– By Carly Twehous –
At a time when the superhero origin story consumes nearly every available screen, so often audiences get caught up in the bright colors, over-the-top special effects, and elaborate villains intent on world domination, that people begin forget the one thing that makes superheroes so compelling: the hero’s relentless quest to fight not only to save the world as a whole, but to recapture what it means to be human in themselves.
The Umbrella Academy offers a welcome respite from the formulas of the genre, all the while maintaining everything that makes the genre fun: explosions, talking monkeys, and missions to the moon. More importantly, however, this particular show offers up an unbridled depiction of the effects of childhood trauma, neglect, and unachievable expectations. It carves these heroes—because, at the end of the day, that’s what all the Hargreeves children are—out from beneath the rubble of a broken home and gives them both a shot in the dark at their own redemption, as well as a chance to save the world.
After a few odd and unexplained circumstances that pertain to worldwide virgin births, famous billionaire and space alien (well, at least according to the graphic novels), Reginald Hargreeves goes out of his way to “collect” seven very special children.
Nobody in their right mind would argue that Reginald Hargreeves is even a halfway decent father, let alone one capable of raising and emotionally supporting seven children with unimaginable powers. Hargreeves gives his collection of children numbers for names and tattoos each one of them with his own version of a superhero logo. He insists on military-like training exercises and monitors the children via surveillance tapes at all time. Hargreeves dresses them in lame costumes and tells them that the fate of the world rests entirely on their shoulders.
Hargreeves is unequivocally portrayed as a delusional villain, not in spite of his abuse, but specifically because of it. He believes he’s forging a generation of heroes, and that whatever trials he forces upon them are justified because it’ll force these kids to live up to their potential. Sir Reginald Hargreeves is the horrible sort of man who gave a ten-year-old boy P.T.S.D., drove him to addiction, and then had the unmitigated gall to call the child in question his greatest disappointment, because the child fell victim to the very fear Hargreeves instilled.
It isn’t just that the cycle of child abuse and neglect is presented as something awful and heart-wrenching; the worst of it is that Hargreeves manages to torment each child with something that absolutely breaks them.
Number One—Luther—is the obedient soldier, and full-time wrangler of his adopted siblings. He’s the epitome of everything Hargreeves wanted in his quest to collect special children. Enter, the Tragic Backstory: Luther goes out on a mission and gets hurt. Hargreeves experiments on him and turns him into some kind of Planet of the Apes reject. Hargreeves immediately sends Luther to the moon, under the illusion that he’s on a super-secret, Earth-saving mission. As Luther comes to find out, his father—the person he loved and respected above all others—could no longer even stand to look at him, so he sent him away.
Diego is Number Two, and, as such, he has a bit of a complex about constantly coming in second best. Hargreeves constantly belittles Diego and pits him against the unattainable perfection that is his older brother, Number One. His father’s treatment warps Diego into a scared little boy with a horrible stutter, whose only emotional support comes from an artificial mother, made out of circuits and spare parts. Most of the time, Diego is so busy wallowing in self-pity and playing Batman that he just ends up pushing everyone who might be able to help him away.
Number Three is perfect and beautiful and has the power to get whatever it is she might want. Naturally, Hargreeves makes Allison his weapon, from a very early age. Allison’s Rumor becomes Hargreeves’s (and later her own) Get Out of Jail Free card, for whenever the Road Less Travelled looks a little bit too treacherous. Eventually, Allison is left to shoulder the regret from years of misusing her power and can never seem to find the words to form a halfway decent apology.
Klaus, well… No one with even a smidgen of sanity would wish for Number Four’s powers, except, perhaps, the sadist, Reginald Hargreeves. After Klaus’s first I-see-dead-people moment, Hargreeves effectively locks him in a mausoleum for hours on end. Let’s be honest here: Is there actually a healthy way to respond to that kind of torture?!
Klaus is the black sheep, who threw away phenomenal power for a feather boa, a bit of eyeliner, and a handful of narcotics. Klaus is the ultimate disappointment to his father and, at best, a mild inconvenience to his siblings. No one even notices when he’s kidnapped, tortured, then accidentally sent back to the Vietnam War and forced to watch as the love of his life dies right in front of him. Klaus, for one, operates day-to-day at a place so far beyond the point of despair. At one point, Klaus dies, meets his dad, has a nice shave, then begs, for all he’s worth, not to be sent back to the land of the living.
Number Five, so bent out of shape by his father’s totalitarian regime, time travels into the future before anyone ever bothered to give him a proper name. Five comes face to face with the literal End Times. There’s nothing left, save for a half of a mannequin named Dolores that he personifies and falls in love with. Five quickly becomes jaded in his solitary mission to stop the apocalypse, by any means necessary. Five is a thirteen-year-old assassin and part-time alcoholic, so hell-bent on saving the world that he completely loses sight of his family.
Ben is Number Six. He kind of died, under mysterious and yet-still-unidentified circumstances. He currently serves as Klaus’s moral compass, now only manifesting in ghost form.
Number Seven, well… All Hargreeves ever had to do was convince Vanya that she was most certainly not special.
Some idiot—namely, Reginald Hargreeves—tasked this particular band of misfit toys with the immensely difficult job of banding together to stop the apocalypse.
Plot twist: The world still ends.
Thank God for time travel, right?
The Umbrella Academy is not some IMAX blockbuster version of the now-infamous superhero origin story, nor is it the dark and gritty “realism” of Titans or Marvel’s Netflix adaptations. The Umbrella Academy is the very best kind of introspective family drama: the kind with super-powers, robots and talking monkeys, and phenomenal musical montages.
More importantly, this show is a harrowing cry for redemption, for the kind of familial love and forgiveness that are necessary to begin to heal from any number of world-ending catastrophes. This level of insight into the incredibly broken and vulnerable human soul deserves far more than a casual viewer recommendation.
The Umbrella Academy deserves to be digested and internalized, until we, like the Hargreeves children, can pull ourselves out of the gutter, and learn to stand tall, even if the world just so happens to be ending around us.
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