All superhero stories are weird. They’re about people with magical powers putting on fetishy clothing and beating people up. They are inherently mad. The Umbrella Academy is madder than most.
To call it a superhero show is almost misrepresentation. Fighting is seldom and some characters use their powers only once or twice. It’s more a show about ex superheroes. Based on a comic book series by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Ba, it focuses on the remaining members of The Umbrella Academy. On one unexplained day, 43 apparently unpregnant women suddenly give birth at the same time, all across the world. An eccentric billionaire adopts seven of those children, six of whom exhibit superpowers. He trains them up to be a crimefighting team, but then something horrible happens and the kids scatter across the world, until their dad dies and they, now in their thirties and virtual strangers, are reunited. Oh also the world is ending in a few days and they don’t know how to stop it.
The show achieves a great balance of surreal chaos and character depth. The style is bonkers, with La La Land-ish musical sequences, a full-cast bop to Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and a pair of assassins (Mary J Blige and Cameron Britton) who fight wearing giant cartoon heads for no good reason. But the characters have meat. It’s really a show about the damage done by a messed up childhood. Two of the adoptive children, Allison and Luther (Emmy Raver Lampman and Top Hopper), who have never been exposed to other kids, have developed romantic feelings for each other, but it’s handled in a way that is touching, not creepy. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) has used drugs to numb all the horrors of his life. He’s initially the batshit, comic one, but as the episodes progress we see through the cracks in his crazed surface. Each of the kids has their own damage and different ways of coping.
It’s a big, messy world and in the seven episodes we were given a lot of things were left unexplained, but that doesn’t make it hard to follow. The characters are so well established and so well played by an exceptional cast (Ellen Page as the only unpowered child and Aidan Gallagher as Number Five, a middle-aged man stuck in a teen body, are standouts) that they anchor the zanier elements. Where a lot of Netflix’ comic book shows have been too brooding for their own good, The Umbrella Academy makes a potentially dark and depressing story into something highly comic and colourful. Its message is that you can’t choose your family, but this would be a highly entertaining one to pick. They may be toxic but they’re never boring.
Pssst. There’s a special, one-off edition of NME all about The Umbrella Academy…
Yep, you read it right. There is a print edition of NME coming out this Friday (February 15) to celebrate the release of The Umbrella Academy. In it, you’ll find exclusive interviews with the cast, and Gerard Way, and even a one-off, seven-page Umbrella Academy comic. You can get your FREE copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or pick one up at selected gigs and stores around the UK. We’ll publish a full list on NME.COM this week.