In October 1989, 43 women in different parts of the world give birth on the same day. The truly weird bit is, none of them were pregnant when they woke up that day. A dapper, eccentric and monocled billionaire – who clearly knows something the rest of us don’t – pulls out his well-stuffed billfold and convinces seven of the surprised new moms to part with their (presumably immaculately conceived) progeny.
So begins The Umbrella Academy, Netflix’s new superhero-esque series based on the comic books of the same name. At this point it’s worth mentioning that there are plot problems aplenty as the first season progresses, but also that it doesn’t matter one iota.
The sets, costumes, effects, frequent use of low, wide-angle shots and marrying of pop music to intricately choreographed action sequences mean we’re willing to overlook the problematic bits. Which include a whole lot of ridiculousness, from character Luther’s Hulk-like bulk to his brother/nemesis Diego’s leather, knife-laden ensemble.
Daddy’s got issues
But back to the plot. It turns out patriarch-by-purchase Sir Reginald Hargreeves intends training up his adopted brood to harness their respective superpowers to fight crime, grab headlines, and inspire comic books (yip, we see what they’re doing there). Also, a few vague but ominous hints suggest he may be preparing them for something altogether more dangerous and important.
There are a few hiccups, though. For a start, one of the sprogs doesn’t appear to have any powers, despite having the requisite birthday. Another vanished as a youngster and a third met a mysterious demise. We’re not going to tell you about anyone’s abilities here, because finding out is a large part of the fun.
Then there’s the issue of Sir Reggie’s complete lack of paternal instincts, empathy or warmth. Oh, and for reasons unknown, the butler slash housekeeper at the Hargreeves’ mansion is a chimpanzee in a three-piece suit named Pogo, while the matriarch is a blonde, pristinely turned out android who looks like she’s stepped straight out of a 1950s toaster advertisement. Go figure.
Here come the end times
If this all sounds a bit bonkers, well, it is. But wait, there’s more. It turns out the apocalypse is a little over a week away and, unbeknown to mere mortals, the fate of the world rests in the hands of the Hargreeves adoptees. It feels like a vague hat-tip to another highly anticipated television event, Good Omens, and from the trailers we’ve seen, there’s more than a little aesthetic overlap, too. Mind you, that’s not a bad thing.
The faux siblings can barely be civil to one another, let alone set aside their interpersonal grievances long enough to save the world. The upshot for us is that it’s great watching their various antagonisms play out.
It also helps that the siblings are played by a casting agent’s veritable dream cast, including Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan (delicious as the androgynous junkie, Klaus) and our favourite of the lot, Aidan Gallagher (who plays the spaciotemporal-manipulating, cocksure and snarky Number Five).
Hazel, hold my beer
But it’s the irresistible and irrepressible coupling of Mary J Blige and Cameron Britton as the time-hopping, animal-mask-donning hitmen, Cha-Cha and Hazel, that makes The Umbrella Academy worth the nearly 10 hours of our lives it asks of us.
Where the siblings (our alleged heroes) are petulant and, at times, painful in their self-pity and pettiness, Blige and Britton are impossible to hate, even though they’re positioned as villains. Plus, when undertaking their prescribed mayhem, the equal parts ludicrous and grotesque animal masks come out.
This is as good a single-scene summary of the best bits of The Umbrella Academy as any.
There’s also a life-affirming subplot involving Britton’s Hazel and a character named Agnes, who’s an amateur ornithologist and the proprietor of a doughnut store – a venue that also serves as the setting for one of the series’ first major punch-up set pieces.
Who needs substance when you’ve got style?
Ultimately, The Umbrella Academy isn’t merely an exercise in glorious cinematography and pithy repartee, it’s a reminder that you can’t choose your family, you can’t escape your context, notions of good and bad are grossly reductive when it comes to human beings, and if you want to make a fantasy or sci-fi show that’ll stand up to the cruelty of time, don’t include cellphones, laptops, social media or other things doomed to rapidly turn into anachronisms.
If you like Wes Anderson’s style (there’s plenty of Rushmore’s Max Fischer in Number Five) and remember TV shows like Heroes with fondness, you’ll enjoy (if not necessarily love) The Umbrella Academy.
If you’re familiar with the comic books, you’ll need to ignore the creative licence taken with some of the narrative threads… but will likely still enjoy it.
And if you like tales of fundamentally flawed humans and moral ambiguity that positively ooze stylistic swagger, you really can’t go wrong.