by Bryce Ratliff
Superheroes are all the rage these days. In 2019 there are seven major superhero films scheduled for theatrical release. No matter where you look, you can’t seem to escape Oscar-nominated actors jumping around in spandex. These movies are huge hits with audiences, raking in billions of dollars at the box office each year. In terms of quality however, comic book films are all over the place. Films like “Black Panther” have come out and received Oscar nominations, while other comic book films just come across as generic. When I first heard about “The Umbrella Academy,” I was told it was based off of a comic book about random kids who received powers at birth. I sighed, not ready for another superhero franchise to add the list of things to watch. I didn’t watch a trailer for this show, hoping to go in fresh and let it have at least some surprise. And I was very surprised to find that while “The Umbrella Academy” is based off of a comic book and does center around people with power, it’s truly something special. Its brilliance is how much it actually has to say and how entertainingly it can say it. And in the over saturated market of comic book adaptations, that is a superpower of its very own.
“The Umbrella Academy” starts off with 43 women becoming suddenly pregnant in 1989. Having not conceived babies these women are mortified because in mere minutes they go from childless to giving birth. After they are born, seven of the children are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves. He takes these children in and then it’s revealed that all of the children (except for one) have extraordinary abilities. Reginald decides that his children are meant to save the world and he begins having his children train to fight crime. These crime fighting children become The Umbrella Academy.
Years later, all of the children have left home and gone on to lead very different lives. They are all in different careers, cities and possibly different timelines. After spending years away from home and each other, they are called together again in the wake of their father’s death. Tension fills the air the minute they enter the same room, as they all have unresolved issues with one another, but they all share one common enemy: their father. It’s revealed that Reginald was a cold, demanding parent and he’s left serious emotional scars on his children. This reunion is where the real story of the Hargreeves children begins to unfold.
Let’s get the question on everybody’s mind out of the way first: how is the comic book element of the show? The comic book elements of this show are absolutely fantastic. The powers of all of the Hargreeves children are wonderfully represented on screen. Each character that has abilities uses them to full effect, whether they want to or not. The visual effects involved look great and the powers have practical uses that also carry consequences to give the story higher stakes. The best power in the show in my opinion is Number Five’s (yes, one of the characters is named Number Five) ability to teleport. He uses it frequently and it’s always an absolute blast to see where he goes with it. From simply entering buildings to bouncing around a room for action scenes, Five’s teleportation adds a nice zippy element to the show.
The action in this show exceeded my expectations in every possible way. There is impeccable hand-to-hand combat and stunt work on display here. I have to give major props to Mary J. Blige who did most of her own stunts. Her character is often in the most aggressive fighting scenes in the show, so her work here is extremely impressive. All of the action scenes are incredibly fun and enthusiastically imaginative (especially any scenes involving Five teleporting his away around a fight). The action is an electric shot of adrenaline to the already great story.
What really blew me away about the show is the richness of its story, messages and characters. These siblings have all been a little bit ruined by their father, each other, and themselves. There are thematic questions here asking how much damage can be done to a person or relationship before there’s no going back? The characters deal with the question of if they’re too broken to function properly. And even more painful: are they too broken because of what they as a family have done to each other? This dynamic is explored beautifully, particularly in the relationship of Allison and Vanya. The two have a relationship that is awkward, damaged, but still has a glimmer of hope. The writing and acting in that storyline comes together in organic, heartbreaking ways that feel incredibly real.
I love a show with tragic characters and I must say, “The Umbrella Academy” is filled with devastatingly tragic characters. They all have to deal with things that will break your heart into pieces. Intense feelings of isolation, learning to take responsibility for the state of your life, and coping with trauma caused by your own family are all running themes in these characters. Klaus has the ability to communicate with dead people; his ability is actually centered around tragedy. Seeing all of their perspectives and how they cope with all of these emotional issues adds melancholy beauty to the show. For all of this sadness, there is plenty of humor in the show. It switches from high drama to laugh out loud humor at a rapid fire rate. It’s a dour, cathartic but somehow insanely fun show with characters you’ll love.
One thing this show does that makes it stand out from the television crowd is how bold it is. There are creative choices made that I could tell might frustrate or turn off some people but the show went there anyway. Mid-season there’s an episode that I found particularly daring in a creative sense and I loved it. The show is not afraid to shake up the tone or add in biting humor in between very serious scenes. It’s ambitious, and that ambition pays off every time it’s present.
The cast of this show is stacked with incredible talent. Ellen Page is as powerful as ever, beginning the series with restraint before unloading a truly haunting performance in the later episodes. She works best with Emmy Raver-Lampman, who is new to me but comes across as instantly likable and expressive as Allison. She has plenty of scenes where she’ll break your heart but have you rooting for her throughout the season. Robert Sheehan gives an energetic performance that he also pairs with a delicacy that caught me off guard but I loved quite a bit. Tom Hopper is great as super strong Luther, showing off skilled dramatic and comedy chops in the role. David Castaneda balances confidence and vulnerability in a very poignant but action-packed role. Blige and Cameron Button play wonderfully off of each other as a fun dynamic duo. And Kate Walsh truly surprised me in this. She’s wickedly funny but also layers the performance with icy, menacing qualities that show tremendous range.
I intentionally left one cast member out because I had to save the absolute best for last. One performer left such an impression on me during this show that I feel obligated to give him his own paragraph (and even that doesn’t feel like enough). Aidan Gallagher playing Number Five, a teenager with the mind of a 58-year old man, is one of the biggest breakout stars I’ve ever seen. This actor is 15 and he plays this character so masterfully, I feel like he really must have a mind beyond his years. He comes across as effortlessly charismatic, witty, and mature in a tour de force performance for the ages. If I take away anything from “The Umbrella Academy,” it’s that Gallagher had better be cast in everything after this role.
I was blown away by “The Umbrella Academy.” Amidst all of the comic book entertainment that’s coming out right now, it stands in a realm of its own. It combines humor, action, and drama in ways that most films and television shows can’t. I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to watch this show and didn’t stop until I finished it. It’s a creative success on nearly every level; it deserves attention and praise.