Supermen Explain Things To Me

A Review of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

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The Umbrella Academy is about a dysfunctional family, but more than that, it’s a very direct critique of the superhero genre in general. The central question of the show: “What would happen if you actually raised superpowered children to fight crime?” is answered with a resounding “Well, they would be fucked up.” This rare and refreshing critique, however, is firmly rooted in the pain of the series’ straight, male characters at the expense of the few female characters that have screen time. It’s a tradeoff we should be wary of, and is an example of a show being right in one area and so thoroughly wrong in another.

The conceit of the series is that in 1989, 47 women around the world spontaneously conceived and gave birth on the same day. An eccentric rich billionaire swooped up seven of these miracle children, who later turned out to have powers, and then raised them to be super-powered and super famous crime fighters of The Umbrella Academy (they have a line of lunchboxes).

Think Professor X. If Professor X also owned the merchandising rights for the X-Men.

Unlike in most of comicbookdom, however, The Umbrella Academy portrays this eccentric billionaire realistically, which is to say he’s portrayed as an asshole whose abusive childrearing led to his estrangement from all of his children. Children, he viewed solely as things and didn’t bother to name. Instead, he called them by numbers 1 through 7 (I wonder who the favorite was?).

Flash forward years later, their billionaire father is dead. The superpowered family has begrudgingly reunited for the funeral. No one likes each other because they have all spent years trying to flee the source of their trauma, and that includes each other.

They are also trying to stop the apocalypse, but mainly its about trauma.

As a character study, I am definitely in favor of what this series is intellectually trying to do. The X-Men (and its many derivatives) would have way more baggage than is often portrayed in the OG comic books and it’s refreshing to see a series that so pointedly calls that emotional revisionism to task. This examination, though, rarely extends to the show’s female characters. They are treated as objects the male characters use to get past the trauma of their father.

This is most immediately apparent with the show’s mother character. Mom, the women that raised these children, was a robot — a literal object — and in the present day, she is malfunctioning. The Umbrella Academy residents are debating what to do — shut her down or let her deteriorate — much like you would do a cat or dog.

Mom lacks agency of any kind. She lives only to serve the academy’s primarily male residents. There is a scene in episode three, Extra Ordinary, that brilliantly reflects this points where she recharges in a corner of paintings oblivious to the fact that she is just like the objects hanging above her — pretty, immovable, fated.

The pain of her deterioration is something she cannot express so its done through her “son” Diego (Number 2). He is sad about her death, and the story frames her loss through his sense of pain.

But does he really think that?

Never does he ask how he can save Mom permanently or grant her agency. The moment he realizes she cannot provide him the emotional support he craves, Diego shuts her down.

This isn’t even the only female character Diego treats like an object. Diego is friends with a female detective named Eudora Patch, who firmly believes in the rule of law. She tells him the entire season to respect her authority and never does he treat those requests seriously.

Halfway through the first season, she is killed by a pair of time-traveling assassins (more on this later). We never see this women’s funeral. We don’t learn much about her life, other than how it intersected with Diego. Her death is all about his pain, and through her, he discovers a lesson in not killing the assassin that murdered her.

Her death allowed him to grow. It’s still all about him.

In this series, females are often set up to be the instructive foils for the male characters growth. Remember the two time-traveling assassins we talked up earlier? Well one of them learns that their way of life is wrong and runs away with an ingenue from a donut shop. The other is incinerated in fiery flames. Which character do you think has the happier ending: The white male assassin Hazel or the black, female assassin Cha-Cha?

If you guessed the white man wins the happier outcome, then congratulations you’ve guessed the basic framework of the show: Men learn and grow while women suffer to assist in that growth.

Of the two female superheroes of the Umbrella Academy, one of them has her throat slit — is literally silenced — and the other turns out to be (spoiler) the cause of the apocalypse: a concept to be dealt with rather than a person deserving of healing.

The first person is Allison a.k.a. Number 3. Her power is that she can whisper rumors into peoples ears and brainwash them into doing whatever she wants, which, if I had to come up with an incel’s version of a superwoman, that would be it. It’s the misogynistic ideal of feminity — manipulative, powerful, and indirect.

Allison has used her power to get whatever she wants in life (e.g., a husband, an acting career, and a compliant daughter). Her arc is somewhat similar to Jessica Jones’ Killgrave character (a villain that also had the power to brainwash people), but where he was portrayed as a sick, irredeemable monster, Allison’s life is in shambles after her ruse was revealed one fateful night by her husband. Her power cannot stand up to the scrutiny of a male’s gaze.

To say that her character would be different if she were male is an understatement.

Allison is trying to overcome her power in a way that the male characters just don’t do. Diego is a vigilante, and he doesn’t stop to consider whether subverting the law is wrong. It’s merely his way. He has the certainty of being in the right, even if that’s not a right he’s earned.

Luther (Number 1), the Umbrella Academy’s Goldenboy, is so used to being called special, that realizing, years after everyone else, that his father didn’t care about him, sends him into a drunken shame spiral. He blindly asserts his will throughout the series, and never does he reconsider his actions for a moment.

Number 5, a time traveler that returned after years of being stranded in the post-apocalyptic future, is so confident that he’s right about everything, that he doesn’t tell most of the team that the apocalypse is happening until episode six.

These men don’t bother to examine their pasts, or even really how their present actions impact other people.

Allison, conversely, is constantly reevaluating her past, and narratively she “pays” for her indiscretions by getting her throat slit, and consequently, is unable to use her power.

The other men grapple and learn from their histories. Diego learns to use restraint. Klaus learns how to use his powers. Number 5 learns to rely on other people.

The women are punished with slit throats, explosions, and the end of humanity.

The silencing of Allison becomes particular frustrating because she is often the oppositional voice to Luther in the second half of the first season, and he uses her muteness to railroad past her pleas to listen.

In one frustrating scene, Allison is in a phone booth with Luther. The apocalypse is nearing, and she needs his voice to talk to her daughter. The notepad she is using to dictate the conversation drops to the floor, and rather than pausing the conversation, he presumes to speak for her in a speech that could also double as an apology Luther is giving to Allison:

Luther is using Allison to talk about his pain.

Again, it’s all about him.

It’s impossible to talk about this dynamic further without diving into Vanya’s character (Number 7), the person whose very nature is a spoiler.

Vanya is the apocalypse.

Raised her entire life to believe that she’s not special, it turns out she was so powerful that her abusive father gaslit her into thinking she wasn’t superpowered.

Her brothers and sisters treated her like shit both as children and adults. She was never in family portraits or on lunchboxes. In the present, when they argue about shutting down Mom, Diego hotly suggests that Vanya shouldn’t get a vote.

That pain and anguish Vanya receives from her family eventually explodes into a destructive fury that blows up the moon and brings about the apocalypse.

Luther doesn’t empathize with that pain. Instead, he treats Vanya as a threat to be dealt with. He locks her up, despite Allison’s objections, and leaves Vanya in a foam-padded cell to stew on his sense of betrayal. The other men don’t agree with this action, but they don’t stop it either, despite knowing at this point that Vanya is the source of the apocalypse.

Later, when Vanya escapes, the team of men make Allison think they are going through with her plan to communicate with Vanya rather than fight her.

Though, in actuality, Luther plans on using Allison (the women he loves, by the way) as a distraction to attack Vanya directly:

The men don’t listen, even though they have been wrong about nearly everything.

Unsurprisingly, their plan fails miserably, and in the end, the moon still explodes.

As a last ditch effort, the entire team time travels back to some point in the past to prevent the apocalypse once and for all. How they will do this remains unclear. The season ends with the team blinking out of the present.

Shortly before teleporting them, Vanya’s bringing about the apocalypse is described by Number 5 as a universal constant that needs to be stopped:

That’s not true, though, because unlike an asteroid or plague, the only thing needed to prevent this disaster is for the male characters to say they are sorry (Note, at this point in the story Allison has already apologized to Vanya). The way Number 5 refers to “fixing Vanya” makes it sound like Season 2 will be about removing her powers, and not so much reconciling with her.

In the comics, Vanya doesn’t receive even the possibility of redemption. Where in the show Allison shoots past Vanya’s ear to knock her out, in the comics Vanya is left paralyzed.

Maybe season 2 will be a rewriting of history where the male characters actually apologize to Vanya, and most shockingly of all, learn to communicate. I would love a season where the men realize they were shitty to Allison and Vanya. The way things were handled in the first season, however, leaves me to think that the misogyny here wasn’t an attempt to deconstruct masculinity in comic books, but a byproduct of it.

In Season 2, I very much expect that history will repeat itself.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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