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Netflix’s ‘Umbrella Academy’ puts heroes in bonkers family dramedy

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It’s time to accept that superheroes aren’t having a moment. They are the moment. Super-powered humans with extraordinary abilities are so common in 2019 that there isn’t a watchable medium of entertainment that doesn’t boast dozens of them at any given time; with The Umbrella Academy, Netflix is doing its part to deconstruct that dominance, to  delightful results.

The Umbrella Academy, based on the comics by former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá, is about a family of superpowered siblings that have long since given up their heroic mantles and drifted apart in adulthood. When their adopted father Reginald Hargreeves dies, they convene in their childhood home for his funeral and face the glaring fact that their upbringing was more than unusual, it was abusive, and none of them have ever fully healed from Hargreeves’ emotional neglect.

Don’t worry, the show is actually a lot of fun.

The complicated relationships between super-people whose dad completely sucked makes The Umbrella Academy feel more like a dramedy with action sequences — its vibe is more reminiscent of a grown up A Series of Unfortunate Events than any of Netflix’s other heroic offerings. Somewhere between the talking chimpanzee butler, the rampant time travel, and the threat of the apocalypse, the Hargreeves family’s bullshit is the most important element of the show.

The fun part comes when the Umbrella Academy’s cast of characters come together in a hilarious cocktail of superpowers and bad parenting. One of the Hargreeves children (Allison, played by Hamilton alum Emmy Raver-Lampman) is an attention-craving movie star, another (Klaus, played by Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame) is a drug addict. One spent the last four years living on the moon (Luther, Tom Hopper from Black Sails) and another is a crime-fighting vigilante (Diego, played by David Castañeda). One is dead, another is missing, and the last one is a concert violinist named Vanya (Ellen Page).

Even among a cast of this caliber there is one standout: Aidan Gallagher, the 15-year-old Nickelodeon star whose turn as Number Five is a highlight of Umbrella Academy. It’s not spoiling too much to say that while his character is physically fourteen, his mind is significantly older, and it’s astonishing funny to see Gallagher nail the role of a cranky, often condescending adult in a roomful of emotionally stunted man (and women)-children.

More than worth a binge if wacky families and superheroes punching stuff is what you’re into.

As the only character who knows what’s going on for pretty much the entire show, there’s a lot for Number Five to do. It’s a miracle of casting that Umbrella Academy found the perfect teen to carry such a heavy plot burden with humor and hyper-competence.

The basic arc of The Umbrella Academy is pulled directly from The Apocalypse Suite, the first of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s Umbrella Academy comic runs. The show does well to adapt the comic but shines particularly when expanding upon its concepts and characters.

Characters who were less prominent in that first comic, like David Castañeda’s Diego Hargreeves and time-traveling assassins Hazel and Cha-Cha (Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige), are given more time to develop to fabulous results. Diego is an effortlessly cool, yet secretly insecure super-vigilante whose loving relationship with his adopted mother Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) is one of the show’s sweeter human (well, almost) connections.

Hazel and Cha-Cha’s television makeover involves a closer look at their professional relationship and speaks to what friendship looks like when you’re both on the clock and trying to murder people like, all the time.

Unfortunately, not all of the show’s expansions on the comic land as well as Diego, Hazel, and Cha-Cha. It spends far too much time developing an already controversial romance between two characters with the bizarre assumption that the audience is going to be fine with legal incest and kneecaps Klaus Hargreeves by turning the tortured addict into a ping-pong ball bounced between relapse and sobriety so often his arc loses most of its momentum and clarity.

Part of the reason some of the adaptations’ liberties land and others don’t is in the pacing of Umbrella Academy, which is best described as “weird as hell.” It soars in action-heavy episodes, which feature many, many gunfights set to a soundtrack of rock hits that’s so thorough it physically sounds expensive, as well as the moments where the broken Hargreeves siblings have a chance to showcase their messed-up family dynamic. Other moments feel slower, most often in the many flashbacks and flashforwards, but it’s not enough to detract from the show’s overall appeal.

The Umbrella Academy has a gunfight in a department store set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and a sparkly dance sequence in the middle of a public park. It has robots, conspiracies, poor processing of emotional trauma, drunk children, weird sex implications, and a massively unhealthy dose of street-grade pharmaceutics. It’s choppy in places and perfect in others, and more than worth a binge if wacky families and superheroes punching stuff is what you’re into. And, at this point, who isn’t?

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