Couch Potato

The Umbrella Academy and the Birth of Villainy

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At times it has felt like I was one of the few people who legitimately enjoyed the Netflix Marvel shows. They certainly had their flaws, but I’m really disappointed that they’ve all been cancelled now, especially since it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it was all thanks to weird corporate reshuffling, Disney’s sudden takeover of Hulu, and their own impending streaming service. I had a good time with those shows, and it was a bummer that they’re gone. But, just in time to try and soothe that frustration, Netflix has given us a very different kind of superhero show. Based on a limited series written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way and with art by the great Gabriel Ba, Netflix has given us an adaptation of the Umbrella Academy, a comic that I had never read up until this show. I knew almost nothing about it, and I had honestly ignored it despite good word of mouth because of my contempt for the music of My Chemical Romance. But, after reading some of Way’s work on the new Doom Patrol book I started to thaw to the idea of him as a comics writer, and the trailer for this show seemed fun enough to convince me to give a shot. And, almost immediately I went to find the comic, because the basic premise of this series, and the info given in the first episode was enough to pique my interest. I’ve now watched all of the show, and read the comics that it is roughly based on, and can consider myself a genuine fan. Because, while it still suffers from some pacing issues, this show is a delight, and I legitimately don’t know where it’s going to go from here.

The Umbrella Academy takes place in a world where something incredibly strange happened thirty years ago. A group of women spontaneously gave birth at the same time, none of whom were pregnant when the day began. And, of these mysterious children, seven of them were immediately purchased by an eccentric billionaire named Reginald Hargreeves who brought the children to a mansion he had constructed, so that he could study them. And, as time went on, the children began to develop strange superpowers, leading Hargreeves to push them into the path of becoming superheroes, representatives of his Umbrella Academy. There was Luthor who had super-strength, Diego who had the ability to throw things with incredible precision, Allison who could manipulate people by saying rumors about them, Klaus who could speak to the dead, Five who could teleport and travel through time, Ben who could reveal a terrible monster inside himself, and Vanya who appeared to have no powers. All of the children, except Vanya, went on to have careers in superheroics, until it all came crashing down. They drifted apart as a family, not really appreciating Hargreeves’ cold demeanor and borderline abusive behavior, and now almost none of them speak. That is until news reaches them that Hargreeves has died. The kids, now thirty, come back to the Academy to lay their father to rest, and reflect on their fallen siblings, Ben who died, and Five who teleported into the future and never returned. And, as they’re trying to figure out how to mourn this difficult man, something bizarre happens. Five comes back in time, into the body of his childhood form, and he’s come with grim tidings. The world is going to end, soon, and they’re the only ones who can stop it.

Unfortunately, these superpowered siblings don’t really get along, and they have a hell of a time working together, especially to stop the nebulous dystopia that Five has been living in for more than forty years. And, to make matters worse, a pair of assassins from a strange time-travelling group of killer tasked with keeping the time-line intact have arrived and are tasked with killing Five and keeping the apocalypse right on schedule. And, while all of this is going on, Vanya is having to deal with the fact that, as always, she’s being left behind. She spent her whole life being ignored because of her lack of powers, kept away from the rest of her siblings, and it’s all happening again. But, along the way she meets a man who actually seems interested in her for who she is. She and Leonard Peabody begin a relationship, even while the rest of the siblings become suspicious of him. And, with good reason. It turns out that Leonard Peabody is actually a felon who has spent most of his life in prison after killing his father, and blames his obsession with the Umbrella Academy for doing so. So, he wants to destroy them, and to do that he begins seeking out Vanya, because he’s learned something shocking. Vanya has powers, more powerful than any of the other siblings combined, and Hargreeves tricked her into thinking she was normal to keep her from accessing those powers. Leonard is able to get Vanya in touch with her powers, and it quickly becomes apparent that the cause of this apocalypse Five is trying to prevent is his own sister. So, while Vanya gets to work taking a lifetime of rage and frustration out on the world, the rest of the Umbrella Academy have to work together to save the day, and hopefully save their sister.

 

 

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I knew almost nothing about the premise of the Umbrella Academy going in, and I was instantly drawn into its weird world, falling in love with it from the first episode. And, through that, I’ve ended up reading the comics, which are quite different, but have a very similar tone and feeling to this show. They’ve very interesting companion pieces to each other at the very least. There are some questions I have remaining, most of which it appears isn’t answered in either the show or the comic, but it does appear that they plan on continuing the series beyond this season, potentially going into uncharted territory. I’ve seen other attempts at making a story that functions as a bit of a parody of the X-Men, but this show quickly established itself as one of the more competent of those stories, and that primarily comes from the same reason that makes the X-Men so compelling. Just really great character work. We really get to get a good feel on each of these characters, and they’re each great in their own ways, giving us a whole lot of familial squabbling in between trying to save the world. The show looks great, taking advantage of their budget to give us a show that, while not really aping the style of Gabriel Ba’s artwork, has its own distinctive aesthetic that I really loved. Because this show wasn’t afraid to be weird, colorful, and full of that type of comicy nonsense that I love so much. They may not wear their colorful costumes that often, but the show also doesn’t shy away from the fact that one of the cast-members is a giant ape-man. And yet, for all of the eccentric aesthetic and joyful strangeness, the show’s greatest strength becomes the fact that it somehow feels so grounded, primarily because it’s based in the familiar struggles of family.

I really find supervillains fascinating. I always have been enthralled by the villains of stories, and getting into the psychology of what made them a villain. Unfortunately, more often than not, that ends up just being some variation of “they’re crazy,” or “they’re greedy.” Those motivations can be used in a compelling way if handled correctly, but it’s sadly not common to come across a villain who you can actually read some sort of legitimate motivation from. But, the Umbrella Academy manages to buck that trend in a really fascinating way. Like I said, I didn’t know anything about this story going in, so I had no idea that Vanya was going to make a heel turn at some point, becoming a legitimately world-ending supervillain by the end of the series. And, wonderfully, that turn doesn’t come out of nowhere. The entire show ends up becoming an examination of what happens to a person when they grow up in a family thinking they’re somehow less than everyone around them. Vanya grew up surrounded by siblings with legitimate superpowers, while she was painfully normal. They ostracized her, and she became a footnote in the history of a famous family, forcing herself in a sort of numb complacency in order to keep herself from breaking under that depressing strain. So, when she learns that not only does she have powers, but that they were purposefully kept from her, it makes perfect sense that she’s lash out. The whole show ends up being about the birth of a supervillain thanks to dysfunctional family dynamics, and it was something that I’d never seen handled this well before. Everyone has family drama, so making it the crux of a character’s downfall into villainy is a wonderful idea, and I really can’t wait to see where the show tries to go from here, seeing if it’s possible to make up for a life-time of pain.

 

 

The Umbrella Academy was developed by Steve Blackman and Jeremy Slater, 2019.

 

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