Monday, March 23, 2020

[Review] Umbrella Academy: An Artful Adaption

In a golden age of comic book adaptations, Netflix’s 2019 original series “The Umbrella Academy” manages to hold its own - and then some. It’s not just passably good, but surprisingly good, especially when one considers all of the various factors it was up against. First of all, it’s the product of the red-haired stepchild of comic book publishing houses: Dark Horse. While Marvel and D.C. have become household names, Dark Horse has struggled to adapt most of its properties, with the exception of Hellboy, due to their complex, hyper-violent, and often bizarre storylines. The Umbrella Academy comic was an unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation; the story is wildly, extravagantly complicated, and includes space travel, time travel, and a battle against the Eiffel Tower. (Yes, really.) It also has no less than seven main characters with complex interpersonal relationships. But Netflix managed not only to produce a thoroughly enjoyable and coherent homage to the original work, but to improve upon its failings.

The secret to Umbrella Academy’s success is that it focuses on its characters, not its story. In only ten hour-long episodes, every one of the seven main characters is fleshed out into a fully realized human being, and the empathy the audience feels toward them is the driving force of this series. The dialogue is air-tight, and the actors’ delivery is loaded with nuance, so every second manages to heap on personality. There’s nothing shallow or one-dimensional about the central protagonists; it’s a credit to the writers as well as the actors that all seven are relatable explorations of human trauma. Amid the backdrop of time paradoxes and upcoming apocalypses, the heroes of the story feel like real people whose responses to their nonsensical world, and to each other, are incredibly accessible. Even better, there’s little overlap between them; presented with the same situation, each character responds in a different but understandable way, giving the situation the full spectrum of human reaction.

The Umbrella Academy occupies a unique place among superhero adaptations; in a Venn Diagram of Marvel and D.C., it would plant itself firmly in the middle. It manages to serve the dark, gritty, brooding atmosphere of D.C.’s Batman franchise and then chase it with the free-spirited fun of Marvel’s dialogue, resulting in a smooth cocktail of nihilistic entertainment. As the series moves forward, the separation between these two circles breaks down: at one point, for example, two hitmen battle each other over a tied-up damsel-in-distress inside of a brightly colored honeymoon suite to the chorus of “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows."

Incidentally, the soundtrack is painstakingly, lovingly selected. It runs the gamut from Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” to a rock cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.” Nearly every episode features a scene set to music that feels more like a music video than a plot point, yet each one of these scenes is seamlessly integrated into the story and provides critical plot structure. With only ten episodes to prove itself, the series manages to trim away all the fat and leave the viewer with the only most critical material. Sometimes, that material is a character smashing a snowglobe against his own face, or a haggard waitress explaining the simple pleasure of crafting a perfectly-made donut. But it never feels extraneous. At any moment, music cues and subtle body language from the actors are communicating and advancing the story; at times, it may crawl, but it never stalls.

Ultimately this series was never about the superheroes or about the bizarre world they inhabit (which features a talking chimp, a time-traveling assassin, and a flamboyantly fabulous drug addict who communes with the dead). It was always about the people, who are raw, flawed, and eminently empathetic. The characters are real, and relatable, and tragically lovely. With seven of them, nearly any viewer can establish some semblance of personal and intuitive rapport. The characters are distinctive, and their personalities shine. The actors convey the multi-dimensional experiences of their characters with finesse.

This show was never about superheroes. It was about people, who happen to be (reluctant) superheroes. Its single biggest strength is that it leads the viewer by the hand to the edge of an abyss. The viewer identifies with the characters, and the characters pull back at the last moment, substituting stylized comedy for any extensive discomfort. The result is that, while the show examines dark themes, it never places the viewer in an emotionally inescapable situation, and instead leaves them with a backdrop to explore traumatic themes within a comfortable scaffold, and go as far as they are able in examining the inevitable and dire consequences of a traumatic upbringing and a maladjusted adulthood.

For all of its zany and cartoonish aestheticism, The Umbrella Academy is outstandingly binge-worthy. Its superhero setting belies its critical lessons about the human experience: that suffering is inevitable, that endurance is triumph, and that, ultimately, there’s an artistic beauty in the existential absurdity that is life.


Below is a breakdown of character flaws, with spoilers.  An attractive symmetry emerges.  Luther accepts, while Five resists.  Diego rages while Klaus laughs.  Allison is active, while Vanya is passive.  None of them escape, and it's the least flawed, Ben, who dies first.  The only real lesson to be taken from the lives of these character is that trauma suffered in childhood amplifies itself in adulthood, and that flawed coping mechanisms don't work, regardless of what they are.

Luther #1: Unquestioning conformity.  For a character who gets a lot of hate due to his actions in episodes 9 and 10, Luther is a character I find surprisingly sympathetic.  Unlike the other six siblings, he lived under his father's rule for his whole life.  Luther is someone who thrived on a sense of order and stability, who has all that crash down around him in the span of a few days.  Not only does Reginald die, but Luther's discovery that Reginald is not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that his moon mission was a complete farce, is devastating.  Luther is forced into a position of leadership; he is both a victim and perpetrator of Reginald's abuse.  Nearly all of Luther's actions are a direct result of Luther living a stunted, isolated adult life.

Diego #2: Rage and Inadequacy.  Diego is one of the best depictions of toxic masculinity I've ever seen.  His feelings of inadequacy are perfectly captured in four words, uttered in episode 1.  When Luther instructs the others to "get behind me," Diego replies with, "Yeah, get behind us!"  His tough-guy image, contrasted with his struggle to exist in the outside world, paints a vivid portrait of what unprocessed anger looks like when it's allowed to ferment.  Diego and Luther's rivalry is two sides of the same coin; both are still suffering from Reginald's abuse but are doing so in different ways.  While Luther embraces it, Diego does everything to distance himself from it, even if it means hurting himself in the process.  Diego's rage is painfully raw, and in his softer moments, we see glimpses of a person not wholly realized, which makes him all the more tragic.  His affections (calling his siblings "brother" and "sister") are laced with acerbic sarcasm, and there are a few moments of irredeemable cruelty, like when he mocks Allison for her ongoing divorce proceedings for no discernible reason.

Allison #3: Good Intentions, Bad Actions.  In my opinion, Allison is one of the only truly redeemable characters.  With the power of influence, her entire life has been a lie.  Yet she's also the only one who demonstrates any growth before Reginald's death.  Having realized the monkey-paw curse of her power, she's vowed never to use it again.  Now she's relearning how to live an honest life and discovering just how hard that is.  Allison's attempts to connect with and protect Vanya are too little, too late, and she stumbles more than a few times, demonstrating the lamentable outcome of good intentions.  Allison does so many things right only to have them fall apart at the last minute; she's a personification of how life sometimes doesn't go the way it's meant to, of the fallacy of the "fair world" philosophy.

Klaus #4: Addiction.  Klaus is, hands-down, my favorite character.  His irreverent humor and casual disdain for the world is beautiful.  His rejection of gender norms is refreshing; he's someone who doesn't have anything to prove and doesn't bother to try.  He's also an excellent portrayal of an addict.  His family is clearly fed up with his shit and is trying not to enable him; his laid-back attitude toward lying, stealing, and taking advantage of others is often played up for laughs, but it's an accurate representation of how a drug addict lives.  His comic relief is tempered by the seriousness of his trauma and the occasional reminder that his powers are a living nightmare.

Five: Over-confidence.  Five is among my least favorite characters because of his smugness.  His belief that he doesn't need help and of his brilliance is his undoing.  It's hubris in a nutshell.  Five is among the best-acted characters and the cracks in his confidence are seamlessly integrated, from his drinking to his love affair with a mannequin.  Five is as brittle as glass; his refusal to compromise and his insistence on his own intelligence are unbending character flaws that ultimately lead to the precise thing he was trying to prevent.  It's irony at its finest, a tip of the hat to classical Greek mythology.

Ben #6: Ironic Consequences.  What can we say about Ben except that he's wholesome?  The one character without massive, visible flaws, Ben died young.  Described by Vanya as the one who held them all together, Ben's death feels unfair.  It's just another absurd and depressing facet of the show as a whole.  Ben's presence in flashbacks shows a reluctant cooperation that ended in Ben's death.  Compared with Five's resistance, it makes the abuse Reginald inflicted on the siblings feel inescapable.  Ben is a foil for Klaus, a voice of reason, but because he's dead, he's rendered unable to actually do anything.  Ben represents what could have been.  Ben is one of the few undamaged characters, but he's also peripheral to the rest.  Ben is less of a character and more of a concept, and I love Ben because he offers a tiny glimpse of hope from beyond the veil.

Vanya  #7: Passivity.  I had some difficulty relating to Vanya because her whole attitude felt so passive. She didn't deserve how she was treated (none of them did), but her total lack of dealing with it really frustrated me. She does not appear to have developed ANY emotional maturity whatsoever. Her interactions with others are stunted and pathetic. I understand it's not her fault she's like that, but I still loathed her on a personal level.  As for her post-power actions, now, I can excuse what she did to Allison as self-defense (after all, she was about to be rumored). I can also sort of excuse killing Leonard as a reactionary moment of passion.  However, killing Pogo was straight-up first-degree pre-meditated murder. (Remember, she literally asks Pogo, multiple times, whether or not he knew about her powers. She was looking for a reason to kill him. She wanted to kill him.)  The worst part is that the majority of the fandom shits all over Luther, who has a similar meltdown. I don't see why one character gets more sympathy than the other. Both were abused by their father, and both are completely incapable of handling adult trauma.  People say, "Why didn't Luther ask Vanya what happened?" To that, I say, why did Vanya ask Pogo to give her a reason before she killed him in cold blood? Pogo was as much under Reginald's thumb as the rest of them. Pogo's death was the moment I lost any sympathy toward Vanya at all.  Being hurt or being angry doesn't give anyone the right to be cruel. Vanya deserves as much hatred as Luther gets. In all honestly, I'm more sympathetic toward Luther, because Luther was under Reginald's rule until he died. Vanya got out years ago, and didn't grow at all.  That's on her. 100% on her.

With seven characters, it would be easy for the show to feel cluttered, but it maintains a delicate balance between the protagonists, and offers a rich and relatable portrayal of humanity that doesn't pull any punches.  If I have a single criticism, it's that the final episode ended on a cliff-hanger, leaving me desperate for more.  The writers of this show took some risks, and those risks paid off.

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