TV Reviews

The Umbrella Academy Is More Than “X-Men Meets Wes Anderson”

The pop culture geekosphere delivered two new, but highly similar comic book TV shows last weekend. The early critical consensus pegs DC Universe’s Doom Patrol as the slightly superior of the two. Unfortunately, that show releases episodes in old-fashioned, weekly installments. I’m waiting until I’ve seen more of the season to weigh in. I did, however, just finish Netflix’s adaptation of the Dark Horse property Umbrella Academy. I have some thoughts.

X-Men meets The Royal Tenenbaums.

That Umbrella Academy descriptor is perhaps a tad too reductive, but it does broadly fit.

The Premise

A group of superpowered children who were raised in a mansion/school regroup years later on the event of their domineering father’s death. Like a mixture of Charles Xavier, Dr. Venture, and Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum, this father, played by Colm Feore, was such a withholding taskmaster that he never even gave them names, assigning them numbers instead along with matching superhero costumes and domino masks.

To meet their emotional needs, he later built a robot mom/nanny who eventually gave them their names: Luther (Tom Hopper), Vanya (Ellen Page), Diego (David Castaneda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), and Klaus (Robert Sheehan). There was also Ben (Justin Min), who died in battle when they were kids, and Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who disappeared in a time traveling accident before he could even get a name.

Now a collection of emotionally stunted adults, the surviving Umbrella Academy members have to figure out how to be a family again, at least long enough to bury their dad. However, when Number Five returns as an old man in a young boy’s body and sets about on his own mission to prevent an apocalypse set to hit in 8 days time, the stage is set for, honestly, an almost alarming lack of urgency.

Things do eventually get to the apocalypse and a let’s-save-the-world climax, but since Number Five is very selective about who he recruits into his mission there is an awful lot of these characters – particularly Klaus – just dealing with their own shit, completely oblivious to the countdown to oblivion we are all too aware of.

The Wes Anderson of It All

Initially, this means a lot of Wes Andersonisms. There’s some light incest involved – I say “light” because though the characters grew up as a family they aren’t actually blood-relatives – plenty of quirky pop songs, and center-framed flashbacks depicting the kids training while wearing Tenenbaums’-esque tracksuits.

It’s not quite the “If Wes Anderson Directed X-Men” collection of quirks you might be imagining, especially since YouTube already did that better…

However, in the hands of director Peter Hoar the Umbrella Academy pilot definitely pulls from the Anderson ouvre to establish a visual identity unique among all current comic book shows. As the AVClub argued, “Our welcome to the world of the Hargreaves family often feels like warmed-over Wes Anderson, complete with cutesy character introductions that are more an assemblage of quirks than actual personalities; diorama-like set design that seems to mimic locations in lieu of creating plausible ones; and dialogue exchanges wherein people make pronouncements at one another, rather than actually communicating.”

(I’d also add “a collective fashion sense which seems purposefully stuck in the past.”)

Fittingly then, the early standout scene of the season involves dancing to an old pop song.

The Already-Infamous Dance Sequence

The characters are back together in the house again for the first time in over a decade, but rivalries have been quickly renewed and they’ve all retreated to their old rooms. Luther – once their de facto leader, now a towering mass of a man who can’t get any respect – plays an old Vinyl record of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” an obviously on-the-nose selection, loud enough for the whole house to hear. One by one, the siblings dance in ways which reveal more about their character than their words have. Slowly, the camera pulls out for this diorama-shot:

Eat your heart out, Hereditary dreamhouse.

The Good

This moment – while undeniably glorious, splash-page fun – is hardly indicative of everything there is to The Umbrella Academy, though. At the end of the very same episode, there is a fairly brutal fight sequence in which a collection of mercenaries are tricked into killing each other by a teleporting Number Five who keeps intentionally confusing their sightlines. When the cops later arrive to surveil the scene, the lead detective declares with a mixture of schadenfreude and frustration, “I think these idiots all shot each other.”

Of course, this sets into motion the larger narrative of the season – who sent “these idiots,” why does the newly returned Number Five still look like he’s 13-years-old, and what does any of that have to do with them stopping the apocalypse?

How messed up would you be as an adult if you grew up in a house with an ape butler, robot mom, and emotionally distant adopted dad?

As other reviewers have noted, what the show does with its mysteries doesn’t always justify the 10-episode run time, but there is an inherent loopiness to it all which I found highly watchable. For example, this is a series which features a nearly entirely unexplained talking ape butler named Pogo (voiced by Adam Godley), a depressed time traveling assassin (Mindhunter’s always-amazing Cameron Britton) who never can seem to escape his own existential crisis, and later a climactic moment featuring a stolen ice cream truck blaring a jingle version of “Ride of the Valkyries” over its speakers.

So, there’s more than enough WTF to keep you going, a Netflix necessity.

The Not So Good

However, there’s also plenty room for improvement in a hypothetical second season. EW listed but some of the first season’s sins:

Particularities among the characters dissipate. Allison is introduced as a celebrity, and nothing about her fame ever remotely comes into play. There is one major mystery in the season that will be obvious to anyone wondering why a certain character is acting so suspicious. There is an extended tangent involving time travel that becomes, literally, repetitive. A fun hitman couple played by Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige have a good rapport, but they sit around waiting for missions like bored viewers waiting for plot points.

Additionally:

  • The later episodes reveal a nefarious time travel organization led by Kate Walsh – seemingly cosplaying as Elizabeth Banks from Hunger Games – which never makes total sense.
  • There is often precious little actual display of superpowers in this superhero show. After a while, it becomes astonishingly easy to forget what their powers are.
  • The final two episodes lean far too heavily on Luther making idiotic leadership decisions as if he’s learned nothing from the prior 8 episodes.

Overall

There is much about Umbrella Academy which rings as familiar, yet there’s little here which I can honestly say simply looks like everything else out there. Instead, this show mixes elements from all over the place into a quirky, unique whole and gets a lot of mileage – probably too much, in fact – out of that old comic book chestnut: a family bickers before remembering to try to save the world. It’s compulsively watchable, particularly as all of the Wes Anderson and X-Men signifiers gradually drop away.

What about you? What are your thoughts on The Umbrella Academy? Do you have a favorite character? Do you think all of the Wes Anderson and X-Men comparisons are overblown? If so, I’d also say there’s a fair bit of The Fantastic Four and Venture Bros in there. Let me know what you think in the comments.

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22 comments

  1. Saw the first two episodes. Its a bit of a poor mans Misfits. Heck t even has one of the stars of that show which in itself is a discount x-men and the first two seasons were really good. but this is a mess. Stylishly done mess. Was I supposed to find the scene where they are all dancing in their rooms cool? Coz it wasn’t. I don’t know where that big guy actor is from but Im sure he was in the first doctor who episode for the eleventh doctor and then hasn’t been in anything ever since until this programme. In an era of so many tv series to watch this one doesnt stad out. More like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

    1. I certainly see The Misfits comparison.

      The big guy is a Brit named Tom Hopper. He is indeed in Matt Smith’s first Dr. Who episode. Since then, he’s had regular or recurring roles on Merlin, Black Sails, and Game of Thrones (one of the Tarly’s in season 7 – I have no actual recollection of him though). But, yes, if you’re not a British TV fan Umbrella Academy is probably your introduction to him.

      “Was I supposed to find the scene where they are all dancing in their rooms cool? Coz it wasn’t.”

      The dance sequence is both the best and worst of the show’s first two episodes in the sense that it’s so cooly stylish and technically impressive that it’s all anyone wants to talk about. However, as the season progresses those stylish affectations become less common and the directors don’t try quite so hard to seem so cool and Wes Anderson-like.

      I get your overall point about this being a stylish mess. I certainly agree it’s far from perfect, but I just had fun with the mess.

  2. I never read the Umbrella Academy comics, mainly because it was written by the then-lead singer of My Chemical Romance.

    I can see why they would choose to make this into a TV series but am kind of wondering “why?” I can get that people want more superheroes stuff and particularly the Guardians of the Galaxy-style team of misfits working together in a humourous way.

    Yet, I am still wondering “why?”.

    “The Umbrella Academy” is published by Dark Horse, my favourite comics publisher, who are famous for the license-based comics (eg Star Wars until Disney gave it back to Marvel, Aliens, Predator, Terminator) and Hellboy. Is “Umbrella Academy” the only Dark Horse original IP that hasn’t been licensed off? (Hellboy has a lot of spin-off series and they have probably been bought off by whoever is making the next movie because we know characters from the BPRD and Lobster Johnson are set to appear in it… even though that doesn’t make any sense if they are basing the movie from the Queen Nimue story arc.)

    Why make the “Umbrella Academy” when Netflix has just cancelled two superhero shows?

    1. You answered your own question at the end. Why make this even though Netflix just canceled those Marvel shows? Because Netflix wants to stay in the comic book biz; they just prefer to do so with shows they actually own. Umbrella Academy is part of that larger strategy. They also have several other non-Marvel shows in development.

      1. They don’t actually own it. They have just licenced it. They may have negotiated a better deal than the bad one which Marvel pull the rug out from under them.

      2. Either way, they have a better negotiating position on this than they do with Marvel. They told Marvel to cut the seasons down from 13. Marvel refused. So, Netflix just cut ties completely. Universal and Dark Horse won’t have the same leverage with Umbrella Academy, and if they try to overplay their hand then Netflix always has the Millarworld on the way: https://www.inverse.com/article/52686-netflix-reborn-release-date-gives-netflix-independence-from-disney-marvel

      3. I generally agree, but the odd thing in this case is Netflix actually had a good point. The need to shorten the seasons from 13 to 10 seemed to be a recognized truth by everyone other than Marvel TV. From their perspective, of course, that means a pay cut and feels like a demotion which they probably didn’t feel like they should have to put up with, not after having been doing this for 4-5 years now.

      4. Thats like telling snake plisken he should get that eye fixed or cut that mullet off his hair. Its good advice but it aint going to be welcome or followed.

      5. I imagine Snake would just growl and punch you in the face if you suggested such blasphemy to his face. Not sure in this scenario whether that means Marvel just punched Netflix in the face or vice versa (kinda feels like they both ultimately lose in this scenario, at least in the short term).

      6. This feels kind of like Netflix is cutting off its nose to spite its face (a truly weird expression, btw). As I argued elsewhere, industry journalists familiar with the contracts between the two parties report that Netflix didn’t actually have to do this. There was no expiration date on this deal. Yes, it does feel like some of the shows had run their course, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have reconfigured things – combine Luke and Danny into Heroes for Hire, for example. Instead, this reads like Netflix saying, “You take away all of your movies, Disney? Huh. What, you’re too good for our money now? Well, fuck you, we’re canceling your stupid TV shows. And, you know what, now you can’t use those characters for 2 full years.”

        Disney’s response: Actually, thanks. That solves so many problems. It was super, super awkward for us to be launching our streaming service with all of our Marvel programming except for those shows you still have.

        Netflix: Damn. Didn’t think that through.

      7. Oh and I am British and I never heard of Tom Hopper other than 1 episode of Doctor Who which doesnt say much as everyone british has been in an episode. Even Oscar winner Olivia Coleman was in that episode.

      8. And she’s great in that episode, of course. She’s always great, but as she joked in one of those Doctor Who 50th-anniversary specials she’s basically in everything British TV.

        Since Hopper is playing such a bigger dude in this show – the later episodes explain his size, btw – I didn’t actually recognize him from Doctor Who until you pointed it out. I do now remember thinking HE was going to be one of Matt Smith’s companions. Watching 11th Hour for the first time, I assumed Amy and Hopper’s character were being primed as potential companions. Instead, it was Rory and Hopper’s guy never showed up again.

        Probably not a good sign that he did 4 episodes of Game of Thrones’ highest-rated season and I still don’t remember him.

      9. I thought that too as did seem geared to set him up. Either the test viewers didnt like him (find that hard to believe but i recall they did do worlwide premiers of the first episode) or he is a real life problem actor. A bit like that other brit actor who played a dward in hobbit and was in early trailers then discreetly replaced due to his behaviour off set. I mean its been nearly 10 years since the who episode.

      10. Dear netflix. Please make a rocketeer tv show. Its based on the 1980s film paying homage to 1932 serials but its also based on a dark horse comic series. Dear KK um please review the rocketeer
        Thanks
        Dex

      11. It is amazing. What a shame it came out when Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and a julia roberts film came out. Disney should have kept their nane on it. The flying effects were also very good.

      12. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. It bums me out, too. I knew there an animated series in the works, but I thought it was going to be a Disney+ Original for all ages. That Variety article is the first confirmation that actually it will be a Disney Jr. show for little kids. Also, it will have next to nothing in common with the comics other than the general spirit and, obviously, the actual look of the Rocketeer costume. Does feel like a very weird use of that IP.

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