The Umbrella Academy series leaves many questions in its wake, and they’re not entirely those it wants us to ask. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a lot going for it. For one, it’s a superhero offering that’s not made by Marvel or DC, or even based off a comic from either. Thankfully, it also has some genuinely entertaining and gratifying moments along with its rather unique perspective, which borrows equally from the best of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton without indulging in their worst qualities. The show’s faults are at least entirely its own.
The rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought many imitators, along with those whose aim is mainly a grimmer alternative. The Umbrella Academy is in a kind of third category, best exemplified by Watchmen, which takes comic book mythos and asks how they would really play out. Every kid, and a whole lot of adults, dream of having powers and fighting crime. But just how much do we really think about what would happen if we actually tried to stop a robbery? Or travel through time? Or tried to save the world? How would superpowers actually play out?
The kids who make up the superhero team at The Umbrella Academy certainly haven’t adjusted well. They were all born on the same day in 1989, in various parts of the world, with their birth mothers showing no signs of pregnancy until they went into labor. Eccentric billionaire – because when you have that much money you’re not insane – Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) manages to essentially buy seven of them and trains them to save the world, only for the team to disband during their teen years. When their father dies, they return to the place where they were raised to solve the mystery behind his death and, eventually, try to do what they were raised to do and save the world.
If the siblings are united in one thing, it’s their deep ambivalence towards the man who raised them, or rather, traumatized them, with their main source of love being Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins), a robot Reginald built to look after them, and Pogo (Adam Godley), a sentient chimp. These two are actually not the most baffling aspects of the show, it’s that a man so obsessed with preparing his children to save the world would do it in all the wrong ways. Hargreeves was so uncaring he didn’t even bother to give his children names, identifying them by numbers instead. The most outwardly resentful is Vanya, or Seven (Ellen Page), a violinist. As the only one without any powers, she was constantly isolated and reminded of how extraordinary she wasn’t, which gives her good cause to write the tell-all book her other siblings resent her for. It does lead to what might be the most perfect dance sequence of all time though.
As for the others, their leader, One/Luther, has super-strength and a mysteriously much larger body. He was the only one of his siblings who remained at the Academy. Number Two, aka Diego (David Castañeda), is a masked vigilante who is able to alter the trajectory of the knives he throws. Number Three, or Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), is a celebrity who can compel people to do her bidding. Number Four is Klaus (Robert Sheehan), a party animal and drug addict who can speak with the dead. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), is a teleporter who vanished before he could be named at age 13. Number 6, or Ben (Justin H. Min), is deceased, but pops up to encourage Klaus to sober up.
It’s a lot to unpack and one of the most frustrating aspects of the series is about how little they all seem to care about anyone else’s baggage besides their own, even when Five shows up with news of the impending apocalypse and the mind of an old man inside his 13-year-old body. (How did that play out? Eh. Quantum stuff.) And a pair of entertaining assassins, Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton), who are hot on his trail. In some sense, the siblings’ lack of ability to perceive the bigger picture is a charming instance of how the little things matter even as the end of everything approaches. It’s just that when your brother goes missing for an extended period of time and you don’t notice, it’s harder to root for you.
Most times, their dysfunction is fun, and the series is able to manage an incredible amount of subplots and concepts, albeit at various skill levels. Other times, you wonder just why Luther is the leader when his decisions reflect an idiocy that is astounding. Why does it take so long for them to learn that fighting their way out of a situation isn’t always the answer? Why do they keep being so dismissive of Vanya? The retro aesthetic of The Umbrella Academy also gets grating when it continually tells a very modern, diverse story without utilizing modern technology such as cell phones. When this very weird family gets together is when the show is at its best, so it’s a shame it keeps them apart for so long when it could be so much more compulsively watchable than it already is.