The Umbrella Academy Points the Way Forward for Netflix Post-Marvel, One Needle Drop at a Time

TV Features The Umbrella Academy
The Umbrella Academy Points the Way Forward for Netflix Post-Marvel, One Needle Drop at a Time

About halfway through the first episode of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy comes a moment of pure, unadulterated, sure-to-be-GIF’d joy: Five now-grown siblings—Tom Hopper’s brawny Luther; Ellen Page’s despondent Vanya; Emmy Raver-Lampman’s guilt-ridden Allison; David Castañeda’s hot-tempered Diego; and Robert Sheehan’s eccentric Klaus—each stop their own wallowing at various locations in their monstrous childhood home to celebrate the freedom they recently received thanks to the death of their oppressive adoptive father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (played by Colm Feore).

How? Through interpretive dances to Tiffany’s brilliant 1987 cover of Ritchie Cordell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Is this a strange way to process death? Sure. Is it amusing to watch? Definitely. Is it out of place in a series that also boasts an anthropomorphic chimpanzee as the family’s butler (voiced by Adam Godley, doing his best Alfred Pennyworth impression) and whose central plot—although there are several tangential ones—revolves around another brother (Aidan Gallagher’s Number Five) who disappeared as a teenager and comes back from the future to tell his siblings they must help him save the world? Or that assassins named Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Mindhunter’s Cameron Britton), who take orders from an impeccably dressed handler (Kate Walsh), are out to find Five? Yep. Totally tracks.

And that’s before mentioning that these siblings all happen to have been born at the same time on the same day, to women who previously exhibited no signs of pregnancy, and were adopted in the hope that they would possess bizarre abilities and could be raised as a team of dynamic crime-fighters known as the Umbrella Academy. (Spoiler: Dad’s gamble pays off!)

“I love characters with foibles and dysfunction,” says Steve Blackman, who adapted the series from author Gerard Way and illustrator Gabriel Bá’s graphic novels, and whose credits include FX’s Legion, a series that this very outlet has described as “bat-shit crazy TV.” Blackman adds that he sees The Umbrella Academy as a “dysfunctional family show”: “Having super powers was somewhat incidental,” because the series is more akin in his mind to The Big Chill, in which an ensemble of scattered characters are drawn back together.

The series, like the books, also toys with stereotypes. For example, Luther is called Number One by his father and, being a tall, cisgender, straight, white guy, might be assumed to be the group’s leader. He’s not, a fact that is not lost on Hopper. “In this day and age,” he says, “it’s important to show that it’s not the dominant white male.” For another, Klaus is a drug addict with a flair for the dramatic—a trait linked in the series not to his sexuality (he’s queer), but to the fact that he sees dead people and needs to silence the voices in his head. Sheehan says it’s his “dreadful fear” that people might not recognize this. When the character sobers up in later episodes, he notes, “the absence of drugs and alcohol really grounds him and makes him less performative.”

And then there’s Five: The smartest guy in the room and the one who has lived the most, but isn’t taken seriously because he’s a grown man trapped in a child’s body.

“I think that dynamic of Five being frustrated with his family is very fun [because] it is sort of like a teenager that is not being taken seriously, but also, they can’t comprehend where he has been or what he has been through,” Gallagher says of the Marty McFly of it all.

If at this point you’re starting to draw comparisons to the X-Men franchise, Page, who played Kitty Pryde in two of those films, has a response: She says the projects “couldn’t be more different.” “All those kids [in the X-Mansion on X-Men] are there because they’re outsiders, because they’re fleeing from persecution,” Sheehan elaborates, while the Umbrella Academy “is being held against their will.”

Suppressed familial angst and time-traveling killers aside, the series’ biggest draw is its music. Because one cannot live on Tiffany alone, the show uses Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” to fuel a fight scene in a department store and Tom Swoon’s “Shingaling” to pump up Cha-Cha and Hazel as they destroy a medical prosthetics lab while wearing animal masks and high on drug-laced chocolate bars.

Although Way may be better known for co-founding the rock band My Chemical Romance, he says these needle drops were Blackman’s ideas. His input was limited to things like working with composer Jeff Russo on a violin-infused score to accentuate the fact that Vanya plays the instrument; doing a cover of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” for the series’ fifth episode; and collaborating with MCR guitarist Ray Toro on a eerie cover of The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter” for the trailer. (For his part, Blackman, who met a career goal by getting a Radiohead song into one of the episodes, offers an twist on the old showrunner’s adage, saying that “music is its own character in the show.”)

“I think if you go heavy and serious in your standard fight, you lose a lot of the personality of the show,” says Britton, whose character also eventually falls in love with an amateur ornithologist/donut store clerk played by Canadian character actress Sheila McCarthy.

Despite these pop-culture nuggets and other time-period cues (dress, mannerisms), the series steers clear of most modern forms of technology. There are no cell phones, for one. Allison spends a good deal of one episode combing microfiche at the library. And, refreshingly, a certain (current) commander-in-chief is never mentioned, no matter how many real-life articles fret that he’s going to cause the apocalypse.

“I didn’t want anyone to feel like it wasn’t our world, but at the same time I wanted to lean in to Children of Men,” says Blackman, who was inspired by filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian drama. Blackman, who also made more subtle changes on The Umbrella Academy, like doing away with brightly colored cars, says he didn’t want to replicate the film’s bleakness so much as its creation of “a world where everything is slightly off center… a little bit odd.”

The result is a series that has no over-thinking, no hidden meanings. It’s just plain fun. On the new and increasingly Marvel-free Netflix, odds are probably good that we will see more shows based on lighter and/or lesser-known graphic novels and comics hitting the platform. Way says he’s softened to the idea of televised adaptations because so many have been done well. But he says that money-grubbing producers looking to cash in on established intellectual properties, or creators thinking one step ahead, need to remember that “the best comics make use of the medium and they’re great comics” and that “any other adaptation of that needs to be respectful of that.”

In the case of The Umbrella Academy, which differs significantly from the source material by the end of its 10-episode season, he says, “I’m able to separate the fact that the comic is the comic and the TV show is the TV show. I was able to separate that early on. We’re dealing with two different [media]… I think they made use of each medium really well.”

The series also fits into the broader cultural narrative that we’re looking to unlikely saviors—which may be why superhero films are so popular anyway.

“As humans, maybe we always look to the underdog because we’re all underdogs, in a sense,” Blackman says. “It’s a very compelling thing to root for the underdogs, and these kids are certainly underdogs in their lives.”

And underdogs who appreciate the fine art of Tiffany will always get our vote when it comes to saving the world.

The Umbrella Academy premieres Friday, Feb. 15 on Netflix.

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