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Your average Superhero ensemble piece normally has “The Moment” – you’ve seen this moment half a dozen times by now. This team of extraordinary people come together in a glorious, cinematic moment which proves to the world and the audience that this team is not to be messed with and that the bad guys better watch out.
The Umbrella Academy has a Moment, about half an hour into the first episode. The show puts every character in a different room – and has them dance to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”. It’s a moment of connection in the midst of a maelstrom of dysfunction, and I think it sums up the show perfectly. It’s irreverent, unexplained and emphasizes each character without saying a word.
Then a portal opens in the back garden of the titular Academy, and we’re back to the narrative. And in 30 seconds, Netflix’s latest superhero show goes from its greatest strength to its biggest flaw.
The Umbrella Academy is based on a Dark Horse comic of the same name, written by My Chemical Romance alumnus (and solo talent in his own right) Gerard Way. He serves as an executive producer but the series has been mostly adapted for the screen by Jeremy Slater, whose only other attempt at superpowered scripting was 2015’s Fant4stic – a film where the title alone speaks volumes of its quality. Slater has definitely stepped up, however, and creates a heartfelt tribute to the comics; knowing the exact limits of suspension of disbelief. Slater ensures that the world of Umbrella Academy is just believable enough, pushing some of the supernatural aspects of the comic to the fringes with a subtle touch. The extraordinary seems rather ordinary in this world because it looks real.
It takes a great deal of effort to make something look effortless, and in that regard, the production designers of the series deserve special credit. The more bizarre elements from the pages of The Umbrella Academy – illustrated in the minimalistic but also the incredibly complex style of Gabriel Bá –have been realised brilliantly on-screen. Between some flawless prosthetic works on Tom Hopper’s Luther to a breathtakingly well-done CGI monkey butler in Pogo, it is easy to forget in some scenes that these characters aren’t flesh and blood. Speaking of the monkey butler, don’t expect anyone in the show to point Pogo out. The series thrives on a “just-go-with-it” attitude – the characters don’t get bogged down in long infodumps for the benefit of the audience alone. He’s a monkey butler, deal with it – there’s a world to save.
Which brings me back to the plot. When the show succeeds, it succeeds – with brilliant visuals and a killer soundtrack to boot – but there are definitely some cracks. The narrative – which slowly moves towards a typical “save-the-world” storyline, with some good beats along the way – is often detrimental to the other great elements of the show. Even the characters seem disinterested in it, more preoccupied with their own character arcs to worry about an impending apocalypse. It gives the strange impression that the show is apologising for the rushed narrative. There is a major slump between the sixth and eighth episodes, where you can practically hear the brakes screeching on some character’s growth so that they can become more invested in the main storyline, which becomes more predictable with every scene.
With the slate of dreary, colour-drained misery-fests that populates superhero TV, Umbrella Academy is a welcome breath of zany fresh air. And whilst imperfect, it stands head and shoulders above its competition.