Netflix’s TV series The Umbrella Academy isn’t as weird as the Gerard Way / Gabriel Bá comic book series it’s based on, but “less weird” for this story is admittedly a very low bar to reach. The first issue of The Umbrella Academy comic features a battle with the zombie robot Gustave Eiffel, which culminates with the Eiffel Tower blasting into space. In the series, showrunner Steve Blackman (Legion, Altered Carbon) reduces that fight to a coy visual reference. His team has carefully pruned the story in a way that embraces the comic’s more bizarre qualities, while making room for a more coherent narrative.
The story of The Umbrella Academy kicks off 30 years ago, when 43 children were born around the world to women who had previously shown no signs of being pregnant. Eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves bought seven of these anomalous babies from their mothers, gave them numbers as names, and subjected them to a mix of abuse and neglect, while training them to become superheroes. Most of the kids fled home as teenagers, but they reunite when they learn that their adopted father has died, and then learn that the end of the world may be just days away.
The combination of family drama and superheroics is nothing new. In many ways, The Umbrella Academy feels like a particularly bleak X-Men story, about young people with superpowers and little else, training in a mansion under the tutelage of their shared adoptive father figure. But in this case, there’s no clear fear or prejudice from the outside world driving the members of The Umbrella Academy together. They seem to be treated as more of an oddity, like former child stars or kidnapping victims. While some external threats do help them bond over the course of the first five episodes of the 10-episode season, much of the series’ focus is on how they relate to each other as members of an extremely dysfunctional family.
That’s where the show’s cast really shines. The biggest name is Ellen Page (an X-Men film veteran herself) as Vanya, the one member of The Umbrella Academy who never manifested any superpowers. Kept out of training and missions by Hargreeves, who coldly tells her “You’re just not special,” she struggles to find her place in her family and the world. She remains isolated from her siblings not because of her lack of powers, but due to the tell-all memoir she penned about her childhood. Page plays Vanya as withdrawn, practically a portrait in depression and social isolation, though the plot seems likely to give her a chance to show more range as the season progresses.
Standing in absolute contrast is Klaus, played by Robert Sheehan with the same manic mischief he brought to superpowered juvenile delinquent Nathan Young in Misfits. Klaus has terrible control over his ability to communicate with the dead, and he tries to suppress his powers by staying perpetually intoxicated. He’s a charming idiot and a serial fuck-up who serves as a sort of audience stand-in, helpfully pointing out the ridiculous aspects of the situations he’s in. He also lampoons the people around him, like stern team leader Luther (Tom Hopper) and brooding vigilante Diego (David Castaneda). Still, the best casting might be Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), an old man caught in a pubescent boy’s body through a time-travel mishap. He manages to believably rant at his 30-year-old siblings about their idiocy, ineptitude, and youth, impatient with the way everyone from diner servers to shady business owners treat him because of his youthful appearance. His idiosyncratic dry wit, which occasionally gives way into hyper-competent displays of violence, is reminiscent of the best parts of Kick-Ass.
Tonally, Umbrella Academy lands somewhere between Legion and The Tick in its mix of drama, action, and absurdity. The Umbrella Academy keeps some aspects of its surreal source comic, like the children being primarily raised by a robot mother (who gave them their names) and a sentient chimpanzee, and Number Five being hunted by a pair of time-traveling assassins wearing cartoon-character masks. Where the comics move at a breakneck pace, Blackman slows things down to skillfully flesh the story out.
And that makes room for some worthwhile side plots. The robot Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) serves as a centerpiece for an episode that questions whether an artificial intelligence’s agency is its own, or is courtesy of its creator. At the same time, the story is a tragic metaphor for losing a parent to dementia. The assassins Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) have been improved from the comic version, elevated from nihilist psychopaths to bickering partners constantly getting screwed over by their cheap employers. Their dynamic brings The Umbrella Academy a bit of Barry’s hitman-focused dark comedy. (Britton played a supporting role on that series.) Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) lost everything in a divorce, including custody of her daughter. That’s true in the comics, too, but the show directly links it to her power to make anything she says come true, in a way that has the power to grow into one of The Umbrella Academy’s most tragic storylines.
Original Umbrella Academy writer Gerard Way — who also co-executive produced the Netflix series — was the frontman of the defunct band My Chemical Romance, and he’s contributed to the show’s excellent soundtrack, with a slinky cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter.” (He also says he’s writing new music inspired by the show.) Music plays a prominent role in bringing The Umbrella Academy’s quirkier sensibilities to the forefront. While brooding over Hargreeves’ death, the siblings each find relief in dancing to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” by themselves, in an enjoyably goofy sequence that culminates in a striking shot of the mansion as if it were a dollhouse the viewers are peering into. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” proves the high-tempo backdrop for a shootout in a department store, with Hazel continuing the show’s marriage of humor and action by periodically pausing to admire the merchandise.
Touches like these show that The Umbrella Academy doesn’t need to be slavishly true to its source material to maintain its spirit. That’s a good thing, considering they’re already combining plots from the first two of three volumes Way wrote. If the series continues, it’s quickly going to be up to Blackman and his team to plot the future of the characters and their strange world. Fortunately, it seems like they have a strong idea for what the series should be, and where it’s going from here.
The first season of The Umbrella Academy launches on Netflix in North America on February 15th, 2019.