REVIEW: The Umbrella Academy
In 2009 Disney bought Marvel Entertainment, and by 2012, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was one of the strongest box office franchises of all time. The Avengers made it clear that superheroes were the new bread and butter of the film industry and everyone wanted to own a piece of that sweet, savory, spandex-clad, goodness.
The only problem was, 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 all those X-Men and 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 incredibly unrealistic even with the ungodly amounts of money they were making. So, Disney just did what it does best and kept its intellectual property under significant lock and key for a few years while making cool stuff in the process.
(Fast Forward sound effect and woosh lines)
Disney owns almost all of Marvel and they want Netflix DEAD.
TV viewing is declining like never before, even sports if you can believe it, and a modest portion of Netflix’s success over Disney in this declining market is due to how they’ve licensed intellectual properties. Specifically… Marvel characters.
A plan to fight fire with fire is conceived.
Mickey’s elite team of code monkeys get to work on developing their own streaming platform creatively called Disney+. In part, it’s 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.
My guess is other big conglomerates will soon follow and start their own platforms, and 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, because DC comics has already launched its own streaming platform, and Warner Bros seems to jump on literally any trend that looks even moderately profitable. To throw in another old adage: if you can’t beat em, join em.
So, what’s a little 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’s made their originals so watchable in the first place.
It’s 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 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 after this. 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. Brilliant.
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.
Disney better be ready for one heck of a fight.