For the past two decades, superheroes have been the driving force behind pop culture. Movie studios, TV networks, and streaming services are thriving off their viewers’ demand for content based on comic books. Comic book culture is so dominant that even casual viewers can recite the genre’s clichés in their sleep. A threat emerges, a hero(ine) rises to the challenge, overcomes self-doubt, and thwarts the evil-doer. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Netflix’s new ten-episode series, “The Umbrella Academy” features a team of superheroes who feel all too relatable. It’s a brash, violent, and cinematic comic book adaptation that wears its heart on its sleeve. The show is about a former team of childhood superheroes who return home after their adoptive father dies. Now bitter, jaded, and broken adults, their lifetime of emotional baggage means they can’t put aside their differences long enough to thwart a looming apocalypse. The show’s cast of heroes love each other, but they don’t like one another. And that’s because, as “The Umbrella Academy” showrunner Steve Blackman bluntly told me, “They all need therapy.”
“The Umbrella Academy” is as comic book-y as live-action adaptations get. The series features time travel, a talking chimp, and a team of hit-people who dress like they just left Comic-Con. The s#it is bananas in the best possible way. But the beautifully flawed characters anchor the series. Ellen Page, Aidan Gallagher, and Mary J. Blige are just a few of the notable performers in the show’s stacked ensemble. But the real magic happens on the page, where “The Umbrella Academy’s” writers bring each vibrant personality to life.
There’s a moment when Diego (David Castañeda), the team hothead, crashes through a closed glass door like he’s Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.” Afterward, his team points out that the door wasn’t locked. While this makes for an easy sight gag, there’s more going on below the surface. Diego has a chip on his shoulder, and he’s so hellbent on proving himself that he is reckless and throws himself in harm’s way. “The Umbrella Academy” always functions on more than one level. These invincible-looking “heroes” are driven by their deep-seated vulnerabilities. Each character beat feels deeply considered which makes for a show full of rich details and emotional texture.
“The Umbrella Academy” has its share of over-the-top action sequences, but it also makes time for dance numbers. “When I signed on to the show, I wasn’t expecting to have to do that,” said Tom Hopper, the impossibly handsome actor who plays the team’s leader, Luther. Luther features prominently in more than one dance sequence. The season’s high point arrives midway through when Luther cuts loose with a special lady. Hopper added, “I wasn’t thinking it was going to be when I was told I was going to do it. I was like, this is going to be a car wreck, I can’t do this. It was way out of my comfort zone.” Luckily for viewers, Hopper was up to the task. “I suppose I love being tested, I love being taken out of my comfort zone, and I love a challenge.”
The series is all over the emotional dial, but its many tones never feel out of sync with each other. Robert Sheehan plays Klaus, an alcoholic, drug addict, and wise-cracker who doesn’t take anything seriously. I asked Sheehan about how the cast finds the right tone. “It’s hard to gauge the tone of the show off the page. That’s the gold you’re trying to capture because the tone is everything,” he told me.
Sheehan added, “The flavor of the show has to be unlike anything that was there before because you have all these elements you see, a sentient, cognoscente chimpanzee, and robotic artificially intelligent nanny, you got superpowers and stuff. You got elements that have been in other things, and it’s about the recipe. There’s a British institution-ness as well to the show that kind of encapsulates all this stuff. It was about talking to Steve Blackman, the showrunner, a lot about what the tone will be and how he envisions it.”
Cameron Britton, who plays the time-traveling hitman Hazel, told me that it’s about trusting in the creative process. “You could just tell Steve Blackman, he had a vision for it, and he had a method to the madness, so you’re kind of along for the ride on this one,” he told me. “None of what’s happening in their life at the moment is anything like what they’ve come to know and what they expect to happen, so you’re on a ride just as much as the characters are.”
Emmy Raver-Lampman plays Allison, the team member who seems to have a successful and glamorous life. Raver-Lampman says the writers were flexible with the source material. “We were all encouraged to read the comics because that’s where they came from and it’s important to do as much research for a role or a show that you can do, but I also know that Steve Blackman, our showrunner, was like, please read that book, that is not gospel, we are making ten hours of content, and we are gonna dive deeper into the minds and the realities of these characters, and everybody is going to splinter off in ways that they haven’t in the comics. You’re gonna see new things.” She then told me. “What Gerard [Way] and Gabriel [Bá] created ten years ago is without a doubt in there. It’s just fleshed out a little more, and more relatable.”
Hopper was quick to point out the cast and crew’s respect for the source material. He said, “But what is very important is that when we read the comics, that we looked to see what it was that the fans fell in love with in the first place with these characters, and then try and bring that to the show and then broaden it out.”
While movies and TV shows are getting better at bringing comic book characters to life, there are still too many instances where they leave out aspects that fans adore. It can be something as simple as a codename or colorful costume. But there are too many examples of screenwriters not getting beloved characters right and botching beloved storylines. Hopper makes the solution sound crystal clear. “There obviously is something about the comics and these characters in the comics that they [fans] all fell in love with, so to ignore that would be stupid.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. “The Umbrella Academy” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.