The Umbrella Academy review: Netflix superhero series' promise is undermined by tonal inconsistencies
The tonal mess of The Umbrella Academy sullies the impact of its fine performances, Robert Sheehan’s drug addled Klaus and Aidan Gallagher’s Five chief among them.
Superheroes can’t help but save the world. The stakes must be that high. Always the world. No less.
Now, that may not necessarily be true. But it’s definitely the gospel truth as far as studio executives are concerned. The social and emotional conflicts faced by these higher form of humans should not distract from the formidable task of saving the world. Because that’s really what interests us, the millions of viewers these vendors of palatable absurdity cater their content to. Content. Not stories. And that’s where they go wrong. As any politician worth their mettle will tell you free of charge, we are emotional beings who want to be moved, even as we look for an escapist tale to momentarily remove us from the spectre of the world.
The Umbrella Academy, the new Netflix original series, is a case in point. It starts off on a massively promising note. Sir Reginald Hargreaves, a reclusive and eccentric industrialist, adopts seven of the forty-three children who are born at the same time across the world one fine day in 1989. In the pilot episode, five of the disbanded Umbrella Academy children, now all grown up, gather at his lavish mansion to grieve over his sudden demise.
We learn about their lives, their superpowers, vocations and troubles, and their disdain for Vanya, the one who wrote a book about her experience as one of the seven, baring all. Vanya wrote about an autocratic, unfeeling father figure who never called them by name, hardly bothered to give them any — a task undertaken by the mother, a robot who doubles as the eternally pretty plaything and maid. She also wrote about the experience of being the only one without any visible powers, growing up ordinary among the extra-ordinary. The book failed to make an impression. In one of the more moving sequences, she reads from the book to a near empty bookstore. With one of them dead and another missing for years, alongside the emotional baggage carried by the remaining superheroes, TUA seems to possess the ingredients for a show rich with possibility.
That’s when Five shows up at the mansion. A teenager dressed like a schoolboy, he’s travelled across time to deliver an important message: the world will end in eight days. Yup.
The promise of the initial hour gives way to a swiftly digestible cavalcade of backstory and emotion that the creators calculated we could hear over the crunching of our bucket of popcorn. The characters are turned over to a writer tasked with drawing them in the broadest strokes lest the profundity of their lives turn us away. Even the violent action sequences, the one area where they never compromise, are superimposed with cheerful, fun music. Enjoy this, we’re told. Here’s some pleasant music from yesteryears to remind you of happier times.
This would all have been fun and games as long as they didn’t suddenly cut to a sombre, doleful sequence where we are expected to get beneath the skin of the characters and their endless attempts at reaching out to each other. This tonal inconsistency underscores almost every single episode, running beneath the finer and frankly horrible sequences alike — like a malignant tumour. Imagine the famous bar action sequence from the original Kingsman film lodged inside The Haunting of Hill House and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
Unfortunately, this tonal mess sullies the impact of the fine performances, Robert Sheehan’s drug addled Klaus and Aidan Gallagher’s Five chief among them. It serves to undermine some supremely intriguing sub-plots that the narrative offers from time and time. Then there’s the perennial issue of endless, needless exposition, that sucks the life out of potentially moving emotional exchanges. All this in the service of an overarching storyline that is too important to be messed with. The cumulative effect is to pull the combined potential of the sub-plots and performances underground. TUA’s all too visible need to pander to popular taste and understanding determines its fate beforehand.
The great promise of The Umbrella Academy is severely undermined by its refusal to be true to its characters to the extent they deserve. Vanya’s story, for instance, presented the creators with a luminous avenue to explore the universal struggle faced by the ordinary in a world entranced by the notion of the extraordinary. It was an opportunity to question and improve upon the very idea of modern superhero stories themselves. But Ellen Page is given such drab material to work with for her Vanya that the conflict’s potential is lost long before its predictable resolution arrives. In so doing, Vanya becomes emblematic of the show's fundamental deficiency, which drives all the performances and individual stories and sub-plots under the bus. In trying to serve great content, it wastes a good story.
Creator: Jeremy Slater
Cast: Ellen Page, Mary J. Blige, Tom Hopper, Cameron Britton, Robert Sheehan, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Adam Godley, Aidan Gallagher, David Castañeda, John Magaro, Ashley Madekwe, Colm Feore
Rating: ★★½ (out of 5 stars)
The Umbrella Academy is now streaming on Netflix.
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