It may seem as though the current glut of bleak, dreary superhero movies and TV shows can be attributed to (or blamed on, depending on how you feel) Zack Snyder, who made being a superhero seem like the worst job imaginable in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Its actual roots can be found much earlier, in Watchmen, which, despite its narrative strengths, is still, ultimately, Ayn Rand wank fodder about how hard it is living in a world where you’re hated and feared for your specialness.
While Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy isn’t quite as much up its own butt as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel, there are some shared elements, particularly the notion that humanity is caught in the middle of a constant, secret battle between the special and the ordinary. Based on the comic book series by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, it opens with the reveal that, on the same day in October 1989, 43 children were born to women all over the world, none of whom had been pregnant when the day started. Seven of the children were adopted by Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore, House of Cards), the “world’s most eccentric and reclusive billionaire,” who brings them all to live with him, attended to by a robot mother named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins, 12 Monkeys), and sharing space with a talking, clothes wearing chimpanzee named Pogo (voiced by Adam Godley, Breaking Bad).
Curiously, given how much of the first season is given over to exposition, we learn nothing about the bizarre circumstances behind the children’s births. All we know is that they have unique, otherworldly
Number Five is missing and Number Six is dead, so let’s skip to unlucky Number Seven, Vanya (Ellen Page), a classical violinist who has no special abilities whatsoever (no, I mean it, she’s really not special at all, it’s important that the viewer understands that). Vanya wrote a tell-all book about her experience being left out and ignored in favor of her famous siblings, which has made her persona non grata to the rest of the family. But that’s
Before the siblings figure out if they can end their various pissing matches long enough to figure out how their father died, long lost brother Number Five (Nickelodeon star Aidan Gallagher) returns out of what appears to be a rip in the time-space continuum, a cranky, cynical old man in the body of an adolescent, to warn them that the world is going to end in eight days. He’s being pursued by Hazel (Cameron Britton, Mindhunter) and Cha Cha (Mary J. Blige), a pair of inexplicably indestructible hitmen who wear whimsical animal masks as disguises, and receive their orders via old-fashioned pneumatic tube. This is the plot distilled to its most basic elements, and while it’s not particularly hard to follow, it takes a very long time to get anywhere. Opportunities to move things along are interrupted by arguing over one resentment or another, and then when things get a little too heavy, there’s a dance sequence, or Klaus, who sometimes seems to be in a completely different TV show, does or says something droll, acting as a sentient wisecracking machine even when he’s being tortured.
What takes an inordinately long time to build up to does pay off in a dramatic manner, but not until the last two episodes.
The show also spends a great deal of time establishing, over and over, that Vanya doesn’t have any special abilities, and the reveal that that’s far from the case is so heavily telegraphed, yet takes so long to get there that it feels a bit anticlimactic once it finally happens. Page herself at times seems like she was dropped in from a mumblecore film, as she stands around and waits for the plot to catch up with her. It moves so slowly at times that it even literally moves backward in one episode. Episode six, up until the last three minutes, is particularly a slog of exposition and “meaningful” moments, including yet another dance number, this time a romantic one involving two of the siblings, which is kind of creepy, but the show treats as if it isn’t. It would be less frustrating if the dialogue didn’t consist of a lot of boilerplate action movie clichés like “That’s not good,” “That’s gotta hurt,” and “I’ll kill you for what you did to [REDACTED]”, or rehashing of conversations that have already been had, numerous times before.
At its best, The Umbrella Academy resembles Legion, right down to the quirky music cues (such as a fight scene set to “Sunshine and Lollipops”), but it lacks Legion’s commitment to balls to the wall incomprehensibility. It has weird moments, like Number Five falling in love with a mannequin torso, but they don’t really have any bearing to the plot, whereas in Legion the weirdness was the plot. In regards to other high points, Robert Sheehan as Klaus walks an interesting, gossamer thin line between tragic and insufferable, bringing considerably more life and color to his role than his one-note siblings. Once Page is finally allowed to do something, she’s good too, unexpectedly powerful while saying very little.
Considerable pacing issues aside, it’s a solid concept for a genre that is just starting to creep past its expiration date. What takes an inordinately long time to build up to does pay off in a dramatic manner, but not until the last two episodes. In fact, quite a bit happens in the season finale, an episode that’s maximum loaded with plot twists, non-stop action, and the cliffhanger to end them all. It may feel a little forced and hurried, but at least it finally starts getting interesting.