Few could have ever predicted a time when comic books were the dominant inspiration for mainstream media products such as movies and TV shows. But that time is now, and the challenge for such comic book-inspired franchises is how to stand out among all the others, like drawn characters trying to escape the restrictions of the panels from a comic book page.
Standing out was never a problem for “The Umbrella Academy” from the start. It was weird by design. Most people know Gerard Way as the flamboyant frontman for the bad My Chemical Romance. Way is also a lifelong comic book fan and stunned many when he created and wrote the critically acclaimed six-issue mini-series “The Umbrella Academy” for Dark Horse Comics in 2007. “The Umbrella Academy” even had sequel series in 2009 and in 2018. Way went on to curate his own quirky if short-lived imprint for DC, Young Animal.
The big new was that Netflix had picked up “The Umbrella Academy” and the show began streaming last Friday. “The Umbrella Academy” brandished advantages even as a comic. Way and artist Gabriel Bá brought a distinctive feel to a series that sought to deconstruct superhero tropes. There was something just so different and dangerous about the books, looking and reading like no other superhero book on the shelves. Would it work on the screen?
The showrunner, Steve Blackman (writer on “Fargo” and “Altered Carbon) faced the task of translating the comic books’ trademark strangeness to the screen. The inaugural 10-episode season is based on the first comic book arc, “Apocalypse Suite.”
In 1989, 43 women around the world suddenly give birth though they had never been pregnant. Eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts seven of those children, training them to become super-powered vigilantes called the Umbrella Academy. But tragic events wind up in the group’s dissolution and its remaining members becoming estranged. When Hargreeves dies allegedly from a heart attack, the members are forced to reunite, save two: the deceased Ben and Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who had traveled through time and vanished. The super-strong Luther (Tom Hopper, Dickon Tarly from “Game of Thrones”), reluctant reality-bending Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), druggie Klaus (Robert Sheehan) who can talk to the dead, the knife-wielding Diego (David Castañeda) and the only member without any super powers, Vanya (Ellen Page, yes that Ellen Page, Juno and Kitty Pride) have an already awkward reunion interrupted when Number Five suddenly returns from the future.
While the family is wracked with suspicion because Luther suspects Hargreeves had been murdered, but Number Five confides in Vanya that the world will end in eight days and they have to do something to stop it. To make things worse, assassins Cha-Cha and Hazel (the Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton, respectively) arrive intending to kill Number Five.
“The Umbrella Academy” works in the present as it unwinds the possibly apocalyptic consequences while it flashes back to different points in the family’s past. The 10 episodes are dominated by the two mysteries and some personal stories, in particular Vanya’s struggle with coming to terms with her place in the family as she was constantly left out. “The Umbrella Academy” is pinned on Page’s performance as the disaffected Vanya. She carries the show. Other standout performances are Gallagher’s old-soul-in-a-young-body’s Number Five and Castañeda’s graceful if troubled Diego.
“The Umbrella Academy” made substantial changes to the source material in order to make it both up-to-date and workable. The narrative has been thoroughly restructured and the show ends on a crazy cliffhanger instead. The revisions turned some parts into more conventional TV drama work.
But the outstanding element in “The Umbrella Academy” is the sheer lunacy of it all, and this outshines through the more predictable aspects. Way’s characters are oddball family members forced back together and this works. The directors stage the action from unusual angles, as if consciously trying to do something really different.
The interesting thing is that, eccentric as it is, the show actually could have been weirder, as the developers actually jettisoned the really odd parts of the comic, including, most prominently, the codenames (too good to pass up: Hargreeves is the Monocle, Luther is Spaceboy, Diego is the Kraken, Allison is the Rumor, Klaus is the Séance, Ben is the Horror, Vanya is the White Violin and Number Five is, well Number Five). As a comic and a show, “The Umbrella Academy” explores the alienation that had been explored by classic properties like DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s X-Men but with a very contemporary touch.
Additionally, the series has one of the best soundtracks ever heard on television, including songs from Queen, They Might Be Giants and, of course, Gerard Way, incorporated into the scenes. If you don’t feel like joining in when Page stiffly dances to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” then you have a hole where your heart should be.
Now that there are so many shows based on comic book properties, it is good that lesser-known, quirkier properties such as “The Umbrella Academy” are getting a chance. Other such unusual series that deserve a look are Marvel’s “Runaways” (Hulu), Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger” (Freeform), Rick Remender’s “Deadly Class” (Syfy) and the upcoming HBO adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal “Watchmen.” If you like the show, you should read the collected editions of the comic book.
Ultimately, the quality of “The Umbrella Academy” should be a boon for Netflix, which saw its fan-favorite Marvel shows (“Daredevil,” among others) departing. This show’s existence proves there is life after Marvel for Netflix. Here’s hoping Netflix will decide to adapt more comic book shows for its growing audience. Meanwhile, we have the wonderfully weird world of “The Umbrella Academy” to join. Celebrate the oddness! Embrace the unorthodox! Sign up for “The Umbrella Academy!”
“The Umbrella Academy” is now streaming on Netflix.