The Umbrella Academy
It all starts with a mystery. On October 1, 1989, 43 women around the world suddenly gave birth at the exact same time. The weird part? Until the moment they gave birth, none of those women had been pregnant. These newborns are weird and inexplicable and special. And that’s before anyone discovers they have superpowers.
The Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, which is based on the comic of the same name, plays like somebody looked at X-Men and thought, “Wait. What kind of old weirdo would spend his life raising a bunch of kids to be superheroes?” And in its premiere episode, the show manages to walk a tremendously tricky tightrope, balancing X-Men’s riff on superheroic misfits with a Haunting of Hill House–esque story about childhood trauma and multigenerational dysfunction.
The Umbrella Academy has a lot to establish in a single hour, so I respect how quickly and stylishly the series rips through the standard origin-story stuff. Within the first 3 minutes, 7 of the 43 immaculately conceived children have been found and adopted by an eccentric billionaire named Reginald Hargreeves. By minute 4, we’ve jumped ahead 30 years, when the adopted children have grown into dysfunctional adults.
But wait, there’s more! In a kinetic, terrifically edited montage — set to a violin medley of songs from Phantom of the Opera, of all things — we are formally introduced to the Hargreeves children. And in the interest of handling this exposition-dump as efficiently as the series does, they are:
• “Number One:” Luther, an astronaut with super-strength
• “Number Two:” Diego, a knife expert and crime-fighting vigilante
• “Number Three:” Allison, a celebrity who can verbally coerce people into doing whatever she wants
• “Number Four:” Klaus, an ostentatious drug addict who can communicate with the dead
• “Number Five:” Five, a long-missing time traveller trapped in a 13-year-old boy’s body
• “Number Six:” Ben, who could summon extra-dimensional monsters (and is now dead)
• “Number Seven:” Vanya, who has no superpowers, but is damn good on the violin
Oh, and there’s also a talking chimpanzee. His name is Pogo, and he’s the best.
If it wasn’t already clear: Yes, The Umbrella Academy is a lot to take in. But once you’ve acclimated to the show’s dizzying cast and heightened tone, it goes down pretty smoothly. It helps that all of these bizarre characters are brought together by a single incident: the death of Dr. Reginald Hargreeves, who isn’t exactly mourned by most of his children. Hargreeves was a tough, often cruel patriarch who had no interest in being a “dad.” The best example of his parenting style is a flashback to a bank robbery, which he pushed the adolescent kids to stop in a scene of brutal violence.
Now that Hargreeves is gone, the kids are stuck with his legacy, which includes several long-simmering conflicts that remain between them. Luther and Diego don’t get along. Allison is alternately irritated and amused by Klaus. Everyone is a little wary of Vanya, who became estranged from Papa Hargreeves after she wrote a tell-all memoir about their bizarre upbringing.
But the internal conflicts of the Hargreeves family are quickly superseded by the external conflicts they need to deal with. In rapid succession, we learn that (1) Hargreeves may have been murdered; (2) both of the “missing” Hargreeves children are around, in one form or another; and (3), the world is going to end in eight days.
Let’s start with the death of Hargreeves, which may or may not have been a murder. (Luther recounts a conversation in which Hargreeves acted weird and told him to be careful, but that’s hardly definitive.) Who would want to kill Hargreeves? The Umbrella Academy only gives us a few glimpses of the late billionaire, who comes off as both egocentric and enigmatic. Everyone except Pogo, the chimpanzee butler — and maybe Luther — seems to have some kind of beef with him. (Whether that makes Pogo and Luther non-suspects, or whether it’s just a piece of misdirection, is up to the viewer to decide.) Luther, at the very least, all but openly asks one of his siblings to come clean about which of them killed Hargreeves.
But before we get any resolution on the maybe-a-murder mystery, the vacant Hargreeves siblings reenter the story. Five, the time-traveling, long-missing fifth sibling — who left the family so early that he never even acquired a normal name — reemerges in the present. A scene near the end of the episode also reveals that Ben, the dead sixth sibling, still appears from beyond the grave to speak with his brother Klaus.
While Ben has presumably been haunting Klaus for many years, Five came back from the future in an effort to solve an immediate problem. In a dingy old diner, Five is confronted by a a group of gun-toting badasses who have tracked him down, and ends up killing all of them. (I mostly like The Umbrella Academy’s flashier stylistic choices, but setting a big action scene to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is a little much. Isn’t the “extreme violence/ironically cheery counterpoint song” thing a little played out?)
The immediate aftermath of the fight leads to problem number three. Five goes to Vanya’s apartment and tells her the truth about what he experienced in the future. It was a desolate, bombed-out wasteland in which he was literally the only person left alive. The apocalypse is coming, and he has no idea what will cause it. All he knows is that it’s coming. In eight days.
It’s significant that, of all his siblings, Five chooses to confide in Vanya. Throughout the episode, Vanya largely stays in the background: soft-spoken, no superpowers, awkward around both the brother who despises her and the sister who sympathizes with her. Five, for his part, says he trusts Vanya because she’s so ordinary, which means she’ll listen.
But in her own way, maybe Vanya does have a kind of superpower: a deep, unflappable inner strength. Imagine what you would say if someone told you, credibly, that the world was going to end in eight days. How would you feel? What would you say? What would you do?
What I would do is panic. What Vanya does: she processes what Five is saying, takes a breath, and says, “I’ll put on a pot of coffee.” Maybe the world is in good hands after all.
• Standard reminder up top: There are big plot points in the first pages of the Umbrella Academy comic that don’t come up at all in the first episode of the TV adaptation. If you’ve read The Umbrella Academy, please don’t spoil any of the story’s big twists and turns in the comments below. Just be cool.
• And if you didn’t know the source material before you started watching, and need a quick primer: The Umbrella Academy is based on a comic written and created by My Chemical Romance alum Gerard Way and drawn by artist Gabriel Bá. The first two major arcs have been collected in two trade paperbacks subtitled Apocalypse Suite and Dallas, respectively. After a hiatus that lasted nearly a decade, a new Umbrella Academy arc, subtitled Hotel Oblivion, began publishing in October 2018.
• Mysteries left to be answered at the end of the first episode: Why is Luther’s arm all weird and hairy? Why did Diego steal Hargreeves’s monocle and lie about it? Is the children’s “mother” a robot or what? Why were 43 children immaculately conceived on October 1, 1989 — and what happened to the 36 we don’t know about?
• And maybe I’m grasping at straws here, but it’s kind of weird that the apocalypse is slated for eight days from March 24, which would mean the world will end … on April Fool’s Day. Weird cosmic joke? Or a hint that Five can’t be taken at his word?
• Another conspiracy theory to kick around: Is Hargreeves actually dead? We only see his ashes, not his body — and despite being able to talk to the dead, Klaus can’t seem to reach him.
• There’s a lot to love in this premiere, but I think my favorite scene is a quick exchange between Pogo and Vanya. Pogo: “I hope you know your father loved you very much, in his own way.” Vanya: “Well … that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it?” It’s the clearest indication so far that The Umbrella Academy has as much to say about warped family dynamics — and the way their consequences can ripple across generations — as it does about superheroes.
• It’s particularly heartbreaking to watch the young Vanya drawing an umbrella tattoo on her own wrist to try to match the actual tattoos grafted onto her siblings.
• Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how well The Umbrella Academy was cast. There are a lot of characters that could, in theory, be pretty annoying: a 13-year-old with the brain (and self-assuredness) of a 58-year-old, or a self-destructive drug-addled junkie, or a cocky bro with a hair-trigger temper. In every case, The Umbrella Academy found actors who could play these tricky roles with confidence, plausibility, and depth.
• A nice unspoken character moment at the rainy memorial for Hargreeves: Where everyone else chooses a somber black umbrella, Klaus uses a flashy pink one, and Diego doesn’t use one at all.
• And then there’s the dollhouse-like dance sequence, which shows each of the individual Hargreeves kids dancing to “I Think We’re Alone Now” (whose lyrics dovetail nicely with the themes of the episode). Even Pogo, sitting alone and reading the paper, sways and taps his foot a bit.
• How many people are going to start watching The Umbrella Academy thinking it’s a Resident Evil prequel — especially since Netflix is actually developing a Resident Evil series?
• Allison gets called away from the red carpet of a movie called Love on Loan 3. Sounds great.
• That A + L locket (and a brief glimpse of the photos inside) — as well as the slightly awkward tone of their conversations — certainly implies that Allison and Luther, who were raised as siblings, had some kind of romantic relationship. If you ask me: gross!
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