It’s easy to describe Netflix’s Umbrella Academy as a superhero show for people who don’t like superhero shows. In reality, the 10 episode Netflix show adapted from its comic book source material eschews the pomp and circumstance of other superhero properties in favour of a dysfunctional family who happen to have superpowers.
From writer/producer Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon, Legion) Umbrella Academy tells the story of 43 children all born on the same day from mothers who, when the day began, weren’t pregnant.
Enter eccentric billionaire Reginald Hargreaves, played by Canadian acting legend Colm Feore. Thinking there must be something special about these children, Hargreaves buys seven of them with the intention of training them to fight crime and save the world. If it sounds familiar to comic book fans, the show is adapted from the popular comic series written and co-created by My Chemical Romance’ Gerard Way.
We also had a chance to chat with some of the stars from the show at the red carpet premiere hosted at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto.
“I’m led by Gerard’s vision of it and particularly by Steve Blackman. I recognized pretty early on and Steve really made this clear to me, [the kids] have to have a backstop. There has to be a brick wall against which they hit,” Feore said on the Umbrella Academy red carpet. “They talk about me more than I’m seen. So there has to be an impression left that’s strong enough that you go ‘Yeah, It’s just so him, he was a monstrous asshole.'”
You can’t choose family, or can you?
It turns out six of the seven kids Hargreaves “adopts” are special, displaying unique abilities as they grow older. Hargreaves refers to them by number rather than name; beginning with number 1 or rather Luther, played by Tom Hopper, who Game of Thrones fans will recognize as Dickon Tarly.
The Umbrella Academy’s Number 2 is David Castañeda’s Diego, the angsty crime fighter; Emmy Raver-Lampman’s Allison is number three, whose mind control abilities take the form of rumour spreading (I know). Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame is a standout as number 4: the drug-addled Kaus, whose ability to speak to the dead makes for amusing moments throughout.
“I prefer the Klaus who abandons this chaotic flakey routine, I like when you start to see him come apart at the seams more. Before that, he’s very chaotic and loud, someone who’s in a state of anxiety all of the time and trying to douse those with drugs. They’re the most annoying people on the planet,” Sheehan said from the red carpet. “Once the drugs start to wear off and he has to face everything, you start to see him for what he really is and I hope people relate to that.”
While Umbrella Academy on Netlfix spreads its 10 episode arc around the ensemble cast, most of the plot-heavy elements land on the shoulders of Aidan Gallagher as number 5. His nightcrawler-esque ability is woven into the narrative in interesting ways, having seen, lived and gotten stuck in the future. The plot moves past introducing the family with his violent arrival, now a 40-year-old man living in the body of a 14-year-old.
Because of this age/time manipulation, Gallagher is sardonic and dismissive in ways both hilarious and authoritative. As a character, number 5 is believable as someone having seen the end of the world – his gruffness a result of dealing with ignorant mortals.
Number 6 is Ben, who we learn very early on, dies young (look to Klaus) and the family is rounded out by number 7, the ever-present Ellen Paige as Vanya. It’s established quickly that Vanya is normal, Plain Jane boring in light of her suped-up siblings. It’s a notion the show Blackman, the writers and executive producer Jeff King (Hand of God) take to some really interesting places that I won’t spoil here. Paige does a great job of selling the divide that’s set up between her and the other siblings. All she wants is to relate to the only family she’s ever known, rebuked at almost every turn.
People of influence
With this big of a cast, Umbrella Academy’s supporting characters could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle. But Blackman and the writer’s room manages to orbit the characters around one another in a way that makes the cast feel more intimate.
This includes the likes of Hargreaves’ butler and confidante Pogo, whose literal ape-like figure is addressed casually and never directly. Yes, there is a talking ape in this show. The mother character is a robot, which is brought into focus during a fascinating episode five (DOUBLE CHECK) which handles the cliched “A.I as a lifeform” conversation in a delicacy that caught me off guard.
“Yeah the episode with me and Jordan [the robot mother Grace] was really emotionally interesting and she’s just such a talented actor It was a privilege to work through it with her,” Castañeda said from the red carpet.
There are a few traditional cop characters that are uninteresting and who, thankfully, don’t hang around that long. Then there’s Hazel and Cha-Cha, who are everything but uninteresting.
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Donuts, donuts, donuts
Hazel and Cha-Cha are an alien contract-killer duo sent from the future—and possibly another planet—sent back in time to “maintain the timeline.” I know but trust me, they’re awesome.
Cameron Britton’s Hazel loves donuts and speaks with a certain philosophical annunciation that proved scene-stealing. Even better is Mary J. Blige as Cha-Cha whose no-nonsense sarcasm about their situation, allows the pairs’ relationship to feel genuine and baked-in. In the comics, Hazel and Cha-Cha are treated more like psychopaths sent to do a job, and they’re still that; but their relationship arc goes further in ways I really appreciated.
“We got lucky. During the shoot, over the five months, Mary and I had a lot of conversations about who these characters are and where they’ve come from. It’s a scary thing to play a character who, so to speak, comes from outer space,” Britton said from the red carpet. “You don’t know anything about who they are or where they’ve come from. It’s on us to know them well enough that it comes off as grounded to the audience.”
Hazel in Umbrella Academy is particularly endearing with his character connected to a love interest subplot in the back half of the series is sweet and surprisingly heartfelt.
The Umbrella Academy Was Shot in Toronto
A cool detail about Umbrella Academy on Netflix is the fact that it was shot in and around Toronto. Massey Hall makes an appearance, but so does the Allan Garden Conservatory and even parts of Hamilton, Ontario crop up.
The entire show has a Canadiana vibe, with the entire cast of child actors hailing from The North; as does producer Jeff King and most obviously Ellen Page. Umbrella Academy even had its aforementioned premiere in the heart of downtown Toronto and the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Overall, The Umbrella Academy is a fun mix of Superhero action, a light character study on the dysfunctional family, and a bingeable Canadian production. It’s not a perfect show (the pacing lags in the middle episodes) but with the great ensemble cast, some well-timed humour and a twist on a popular genre, Umbrella Academy had me hooked throughout.
By Devin Jones
Eisner award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way.
Universal Cable Productions for Netflix
Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton, and Mary J. Blige
RUN TIME: 10 episodes at 60 minutes each