Netflix's The Umbrella Academy Season 1 Review

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Netflix's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

by Casimir Harlow Feb 16, 2019 at 12:16 PM

  • What would happen if Alan "Watchmen" Moore wrote a Gothic version of X-Men? Netflix's adaptation of The Umbrella Academy is stylish, dark, creepy, quirky and pretty compelling.

    Ensemble superhero shows are a dime a dozen at the moment, and yet simply don't appear to be reaching saturation point. Whilst quality shows are still being produced, it's hard to ignore a new release, and despite the similarities - groups of kids/adults with powers facing some kind of evil - each appears to offer its own particular style and unique points of interest. Whilst the X-Men franchise itself appears to being expanded in the extreme - both in terms of the movies (Logan, Deadpool, X-Men itself) and on the small screen (Legion, The Gifted) - Netflix have attracted their own collections, some based on comic books, and some merely feeling like comic books, and all pretty damn good.

    Stranger Things may veer more towards horror, but still has crossover traits, whilst their latest addition of DC's Titans is a significant coup; possibly one of the best DC products in years - on the small or big screen. The Umbrella Academy is based on the Dark Horse Comic series of the same name, which was optioned for a film almost immediately after it was published, but - after a decade in development - transmutated into a TV series, which feels like a comfortable fit, and where it's likely to attract everybody from fans of The Haunting of Hill House to Stranger Things to any of the aforementioned, more familiar, superhero features. Both familiar, and yet extremely different, it probably needs a little more time to prove itself, but affords a glimpse at a compelling and colourful new universe, which just might turn out to be something quite special.

    Both familiar, and yet different, it needs more time to prove itself, but affords a glimpse at a compelling universe which might turn out to be something special

    After a freak global event triggers 43 simultaneous births around the world - from women who weren't previously pregnant - a billionaire explorer sets out to 'obtain' all of the babies, ends up with seven, and forms his own mysterious academy of children who, unsurprisingly, turn out to be uniquely gifted. Years later, when he's found dead, the now-adult children - estranged from one another - return home to put the pieces together and find if there was anything nefarious behind their adoptive father's seemingly innocuous heart attack, discovering more than they could ever expect and soon realising that they're going to have to team up together one more time if they want to stop the impending apocalypse.

    The Umbrella Academy
    Much as is the loose format for these (often Netflix) productions - from Hill House to Titans - the series explores its lead characters through a blend of natural narrative development and semi-dedicated episodes focusing on their background, slow-burning the events that tore these characters apart whilst looking at the event which brought them back together.

    There's more than enough here to secure your interest, imbuing the piece with a keen sense of mystery, whether it comes to the rather unique powers that these characters have been afforded, their reportedly torturous childhood, the disaster that costs them one of their own (and possibly led to them dissolving), the impact that their powers have had upon their adult lives, and the confused and conflicted feelings that they have towards their 'father' and, indeed, his death. Even the threat that they face initially manifests as a couple of ostensible hitmen who are more than a little different from what you might expect, and with the impending apocalypse putting a ticking clock on things, there's more than enough world-building to make for a binge watch of a first season.

    If you like the idea of a more gothic Watchmen - a bit of Alan Moore-esque TV - then you should definitely give this a shot

    Black Sails' Tom Hopper ostensibly leads the pack, facing conflict from David Castaneda's (recently in Sicario 2: Soldado) hot-headed and equally alpha male brother, and hidden feelings of love for adopted sister Emmy Raver-Lampman, with The Misfits' Robert Sheehan adding chaos into his mix courtesy of a drug addiction and rock and roll lifestyle. Ellen Page (Inception) is the biggest name of the bunch, and her character has one of the biggest issues - she has no super-power, and has had to live with that all of her life. Complicating their lives further is the return of one of their missing siblings (Aidan Gallagher), whilst the death of one of their own still hangs in the background, sometimes literally. Their eccentric late 'father' you might just recognise as Colm Feore (recently in House of Cards), and the atypical assassins are fabulously realised by Cameron Britton (excellent in Mindhunter, not so much in The Girl in the Spider's Web, although that's not really his fault) and none other than Mary J. Blige, who bring a kind of Fargo feel to the proceedings, and round out a colourful cadre of key players that each provide an added dimension to this electric ensemble mix.

    The Umbrella Academy also looks pretty special in Netflix's Dolby Vision, with some impressively popping colours against the almost steampunk gothic backdrop, and superior black levels and shadowing which doesn't disappoint. It would have been nice to have full UHD and Atmos too - particularly given the tremendous score that incorporates a number of fabulous song tracks (eclectically using everything from The Doors and Nina Simone to Queen's Don't Stop Me Now and even Tiffany's I Think We're Alone Now) - but this is still an impressive presentation.

    There are more than enough twists and turns across the piece to keep you involved, and there's definitely a distinct Watchmen vibe with the approach towards the violence, torture and generally brutality of the universe - X-Men this is not - with also a similar feel from Moore's steampunk The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which, given that they are bringing Watchmen to TV - and given the success of Preacher and even American Gods - would be the logical next choice after the abortive attempt at a film adaptation). The trouble, of course, is that there is arguably too much choice now. Sure, Netflix may be losing the Marvel Defenders set (although still not announced, the loss of their perfectly realised The Punisher is the worst fatality in Disney's shift) but they've got plenty more going on at the moment, and that may cost the little-known Umbrella Academy some viewers. The best advice is to try at least a couple of episodes to see if it works - although we live in an era of "I'll give it 20 minutes" TV viewing critique, some of the best shows are still slow-builds (c.f. The Expanse). If you like the idea of a more gothic Watchmen - a bit of Alan Moore-esque TV - then you should definitely give this a shot.

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