“The Umbrella Academy”, starring Ellen Page – on Netflix, February 15, 2019
On the same day in 1989, forty-three infants are inexplicably born to random, unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire industrialist, who creates The Umbrella Academy and prepares his “children” to save the world. Too lazy to name them, he assigns a number to each, and addresses them that way accordingly. But not everything went according to plan. In their teenage years, the family fractured and the team disbanded. Now, the six surviving thirty-something members reunite upon the news of Hargreeve’s passing. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Vanya and Number Five work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death. But the estranged family once again begins to come apart due to their divergent personalities and abilities, not to mention the imminent threat of a global apocalypse.
Under Hargreeves’ guidance, Numbers 1-6 spend their childhoods training to maximize their abilities. Eventually, they form The Umbrella Academy, a gang of crime-fighters who each bear the same tattoo of a black umbrella. Only Vanya is excluded from the action (and the ink), left home during missions to master the violin. In the pilot, we see the gang thwarting a bank robbery hostage situation, wowing the world with their dazzling skills, which range from performing mind tricks to jumping through space and time. By the time they hit their teen years, however, the six gifted kids start to resist their father’s vice-grip of control. Ignoring Hargreeves’s strictest warnings, Number Five time-travels into the future and gets stuck there. Then Ben dies during a mission and the tragedy of losing one of their own proves too much for the siblings to bear. So the Umbrella Academy disbands. The remaining brothers and sisters go their separate ways.
I had the opportunity to preview the first few episodes of Season 1, and (full disclosure) not being a fan of super-hero comic book characters, I found the overall premise of this to be quite interesting, and actually relevant to where we are at today in society. Truth be told, it was the name Ellen Page that originally drew me into watching it in the first place, but after a couple episodes all the other actors (characters) captivated my attention along the way.
Each character is introduced in the first episode, each with their own unique super hero power, except for Vanya (Ellen Page), who as her father says, “There’s nothing special about you.” The one character who resonates with the queer community is, Number 4/Klaus (Robert Sheehan), fresh out of rehab for the umpteenth time—and already looking to score his next high. He can summon and commune with the dead, but only when he’s sober. “He’s a flakey, messy drug addict,” says Sheehan. “Dead people regularly harangue him to do something for them—pass on a message or whatever. He’s this tortured character who tries to keep the party going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so as to run from all of the screaming voices in his head.”
As the series moves on, paying close attention to detail becomes most important, as viewers are flashed forward and backward in time. Characters also soon become more than they appear. There’s sibling rivalry, along with unrequited love between the group. We meet the gang 17 years after their separation, when they reunite at the Hargreeves mansion following their father’s death. There, they greet “Mom” (who seems a bit…off) and Pogo, the chimpanzee that Hargreeves transformed into a walking, talking butler with human emotions and a British accent. Oh, and on a side note, the entire series was filmed in Toronto (and Hamilton), so keep your eyes peeled for local landmarks, like the Gladstone Hotel on Queen Street, and the Moose Lodge on Lakeshore West.
Without giving too much away, here’s a quick rundown of the other main characters who will soon be making the rounds across the inter-web and around the water coolers at work.
Number 1 to 7
Number 1/Luther (Tom Hopper) was the responsible leader of the Academy, forever determined to do what’s right. He’s the only one who stayed with Hargreeves after the Academy dissolved, and when the old man dies, Luther suspects foul play. For the past several years, Number 1 had been living on the Moon, where, as his siblings note right away, he “got big”: Superhumanly strong from birth, he now has a torso and arms so massively muscled they seem almost…animal-like. “Luther’s responsibilities hindered his life, because he’s never really lived as a normal person,” says Hopper (who played Dickon Tarly on Game of Thrones). The after effects of a “terrible accident” he suffered on the Moon haven’t helped his mental wellbeing. “Luther becomes incredibly self conscious,” Hopper says. “It’s the one thing that he’s scared of the other siblings finding out about.”
Number 2/Diego (David Castañeda), who grew up competing with Luther, is the only one who’s carried on crime fighting, as a vigilante who comes out after dark in head-to-toe black leather and spandex. He can still throw knives that break the laws of physics. “He has a chip on his shoulder that he can’t be Number 1,” says Castañeda (Sicario: Day of the Soldado). “That Dad always placed him in Number 2 knowing that it was a strategy to make Luther work harder to be the leader. Diego always had this thought that he needed to work three times harder than everyone else cause he didn’t have the strength that Luther has.”
Number 3/Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is a recently divorced movie star, devastated to have lost custody of her daughter. Her superpower allows her to bend anyone to her will by uttering the words “I heard a rumor that…” and whatever she says will come true. But as Raver-Lampman explains, Allison has retired her manipulative mind trick: “For 30 years, she got whatever the hell she wanted with her powers. With the custody battle and the crumbling of her marriage, she started to realize that her powers never actually got her what she wanted because it was never real. And now she’s coming from a place where she’s lost the family that she made, so she’s going back to her OG family to try to make it right.”
Number 5/Five (Aidan Gallagher) returns to the family home after 17 chronological years in the body of his 13-year-old self, but with mind of a 58-year-old man. “When he tried to travel back through time, it’s a lot harder than jumping forwards through time. There’s a lot more math involved,” says Gallagher (Nickelodeon’s Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn). “He messed up a little bit and it really pisses him off.” Five is terrified by what he saw in the future: a world in which humanity has been wiped out. Back with his siblings, his singular focus is to stop the impending apocalypse. “Five at first is a bit arrogant in the sense that he doesn’t have time for anybody to get in his way,” Gallagher says. “But as it gets more intense, he realizes he really needs to work together with his brothers and sisters. He comes clean about what happens in the apocalypse and tries to get them all on board.”
Number 6/Ben (Justin Min) could unleash monsters from other dimensions when he was alive. Now only Klaus can see and speak to him. “Klaus keeps Ben’s presence kind of secret,” says Sheehan. “I think Klaus just doesn’t want to deal with people saying, ‘Oh, could you tell Ben this?’ He’s the emissary for Ben on earth so he just keeps it quiet.”
Number 7/Vanya (Ellen Page) has spent her entire life believing she is ordinary and altogether less than her siblings. Her tell-all memoir, Extra Ordinary: My Life as Number 7, spilled family secrets and solidified her status as the black sheep of the family. As an adult, she lives a quiet, solitary life, giving violin lessons that serve as her main contact with other people. “Vanya has grown up in the household feeling very ostracized and left out and not treated well by her father. She was dismissed by her father and in return, her siblings as well,” says Page (who, after years of making films—and earning an Oscar nomination—returns to television for the first time since starring on the Canadian sci-fi seriesReGenesis in 2004). As a result of her isolation, Vanya has battled anxiety and depression. The pills she takes help her cope…and maybe also keep buried a certain formidable something that even she’s not aware she possesses.
Two other key characters in the saga are Hazel and Cha-Cha, ruthless assassins sent from the future to kill Five so that he cannot alter what is coming for humanity. “I play Hazel, the assassin who loves doughnuts,” says Cameron Britton with a laugh. Though Hazel has excelled at his job for years and doesn’t know any other life, he starts to have reservations about offing people for a living—especially after he falls in love with a waitress at a coffee shop (where he eats lots and lots of fried sugary treats). “He knows that he’s not happy,” says Britton, who played a far less conflicted (and jovial) taker of human life in Netflix’s serial killer series Mindhunter. “At first he thinks he’s doing the world good, but as the years go on, he realizes that he’s just hurting people. Being an assassin is not the kind of job that you can start laxing off on. So he’s becoming a liability, and that can lead to some pretty serious problems in that business. Or so I heard,” he deadpans. “I don’t kill people for money anymore.”
On the other hand, Hazel’s partner, Cha-Cha, played by Mary J. Blige, has absolutely no compunction about her line of work. “Cha-Cha’s all business. All murder. All assassination. All of the time,” says Blige, who was nominated for two Oscars for Netflix’s Mudbound. “She’s like, ‘Let’s get our man. We cannot do anything to screw up our assignment.’ Cha-Cha doesn’t care about anything except for killing anyone and anything that gets in her way of doing her job.” Blige admits that can be a pretty dark mindset to inhabit day in and day out. Luckily, she and Britton hit it off immediately. “Cameron is so much fun,” she says. “He’s my family—he’s my brother.”
THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY’S road to the small screen began shortly after the first six-issue series in Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic creation won an Eisner Award in 2008 for Best Finite Series/Limited Series. Universal Pictures started developing a big-screen adaptation, but it soon became clear that the longform narrative nature of television was a more appropriate medium for such rich source material. In 2017, Netflix greenlit a 10-episode series.
That was right around the time that, show creator Steve Blackman, was finishing up running the Netflix series Altered Carbon. “I really wanted to stay with Netflix. They talked to me about a couple of projects and this was one of them,” says Blackman, who was nominated for an Emmy in 2017 as one of the producers of FX’s Fargo. Though he admits he’s not a diehard comic book fan (much like myself), he was intrigued by The Umbrella Academy, and as he dove into the graphic novels, he was drawn to the story’s strong emotional center. “I got really excited about it,” Blackman says. “I want to tell relatable, human stories. With The Umbrella Academy, I wanted to do that away from any trope of superheroes. To me, these are very grounded characters, they’re a family. The fact that they have some abilities is, to me, secondary. It’s a dysfunctional family show with a body count.”
According to Way, the adaptation is true to what he dreamed up all those years ago, but it is not a carbon copy. “For fans of the comic, there are things that are different. This is definitely Steve’s vision,” Way says. “But he’s been very respectful to the source material, especially in terms of what happens in the story. There are a lot of elements from both graphic novel 1 and graphic novel 2 in the first season. One of the cool things about the show is that the ideas are still very weird, but it’s a bit more accessible in terms of the look and feel of things.”
“Music is a big part of the show,” Blackman states. “There’s a lot of wonderful music that serves as a propulsive force and counterpoint to the crazy things you’re seeing on screen.” The unexpected sonic cues range from Queen to ’80s teen pop star Tiffany to a cover of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” performed by none other than Way himself, who is, lest we forget, the former frontman of My Chemical Romance and now a solo recording artist. The quirky scenes around some of the songs played is quite hilarious, and totally out of scope with what’s going on overall – a sort of commercial interlude almost.
There’s an amazing soundtrack to the series as well, which you can listen to on Spotify.
It All Began with Comics and Graphic Novels
The Umbrella Academy is based on the popular, Eisner award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), illustrated by Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse Comics. The live-action series stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton, and Mary J. Blige, and is produced by Universal Cable Productions for Netflix. Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) will serve as executive producer and showrunner, with additional executive producers Jeff F. King (Hand of God), Bluegrass Television, and Mike Richardson and Keith Goldberg from Dark Horse Entertainment. Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá will serve as co-executive producers.
Way first found fame as the singer of My Chemical Romance but long before the band signed with Warner Bros. Records its frontman was focused on comic books as a career aspiration. Between world tours and platinum-selling albums like The Black Parade (2006), Way worked with Brazilian artist Gabriel Bá to create The Umbrella Academy, which premiered in 2007 with a surreal mix that drew in equal parts from old-school comics like Uncanny X-Men and Doom Patrol and the wry outsider rhythms of Wes Anderson films.
The Umbrella Academy launches on Netflix on Friday, February 15, 2019.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.