Review by James McCleary
I’ve never had much time for Tony Stark. The past ten or so summers of tentpole blockbusting have been dominated by the bullet-pointed angst of both his and his many copycats’ wealth, success and hyper-competence, and frankly I’m glad to be rid of him. That does not mean I am strictly opposed to the superhero genre, however; in a possibly controversial stance for a plucky film student, I do genuinely believe that there is merit and power in these stories of brave and bold heroism. Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002) taught the world that no crummy dealt hand could exclude its audience from being extraordinary. Billions of dollars and alien genetics were no longer pre-requisites for exceptionalism. Then, almost two decades later, Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) took this sentiment and used it to break down the archaic barriers which had strived to silence the African-American population for the past century of spectacle filmmaking, lighting a spark in the heart of a community oppressed by a presidency which loathed their existence. Consistently, cinematic superheroism is at its best when it can be the playing field for the underdogs, empowering those who most need a symbol in their corner.
The Umbrella Academy (Steve Blackman, 2019-present) stands its ground in not one, but seven of these corners. If you’ve seen the first season, you’ll know that the show is centred around seven superhuman oddballs who were adopted by a nefarious aristocrat (Colm Feore) as children and raised as no-nonsense crime fighters. Unlike the Fantastic Four or the X-Men however, the Hargreeves children were dehumanised by their master, and matured with great damage festering beneath the surface. Luther (Tom Hooper) has succumbed to severe, crippling depression, while Diego (David Castañeda) is haunted by triggers of his adoptive father’s emotional abuse, and so on. Most interestingly of all, Vanya (Ellen Page) has been conditioned to repress her ‘unstable’ powers, in a not-so-subtle, but no-less-effective metaphor for her confused sense of sexuality.
Each of these characters was exceptionally nuanced in both their characterisation and performance, and Season 1 thrived on telling their individual stories against the tapestry of a flawed, bickering familial support group. So when the show’s premiere outing came to a bombastic, theatrical finish cunningly juxtaposed against the epiphanies of its characters learning not how to immediately better themselves, but rather how to take the first steps towards recovery, I was both ecstatic and concerned. Light switch solutions to mental health illnesses are a form of stigmatisation, but was Netflix really going to let their biggest comic book property take the slow path indefinitely? The answer, to put it bluntly, is a resonant, immensely gratifying yes. The Umbrella Academy somehow laughs harder, shocks faster and cuts deeper than ever before in its sophomore outing.
Following on immediately from its cliffhanger ending, Season 2 finds its seven lead characters hurtling backwards through time, eventually finding themselves stranded separately in Dallas, Texas over a three year span in the early 1960s. For some, this is a miraculous second chance to live a life free of trauma, while others find themselves incapable of moving on. Five (Aidan Gallagher, superstar) is the last to arrive, and quickly discovers that the butterfly effect of the lives that his siblings have built for themselves over the past three years has had devastating consequences for the timeline. Doomsday is ten days away, again. To save the world, the Hargreeves orphans are left with little choice but to dismantle the new, comforting homes they’ve found for themselves, once again exposing themselves to wounds new and old. Oh, and they’re also being hunted by Swedish hitmen from the future. It’s that kind of show.
The Umbrella Academy somehow laughs harder, shocks faster and cuts deeper than ever before in its sophomore outing.
The Umbrella Academy tackles a wide variety of surprisingly heavy themes, from suicidal impulsiveness to systematic racism, but it also excels at creating a joyously witty and self-aware comic-book tone which, to my constant amazement, was implemented more as a tool to elevate its topical material rather than trivialise it. This is the sort of show where, when a character asks “where are we”, the response is “I think the question is when are we?”, while also making those two characters a grieving, self-destructive alcoholic (Robert Sheehan) and the ghost of his deceased sibling (Justin H. Min), who is fighting hard to keep his brother’s heart beating, all without missing a beat. The show’s boldness comes from knowing exactly the right times to hold its breath. There is something especially shocking about being absorbed into these deeply silly adventures, only to to be left cold when the music cuts out and the characters stop smiling as one of its heroes, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is ordered to leave the diner by its vile, racist owner. Superheroes don’t get to fight the real, institutional monsters of our world, and the show’s commitment to stripping away all pretences of Hollywood glamour whenever its characters are required to face those demons is incredibly admirable.
That balancing act of pure comic-book zaniness and drawing parallels between issues present in both the 1960s and the 2020s is masterfully maintained throughout the season. The environments into which each of the Hargreeves find themselves in the past are all intelligently crafted as perfect foils and evolutions of the damages inflicted upon them in the show’s maiden outing. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the specific scenarios concocted for the seven characters, but will say that each is packed with twists that should keep content both those invested in the fantastic thrills of the average Hargreeves day and those who, like me, want more than anything to see these lovable characters find their way to a happier place. With this new season, Netflix have somehow managed to not only catch lightning in a bottle twice, but to take their electrifyingly unstable misfits even higher and further than before. For fans and detractors of its first season alike, this new incarnation of The Umbrella Academy is worth all the time in the world.