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Umbrella Academy’s Netflix series plays like a long-winded “X-Men-llennials”

Umbrella Academy’s Netflix series plays like a long-winded “X-Men-llennials”

Enlarge / Ellen Page as Vanya Hargreeve and a CGI chimpanzee as Pogo, the Hargreeve family’s primate butler.Netflix reader comments 0 with 0 posters participating Share this story Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Reddit The Umbrella Academy is by no means a perfect comic series, even though it’s one of the best…


Ellen Page as Vanya Hargreeve and a CGI chimpanzee as Pogo, the Hargreeve family's primate butler.
Enlarge/Ellen Page as Vanya Hargreeve and a CGI chimpanzee as Pogo, the Hargreeve family’s primate butler.
Netflix

The Umbrella Academyis by no means a perfect comic series, even though it’s one of the best mid-’00s alterna-comics to take on X-Men archetypes. Its stories, which were first published by Dark Horse in 2007, play out like charged, orchestral emo songs—full of delightfully melodramatic hooks, sweeping segments, and a few shamelessly hackneyed takes on emotion. (Which makes sense, considering Gerard Way of emo cultural bellwether My Chemical Romance fame is the writer.)

Years after the comics’ first two volumes concluded, a live-action adaptation has emerged courtesy of Netflix. Though the show doesn’t debut until February 14, we were given early access to its ten-episode season—but I struggled to get through the whole thing. Between a total plot rewrite, questionable casting, and abysmal pacing, this series lands pretty low on Netflix’s all-time adaptation list in terms of quality and watchability.

Grieving over Hargreeves

The most stark issue isUmbrella Academy‘s decision to take roughly six comic books’ worth of material (from the series’ first volume) and convert them into ten 50-minute episodes. The amount of plot and action contained in each episode is the equivalent of roughly 18 comic book pages. Conversations drag on. Every “important” scene is preceded andfollowed by a ridiculous amount of slowly panning views of brooding characters mixed with generic, synthesized orchestral swells. Imagine if two complete comic book pages were dedicated to someone walking up to a troubling scene, whispering an expletive, and then staring at the scene some more, and you’ll get the idea.

Netflix’s concept revolves around the same general plot. Dozens of orphans are born on the same day to single women thanks to unexplained circumstances, and a spectacled man named Reginald Hargreeves adopts seven of them before later introducing them to the world as crime-fighting heroes with superpowers. The series focuses more on the adult versions of these heroes, and their emotional baggage comes from issues like growing up with the cold, unloving Hargreeves as their so-called father, a robot maid who fakes being their mother, and the realities of adulthood slamming into kids with stunted emotional development. As a result, the kids’ first reunion in years, brought on by the death of Daddy Hargreeves, is a tense affair.

Worse, one of those children was told as a child that she was adopted by mistake. “You’re not special,” Vanya Hargreeves is told. Thus, Vanya’s outcast status sets the events of both the comics and the TV series into motion.

I do not envy anybody tasked with adapting the events ofThe Umbrella Academy‘s first volume into roughly 500 minutes of television. The source material doesn’t include a huge range of fully developed characters, nor does it include many setpieces for battles and dramatic moments. Yet even though that’s the case, two of the original volume’s wildest sequences—a battle to save the Eiffel Tower and a battle against a scourge of flying robots at an amusement park—are jettisoned, and they’re not replaced with superior high-octane battles.

We donut care for the romances

The first thing Netflix’sUmbrella Academydoes to pad its options is to pick and choose various details from the comics’ second volume, which have been scrambled and shuffled into the TV version’s wholly rewritten story. Without going too far into spoiler territory, the most obvious thing lifted is a pair of assassins, named Cha-Cha and Hazel, who now arrive far earlier in the series’ plot.

The second (and far more egregious) thing is that Netflix appears to have read the jacket notes on the back of the books, come up with a marketing phrase like “the X-Men-llennials,” and filled each episode with long-winded stretches of morose dialogue. These speeches tend to miss the mark on the Creative Writing 101 lesson of “show, don’t tell.” Every episode drags with lengthy stories about life events and how they make the characters feel. The series includes a set of child actors occasionally portraying the lead characters as children, yet we rarely see flashbacks or recreations of these apparently pivotal moments.

The reason? Could be that it’s cheaper to have a cast of so-so actors recall stories of fame, violence, and emotional turmoil than to stage them. That cheap feeling pervades when the show comes back, time and time again, to a few boring locations. One of these, the Hargreeves’ former home, becomes an operations base of sorts after their father’s funeral, in spite of the children making their disdain for their father and this home quite clear. The plot hole of them returning over and over to this home, while they have their own selfish dramas to attend to (all of which were invented for the TV series), is big enough to drive a bus through.

The other frequent location, a donut shop, is pinned to a yawn-worthy romance between one of the assassins and the shop’s clerk. And that’s just one of four romances whose emotional turmoil washes over the proceedings for far too long. They all suffer from lack of chemistry, which can be blamed equally on flat acting and an utter lack of organic, interesting interactions for any of these star-crossed characters. They’re all limited to conversation about past drama and feelings.

The series’ biggest star, Ellen Page, tries her damnedest to imbue Vanya with some award-winning emotional depth. But in the comic books, this character immediately expends her outcast energy by lashing out. The series didn’t spend many comic-page panels on developing her pain, yet it still found a pretty tidy path to making her villainy look well-rounded. Page’s portrayal, on the other hand, comes with logically unsound victimhood, as if she’s been a clueless teen her whole adult life—without offering viewers empathetic encounters to endear us to her weaknesses or imperfections. We see one cruel slag from her father, and little more.

This isn’t helped by Vanya being involved in one of the aforementioned romances, which in her case is with an immediately suspicious person caught breaking into her apartment within a day of meeting her. “He just needed to use the bathroom,” Vanya says to excuse him.

The series’ most mysterious hero, Number Five (no, not thatNumber Five), has access to the juiciest plot lines and dialogue, but he’s portrayed by a teen actor (Aidan Gallagher) who rarely rises above “best kid in your local high school’s theater program” in terms of cheesiness and overacting. To his credit, he’s at his best with the series’ other entertaining weirdo, the soothsaying Klaus (Robert Sheehan), who sparkles with life and silliness while wrestling with figurative demons (drug abuse) and literal ghosts (the spirits he sees when he’s not high).

Needs more monkey butlers

Hazel and Cha-Cha, the psychotic assassins from the comic series, return as whiny killers who either complain about bureaucracy or betray their murderous lifestyles for hard-to-fathom reasons. It's not just that they differ from the source material; their newer personalities never figure out whether to settle on fun, funny, foolish, or killer.
Enlarge/Hazel and Cha-Cha, the psychotic assassins from the comic series, return as whiny killers who either complain about bureaucracy or betray their murderous lifestyles for hard-to-fathom reasons. It’s not just that they differ from the source material; their newer personalities never figure out whether to settle on fun, funny, foolish, or killer.

These two actors, and their direct connection to the TV version’s weirdest time-travel stories, don’t begin shining until the end of the fourth episode. Their enjoyable work is a tidy reward for anybody who slogs through the series in hopes of quality interpretations of Gerard Way’s source books. And the original comics’ crisscrossing of stunted adulthood, cross-dimensional mysteries, and plot warps to surprise locations are justplentiful enough in this adaptation to keep things watchable.

(Plus, the series recreates the comics’ talking chimpanzee butler as a quality CGI actor, and his brief moments in the spotlight are so charming that they make up for his painfully clichéd presence as a kind-hearted mentor. It’s like I always say: talking monkey butlersalwaysmake a TV series better.)

Yet by the time that pair of actors gets its hands on the momentum crank and turns it, the rest of the cast’s flat, pondering performances have pushed far in the opposite direction. Their misguided efforts are aided by torturous editing and overlong sequences that scream “look at how meaningful I am!” In one case, the pair of assassins eats a pot brownie in a severe break in character, since they’re otherwise serious-if-whiny hitmen (a far cry from their comic characters), then get into a two-minute weed-tripping montage. The worst comes in the very first episode, when we watch the full cast of petulant superheroes, fresh off the news of their father dying, duck into separate rooms and get into a synchronized dance sequence that drags on for two minutes.

The dance isn’t even set to a My Chemical Romance song, nor is anything else in the series. That’s fine by me, since I don’t personally care for poppy mall-friendly emo. But for a series with connections to one of emo’s biggest bands of all time, the soundtrack probably shouldn’t be this aimless and ill-fitting. Its licensed songs always seem at odds with the scenes they appear in, usually offering a cheery contrast to any visual violence or chaos—in a series that grossly lacks a consistent, satisfying sense of dark humor. The rest is melodramatic synthesizer swells.

TV already has its fair share of compelling misfit-heroes content to watch:Legion,Agents of SHIELD, even thebestandbrightestmoments of the uneven series starring various Marvel Defenders. (Heck, there’s always the option to dig up old DVDs of NBC’sHeroes.) Netflix’sUmbrella Academycould have stood out from that pack by leaning upon the bonkers comics, which regularly skipped emotional stories in favor of bold scenes and wild mysteries. Instead, by trying to break down the original series’ unexplained archetypes, it creates more obnoxiously massive logic jumps and plot holes than the original, tidy comic ever did.

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