The concept of superheroes is, by definition, very weird. I mean, as consumers, we’re meant to believe that these regular humans have suddenly contracted the ability to do super strange things just because, what, they were exposed to a chemical that no other person has encountered before? They were bitten by a sentient blob of toxic waste and now they’re able to, I don’t know, transform into magical rats? Listen. I know that these aren’t the actual origin stories of any superheroes, but the fact is that they could be And that’s why it’s super frustrating when movies come out that try to make Superman, or whoever, seem Serious™, because superheroes shouldn’t be serious! They should be weird!
Netflix’s newest original show, The Umbrella Academy, is the perfect example of why more superhero narratives should embrace their strangeness. Because when they do, they are really really fun.
The Umbrella Academy is a ten-episode adaptation of a comic book series by the same name created by Gerard Way (yes, the same Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance—we really cannot be surprised that it’s as wild as it is). The basic premise is that 43 children are born to not-pregnant women at the same time in early October, 1989; they’re then sought out by a mysterious billionaire named Reginald Hargreeves, who succeeds in getting seven of them. He makes it his goal to train all of these extraordinary children to use their powers to fight injustice, and calls this crime-fighting team/school/family “The Umbrella Academy.”
Through a Phantom of the Opera violin medley (I’m telling you, this show is weird!!), we’re introduced to the still-living members of the Umbrella Academy: four super-powered, slightly-stunted adults—plus the “completely ordinary” Vanya (Ellen Page)—all about to have their lives interrupted by the death of their father and return of their long-missing brother. Having no name of his own, Number Five (an impressively cynical Aidan Gallagher) is a 58-year-old time traveller trapped in his 13-year-old body, who has come to 2019 to warn his siblings that the apocalypse is happening in eight days. (Does this sound crazy? Yes, exactly!)
One of the things that The Umbrella Academy does really well is its character work. I mean, ten episodes (each ranging from 45 minutes to an hour in length) is a lot of time for an action story to stay rooted in action, so it only makes sense that most episodes must stray into backstory and complicated sort-of-sibling interactions in order to keep the plot moving at a reasonable pace. But I found these scenes of siblings bonding over shared childhood trauma from Terrible Father Hargreeves—who treated them more like scientific experiments than loveable children—to be some of the most compelling moments in the series. Almost every episode begins with a flashback of sorts onto the trauma each sibling (or other characters) has faced, and those small moments truly keep the plot engaging and meaningful. They also make me almost forgive the show for some of its more glaring flaws.
While the soundtrack is arguably one of the best parts of the show, the constant playing of upbeat pop songs over violent fight scenes becomes a little tedious after the fourth or fifth occurrence. The show also falters whenever a plotline becomes too rooted in characters outside of the Hargreeves family. I mean, I love Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton’s time-travelling assassins as much as anyone, but in comparison to the weirdest super-family in the world, I could’ve done with a lot less of their plotline.
However, these flaws do feel minor when I remember how much I truly enjoy spending time with Umbrella Academy’s fascinating characters. The show thrives when it’s focused on its bizarre, titular group of messed-up superhumans (there isn’t enough space here to talk about their endearing monkey butler or fun robot-mom, but their existence truly deserves an article of its own). All in all, The Umbrella Academy embraces the inherent strangeness of superhero stories, and in that embrace, it reveals a sense of genuine joy and surprisingly poignant moments that make it a deserving of another season (or, more appropriately, seven!).