Based on the graphic novel by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy falls on a lot of familiar comic book tropes but nonetheless puts out an enjoyable first season. In ten approximately one-hour episodes, The Umbrella Academy Season 1 has combined parts of both The Apocalypse Suite and Dallas into a story that, while predictable and not that original, still entertains and leaves you wanting more.
Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of The Umbrella Academy Season 1. Read at your own risk.
The Umbrella Academy is the story of six (seven) estranged superpowered siblings who reunite after their adoptive father’s death. Luther (Tom Hopper) has spent the last four years living on the moon. Diego (David Castañeda) dons a mask and fights crime on a regular basis. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is recently divorced and embroiled in a custody battle. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) is fresh out of rehab. Ben (Justin H. Min) is dead, but his ghost follows Klaus around. Vanya (Ellen Page) is a professional violinist. In the first episode, “We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals”, Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) jumps through a temporal fold in the middle of their father’s memorial service. Five, who disappeared at age 13, has been stuck in the future for 45 years and only just now figured out a way to return in order to stop the apocalypse, which is happening in eight days.
Thus, the entirety of The Umbrella Academy Season 1 takes place in the span of eight days, though we are treated to flashbacks (and technically flash forwards) in order to better understand the siblings and their relationships with their father and each other. The Hargreeves family is at the core of the story and by far the best part of the series. Their scenes and interactions are amazing and heartfelt. All of the siblings were incredibly well cast and did fantastic jobs.
Creator Steve Blackman took some liberties with the original story, not just in combining two different story arcs. The biggest change is that in the comics, the siblings actually manage to avert the apocalypse, while in the show they fail. Minor changes are peppered throughout as well – Klaus is the only one sent back to the ’60s, Allison is the one who ultimately takes down Vanya, Hazel and Cha-Cha have different fates, Luther’s appearance is not because he’s a human head on an ape body but because of a serum. Not having read the graphic novels, I can’t definitively say how much these changes affect the story, but to me it seems like these were better choices. Klaus ending up in Vietnam is a much more interesting character arc than always-ready-to-fight Diego. Allison taking down Vanya is a conflict layered throughout the season as two sisters struggling to connect. And of course, the apocalypse still happening, even after everything they do to try to prevent it, is a way more fascinating ending than them succeeding. You expect them to save the day. And then they don’t.
The Umbrella Academy Season 1 sticks to a lot of tried and true tropes when it comes to comic book stories. For example, even when outnumbered and facing people with machine guns, none of the Hargreeves children are shot. The scene in the bowling alley in “The White Violin” was super fun to watch, but you also can’t help but wonder why all of these people are such bad shots. Another example, the whole subplot of Hargreeves suppressing Vanya’s powers is very X-Men. Leonard/Harold reminded me very strongly of Syndrome from The Incredibles – a fanboy whose obsession has dire consequences and takes out his anger on the wrong people. (I mean, it was Hargreaves who humiliated him, yet he wants to take out the children.) The female characters get some of the worst treatment (was there a purpose to Patch other than to kill her off and fuel Diego’s manpain?), but since at the end virtually all of it is undone when the siblings time jump, I hope they do better by their women in season 2.
I think my biggest issue is how little agency Vanya seems to have throughout The Umbrella Academy Season 1. Hargreeves takes her ability away from her. She never questions needing to take the medication. She doesn’t discover her own powers, her boyfriend does, and it is her boyfriend who keeps pushing her to test them and practice when she doesn’t want to. She shows the most agency at the end of “I Heard a Rumor”, when she attacks Allison, and “Changes”, when she kills Leonard/Harold. Even her actions in “The White Violin” don’t seem to truly be her. In the graphic novel, the purpose of the symphony was to bring about the apocalypse. In the show, Vanya appears to cause the apocalypse purely by accident – she loses control of her abilities and gets caught up in the music. Ultimately, the apocalypse happens because of the way Vanya was treated by everyone – shunted aside and ignored, growing up thinking she was ordinary in a family of extraordinary people.
A minor annoyance about The Umbrella Academy Season 1 was the decision to set it in present day. The graphic novel is set in 1977, so there are a lot of things about the show that make sense once you know that. Like how so many of these story issues could have been solved by the simple fact of someone carrying a damn cell phone.
That said, I did thoroughly enjoy The Umbrella Academy Season 1. I started this yesterday afternoon, and I stayed up until 3am to finish it. Once I got through “Extra Ordinary” (episode three), I was hooked and knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I finished the season. (Confession: I have had nightmares like the final scene where the moon breaks up and crashes into Earth and it was very difficult to sleep after that.) There is a lot to like about this series.
Obviously, I loved the cast. Ellen Page was phenomenal – Vanya’s breakdown was so well done, and she has that murder walk down pat. Kate Walsh was fantastic as The Handler. Aidan Gallagher did middle-aged man stuck in a child’s body very well. Tom Hopper killed me; the scene where he discovered that he’d been sent to the moon for no reason was heartbreaking. So, too, were most of his scenes with Emmy Raver-Lampman, especially in “The White Violin” when he spoke to her daughter on her behalf. Mary J. Blige was great. Robert Sheehan was amazing.
Aside from the cast, I think my favorite part of the series was the soundtrack. There are some inspired music choices in The Umbrella Academy Season 1, particularly during the fight scenes. I never would have expected to see fight scenes set to songs like “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows”, “Instanbul (Not Constantinople)”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, and “Saturday Night”. But by far I think the most memorable scene involving music was the Hargreeves children dancing to “I Think We’re Alone Now” in a cutaway of the family mansion.
I also appreciated that Klaus’s sexuality was more overt in the series than it was in the graphic novels. While it’s hinted in Dallas that Klaus may be queer (the fact that he has a child surprises Luther, who says, “I thought you were…”), The Umbrella Academy Season 1 doesn’t shy away from it. Klaus mentions past lovers (all male, I believe) and has a relationship with a fellow soldier when he is sent back to the ’60s. That said, Klaus being queer fits into an unfortunate trope called “gayngst“, which means that LGBTQ+ characters are usually miserable. Klaus’s ability is communing with the dead; in order to keep the voices at bay, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol and is very rarely sober. Killing the only man he’s ever loved on top of that is just mean. Even with that, I do still think that sending Klaus to Vietnam was better for the story. I don’t know that they took advantage of it as well as they could have, but I do think it was a good narrative choice.
I mentioned earlier that the plot wasn’t that original, and this is true. A group of dysfunctional people with super powers coming together to save the world is basically the cornerstone of most comic book stories (The Avengers, Justice League). However, for the same reason I keep seeing rom-coms even though I know how they’re going to end, I still loved this show. The fun part isn’t the ending; the fun part is the journey, and The Umbrella Academy Season 1 is a good one. If you’re familiar with comics, you could probably predict a lot of what was coming (I knew something was up with Leonard/Harold pretty early on, but I couldn’t figure out what until later), but it was still entertaining to watch it unfold.
Plus there are still some unanswered questions. We see a bit from Hargreeves’ past in “The White Violin”, but not enough to truly tell us anything. The text tells us that this was “long ago”, but there are rockets launching in the background. In the graphic novel, he was an alien; is he still an alien? Or is he from the future? If it’s the future, how is it “long ago”? Plus the biggest question is, what caused those 43 women to suddenly become pregnant? We’ve only met seven of them… Whatever happened to the other 36? Also, you know, the whole walking, talking, glasses-wearing monkey thing.
Overall, The Umbrella Academy Season 1 was an entertaining, character-driven drama about people who just happen to be superheroes. As much as the looming apocalypse was a story, it was often overshadowed by the relationships between the siblings. In the end, I think they all learned the importance of a) not keeping secrets, b) not lying about important things, and c) treating people kindly. I’m very eager to see what direction they take in season 2.
The Umbrella Academy Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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