In an alternate history where John F Kennedy was never assassinated, 43 unconnected, random women around the world gave birth on the same day, at the same exact moment. They showed no signs of pregnancy when the day began. Famed explorer and adventurer, Dr Reginald Hargreeves located these women, and attempted to adopt their children, believing them to be the collective modern-day incarnation of the messiah. He managed to get seven.
To avoid developing any sort of feelings for the kids, Reginald would address them not by their names, but by assigned numbers, which to the dismay of six of them, doubled as an unveiled ranking. He would impose cruel rules, and insist the kids follow them. It was for the best, he’d say. They were being trained for a greater purpose – to save the world.
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Sure enough, the kids soon began to display powers. Together, they became the superhero group known as the Umbrella Academy. Luther had super strength, Allison could alter reality with her words, Diego was an expert knife-thrower, Klaus could talk to the dead, Ben could conjure monsters, The Boy could travel through time and Vanya… Well, Vanya couldn’t do anything.
She’s the outsider and the outcast, having spent all her life being told that she’s nothing, living under the shadow of her celebrated siblings. Much of the show, which will be made available on Netflix on February 15, is told through her perspective, although it really is an ensemble piece.
But Reginald’s methods soon began to fracture the family. As the kids grew older and the absurdity of their existence struck them, they began to move out, one by one.
Our story begins, like so many superhero stories, with death. More than a decade has passed since the Umbrella Academy disbanded, and then comes the news — Reginald has died. The estranged siblings are required to regroup at their childhood home – a large mansion not unlike Wayne Manor or Professor Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters – to confront the traumas of their past and, solve the mystery of their ‘father’s’ death, and prevent an approaching apocalypse.
Superheroes are often born out of trauma. Bruce Wayne watched his parents’ murder. Clark Kent has abandonment (and identity) issues. Peter Parker lost his Uncle Ben and Tony Stark has PTSD. And by some cosmic coincidence, they all chose to confront their damaged psyches by putting on wonky costumes and fighting crime.
The Umbrella Academy is antithesis to this theory. Around the same time that other superheroes would be experiencing the life-changing events that would make them don capes and cowls, the seven central characters in the Umbrella Academy are just about done playing dress up. Being superheroes was their trauma. Having the burden of responsibility, being thrust into a life they didn’t ask for (as children, no less), and spending every moment of their lives under constant scrutiny — it has messed them up.
They act out in the way so many engineering students in our country do – by dropping out of the high-pressure education system and becoming writers and comedians and filmmakers. It is what so many Chinese sportspersons – conditioned from a very young age to reach the pinnacle of their potential – do the moment they are able to retire. They start families and never talk about sports again.
Reginald had his own reasons for treating his kids the way he did. He even made them a robot mother, and had his personal butler – a talking chimpanzee named Pogo (!) – give the children companionship and guidance.
For the longest time – seven episodes, in fact – there is no ‘villain’ for the Umbrella Academy to fight. Their conflicts are internal and ideological, shown in scene after scene of claustrophobic confrontation. Certain characters are paired up and sent on individual missions, and the entire team regroups only every couple of episodes.
This is one of the many changes showrunner Steve Blackman has brought to Netflix’s adaptation of the comic book by Gabriel Ba and Gerard Way, former frontman of alt-rock act My Chemical Romance. Some of the more outlandish ideas of the comic, however, have been lost in translation – for instance, the first time the world is shown a glimpse of the Umbrella Academy in action in the comic book, they’re fighting a sentient Eiffel Tower. The show replaces this, presumably due to budgetary constraints and the fear of alienating certain viewers, with a simple bank robbery.
Unlike the recently concluded A Series of Unfortunate Events, another cult property brought to life on the streaming service, the Umbrella Academy appears to be slightly hesitant in fully embracing the weirdness of its source material. It covers this up with impressive production values and a very, very expensive soundtrack that includes the likes of Queen and Radiohead and Mary J Blige (who plays a supporting role in the show), but curiously no MCR.
Gerard Way wrote the series when My Chemical Romance was still together, and I wonder if the fear of them disbanding in the future (which turned out to be a valid concern; they split in 2013) weighed on his mind. Because the characters, in many ways, are like has-been rockstars, languishing in the memory of their past glory.
The core of the story however, in both the comics (of which I am a huge fan) and the series (meh), remains the same. Like Netflix’s recent The Haunting of Hill House, Umbrella Academy focuses more on family dynamics than quirky genre thrills. We are all headed towards our own personal apocalypse, the show seems to say. It’s called death. And it’s always going to be better to confront it with friends.