is due as much to Ellen Page being arguably the most famous person in the cast, Vanya is also the soul of the story. She’s been told, since childhood, that she was the only one of the seven without powers, but this was a lie manufactured by Hargreeves once it became clear that she was too powerful. Instead, she was left out of the other kids’ reindeer games, forced to sit on the sidelines while the others went on missions. After leaving the Academy, she wrote a tell-all autobiography that laid bare just how awful their childhoods were, which put her on the outs with much of the rest of the family.
Page does amazing work here, as you feel the weight of loneliness etched on her face. All she has is her music—she teaches violin, and also plays with an orchestra—but even that is unsatisfying. When she does finally cut loose with her powers, Page’s entire demeanor changes, her posture improves, and her face hardens. Oh, and she also kills people without hesitation (something she did as a child, as well, which is what forced Hargreeves to take action to suppress those powers and her memory of them).
With all that, it’s the second best performance among the seven kids, because holy crap, does Aidan Gallagher knock it out of the park. Five is the most complex character in the comic, and the hardest to translate to live action, because it would be difficult enough for a grown-up to pull this off, but Five is stuck in the body of a pre-adolescent kid. Gallagher is amazing, carrying himself like an older person, talking like a mature adult, completely pulling off everything the script asks of him. And the script asks a lot, as the entire plot is catalyzed by Five showing up and announcing that the world will end in a few days.
The rest of the cast is fairly strong. Colm Feore perfectly nails the aristocratic arrogance of Hargreeves in the flashbacks, Tom Hopper brings a sense of devotion and loyalty to Luther that is then upended when he learns how much Hargreeves kept from them, David Castañeda manages to give the brooding Diego more heart than even the script gives him (in both comic and TV show, he’s written as the dark, brooding Batman-style hero), and Jordan Claire Robbins and Kate Walsh both do a hilariously wonderful job channeling (and commenting on) 1950s stereotypes as, respectively, the kids’ robotic mother and the head of the Temporal Commission (though as good as Walsh is, I miss the talking goldfish).
I wish the kudos could extend to everyone, but Robert Sheehan’s portrayal of the junkie Klaus (#4) who can talk to the dead is kind of limp. At one point, he’s accidentally sent to 1968 and spends ten months fighting in the Vietnam War, and has a love affair with a fellow soldier named Dave, not coming back to the present day until Dave is killed. But Klaus after that event is not appreciably different from Klaus before it, and Sheehan should’ve done a better job showing the effect of that jaunt on the character. Also Justin H. Min’s portrayal of Ben, the dead sibling who talks to Klaus a lot, is somewhat flat, and Ashley Medakwe’s Detective Eudora Patch is a character created for the sole purpose of being fridged to anger Diego. Snore. (It’s nice to see erstwhile Stargate Atlantis co-star Rainbow Sun Francks as her partner, though.)
Both the comic and the TV show suffer from cast bloat. The comic deals with it by sending characters off in odd directions or just ignoring them for long periods of time (I keep forgetting that Diego’s with Luther on their space mission in Hotel Oblivion); the TV show deals with it by repeatedly taking characters out of the action, and it’s only occasionally convincing. (There’s one point where Five falls unconscious and you can tell it was solely done because there was nothing for Five to do for most of an episode.)
However, the TV series gives us much more interesting characters. The comic book goes full pulp, embracing the goofy action and the weird circumstances, but also the flat characterizations that were the hallmark of the period. The show, on the other hand, eschews a lot of the more far-out aspects of the comic in favor of giving us more character moments. Luther’s descent into depression feels more earned in the TV show than it does in the comics (also watching Hopper go to a rave and dance with his shirt off and hairy body exposed is way funnier than watching the comics character sit eating junk food and binge-watching television). Allison’s agony over being kept from seeing her daughter (after using her powers on her) is felt more strongly, especially as she tries to compensate by being a proper sister to Vanya. Hazel and Cha-Cha are actual people instead of cackling caricatures. The apparent face of God is a little Indian girl on a bicycle—instead of a white adult cowboy on a horse—which is, if nothing else, less lazy.
And Vanya’s journey to discovering her powers is a lengthier—and more convincing—process, as she’s manipulated by a love interest with an agenda, here, instead of simply being told the truth about her past by a mysterious antagonist, like in the comics. I find a manipulating boyfriend to be way scarier than the Conductor of the comics, who’s pretty much just a plot device to turn Vanya into the White Violin.
The series has a confusing visual aesthetic, as the script insists it takes place in 2019, but the visuals indicate that it’s some time in the 1980s. Nobody has a cell phone or a personal computer, the landlines all have cords, the fashions all date from the late 20th century, we see both Allison and Cha-Cha doing research by using microfiche, and the cars are all 1970s and 1980s models.
The show also makes amazing use of music. Seriously, I haven’t seen a show that used songs to enhance a scene as well as this since Homicide: Life on the Street. (Okay, maybe Supernatural in its early years, too.) So many perfectly used songs, from “I Think We’re Alone Now” (with all the kids dancing to it, each dance telling us so much about each character) to “Sinnerman” to a Bangles-inspired cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” to “Goody Two-Shoes” to “Happy Together” to “Soul Kitchen” to “Stormy Weather” to Mary J. Blige’s “Stay With Me” (natch) to “Lundi Matin” to “Saturday Night” and on and on and on. Just brilliant use of songs.
The show isn’t perfect. Besides the cast bloat, and the weakness of Sheehan’s performance, the show sometimes gets a bit cutesy with the time travel and the non-linear storytelling, and the characters sometimes don’t use their powers for weak reasons, simply because the plot doesn’t allow for it. And there is one significant plot hole: Given Hargreeves’s resources, why didn’t he just fake his death? He supposedly did it on purpose to bring his children together to stop the end of the world, so… why not just fake it?
Of course, maybe he did—let’s hope the show gets a second season so we can find out, especially since the cliffhanger involved the apocalypse actually happening. The good outweighs the bad considerably with The Umbrella Academy, a worthy addition to the legion of comic-book adaptations out there, and one that definitely deserves a look.
Keith R.A. DeCandido can be found elsewhere on this site rewatching a live-action movie based on a superhero comic every Friday in the feature “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” and reviewing each episode of Star Trek: Discovery as it comes out, in addition to past work discussing Star Trek, Stargate, Batman ’66, Marvel’s Netflix series, Doctor Who, and more. He’s been writing fiction for 25 years, with his most recent work including the original fantasy novels Mermaid Precinct and A Furnace Sealed; short fiction in Baker Street Irregulars, They Keep Killing Glenn, Thrilling Adventure Yarns, Unearthed, Brave New Girls: Adventures of Gals & Gizmos, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, Nights of the Living Dead, and many more; and a story in the award-winning Planned Parenthood benefit graphic novel anthology Mine!