In a post-MCU climate it seems more difficult than ever to make a relative splash with a graphic novel adaptation (aside from the likes of Logan or Into the Spiderverse). The conventions associated with the medium are now commonplace, and serve as a reminder of just how many films now live and die by the source material they’re taken from. Netflix’s recently-announced cancellation of its Marvel shows has left many fans waiting for their inevitable resurrection on Disney’s streaming service, but in its wake they’ve been offered a peace-treaty of sorts. The Umbrella Academy is based on the graphic novel series by musician Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, and offers something different in style and tone. Something that’s simultaneously exciting and frustrating.
Season 1, based off the first run of comics ‘The Apocalypse Suite’, tells the story of seven adopted children (of 43) all inexplicably born at the same time to non-pregnant women on October 1st 1989. After being purchased by elusive billionaire Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), they reside in his mansion and form a superhero group named ‘The Umbrella Academy’. Well…six of them do, as one, Vanya (played by Ellen Page grown up) unfortunately has no powers and is often swept to the side. Thanks to their tumultuous childhood the ruthless ruling of Hargreeves however, the children all part ways and it’s not until Reginald’s death that they reunite at the academy, each with their own lives and personal demons.
The Academy themselves consists of Number 1/Luther (Spaceboy – Tom Hopper), a man with super strength who has spent the last few years on the moon after directions from Reginald. During a later mission he was severely injured and the serum used to save his life turned his upper-body into that of an ape. Number 2/Diego (The Kraken – David Castañeda) is a rebel who has the ability to curve anything he throws – typically knives. Number 3/Allison (The Rumour – Emmy Raver-Lampman) is a celebrity mother with the ability to alter reality by uttering “I heard a rumour”. Number 4/Klaus (The Séance – Robert Sheehan) is an illustrious and troubled drug addict with the ability to talk to the dead. Number 5/The Boy (Aidan Gallagher) has the ability to jump through time and space to varying effects. After accidentally becoming stuck in the future and witnessing the events of an oncoming apocalypse, he lived out his days as a hired time-travelling hitman before returning his consciousness to the past meaning that his 58 year old mind is stuck in the body of a young boy. Number 6/Ben (The Horror – Justin H. Min) possesses monsters from another dimension under his skin. He was killed before the series’ start but regularly communicates with Klaus thanks to his powers. Then Number 7/Vanya (The White Violin) is a talented violinist living in the shadow of her superpowered siblings.
It doesn’t take long to realise that The Umbrella Academy is intent on translating some of its surrealist moments from the graphic novels and mix them together with a playful and cheeky tone. An early dance sequence featuring Tiffany’s ‘I think we’re alone now’ is enough to prove that, as the family are shown dancing in their respective rooms inside of the academy as if they were in a picturesque dollhouse. The family’s assistant and close friend Pogo (Adam Godley), a highly-intelligent chimpanzee in a suit, is never questioned or fully explained but it’s accepted nonetheless. Neither is their robotic mother Grace. The show manages to normalise these moments, and know which ones to stretch its creative muscles on. Visually it has moments of striking originality, messing with presentational styles to create a dynamic shift that harnesses the tone of the source material. Musician Gerard Way (of My Chemical Romance fame) has stated that the siblings were based off his bandmates, and throughout the ups and downs the Hargreeves go through it’s difficult not to become swept up in the sense of comradery with an attitude that its creators are also known for.
That’s not to say that the characters don’t work separately either. Each of them are fleshed-out enough to warrant their screen time, and whilst some are stronger than others, it’s a testament to the show developed by Steve Blackman and Jeremy Slater that episodes seem to blend hard hitting emotion into its strangeness. Whether it’s Luther and Allison’s romantic relationship, Klaus’ struggle with substance abuse or Vanya’s personal goal of succeeding as a violinist, the development comes thick and fast and by the end of episode two we already know each of the diverse cast. It helps of course that even the side characters are strong. Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton are an unexpectedly charming double act as Hazel and Cha-Cha, two assassins sent by the Commission to kill Number Five. It doesn’t hurt that they tend to do so whilst wearing brightly coloured children’s masks that look like something from Chuck E Cheese’s. Blige’s Cha-Cha is a stone-cold killer with a short temper, conflicting with Britton’s Hazel whose passion for the job is quickly deflating. As the early antagonists of the show they kickstart some of the memorable action sequences, littered with deliberately stylistic slow motion and haphazardly violent as if an eight year old was handed a machine gun.
Of course not everything works. As with all graphic novel adaptations (especially superhero stories), there tends to be an overlap depending on how familiar you are with the genre. Some of the story beats for characters such as Diego and Luther feel very familiar, especially if you’re well-versed in Netflix’s previous output. Ellen Page’s Vanya takes a while to come into her own too, and her budding romance with charming do-gooder Leonard Peabody (John Magaro) is one of the more plodding storylines. Some of the character’s intentions are also murky at times. Allison’s determination to get back to her daughter is continually brought up yet throughout the ten episodes she makes no real effort to travel and meet her. This sometimes makes episodes feel muddled for periods of time but also emphasise how truly dysfunctional the entire family is.
When the organisation ‘The Commission’ is introduced midway through the season, there’s a noticeably slower pace to Number Five’s storyline despite it holding weight to the plot. Then of course there’s the looming threat of the apocalypse, glimpsed through his memories as generic heaps of rubble and piles of body. It’s a shame that in a show which manages to present previously-seen tropes in an interesting way, the concept of the apocalypse itself isn’t handled with much originality. By the final few episodes too, the show banks on you caring about the characters more than the plot as it’s fairly easy to recognise where the story goes even when you haven’t read the source material. This didn’t particularly become a problem for me but I know a few others have felt shortchanged by the season’s conclusion which, admittedly, is the most generic aspect of the whole production.
What makes The Umbrella Academy memorable however is the synergy of the performances on screen and the presentation style. The breakout hits of the show are arguably Robert Sheehan’s Klaus and Aidan Gallagher’s Number Five. The former continuing to channel his incessant childishness he sparked up during his stint on Misfits and combining it with a melancholic depth later on that few shows have been able to replicate. He’s effortlessly watchable and seems to be rightfully winning over the majority of the show’s audience with Klaus’ happy-go-lucky demented soul. Gallagher also manages to successfully convey an inflated ego alongside his world-weariness as 58-year old Number Five eager to drown out his sorrows whilst attempting to remain a part of the family’s attempt to stop the apocalypse. Even Godley’s vocal performance as charming chimp Pogo is bolstered by some marvellous effects work worthy of a Planet of the Apes film. Moments where such bold styles link up with the story remind you how much you enjoy these characters’ company. There’s a scene midway through the season involving Luther, Klaus and a nightclub rave that’s wonderfully paced and visually experimental, going deeper with subjects like drug addiction and loss than many other similar shows would dare to go.
Rounding everything off nicely is the soundtrack too. Assumedly taking inspiration from Gerard Way’s discography the show peppers in unconventional pop and alternative rock tracks during montage sequences and dream-like dance showdowns. This willingness to experiment by allowing a pop-punk version of ‘Happy Together’ by Way himself (and fellow MCR bandmate Ray Toro) to play over an ice cream truck displaying ‘Rise of the Valkyries’ was enough to have me punching the air in triumph.
The Umbrella Academy is loud. It’s sometimes annoyingly so, and knows exactly who its audience are and how best to make them latch themselves onto the show. It has some growing pains for sure and some moments in which it struggles to correctly gauge its tone, but these moments soon become washed away in a multicoloured mess of explosions and guitar riffs. Much like the academy itself, something this dysfunctional shouldn’t work so well together – but it does.