Its contract with Marvel may be ending, but Netflix isn’t out of the comic book superhero business by any stretch. The Umbrella Academy is the streaming provider’s new attempt to fill the void left by its departing Marvel shows. The first season premiered last Friday and does a pretty good job of scratching that super-powered itch.
Based on a Dark Horse comic, The Umbrella Academy begins in 1989, when a mysterious incident occurs that causes 43 seemingly unconnected women from around the world to give birth at the same time, despite none of them being pregnant even moments earlier. Eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore in old-age makeup, looking unnervingly like Viggo Mortensen in old-age makeup) adopts seven of the children – more like purchases them, to be honest – and discovers (or already knows) that they each have unique superhuman abilities. At least, six of them do. Poor little Vanya is ordinary in every way, nothing special about her. A stern, unloving taskmaster, Hargreeves molds his six remarkable children into a team of costumed teenage crimefighters and unveils them to the world, where they become huge celebrities at a young age while Number Seven looks on from the sidelines, always left out.
Cut to the present day. The Umbrella Academy team disbanded long ago. Most of the children left home when they’d had enough of their father’s emotional and psychological abuse. One died, and another went missing at age 13. Only golden boy Number One, Luther (Tom Hopper from Black Sails), stayed behind and remained in his father’s service, until Daddy shipped him off on an assignment to live alone on the moon for the past four years.
Now adults, none of the family have spoken to each other in years. However, the surviving members reunite and return home after their father dies. They’re all a little messed up in one way or another. Super-strong and comically beefy Luther is emotionally distant, and never wants to take off his coat for some reason. Klaus (Robert Sheehan), who can speak to the dead, has serious addiction issues. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), who can bend other people’s minds to her will, is in the middle of a messy divorce. Knife-tossing savant Diego (David Castañeda) has gone full dark-and-brooding vigilante, to the detriment of his ability to have any relationships. Perhaps worst of all is sad Vanya (Ellen Page), who suffers anxiety and self-worth issues and has been ostracized from the rest of the family after writing a tell-all book about her experience growing up in the shadow of extraordinary siblings. Nobody’s particularly happy with her these days.
While most of the clan are relieved to be rid of their cold-hearted tormentor, Luther refuses to believe that the old man died of natural causes and insists that he must have been murdered. Just as that investigation gets started, it’s interrupted by the return of long-missing Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), still somehow 13-years-old but mature beyond his apparent years. He claims to have come from the future, and brings dire news of an impending apocalypse just days away. Will it take the combined forces of the entire Umbrella Academy to save the world? Number Five isn’t optimistic. They may be screwed no matter what.
Season Verdict / Grade: B+
The short pitch is that The Umbrella Academy is a dysfunctional X-Men, if Professor X was an asshole and his superhero charges couldn’t get their shit together because they hated him so much. Not to worry, though, this isn’t some gloomy misery-fest. Despite some character angst and dark edges, the series is actually pretty light and fun, with lots of humor and hyper-stylized action sequences played to bouncy pop songs. In the opening episode, most of the characters (separately but simultaneously) break out of their funk by grooving to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Violent and profane in the vein of something like Kick-Ass, this isn’t a superhero show for kids, but it should be plenty entertaining for grown-ups who still enjoy their comic book thrills.
What the show doesn’t do is break much new ground. As well-executed as it may be, a lot of the elements feel familiar, albeit mixed up a bit. Take the X-Men, add a little Watchmen, some Legion and the aforementioned Kick-Ass, and sprinkle some time travel and alternate dimension weirdness on top. Early episodes feel a little forced in trying so hard to be quirky and hip, and a big plot twist is kind of easy to figure out well ahead of the characters. At ten episodes, the season also sags a little in the middle and would probably have been stronger at six or eight. Fortunately, that issue is easy to forgive during a binge, and the show picks up steam for an exciting climax that’s pretty damn epic.
Although Netflix hasn’t yet officially announced a second season to my knowledge, I fully expect one to follow. I enjoyed the first season a lot and am definitely on board for more.