I remember reading the first volume of Gerard Way’s comic, The Umbrella Academy, back when it first came out in 2008 and I adored it. It was this really weird, really unique little comic that was unlike anything else my little middle school mind had encountered. As I got older, I continued to adore the series – and was always sad as year after year passed with no sign of a third volume. Thankfully, that third volume eventually came, as did the announcement of a Netflix adaptation of the series. Of course, any time an adored property gets adapted, there’s a risk of that adaptation not being any good or not really respecting the source material. This is especially true with comic book adaptations, even more so with adaptations of weirder comic books. So, as The Umbrella Academy premiered last Friday, I approached it with a massive amount of trepidation. Happily, the show is very, very good. (THERE WILL BE MAJOR SPOILERS IN THIS ARTICLE)
Based on the popular, Eisner award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance) and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy is a live-action series that follows the estranged members of a dysfunctional family of superheroes (The Umbrella Academy) — Sir Reginald Hargreeves/The Monocle (Colm Feore), No.1/Luther/Spaceboy (Tom Hopper), No.2/Diego/The Kraken (David Castañeda), No.3/Allison/The Rumor (Emmy Raver-Lampman), No.4/Klaus/The Séance (Robert Sheehan), Number Five/The Boy (Aidan Gallagher), No.6/Ben/The Horror (Justin H. Min), and No.7/Vanya/The White Violin (Ellen Page) — as they work together to solve their father’s mysterious death while coming apart at the seams due to their divergent personalities and abilities.
It’s hard for me to look at this show and not compare it to the comics it’s based on because this first season is really an adaptation of the first volume of the series – not just an adaptation of the premise like other comic book TV shows are. So, in that regard, this show is more akin to a novel being adapted for TV or film than it is to most comic book movies and TV shows. For the most part, the show follows the plotline of the first arc of the comics, Apocalypse Suite, closely while mixing in a bunch of plot elements and characters from the second arc, Dallas, – namely the organization that Number Five worked for before making it back to his family is introduced and expanded on far more than it ever was in the comics (and, man, is that expansion interesting) and Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige), two time-traveling assassins sent by the organization to kill Number Five before he can screw up the timeline any further, are introduced much earlier than they were in the comics and are also greatly expanded upon, turning them into actual three dimensional characters. This reworking of the plots of the first two arcs of the comic works fairly well as the ten-episode runtime of the series would make doing a completely faithful adaptation of a six-issue storyline a bit hard as too much of the story would have to be stretched out and padded. So, instead, this first season sets up a bunch of elements for the second season by including some of Dallas and expanding upon the backstories of all of the characters while also giving our heroes some more apparent antagonists in Hazel and Cha-cha to battle until the real threat of the season could emerge. It feels like a smart change to make in the transition from page-to-screen and it feels very true to the spirit of the comics.
In fact, it’s kind of impressive just how closely this adaptation mirrors the spirit of the original comics. I mean, the comic has some really weird stuff in it, but from the very first frame of this show, it’s clear that the show intends to respect the weirdness of the comic. Obviously, some things are changed; some of the more out-there sci-fi elements are toned down, some backstories are tweaked, and some of the overt gore in the comics is toned down, but, on the whole, this is a show that is very tonally similar to the comics. Like the comics, the show mixes a bunch of flashbacks in with the present-day storyline in order to further explore the reasons why characters are doing what they’re doing at any given moment. Aside from the tonal similarities, the show also does a very good job of capturing the essence of each of the characters. Sure, some things are changed to better serve the medium of TV, but these characters are all recognizably the same people as their comics-counterparts, and that’s nice. Nearly every character gets a pretty noticeable expansion of their backstory and while many of those backstories are surprising and not really hinted at in the comics, all of them ring true for the characters as they’ve been established in the comics – and as they’ve been established in the show.
As I hinted at, the biggest changes are through how the plot plays out. The series adapts Apocalypse Suite fairly faithfully, but the journey it takes to get from the beginning of that storyline to the ending of it is fairly different. Certain more out-there elements are stripped away – such as Vanya’s surgery at the hands of the Conductor – while new characters are introduced into the mix in order to keep the story moving while also keeping it from being too bonkers – notably, Leonard Peabody (John Magaro), Vanya’s love interest in the TV series, performs much of the same role that the Conductor did in the comics in terms of getting Vanya to the point where she discovers her true powers. For much of the show, Vanya seems to be the audience’s point-of-entry into the story. She’s the character from the main cast who, at first, seems the most normal and like the audience. By making Vanya such a central character to this telling of the story, it really helps make her eventual transformation into the White Violin land better than it does in the comic. In the comic, she’s not given much development before she turns into a supervillain, but in the TV show, we get to really know her and identify with her struggles and that makes us sympathetic to her and it makes her eventual turn into villainy more dramatic and more emotional for us, which makes us more invested in what happens to her. That change was a very smart one. Plus, Ellen Page is perfectly cast as Vanya, which really helps matters.
Most of the rest of the changes are just expansions of character backstories – including the idea that the manifestation of Ben (Number 6, the member of the family who died years before the series starts) hangs around Klaus throughout the events of the story. Ben is hardly in the comics and is never found in any of the present-day storylines so, that change is pretty immense but works spectacularly well in the show as it helps develop Klaus more. The biggest change, otherwise, is probably in how the storyline ends. Without spoiling too much of the ending of the season, let’s just say that in the comics, the team is able to decisively stop the apocalypse while in the TV series, we’re left on a cliffhanger with the apocalypse not quite solved. Time travel plays into that cliffhanger, which seems to be setting up season two to adapt the rest of Dallas as much of that storyline involved time travel. This is a change that mostly works for a TV series, but I’m a little nervous about one aspect of the time traveling as it’s hinted at that the rest of the family will revert to their child-bodies the same way Number Five did when he time traveled and I don’t know how much I love that idea. But we’ll have to see how it plays out in season two before we can really pass judgment on it. Otherwise, this change is one that mostly works and I understand why it was made even if I don’t really love it. If, as I suspect, it’s properly setting up the show to adapt Dallas, then I’m more okay with it.
So, having detailed all these changes, do I like the show? Yeah, I do. The writing is superb. It’s a great mix of dramatic, genuinely heartfelt, and oddly funny – much the same as the comic is. The actors really bring their characters to life in ways that are both surprising and engaging. The visuals are really spectacular; Pogo (Adam Godley), a chimp with human intelligence created by Sir. Hargreeves, looks surprisingly good for a CGI creation. The direction is often immensely creative, especially in how the camera interacts with the other elements – notably the music. There is a scene in the first episode where all of the siblings dance to Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now – only each of them are in different rooms of the house and the camera moves between them, ending on an impressive wide-shot that shows all of them in their individual rooms. It’s visual gags like those that capture the strange surreal nature of the comics. Each episode of the series feels like it’s important to the overall storyline; no episode feels like filler and each one either moves the plotline forward or expands on a character’s backstory in order to develop that character. This is one of the nice things about taking a six-issue storyline from a comic book and making it a ten hour TV show: you have a lot more time to expand on things and really build out the world and develop the characters and that’s what this show does beautifully. So much of this season is laying the groundwork for future stories and the show does a great job of this while still telling its own story that is interesting as hell.
All in all, I really enjoyed the first season of The Umbrella Academy. In many ways, it’s very faithful to the original comics but in many ways, it departs from them. Those departures are all in service of crafting a story that’s better suited for a TV series than the one found in the original comics and nearly all of these changes work for the better. The show is well-written, exceptionally well-paced, and superbly acted. Each character feels true to their comic-counterpart and each actor really seems to understand what makes their character tick. Naturally, some characters are more likable than others and some characters get a bit more development than others, but that’s just how it goes. The directing, cinematography, and score are all exceptional. The music, in particular, is a mixture of music composed specially for the show and songs that already exist and are incorporated into the soundtrack of a scene (think Guardians of the Galaxy-style music). I love this idea and it’s utilized very well in the show. This show is its own thing. It’s not trying to be a perfect retelling of the storyline told in the original comics – nor should it be. However, it’s a very faithful adaptation of that story and one that expands on the events of the comic in new, exciting, and interesting ways. I really enjoyed the season and I’m hopeful and excited for a second one.
4.5 out of 5 wands