In a world where larger than life CGI-based superheroes rule the roost, we have gotten used to a strange predictability that no matter what happens, the world would eventually be saved and things would go back to normal. Marvel only recently broke this convention by letting Thanos score a win against the Avengers in, you guessed it, Avengers: Infinity War. Despite the spectacle that it was, it left us with a gigantic cliffhanger about the fate of the Avengers, or half of them to be specific. This makes things a lot more interesting not just cinematically but also from the business side of things. As we wait here holding our breath, the Endgame would most likely become the highest grossing movie of all time.
Credit where it’s due. Although the execution was fantastic, this is not a new template. Way back in 2009, Zack Snyder and Frank Miller’s Watchmen introduced a whole new way of narrating a superhero story. Although the characters had been adapted from Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, Snyder’s treatment did justice to the morally vague, angsty, overzealous traits that they had. These were just normal people who had been trodden down by life except for powers that made them even more susceptible to emotional damage. Now, this could be an unpopular opinion, but the mainstream Marvel and DC heroes are yet to show us that kind of emotional range.
Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy can be best described as a dysfunctional superhero family who is struggling with their own identities as the world heads towards apocalypse. Born of miraculous births by different women, seven children are taken under guardianship by Reginald Hargreeves who, somehow, knew of their special abilities. However, over the years, Hargreeves’s harsh upbringing drives them away until his death. The funeral brings back painful memories of the members who, despite having names, had always been called by numbers – Number One (Luther) – the giant, Number Two (Diego) – the knife expert, Number Three (Allison) – the manipulator, Number Four (Klaus) – the one who can talk to the dead, Number Five (The Boy) – the time-traveler and teleporter, and Number Seven (Vanya) – the one without a power, the black sheep of the family. If you are wondering about Number Six, he had passed away during one of their crime-fighting episodes. The only real warmth that they had was for their mother who was actually a humanoid robot. Imagine how cold Mr. Hargreeves would have been for them to look for love in a machine.
The narrative doesn’t have any exposition about the powers of each character at the outset. Their reunion at their guardian’s funeral finds them opening up old wounds and reminds them why they had all separated in the first place. Luther and Diego bicker like teenage lads. Klaus is an unapologetic drunk. Number Five is always away following his own mind. Allison is going through a custody battle over her daughter Claire which keeps her in a caustic mood. And finally, Vanya, who has always been kept aloof due to her lack of powers, remains detached and introverted. It is through a non-linear narrative that we get mere glimpses about each of their childhoods and eventually their abilities. Things take an interesting turn when Number returns to the present after being stuck in the future for three decades. He is now a 58-year-old man stuck in a 15-year-old’s body. In the future, the world has gone to hell and all of the members of the Academy are dead. The only way to stop this from happening is for them to band together and change a specific detail in their present that would change the sequence of events. Not to mention the two notorious agents, Hazel and Cha-Cha (kinda like Team Rocket from Pokémon) from an agency called the Commission which dictates the time continuum of the world and has the ability to change events to their advantage ranging from things like the Hindenburg disaster to the Kennedy assassination.
Steve Blackman and Jeremy Slater who have the series Fargo, Death Note and The Exorcist among their credits bring a Wes Anderson-esque treatment to the screenplay with quirky background scores that are a polar opposite to the violence that is happening on screen. The production design has punchy colours and the characters are framed symmetrically in their spaces. The dynamics between the characters have a seamless arc to it as their relationships evolve in the face of adversity and they get to know each other better. The narrative does get predictable from time to time but the story-telling more than makes up for it.
For some reason, I kept comparing it to the disparate siblings in The Haunting of Hill House, although they are both completely different genres. They are all deeply flawed individuals who are carrying a piece of baggage of their past. They are not the celebrated Umbrella kids anymore but insecure adults who don’t give two craps about saving the world. Number Five is by far the most intriguing superhero character I have come across. Played by the talented Aidan Gallagher, not once does he lets you feel that he is just a teenage, the youngest one in the group, all thanks to his elderly sass that he carries from the decades spent in the apocalyptic future, kept company only by Dolores, an apparel store mannequin. This new genre of ‘superhero drama’ is an interesting format that fits perfectly into the Netflix generation. A ten-part series gives film-makers enough time to dig into the nuances of each character and each scene. Netflix has confirmed the Second Season and it surely would be worth watching, just for Number Five if not for anyone else.