Super-schlock: review of The Umbrella Academy

I’ve had a few weeks to mull over The Umbrella Academy, and in retrospect I don’t think I like it very much. It’s a lot of fun and it is certainly not the worst show Netflix has made or the worst superhero show ever made. Sadly, though, it suffers from a desire to leave itself open for a second season.

For the uninitiated, The Umbrella Academy is a Netflix show based on a comic book written by Gerald Day and published by Dark Horse comics. The Umbrella Academy is best described thus: it is a combination of X-Men, Kick-Ass and Heroes (remember when that was good?).

Massive unfettered spoilers for The Umbrella Academy follow.

The Umbrella Academy is centred around an adopted family of superheroes, all born under mysterious circumstances, who all attended the eponymous school. We have the strong man, the guy who controls knives, the woman who can use her voice to control people, the guy who can speak to the dead, the teleporter-slash-time traveller who disappeared when he was a teenager, the guy who could sprout eldritch tentacles but who is dead when the story opens, and the girl who is so utterly normal that we all know she’ll end up as the most powerful of the lot. So far, so X-Men.

The academy itself is run by the eccentric billionaire who found all the superhero kids, and is staffed by a robot designed to act like a mother and a monkey whose presence has thus far not been explained, and whose insistence on not telling any of the superheroes the truth is about 90% of the reason everything inevitably goes to shit.

The story picks up when the characters are all grown up and have gone their separate ways. It turns out that eccentric billionaires who adopt kids on the off-chance that they might have superpowers don’t necessarily make great parents, and so all of the surviving kids are largely defined by their character flaws: the strong man is isolated and awkward, the woman with the voice has a kid we never really see or think about but she feels guilty for something involving her powers, the guy who talks to the dead is a drug addict, and the normal girl is Ellen Page.

Anyway, the eccentric billionaire dies and the family gets back together and argues and stuff and then the teleporter turns up as a 15 year old kid and tells everyone that the world is about to end. Except he doesn’t tell anyone that at first because this whole series is based around a lack of communication that would make AT&T blush. Some bounty hunters show up to kill the teleporter, whose name is Five because dad didn’t get around to naming him, and they are largely great, and they are time travellers too and working for a woman who can’t walk in high heels. And Vanya—the ordinary girl—finds a boyfriend called Leonard who is basically a less successful version of Syndrome from The Incredibles and everything goes tits up and everyone finally talks to each other as the end of the world is literally happening. The season finishes just as the heroes agree to maybe fix the problem, which is obviously intended as a cliff-hanger but which is really just massively unsatisfying.

That’s a lot of plot, and perhaps it’s not fair to sum up 10 episodes worth of plot in a single bloated paragraph, especially for a series that, if nothing else, mostly breaks Netflix’s usual rule of padding out 3 episodes-worth of plot into a whole season. Unfortunately, a lot of the story is incidental. In the first couple of episodes, the strong man (number One, or Luther) harps on about dad’s monocle as being missing. We’re given the idea that whomever has the monocle is the killer. But then we see Two (knife guy, Diego) throwing the monocle away.

Ah ha, we’re meant to exclaim, there’s a link! Except there isn’t. It’s not even a red herring. It’s inconsequential. So much of the show feels like this. Throwaway stories that we are supposed to care about but don’t. Most of Luther’s subplot. A lot of voice girl’s (Three, Allison) subplot. The love story between One and Three. Alternatively, we get stories that sound interesting but are apparently left to be explained in a later season: the monkey, the robot mum, how hentai-boy (Six, Ben) died, the conclusion to the bloody story.

There’s a lot to like. Five is brilliant; 15 year old Aidan Gallagher out-acts almost everyone else. The two bounty hunters, Hazel and Cha-Cha (the latter played by Mary J Blige), steal the show every time they are on screen. The soundtrack is great. The action sequences are generally pretty good, despite a lack of consistency in how strong One is meant to be. Talk-to-the-dead guy (Four, Klaus), who is annoying for the first few episodes, has actual character development. Most of the flash-back back-story stuff is fun. When it bothers to put in the effort, The Umbrella Academy is a success.

The ending of the show doesn’t leave me wanting more, despite some flashy effects and action and a killer performance from Ellen Page (which makes up for the mopey Ellen Page that we have to put up with during the rest of the show). It’s the worst kind of cliff-hanger, where the show suddenly looks like it’s about to get interesting and instead just stops. ‘Hey, you guys,’ the show says, ‘tune into season 2 to see how all this turns out.’

Sure, the show explains what is meant to be the central mystery (how the world ends), but anyone who didn’t figure that out prior to midway through the season really wasn’t paying attention. All the bad guys are dead or somewhere else. 10 episodes of build-up turn out to be little more than an elongated origin story. It’s maddening.

Still, I’ll probably watch season 2 when it comes out. It can’t be any worse than the second season of Heroes, right?