REVIEW: The Umbrella Academy
In order to truly appreciate The Umbrella Academy as I see it, I feel necessary to brief you with a bit of recent film/tv history. The show definitely speaks for itself, but in context of the current entertainment landscape, it goes from solid to RAD RAD RAD RAD RAD!
That being said, it’s quite a long history.
So if you’re not one that’s jazzed by dates and corporate takeovers (totally get it) skip to the end.
In 2009 Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for around $4 billion.
Yeah, I’d say Mickey caught himself a bargain on that one.
Even in the late 00s it was clear that superheroes were going to be the new bread and butter of the film industry. They had always been around, sure, but stuff like The Dark Knight, Spiderman, and X-Men were performing like crazy. Dozens of spandex-clad projects were getting greenlight before 2010 even rolled around: Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Superman. Studios were confident that they were going to make bank on the comic book business and Disney owned the MOTHERLOAD when it came to intellectual property.
The only problem for Disney in all this was that the comic book business had been in a perpetual state of financial flux and splitting for as long as it had existed.
Marvel comics went completely bankrupt in 1996 and was only saved (in part) by selling off the rights to its characters. So that’s how Hulk was made by Universal, how Sam Rami’s Spiderman was made by Paramount, and how those Fantastic 4’s got made by Fox. The only way Disney could ever corner the market on Marvel Superheroes was if they bought out EVERY SINGLE COMPETITOR. And back in 2012, that seemed pretty unrealistic.
So Disney did what it does. No licensing. No nadda. Every Marvel hero was kept under significant lock and key for a few years while the mouse tossed out a couple of decent features and heavily promoted toy lines.
(Fast Forward sound effect and woosh lines)
The unrealistic has become realistic as literally every studio caved to the overwhelming force of Donald Duck’s pocketbook.
Disney owns full production rights for The Hulk and Universal will get nothing unless a stand alone Hulk film is made (and it never will be). Sony (who took over from Paramount) entered into a buckwild sharing agreement where they technically own Spidey but Disney can make as many films as they want and get the lion share of profits. Fox has straight up been consumed by the almighty in a merger deal so massive it should scare you.
And all that lingers in the Marvel superhero trade now is a wee babe named Netflix.
Somehow the folks at this little ol streaming service wormed their way through corporate greed and managed to license the then obscure Defenders lineup: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Punisher. Maybe if you’re a die hard nerd or had the unfortunate displeasure of following Ben Affleck’s early career you’d recognize these names back in 2013, but chances are, nah. Disney knew these more obscure characters were a risky bet and decided to let someone else develop interest in these unknowns. It was a win win for them.
But you see, it backfired.
TV viewing has been declining like never before, even sports if you can believe it, and a modest portion of Netflix’s success in these trying times is due to how they’ve licensed intellectual properties. Specifically, Marvel characters and other Disney produced materials. What the corporate leaders looked at as a win win drove tons of potential customers away from their regular ABC programing and bolstered a then small internet company into a significant threat
A plan to fight fire with fire was conceived.
Mickey’s elite team of code monkeys got to work on developing their own streaming platform creatively called Disney+.
In part, this is a way for them to take back all their IP from streaming competitors by charging insanely high licensing fees. This not only includes Marvel properties but anything owned by ABC (Lost and Better off Ted), anything owned by LucasArts (Indiana Jones and Star Wars), and of course the normal Disney/Pixar stuff. It’s also a chance for them to get in on a proven technology while marketing to a more specific consumer than usual, in this case, families.
The Netflix/Marvel deal ended in 2017.
My guess is other big conglomerates will soon follow suit and start focusing more their own platforms. We’ll be living in a cable-esqu world again, but more customizable. It just makes more financial sense for these big conglomerates to distribute things themselves, when the cost to do so is comparatively low, and they hold the exclusive rights to characters people will pay to see.
The CW superhero block will probably be in trouble in the very near future. DC comics has already launched its own streaming platform and Warner Bros seems to jump on literally any trend that looks even moderately profitable, Comcast will pull favorites like Star Trek onto CBS all access, and Hulu will grab anything that’s not coming onto Disney +.
To throw in another old adage: if you can’t beat em, join em.
So, what’s a teeny weeny Netflix supposed to do at a time like this?
Well, in order to fill that superhero need the market so clearly has, Netflix has started buying up all the underground comic stuff they can possibly get their hands on.
The hope (I assume) is that they can develop new IP’s that will be successful enough to compete with Marvel. This is doable in my opinion, I mean, they already landed Stranger Things. The only catch is its gotta be family friendly enough to reel in that highly coveted teen market while still emphasizing the edge that has made their originals so watchable in the first place.
We are about to watch the best kind of corporate rivalry: the lovable classic vs the wiley newcomer.
It’s Coke vs Pepsi, Walmart vs Target, and Microsoft vs Apple.
Disney is Mario and Netflix is Sonic the freakin’ Hedgehog.
Enter The Umbrella Academy (almost thought we’d never get here eh?) the first of the non-Marvel superhero original created by Netflix.
I absolutely love it.
In a timeline vaguely similar to our own, an eccentric millionaire adopts 9 children born under unusual circumstances. Over the course of their childhood, he harshly trains them in the ways of a superhero group. This process makes them famous, highly skilled, and deeply traumatized. 20 years later the family is unhappily brought back together for their father’s funeral…and the world's greatest threat looms unknowingly over their heads. Will they be able to circumvent the circumstances of their pasts? Or will time traveling assassins ultimately win the day and ensure the coming apocalypse?
The Umbrella Academy is everything the X-Men movies should have been but better: stylistically interesting, emotionally compelling, and sensibility paced. It’s mysterious but still satisfying, action packed but with purpose, and funny but still dramatic. This is the kind of show that really knows what it’s setting out to accomplish, and even with the few 1st season stumbles (lookin’ at you 4 minute long dance sequence), it accomplishes a lot.
Across the board the characters are expertly written, likable, and well acted. Robert Sheehan as Klaus, Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, and Mary J. Blige as Cha-cha are amazing performers and command every scene they're in. I guarantee you'll be seeing them everywhere. I mean, Mary J. Blige is already a superstar…but you know what I’m saying.
I also appreciated how the show was able to blend the wild kookiness of old school comics with a such a grounded tone. This is a series about how childhood trauma affects adulthood… and there’s a robot mom/monkey butler. It’s almost easy to miss because of how integral these fantastical elements are, but if you just take a step back, I bet you’ll start noticing how absolutely redonk everything is.
Netflix’s Marvel was all about the whodunnit aspects. The question of “How do ya beat kingpin?” was always more important than “How does Matt Murdock repair his relationship with Foggy?” But in The Umbrella Academy this dynamic is reversed.
I was invested in who these people were more than what they did with their powers, and while I know that’s not for everybody, the focus on interpersonal drama feels totally refreshing to me.
Netflix is taking a bet on a different kind of Superhero team. Nothing in the current DC lineup is competent enough to feel like this and nothing over at Marvel has the same level of darkness and emotional vulnerability. It’s ambitious, and even if you don’t like the show, you gotta respect the moxie.
Disney better be ready for one heck of a fight.