Netflix's Adaptation of 'The Umbrella Academy' Isn't Weird Enough, and That May Be a Good Thing
Gerard Way’s and Gabriel Ba’s The Umbrella Academy is a strange comic. So strange, in fact, that some might believe it’s too weird for TV. The story—that of a dysfunctional superhero family that gets over its differences to save the world—takes so many odd turns in a world that gets more bizarre with each issue is a wildly entertaining acid trip in comic book form. For casual audiences, it might be a little too much.
The Netflix adaptation appears to agree, opting to push The Umbrella Academy through an undeniably Netflix-shaped hole instead of doubling down on the weirdness. It foregoes the book’s joyous disregard for realism to bring viewers a show that’s part The Haunting of Hill House family melodrama (the Academy itself even bears a resemblance to Hill House) and part Daredevil broody superheroics, with a small smattering of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s irreverence. While the core elements are there, it’s just barely recognizable as The Umbrella Academy.
The question is, that actually a bad thing?
Let’s get this out of the way for fans of the comic, first: There isn’t a fight against the Eiffel Tower, gigantic statues don’t re-enact one of the most notorious assassinations in human history, and there is no presence whatsoever of Martian apes. Two main character’s power sets are swapped out for abilities that look better on TV, but rob them of standout moments from the book.
A male supporting character’s role is given to a new female character, but said female’s sexual history with one of the show’s leading men is brought up every single time they’re together, in a “one step forward, two steps back” approach to diversity–and this isn’t the only flaw in this respect. The Orchestra isn’t plotting the end of the world. There is no sinister Shubunkin goldfish.
With all these missing elements, some might consider it a loose adaptation of the comic—but that doesn’t necessarily make it a poor one. The book, after all, crammed so many ideas into its pages that storytelling often felt rushed and several key moments felt unearned. Netflix’s version of events, told at a pace comparable to its Marvel lineup, allows the characters to be more fully developed, with motivations that actually make sense once in a while.
Ellen Page (as Vanya Hargreeves), Robert Sheehan (as Klaus Hargreeves), and Cameron Britton (as Hazel) benefit the most from this approach. Page shows us that her time away from the mainstream had zero effect on her considerable acting chops, taking what could have easily been a mopey role into the series’ most sympathetic character.
Sheehan appears to be doing an American version of his Nathan from Brit superhero show Misfits (which is a very good thing), with the added advantage of his current character being given significantly more depth than the former. Britton, whose character was two-dimensional in the comic, brings an idealistic charm to the role, making him one of the show’s most lovable personalities.
The rest of the cast gives serviceable performances, but lacks the chemistry that makes us believe that these are people who grew up together—thought that may also be due to some of the characters undergoing fundamental personality changes in the transition from paper to screen.
The extended storytelling unfortunately also exposes the threadbare narrative of the comic itself. The Umbrella Academy’s first season borrows heavily from its first two graphic novels (The Apocalypse Suite and Dallas), as if to say there wasn’t enough meaningful content in either to fill out 10 episodes’ worth of television on its own. What kept the comic entertaining was precisely what Netflix shied away from: Its relentless pursuit of the strange and unusual. It turns out that when you temper Way’s and Ba’s twisted imaginations, The Umbrella Academy just isn’t that remarkable.
The seemingly trademarked Netflix plod—the slow pacing that made Iron Fist difficult to watch and The Defenders a massive disappointment—appears to be a consequence of the showrunners playing it safe. The first four episodes, while laced with a healthy amount of weirdness, refuse to really plunge into the world in which it exists, which in turn dulls the pacing. It’s only in episode 5, when the show finally decides to dip its feet into the unlimited world-building potential Way and Ba provided, that events become engaging. Out-of-the-box world details, like treats that distill the 1950s into a singular flavor, actually contribute to the dynamism of the storytelling, rather than distract.
In fact, the middle episodes work as the very best part of the season precisely because they take such a massive swerve from reality as we know it. If the entire season were written and presented like this, fully embracing the strange universe established by the comics instead of going with what works for general audiences, The Umbrella Academy might have been a show at par with Netflix’s criminally underwatched gem, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Instead, the good bits are sandwiched by episodes that use upbeat throwback music during fight scenes as a shortcut to quirkiness, as though the team that made the show were unwilling to commit themselves fully to the material they signed on to adapt. That lack of commitment is front-and-center during the season’s unsatisfying conclusion; it opens doors for a second season, sure, but it does so in a way that feels like a massive cop-out.
This isn’t to say that The Umbrella Academy isn’t worth watching; there are enough excellent performances—Page, Sheehan, and Britton cannot be underscored enough—and intriguing storylines that merit your attention. If you aren’t too attached to the books, it also becomes a lot more entertaining; perhaps even worth a re-watch every now and then.
The show, however, is in serious dysfunction with what it’s meant to be, tapping way too heavily into what other Netflix shows are doing instead of being its own animal. For a series that is, in essence, about the dangers of repressing one’s truest self, it’s an irony that needs to be addressed—preferably by next season.
Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy premieres on February 15, 2019.