Available on Netflix
Alan Moore’s Watchmen is probably the best, most influential superhero comic of all time. An examination of the underlying assumptions and psychology of people who would put on masks to fight crime, it almost single-handedly (bar Denny O’Neil) made superheroes ‘real’ – or about as realistic as they ever could be, of course.
But it’s a very dense text and while you can remove certain elements of it relatively easily – bye, bye pirates! – try to unpick it too much and you lose Watchmen‘s intrinsic field: what makes Watchmen what it is. Small wonder then that Hollywood spent forever trying to adapt it before essentially making a frame by frame adaptation of the comic, just with a slightly different McGuffin.
Heaven knows what HBO’s ‘freer’ adaptation will be like.
That density of writing means that despite its influence being felt throughout comics and TV, there have been very few straight-on ‘homages’ (aka rip-offs). Nobody has done ‘Watchmen in space’, ‘Watchmen on Middle Earth’ or anything else.
Until now. Because now, thanks to The Umbrella Academy, we have ‘Watchmen with super-powered kids’.
Before they were grown-up
Unlike Watchmen, which only had one true superhero, The Umbrella Academy has many thanks to a Midwich Cuckoos style event. One day in 1989, 43 women around the world give birth simultaneously, despite none of them showing any sign of pregnancy until labour began. Billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) manages to buy seven of these children from their mothers, gives them all numbers, and raises them to be a superhero team called ‘The Umbrella Academy’. Well, six of them at least.
Thirty years later, Feore dies and the children are reunited.
- There’s Luther (Tom Hopper), who’s super-strong – and has become even stronger since an accident after he needed a special serum with odd side-effects to save his life.
- There’s Diego (David Castañeda), who can throw knives in physics-defying ways.
- There’s Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), who can change reality by lying (“I heard a rumour that…”).
- There’s Klaus (Robert Sheehan), who can communicate with the dead – as long as he’s sober, which is something he tries to avoid at all costs.
- There’s Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who can teleport through space and time.
- There’s Ben (Justin H Min), who has monsters from other dimensions living under his skin. Well, he used to be able to. Before he died, anyway.
And then there’s Number Seven, aka Vanya (Juno‘s Ellen Page). She can… play the violin quite well and has to take pills for her nerves. The others don’t really like her any more, since she wrote an auto-biography about what it was like being raised to be ordinary in a family of extraordinary people – and constantly being told she was nothing special by her own adopted father.
Number Five’s a bit late to the funeral and when he arrives, he still looks like a 13 year-old boy. Why is he late? Well, he’s been stuck in the future unable to travel back in time. But now he’s back and he wants to stop the Apocalypse – yes, he’s seen what the future brings and it’s the extinction of all life on Earth, including his family.
Unfortunately, all he’s got to go on is a false eye, clasped in the hand of Luther’s future dead body. Even more unfortunately, he’s been working for an agency dedicated to preserving the timelines and its boss (Bad Judge‘s Kate Walsh) has sent two of her best killers after him: Mindhunter‘s Cameron Britton and Mary J Blige (yes, that one).
Will the family come together in time to stop the apocalypse? Will they even find out what causes it? And can they do that before Britton and Blige kill them?
Based on the Dark Horse Comics title of the same name, The Umbrella Academy slaps a lot of make-up, jokes and pop culture references over the skeleton of Watchmen then filters it through the standard American storytelling focus of ‘family’, to still end up giving us more or less the same story: a bunch of disaffected superheroes who’ve fallen apart for various different reasons have to reunite many years later to try to stop an apocalypse; along the way, we get a lot of psychoanalysis of what makes people want to be a superhero, how it affects them, discussions of their relationship and revelations about what would probably happen to superheroes in real life.
True, you could also argue that it’s partly a dark take on Thunderbirds (rich billionaire forces his children to undertake dangerous missions, while sticking one of them out in space by himself for long periods of time), but Watchmen is its real DNA.
It’s a jolly decent take on Watchmen mind, but watching it, The Umbrella Academy feels like one of those witty raconteurs who tosses out gems of original thought every few minutes. We have beautifully comic book touches, stemming more from the Tim Burton style of Batman than from the Christopher Nolan grimdarkness. There are mad scientists, robot mothers, and beautifully animated, walking talking chimpanzees. Children are sent on missions to the moon and 13 year olds are actually 56 year olds trapped in boys’ bodies.
We also get examinations of what it must have been like to have been child superheroes and to have wannabe other children to deal with, comics and dolls made from you, and notoriety aplenty.
It looks sublime – it’s got trappings of various periods, from the 50s through to modern times, and the formalism of its direction means it often comes across like Pushing Daisies. It’s also got a stunning soundtrack, with an opening track of The Kinks’ Picturebook setting the tone for the rest of the show.
But when you ask the witty raconteur what his philosophy of life is, you just get glibbness and more bon mots. It’s also surface and none of it really integrates with other elements to form a coherent whole. By the end of the eighth episode of the show, as well as there not being any real answers to anything (wait for season two for those?), there’s not really been much of a message, other than perhaps “don’t be a crap parent”, “family sticks together” and “you’ll probably get hurt if you try to be a superhero”. There’s none of Alan Moore’s depth and it doesn’t really have much to say about anything.
Certainly, there’s not much depth to any of the character development, beyond Vanya’s shutdown existence. Diego’s continuing vigilantism isn’t really an indictment of vigilantism, Klaus’ drug addiction is just a metaphor for being unable to copy with memories of the dead and Ben’s death is never explained. The fact there are another 36 special kids out there is never examined and there’s never a reason given for their births.
It’s basically just a chance to do Watchmen again, but it all comes across as if Watchmen had been made by the people behind Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, rather than by Zack Snyder.
Finding a voice
The eighth episode does at least help the show to find its own voice. Running out of Watchmen story, The Umbrella Academy starts to open out the effects, pile on the superheroics (and supervillainy), give us twists and turns, and reveals a few things that make some of the previous twists a bit more plausible.
But the gap between comic book and the adaptation means that some of the original’s more important explanations get lost. It’s not abundantly clear, for example, that Sir Reginald is an alien – there’s a scene in the final episode that makes sense once you know that, but until you know that, you don’t know that’s what the scene was trying to say. Why did Sir Reginald send Luthor to the moon for four years? And if Vanya is stopped from taking part in the Umbrella Academy’s missions because she’s not got a useful superpower, how come Klaus took part – is being able to talk to the dead very handy when dealing with bank robbers?
Similarly, there’s a least one character who knows exactly what’s going on and who gives out important apocalypse-preventing information in dribs and drabs throughout the story, rather than right at the beginning. Although that doesn’t matter so much, since you’ll see what the cause of the apocalypse is about three episodes ahead of its final reveal, and then spend those episodes waiting for the plot to catch-up with your deduction.
The Umbrella Academy is at least a joyful watch, full of fun and joie de vivre – which makes it a lot more enjoyable than Watchmen, at least. The cast are all perfectly decent. You wish Robert Sheehan could really kick loose as he did in Misfits and Ellen Page has a surprisingly thankless, minor and dour role for the show’s biggest name, but they both provide plenty of fine moments. Aidan Gallagher’s Number Five is a brilliant, old-before-his-time performance, and the frequent time-travelling also adds a pleasing element to the show. Britton and Blige’s odd assassins are always fun to watch, as is Britton’s growing romance with a doughnut maker.
But while it’s fun to watch, it’s quite dissatisfying, as there’s more gloss than depth.
So watch it, but don’t expect more than ‘Watchmen with – and arguably for – kids’.