Review: Daniel Tessier
Among the current influx of comicbook adaptations, The Umbrella Academy stands out for it's bizarre premise, strange visual stylisation and banging soundtrack. Beneath all this, though, is a touching and finely acted story of flawed family relationships.
Unlike many of the comicbook adaptations currently about, I've not read Gerald Way and Gabriel Ba's original 2007 comic series. I understand there were considerable changes from the comics, but I'm going to be viewing this as a televisual experience. It's actually a real pleasure to watch a comicbook adaptation without a good idea of what's going to happen, although there is a certain predictability to how the plot develops.
The Netflix series was created and overseen by Steve Blackman, who had previously won an Emmy for his work on Fargo and also made significant contributions to series such as Altered Carbon, Bones and Legion. Jeremy Slater (My Spy, 2015's Fantastic Four) developed the series for the screen, with multiple writers and directors working on individual episodes. Nonetheless, there's a consistent and gripping tone to the series, which discards many traditional superhero and comicbook trappings in favour of its own vision. Skin-tight costumes and superhero code names are kept to a minimum, in favour of complex family dynamics and strained emotional relationships.
The series opens on the 1 October, 1989, when forty-three women around the world spontaneously become pregnant, come to terms and give birth, within moments. This is a pretty terrifying opening, but only serves as the basic set-up for the series, and remains tantalisingly unexplained. Seven of the children are adopted, or rather purchased, by Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore, whose performance definitely suggests they'd have cast John Hurt if they'd made a few years earlier).
Hargreeves, believing the end of the world is imminent, trains the children to become superheroes, but his cruel and unforgiving treatment of them, along with the nature of their mysterious powers, damages all seven of them in significant ways. While there are numerous flashbacks to their time as the child superhero team the Umbrella Academy, the series proper takes place in roughly the present day, as the Hargreeves siblings come together for the first time in years following the sudden death of their adoptive father.
The siblings, and the cast, are exceptional. Number One, Luther Hargreeves, the only one who remained loyal to their father, is a super-strong astronaut whose body has mutated into a Hulk-like form, which he keeps hidden under an oversized greatcoat. He's played by Tom Hopper (Game of Thrones, Black Sails, Merlin) who plays him with reserve and constraint, with a stunted emotional growth due to many years of isolation. Number Two, Diego Hargreeves, is the only one to continue in the superhero life. A Batman-esque vigilante with a fractious relationship with the police, his skill is the ability to curve the trajectory of any object he throws, easily the most believable and mundane of the siblings' powers. Diego is portrayed by David Castañeda (Southland, Jane the Virgin), who imbues him with a reckless arrogance.
Number Three, Allison Hargreeves, is a beautiful and famous actress, whose history as a superhero hasn't stopped her becoming a movie star. Her ability is to control people's minds when she utters the phrase “I heard a rumour...” It certainly hasn't harmed her career, but has torn apart her family. The only one of the siblings who has managed a committed adult relationship, the temptation to use her power in her private life became too much to resist. Emmy Raver-Lampman makes her a very sympathetic, human character in spite of her terrifying power and lofty status.
Everyone's favourite, Number Four is Klaus Hargreeves, who seems the most obviously damaged of the siblings. An alcoholic, drug-addicted hedonist, Klaus is cursed with the ability to see the dead, something he attempts to drown out with his substance abuse. He later develops his ability to the point where he can manifest the dead as well. Klaus is played by Robert Sheehan (Misfits, Love/Hate, Fortitude) as a flamboyant, genderqueer goth, and while he appears quite a shallow character early on, he displays great emotional depths as the series continues. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sheehan's character on Misfits also had the ability to see the dead amongst his powers. Number Six, Ben Hargreeves, is deceased by the time of the main setting, implied to be a result of his power, which is frankly nightmarish and involves tentacles and lots of blood. Portrayed by Justin H. Min, he appears rarely, and only to Klaus.
Number Seven, Vanya Hargreeves, is the outsider of the family. She is, it appears, an ordinary human being, with no special powers. A mild-mannered violinist, she has alienated her siblings by publishing an autobiography that revealed the truth about their father's treatment of them. Vanya is played by Ellen Page, easily the most famous actor on the cast, with plenty of superhero film experience (Kitty Pride in the X-Men films, Libby on Super) but more notably award-winning roles in Hard Candy, Marion Bridge and Juno among many more. Page is as excellent in the role as we'd expect, giving a subtle, relatable performance and hinting at Vanya's hidden depths.
You'll notice that we've skipped Number Five. Never given a full name, Number Five is missing at the outset of the main events, before dropping back into the fray rather spectacularly part way through the first episode. Gifted with the ability to jump through space and time, Five leapt into a post-apocalyptic future, where he survived for decades before being recruited by a time-travelling organisation. Finally making it back to his family, he has his own mission to avert the apocalypse his father foresaw, but his escape back through time has the side effect of reverting him to the age he was when he first leapt. Now stuck in the form of a thirteen-year-old boy, he is played by Aiden Gallagher (Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn). Gallagher is astonishingly good as Number Five. In spite of being fifteen when filming this, he absolutely convinces as a middle-aged man, hardened by life, and frustrated by being trapped in a child's body.
It's an excellent core cast, portraying a group of people with unnatural abilities and the sort of fractious sibling relationships that even the most harmonious family would display. The family is completed by Grace Hargreeves, an android who serves as the siblings' mother, played by Jordan Claire Robbins, and Pogo, a highly intelligent chimpanzee who was something of a protégé to the late Sir Reginald. Pogo is voiced by Adam Godley, whose face was used for performance capture for the CGI ape, while Ken Hall provided the bodily motion capture and on-set presence. Pogo is one of the more likeable and human members of the family.
This is merely the central family of the series, who remain the focus of events, but are far from the only protagonists. Number Five is being pursued by his former employers, who set two hitmen after him: Cha-Cha (singer and actor Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Mindhunter star Cameron Britton). The two assassins are astonishingly violent but have a fascinating relationship and are as fascinating to watch as the Hargreeves family. Hazel, in particular, is a remarkably sympathetic figure for brutal murderer, who develops a truly sweet romance with a waitress named Agnes (Sheila McCarthy, who won awards for Emily of New Moon and The Lotus Eaters among others). Ignored by the others during much of the events, Vanya forms a relationship with one Leonard Peabody (John Magaro, Orange is the New Black, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan), who has secrets of his own.
This is just the set-up. Over ten episodes, characters fight, are captured, framed for murder, commit murder, cross space and time, explore life after death, possibly meet God, and move ever closer to the apocalypse. It's an extremely violent series, but the violence is a stylistic choice, heavily choreographed and backed by incongruous yet effective musical choices. Each fight is more like a bloody music video; for instance, Number Five's return to the present day is greeted by a SWAT team, who are taken out to the stirring tune of They Might Be Giants' nineties rock cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” The soundtrack to the series features everything from Queen to Radiohead.
However, the most memorable musical choice comes halfway through episode one, where Tiffany's “I Think We're Alone Now” is played through the Hargreeves house and each of the siblings dances to it in their own style. The camera pans back away from the house, the rooms displayed in a cross-section that creates the image of panels on a comicbook page. It's a visual and musical triumph that sets the style for the series, but more importantly, it tells you everything you need to know about the siblings' differing personalities. It's a great example of how the series uses is unique look and feel to illustrate its story.
Above all, The Umbrella Academy is about family, and the bizarre events, audio-visual spectacles and climactic disasters are there to explore how the siblings' upbringing and experiences affect them and their relationships. As strange as individual events are, the overall storyline treads a path that is easy to predict for anyone who's seen or read this kind of comicbook narrative before. This really doesn't matter though. The sheer style of the show and the performances of the central cast make this a standout of the genre.
About the Writer, Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on March 16th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.