Review: ‘Umbrella Academy’ vs DC Universe’s ‘Doom Patrol’: A battle of misfit shows
Scoot over “Deadly Class” and “Black Lightning,” and make room in the crowded superhero arena for two new avenging TV series: Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” and “Doom Patrol” from DC Universe, a fledgling streaming service devoted to the comic book franchise.
Both superhero dramas premiere Friday, and both place the fate of humanity in the hands of dysfunctional misfits with unconventional powers. Tonally, however, the series are worlds apart, ensuring that the fans of one show are likely to hate the other.
“The Umbrella Academy” is a 10-episode series adapted from the comic book created and written by My Chemical Romance’s frontman, Gerard Way, and it stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper and Mary J. Blige. The drama is aimed at young adults, so the sibling rivalries and roller-coaster emotions of its characters play a central role in this not-so-average family drama.
The story here unfurls slowly, so the steady pace of “The Umbrella Academy” may challenge viewers who are looking for immediate villain-avenging action. But for those who don’t already know the story, there are gratifying payoffs down the line (no spoilers here).
The enigmatic origin story of these superheroes is as good as it gets in terms of otherworldly weirdness. Their narrative starts with a global phenomenon: It’s the 1980s and 43 unrelated women who showed no signs of pregnancy suddenly give birth to infants on the same day. Wealthy inventor and philanthropist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts seven of these miracle babies, creates the Umbrella Academy and teaches them to hone their powers and become superheroes.
But he also treats the children like the experiments they are, giving them numbers for names and a robot for a mother. They grow into unstable adults who are too busy battling drug addictions and ex-husbands to fight against evil. When Hargreeves dies (or was he murdered?), they move back home to his New York City mansion and become part of the puzzling mess he left behind.
Good thing they have a strategic edge: No. 1, Luther (Hopper), possesses super-strength. No. 2, Diego (David Castañeda), can throw knives in myriad directions. No. 3, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), slays her foes with the power of suggestion. No. 4, Klaus (Robert Sheehan), communes with the dead, a relentless group that includes his late brother, No. 6. And No. 5 (Aidan Gallagher) has time-travelling capabilities, but because of an unfortunate miscalculation, he’s still stuck in his schoolboy body.
Vanya (Page), aka No. 7, is the only one without powers — or at least that’s what they all think. Never underestimate the quiet nerd. Chasing them is an assassin, Cha-Cha (Blige) and her partner. They work for the Temps Aeternalis, an agency that recruits anomalies like them to preserve the time continuum … whatever that means.
In the four episodes reviewed here, the troubled dynamic between the siblings adds personal conflict to the usual save-the-world themes, while the characters’ quirks add an endearing fallibility. The macho No. 1 secretly dances to ’80s pop star Tiffany; No. 5 is in love with a store-front mannequin he “met” on his time travel through the future apocalypse. Couple it all with an out-of-the-world narrative arc and “The Umbrella Academy” stands out among the countless other superhero series splashed across billboards and your viewing queues.
“Doom Patrol” makes it clear within the first few minutes of its pilot episode via a confrontationally graphic sex scene that this gritty series is not for kids. It’s instead made for an age demographic more in tune with Netflix’s vodka-swilling “Jessica Jones” or the dark rage of “The Punisher.” It’s the third original series on the five-month-old streaming service after “Titans” and “Young Justice: Outsiders” and is as irreverent and crass as it is funny, though it sometimes tries too hard with the dark humor and comes off as self-conscious.
Villainous narrator Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) ushers viewers into a bizarre world of mad scientists and robo avengers, focusing first on NASCAR star Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser). After barely surviving a tragic accident, he awakens seven years later. It’s the 1990s and he’s strapped to a table in the home lab of Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton).
Caulder welded the crushed driver a new body out of steel, thus the forthcoming superhero name Robotman. The eccentric researcher has also opened his mansion to others who were rendered misfits by their accidents, and each seems to have been exposed to a supernatural force during their traumatic event.
They include WWII air force pilot Larry Trainor, aka Negative Man (Matt Bomer); 1950s-era starlet Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), and the rebel hippy Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero). They are forced into action when the mad doctor is kidnapped, but their foes come in the form of flatulent donkeys and other freakish phenomena.
Based on the characters created for DC by Arnold Drake, it’s already a hit with DC Comics aficionados lucky enough to land a screener. For the rest of us, this offbeat superhero tale is a refreshingly twisted tale accentuated by the unlikely casting of Fraser and Dalton.
Superhero series seem to be landing every 10 minutes, so these two shows risk becoming part of an already saturated market. But the deep peculiarity of “The Umbrella Academy” and “Doom Patrol” just might be the key to their survival.
‘The Umbrella Academy’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Where: DC Universe
When: Any time, starting Friday
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