The premise of “The Umbrella Academy” is both the best hook for the Netflix original series — and its infuriating downfall. On October 1, 1989, 43 women gave birth to a child, but none of them were pregnant when the day began. Fascinated by the freak occurrence and convinced these children were the key to saving the world, billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) tried to adopt as many of the kids as he could. His deep-pocketed bribery earned him seven super-powered children, whom he trained into crime fighters, led on missions, and eventually alienated from himself as well as each other.
This starting point (which comes from Gerard Way and Gabrial Bá’s comic books) invites a number of enticing questions: What’s up with Reginald’s obsession? How will the children react to his cold, managerial parenting style? What happens to a family of superheroes who aren’t really a family, but act like one? The “X-Men” adaptations kind of solved that one, but maybe this younger-skewing story can explore new areas of nature vs. nurture, all while telling an exciting world-saving adventure tale.
Or, maybe not. “The Umbrella Academy” treats itself as an inferior addendum to big-screen superhero stories, so there should be no surprise when it feels like one. It’s safe, like Superheroes Lite — it’s not as focused and fun as the Marvel movies, and it doesn’t have the ambition that sparks anger in DC fans (at least those willing to admit the studio’s big-screen shortcomings). Though some details sound like fun, loony, creative choices (there’s a freaking CGI monkey named Pogo who walks and talks like an old man), the ultimate impression is tired, safe, and kinda dumb.
Courtesy of Netflix
The problems start with the kids. Their mystery is the show’s driving force, yet “The Umbrella Academy” is quick to reduce their personal ambitions to boilerplate. You’ve got Luther (Tom Hopper), aka No. 1 — Reginald gave his kids numbers, based on the order they were adopted, and their robot mom gave them their names (some parts really do sound fun). Luther is the de facto leader; he says things like, “I’m the leader.” He works out a lot and has an awkwardly huge frame, but guess what? He’s got a soft heart.
No. 2 is Diego (David Castañeda), and he’s the opposite of Luther. Tiny (in comparison), fast, and angry, Diego is a vigilante crime fighter who got kicked out of the police academy for being too hardcore! (That he’s played by a Mexican actor is just one of the ways “Umbrella Academy” uses stereotypes as a shortcut to forge identities — Diego is yet another hot-headed Latino.) No. 3, aka Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), is a famous actress and love interest for another member of the family. (Yay, more incest on TV!) Klaus (Robert Sheehan) is No. 4, a fast-talking, wiseass drug addict, and No. 5 is just No. 5 (Aidan Gallagher) — no name was given to the time-traveling teleport artist.
No. 6, well, let’s not speak of No. 6 — instead, let’s look at Vanya (Ellen Page), the only child in The Umbrella Academy who never developed powers. For six excruciating episodes, Vanya mopes as the black sheep. Flashbacks show her sidelined not only from crime-fighting missions, but more typical family activities, like breakfast. She’s not in the family portraits, she’s excluded from family meetings, and despite these obviously hurtful actions, the other kids are shocked, shocked, when she dares to speak about her outcast status.
Courtesy of Netflix
This leaves us with a character whose entire arc lies in “I’m not good enough” misery. She’s either a sounding board or getting duped, and that’s not a great use of Page’s talents (let alone her admirable off-screen passions). But the biggest problem with Vanya mimics issues with the show: The most obvious thing that could happen to the one character who doesn’t have powers is exactly what happens. Worse, creator Steve Blackman treats Vanya’s big reveal like a big reveal, not the inevitable event for a season filled by waiting for inevitable events.
There are other issues to cite (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton play time-traveling assassins, and through no fault from the actors are made so monotonous I had to go out of my way to even note their presence), but it boils down to this: “The Umbrella Academy” manipulates any honest conflict stemming from the kids’ backstories to fit easily identifiable character tropes. Some choices make the 10-episode first season easy to digest — inviting you to shut off your brain and go along for the ride — but too many fail to live up to the show’s creative possibilities. Arcs become familiar, then boring. “Altered Carbon” and “Defenders” director Peter Hoar brings a little style, but that can’t distract from the empty plots.
“Defenders” is actually a great comparison to end on: Like Netflix’s now-defunct Marvel series, “The Umbrella Academy” never delivers on its intrinsic potential. It’s just one more half-hearted attempt to capitalize on the genre’s popularity.
“The Umbrella Academy” Season 1 premieres Friday, February 15 on Netflix.