In Issue 1 of Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, writer Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá introduce us to the eponymous superhero team with an unusual threat: an Eiffel Tower gone murderously insane, piloted by a robot zombie Gustave Eiffel. The monument turns out to be a spaceship, and our heroes, children at this time in the story, are victoriously gifted with the key to the city. When the Netflix adaptation introduces us to the Umbrella Academy, it’s with… a robbery. No animated landmarks or over-the-top villains. Just guns, and alarms, and a news reporter looking clueless outside of a bank in some non-specific town in America.
We all know in this cultural moment, one that sees comic book stories getting adapted for the screen with relentless regularity, that any argument contesting an adaptation’s fidelity to the source material is pedantic at best. With only a vaguest idea of what goes on behind the scenes, we accept certain changes. The way Luther Hargreeves’ (played by Tom Hopper) swole gorilla bod looks more grotesque than badass? Fine. Giving more screen time to Number Six (played by Justin H. Min), a character who doesn’t get nearly as much action in the original comics? Cool! Casting Ellen Page as Number Seven, and Mary J. freakin’ Blige as an assassin? Excellent stuff.
What the show gives us is something that buckles under the weight of its own seriousness — a drab thing whose visuals recall the tragically dark and washed out color grading of phase one Marvel movies
But even when we come into these adaptations with expectations thoroughly managed, we nonetheless look for the essence of the original thing at its core, the spirit preserved. What Way and Bá built in 2007 was a fantastical world, tonally wacky with snappy banter spilling out of every panel. It reads like the sort of thing a nine-year-old would doodle in their notebook during Math class, if that nine-year-old’s brain had the combined creative prowess of Oscar Wilde and Genndy Tartakovsky. Love you forever, Gerard.
But what the show gives us is something that buckles under the weight of its own seriousness — a drab thing whose visuals recall the tragically dark and washed out color grading of phase one Marvel movies. Combat choreography is uninspired and clumsy, and manages to be tonally lifted up only a little by whatever obscure indie song is playing in the background. Moments of serious dialogue drag. The Séance (played by Robert Sheehan) managed to keep his flamboyance but lose his wit on his way from the page to the screen. God, why are there people who still think turning a drawn thing into a live action thing is an inherently good idea?
I understand that any comic book that turns into a TV show has to sacrifice a few things (for the pitch to fly, for the budget, hell if I know), but what we get with Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is a slow, bloated drama, one that trades its kookiness and endearing gratuity for sunken, defeated faces and dry mumbles. If I wanted to watch a family of superpowered misfits work out their differences to save the world, I’d watch Young Justice.