Security is of the utmost importance for most film projects in this resplendent era of peak saturation. Why drop $100 million or more on a tentpole film unless you’re sure people will see it? It’s a strategy that DC has struggled with in the past as it attempted to take mostly uncalculated risks, and it’s something Marvel excels at. Other studios also struggle, perhaps best summed up in the brilliant but deeply flawed Warner Bros. Watchmen production. But you know what? I’ll take a beautiful mess any day of the week. Thankfully Umbrella Academy is less messy than most.
Adapted from a comic book series that first went into publication in the mid-2000s, The Umbrella Academy deals with several gifted children, all under the tutelage of the cold Sir Reginald Hargreeves AKA The Monocle. Sure, the show is ostensibly about people with powers and thus is a premise that will likely scare off people “tired of comic book movies.”—speaking to the dead, superhuman strength, Bullseye-level pinpoint knife throwing, that sort of thing—but it’s also a slice of life-centric window into a dysfunctional family. Similar to how The Haunting of Hill House was able to weave a family drama around the backdrop of ghosts, so too does The Umbrella Academy turn what should be a standard superhero premise into something more. Within roughly ten minutes we go from a comically macabre bloodbath in a bank to a dance party with Ellen Page set to the tune of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s a fun adventure and it isn’t afraid to show its true nature in any given episode.
If I had to compare it to anything it would be Preacher—a divine compliment. Showrunner Steve Blackman (who has also worked on great shows like Legion and Fargo) has a way of drawing us into the universe, despite its inherent familiarity. Diners, away-from-it-all cabins, the hustle and bustle of city streets: all Americana-heavy motifs juxtaposed to the mansion-esque setting of the academy itself. The ability to swerve between comedic and dramatic lanes is a gift. Antagonists are often explored, even if briefly, and we’re constantly shifting sides and alliances as we’re along for the ride. There’s just enough mystery and intrigue building to warrant pulling the string without the crippling doubt of finding nothing on the other end.
That’s not to say that the show isn’t without its faults, due in part to the shackles of the source material. As time (ha) goes on and time travel is introduced, things can get a bit muddled, and not in a confusing fashion: more of a pace-killing one than anything. There’s also another far-fetched storyline involving Page’s character that’s both predictable (when so much else is not) and questionably executed. It sort of comes together and sort of doesn’t, which hurts the impact of the last few episodes a bit as the show thrusts into its final act of the season.
Yet, the cast and showrunners never keep their eye off the prize: to ensure that we’re enjoying ourselves. You know how a lot of films like Suicide Squad haphazardly just inject pop culture songs in and hope it works out? The Umbrella Academy is more authentic, which makes it that much easier to tap your foot along to an intense fight scene. The comedy is on brand and hardly ever reaches cartoonish levels. There’s always something at stake and for the most part, and we care about these characters on a deeper level. Most of us like safe, feel-good superhero projects. Marvel wouldn’t hit multiple billion-dollar film goals if we didn’t. While there’s plenty of room in my heart for that angle, I also welcome the infrequent unorthodox oddity like The Umbrella Academy.