Film & TV

Netflix’s ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Brings Dark Wit to Superhero Tropes

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With time traveling hitmen, a talking chimp and a lively song for every action scene, “The Umbrella Academy,” released Feb. 15 on Netflix, goes behind the scenes of morally conflicted superheroes. Based on the comics by My Chemical Romance’s former frontman Gerard Way, the drama-comedy manages to weave together the prevention of the apocalypse with the intricacies of family ties.

On a seemingly normal day in 1989, 43 women gave birth. The catch: none of them were pregnant when the day began. Hearing of the anomaly, billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) sought to adopt as many of the surely gifted children as possible. He successfully gathers seven of the superhero children and creates a tween superhero group called The Umbrella Academy in which the group members are given an identifying number and name. 

Jumping to present day after the death of the adopted father, the show begins its most difficult task — introducing the slew of main characters in the adopted siblings.

The most developed character is Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) who can teleport through space and time. When he jumps to the future, he sees an apocalypse has occurred. His work to gather his family and stop the catastrophe is met with resistance from an organization that ensures events in time happen as they’re intended.

Each of Five’s encounters showcase his wit, cocky attitude, questionable ethics and dedication to his family. Gallagher made the most of the unusual challenge of portraying the unapologetic, yet wise nature of a 58-year-old man stuck in his 13-year-old body after a time-traveling mishap.  

Klaus (Robert Sheehan), who’s Number Four of the siblings, provides much of the comic relief as his over-the-top personality and bitter sarcasm contrast with the more serious tones of his siblings. This humor doesn’t detract from his depth as he struggles with sobriety so he can live up to his potential. Klaus would get high to keep the demons at bay — literally, as his power is talking to the dead.

Other characters seem flat at first, but they grow into themselves. Super-strong Luther (Tom Hopper) sees himself as the leader as he is Number One, but realizes his naivety. The knife-wielding Diego (David Castañeda), Number Two, takes a step back from his brooding drama. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Number Three, and her powers of manipulation take on a quieter subplot of rebuilding her relationship with her sister Vanya (Ellen Page), Number Seven.

Page, known from her roles in “Juno” and “Inception,” acts as the big name on the cast list, but her character Vanya lies lower as she navigates the role of family outcast. Vanya is the only one of the Hargreeves children who appears to have no powers, but as the series progresses her relevance becomes increasingly clear.

Two time-traveling hitmen (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton), while posing a threat to the protagonists, have a charming familiarity as they complain about the mundane aspects of employment, such as hotel room downgrades, pay decreases and declining benefits.

The story leaps forward, back and sideways, which, in a series posing many questions about the space-time continuum, is unsurprising. All this movement can make the plot hard to follow, but the complexities of the time travel give the needed extra level of interest.

As the plot jumps from scene to scene, some events aren’t explained. For example, no reason is given for how Pogo (Adam Godley) a talking and well-dressed chimp came to be all polite and proper. The surreal aspects, while mind-bending, do keep with the comic book origins.

With the variety of subplots, some were bound to raise questions. A repressed romance between two of the adopted siblings brings some discomfort, and a division of the plot that implies one must be taken off their medication for “nerves” in order to reach their full potential walks a tricky line.

The show takes on a lot with a large cast and an intricate storyline that shouldn’t work, but it does. It spends just enough time on each plot point for the viewer to understand what’s happening and carry that information over into the next scene. This strategy can leave one wanting more detail, but any more would’ve been too much for the 10 different hour-long episodes.

The clever soundtrack helps keep the viewers engaged giving them a short break from the evolving plot. It’s no surprise a work made with the help of Way would have a well-thought-out soundtrack to aid the storytelling. Each fight scene is accompanied by its own hit from Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” to Fitz and the Tantrums’s “The Walker.”

With its own chaos and allure, “The Umbrella Academy” covers the oddities of time travel and the classic save-the-world bit, but, the center of it all, is family. The Hargreeves could make any dysfunctional family look put together. Their relationships aren’t clean or necessarily healthy, but, even if they won’t admit it, they’re based in love.

“The Umbrella Academy” is available to stream on Netflix.

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