Imagine this: one day, you’re a person who’s totally not pregnant, not even a drop, minding your own biz-ness, enjoying some beach weather, and then, wham-o, the next and you’re full-term about to burst, like Jesus or Leonardo DiCaprio or some such hombre just Immaculate Conceptioned you. Now imagine you’re not alone. You are one of 43 women around the world enjoying the same miracle nightmare. Oh, and, somehow, these DiCaprio babies have superpowers. Then, before you’ve really had time to recover from the decided lack of epidurals, some eccentric billionaire pops out from your closet and offers to buy your baby because he’s starting a school for the gifted! Professor Xavier? You exclaim. No. Note the lack of a wheel chair and presence of hair, he responds. But whatever makes the situation work for you.
Intrigued? Me to. Welcome to The Umbrella Academy, Netflix’s first big foray into comic adaptations without a partner named Captain Marvel. It’s no wonder you’re onboard, it’s a fantastic premise for a show, and I’ve subsequently been anticipating it since I got my first glimpse at the New York Comic Con back in October. I’ll say this for Netflix: they went big with their own comic adaptation. It’s scale and production value are what most of us probably expected in The Defenders, but didn’t get. They’ve gone all in on this one. Yet, it’s still troubled by some of the same issues. It’s beautiful to look at, but despite its compelling foundation, its construction lags, languishes even, and you get the feeling they’re so all in on it, they intentionally held back, hedging bets (and plot elements) to allow for future seasons. I guess that’s a good thing, if you like the show, but it made the first season less than what it might have been.
The Umbrella Academy
Release Date: February 15, 2019 (Netflix)
If we’re talking superpowers, then undoubtedly, The Umbrella Academy’s superpower would be its visual and special effects (i.e. its budget?). When the show takes you somewhere extraordinary, like the surface of the moon for a lunar sunrise, or into the future for first-rate post-apocalyptic montage viz-a-vie a more pumped The Road, it’s beautiful, well shot, and well executed. The later sequence was unsurprisingly directed by Ellen Kuras, perhaps best known for her work as a cinematographer on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But it’s more than a flashy action sequence or two. The work in The Umbrella Academy conjures up emotions you don’t find in rainy days. It’s all Sunshine. Imagine your typical Joe Shmoe comic book TV show (Agents of Shield, Iron Fist, Gotham, etc.) and give them a top of the line makeover. It’s that noticeable.
Unfortunately, the directing and writing throughout don’t live up to the visuals. We do start strong with a well-executed montage that establishes the world order and how we got there. Forty-three suddenly pregnant women; billionaire buys babies (seven to be exact), starts school; kids mature, fight crime; and time passes. Suddenly, we’ve jumped from 1989 to the present day, it’s not clear exactly when that is, but it’s about 30 years or so. The world they live in should be familiar to us, only, no one has cell phones, so there are a lot more people spontaneously knocking on doors than there should be, a scene familiar to those of us old enough to have lived through 90s sitcoms. You just spent 45 minutes on a subway to tell me that you’re too busy to hang out? It makes no sense, but it allows for a lot of character building scenes, and thus they oblige by building characters.
It’s a necessary evil as between the sequence when our young heroes are working as a cohesive team to thwart evil-doers and when we meet them as mature adults a lot has happened and we need to establish what these things are. Number One (Tom Hopper) is on the moon. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) has vanished. Number Six (Justin H. Min) has died. Number Seven (Ellen Page) has no powers and plays the violin all day—damn is she depressing. And none of them are living in the school with billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore). There’s a robot mother and a monkey butler and when Number Five suddenly reappears he warns them all that the world will end in eight days.
Number One, aka Luther, has super strength. Number Two, Diego, can curve the trajectory of anything he throws and has impeccable aim. Number Three, Allison, can control people’s minds by saying I heard a rumor…. Klaus, Number Four, can see and communicate with the dead (and maybe more?). Number Five, who may not have a non-number name, can travel through time and space with a thought. Six is still dead, but before he was, he possessed monsters from other dimensions under his skin and could unleash them on anyone who gave him road rage. That’s a lot potential there, but instead of expecting to see these powers in action, expect instead to spend much more time watching these guys talk to one another about their feelings and why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling, unboxing twenty years or so of mysterious backstory.
Maybe part of this is because it is Netflix following their own playbook established when they worked with Marvel to substantial success. You see Netflix-Marvel fingerprints all over the series, and Netflix-Marvel Director regulars like Peter Hoar and Stephen Surjik actually helmed four of ten episodes. While it’s obviously safe to follow an established playbook, they foolishly follow the worst of Netflix-Marvel, like the corporate-boardroom melodrama that pegged Iron Fist for Rotten Tomato rage. This series is overburdened with one-on-one conversations by half.
When time traveling villains-come-assassins Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton) are introduced as the yin to Number Five’s yang, they should do so to introduce an outside element of evil only. This is season one, folks. As we’ve already discussed, there’s plenty to unpack not only in terms of backstory, but in terms of capabilities from our heroes. This is too early in the timeline to need to establish motivations for our bad guys. Give them time to be bad. Give them time to shock and awe us with their evil now. Later, in following seasons, perhaps unpack their motivations or allow their motivations to morph. You’ll make season one stronger, and increase the odds of producing a second season to feature these revelations.
On the bad writing front, I can appreciate foreshadowing as much as anyone. In fact, it’s a necessary part of strong storytelling. A great writer can include in-your-face foreshadowing and you’ll never realize it until after the foreshadowed events occur, at which point you put the pieces together and are amazed you didn’t see it happen. Foreshadowing is the grounding that establishes continuity in reality. It’s plot’s essence, without it, anything could happen at any moment for any reason. But, foreshadowing should be done with a subtle hand, or else a casual establishing shot of a deer mount over a fireplace actually tells you, out loud, that a character is about to be impaled on it. In horror films, it’s an established tact that a skillful writer or director can subvert to surprise an audience. In The Umbrella Academy it’s anticlimactic and multiple plot points can be seen coming long before they arrive. For a mystery, of sorts, it’s not all that mysterious.
This may be a case of high expectations run rampant. As I say, I’d been anticipating the series debut for some time. Yet, these are fixable issues, ones that could have been addressed with a bit more foresight, or perhaps a defter hand running the series as whole. The key takeaway however, is that it’s still a cut above most superhero series. Maybe all of them, thus far. But it could have been great.