Two years ago, only really dedicated fans of Gerard Way’s 2007 graphic novel would’ve been familiar with the Hargreeves siblings. This week, legions of fans eagerly await the second season of Netflix’s adaptation of the obscure comic.
The cinematic story of the seven superpowered Hargreeves siblings has garnered attention for its style, cast, and perhaps most surprisingly, its emotional latitude. In corners of the internet, fans of the series create GIF-sets of Vanya dealing with childhood trauma and isolation, and write bulleted headcanons about what the Hargreeves siblings do when they hang out. There’s a sense that Umbrella Academy is reflecting something familiar, even under the wildest circumstances.
Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe take a similar approach online, reveling in moments of hardship and struggle, but when compared to the canonized moments in the mega-franchise, the remixes exist more to fill in a void. After two decades of the modern superhero blockbuster, there’s more potential in a comic book property than costumes, clashes, and a cosmic beatdown, and one of the keys to the cult success of Umbrella Academy is that it does what the MCU promised, but never actually delivered: heroes interrogating their own emotional ordeals.
It started with shawarma
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a cumulative product of Kevin Feige and dozens of other cooks in the kitchen, loves to imply that its characters have an emotional life beyond finding the bad guy and defeating them. Sometimes it’ll even show it, like when the Avengers grab shawarma after the Battle of New York — a quick scene filmed after the movie’s Hollywood premiere. Or when the Avengers all try to lift Thor’s hammer in Age of Ultron — an exchange that spawned many a fan theory about who was worthy. Or when the whole plot of Iron Man 3 turned out to have been Tony Stark telling the story to Bruce Banner.
These scenes have something in common: They’re pretty much universally beloved. But even as early as Age of Ultron, as the MCU began to organize its narrative ducks into the rows of Avengers: Endgame, the franchise strained to make room for emotional continuity.
Iron Man 3 brought a traumatized, anxiety ridden Tony Stark to a satisfying emotional conclusion in which he walked away from the suit. Then he continued to be Iron Man, with but the barest of explanation, in another five movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier hung an entire film on Steve Rogers’ enduring relationship with Bucky Barnes. It was followed by a movie in which Cap betrayed his comrades and flaunted international law for Bucky. The two characters have shared only a handful of conversational scenes since Bucky’s introduction.
The closer the MCU got to its climax, the more it discarded emotional continuity in favor of the mechanical continuity of its time-hopping, stone snatching plot. In turn, while Avengers: Endgame galvanized the franchise’s fanbase, it also generated significant critical examinations of how the film ended the years-long emotional arcs of three original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow.
The fact that those examinations are so widespread reveals a real hunger, among superhero fans, for stories in which characters’ emotions and relationships are given a much heft as who has which Infinity Stone and the mechanics of time travel. In 2007, The Umbrella Academy was a pointed reaction to superhero comics, and in the now Umbrella Academy feels like the cinematic equivalent.
Found family as a foundation
The very setup of the first season of The Umbrella Academy separated it from a lot of other superhero media: the characters already knew each other, already had pre-existing relationships. There was no need to recruit people, no need to toss them in a room for the first time and do awkward introductions. The reason they come together isn’t to save the world (not initially at least), but because their father died (and may or may not have been murdered).
There is an overarching grandiose world-saving plot driving both seasons of The Umbrella Academy, but threaded through all of that are the relationships between the Hargreeves siblings and the shared trauma they go through. In fact, that shared trauma isn’t a backseat to a big save-the-world; it’s the reason they even need to save the world in the first place.
The Hargreeves siblings were all born on the same day and adopted by eccentric millionaire Reginald Hargreeves, who forced them to be superheroes. At the start of the first season, they’ve all left the team and are seeing one another for the first time in a while. Dutiful Luther (Tom Hopper) was the only one who continued to follow his father’s orders, living alone on the moon for years, hoping that by fulfilling his menial duties he’d win his father’s approval. Meanwhile, Diego (David Castañeda) became a vigilante on his own, determined to save people without his father’s mandate. Klaus (Robert Sheehan), who’s been communicating with dead brother Ben (Justin Min), is a drug addict. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) became a celebrity, but her reality-warping powers have destroyed her personal life. Five (Aidan Gallagher) disappeared years ago, after trying to prove their father wrong about time travel. And Vanya (Ellen Page), who the family believes doesn’t have superpowers, and was completely isolated from her family for her childhood, wrote a tell-all memoir some years ago.
Things are, in a word, tense between the siblings, especially after Five crashlands back in 2019 and warns them of an impending apocalypse. Much of the first season revolves around the characters confronting their childhood trauma and coming to terms with it. Some, like Klaus, are more aware of how abusive their father was, while others like Luther, continue to paint him in an idolized light. While they try to figure out what happened to Sir Hargreeves and prevent the end of the world, they’re also actively interrogating their past and their own relationships. They’re forced to work and live together for the first time in years, which brings mixed reactions. For every soft moment of Vanya offering to put on a pot of coffee for Five when they meet late at night, Diego yells at Vanya for getting in the way and Luther and Five butt heads over who’s the more capable hero.
That interrogation of trauma gets handwaved over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which hints at the devastation that the events wreak upon its characters but always has them up and ready to kick ass in the next installment. But The Umbrella Academy isn’t about getting to that next installment; it is the in-between of installments, the aftermath of a rigid childhood raised to fight crime with abusive training regimes.
The first season of The Umbrella Academy has high stakes, action sequences, and a central mystery at its core, but smaller character moments punctuate the bigger plot, which then themselves lead to further conflicts. Vanya and Allison begin to bond after Allison confronts Vanya about her budding relationship. Klaus and Diego have a heart-to-heart after Klaus asks Diego to help him sober up. One of the most iconic moments of the first season has the family members in separate parts of the house, seemingly isolated from one another, and then dancing to the same song in their childhood bedrooms — an indication that they’re not as alone in the world as they think they are and that they’re all desperately searching for that connection.
Six siblings with preexisting relationships naturally sets up interesting scenarios of how each combination gets along, and The Umbrella Academy actually gives time and attention to these different dynamics. Showrunner Steve Blackman weaves them together as an integral part of the plot instead of an afterthought, even as the siblings team up to fight off a Big Bad.
That is not to say The Umbrella Academy handles it perfectly. The first season simultaneously balanced worldbuilding and character, and while the more humane moments are essential to the plot, they don’t always resonate. Despite being adopted siblings, Allison and Luther have romantic feelings for one another, which never gets really interrogated by the other characters when they find out. After accidentally time traveling and serving a year in the Vietnam War, Klaus returns to the present and gets into an altercation with veterans who accuse him of not being one of them. Diego’s on-and-off girlfriend is basically killed for shock value.
But the foundation of a found family interrogating their shared trauma is there, and it’s a goldmine for fans who strain to see these moments in superhero media that sweeps all the emotional turmoil it just set up under the rug so that the team can focus on blowing up the bad guy.
In the end, the bad guy isn’t the gun-slinging assassins, the creepy serial killer boyfriend, or the all-controlling Commission, but their shared trauma — specifically, Vanya’s trauma of being gaslit, drugged, and isolated her entire childhood manifesting itself into uncontrolled and catastrophic powers. The characters don’t entirely learn from their past by the end of the season (in fact, the apocalypse is essentially triggered by Luther locking Vanya up), but the past is confronted, out there in the open, ready to interrogate. The MCU, confined to installments of a film franchise, only creates the illusion of those emotional moves.
Let us not ignore that Umbrella Academy is horny
Umbrella Academy is not the only superhero show where character emotion is as important — if not more important — than fighting the bad guy. But it might be the sexiest.
Doom Patrol (an adaptation of the comic that inspired the comic that Umbrella Academy was based on, if you would believe) also prioritizes its characters’ inner lives. This is a particularly easy lift for Doom Patrol, as it features multiple characters whose powers are used as metaphor for their traumas. Larry Trainor is filled with guilt and regret for remaining in the closet about his sexuality for so long, and only begins to work through his shame once he embraces the literal energy monster that lives inside him. Jane’s multiple personalities exist in a mental space that other characters occasionally visit, turning her emotional turmoil into a literal set piece.
Netflix’s The Old Guard (not a superhero story, but still a comic book one!) has also hit fans as a fantastical action adventure where the plot revolves around a found family whose emotional development is given as much weight as the story. DC Universe’s Titans lives up to its comic book teen drama origins, but, because it’s exclusive to DC Universe, barely anyone watches it.
But none of these shows are as into their own sexy aesthetic as Umbrella Academy, and that pays its own dividends when it comes to emotion-hungry fans.
All of the adult actors are certainly attractive people, which makes emotional moments appealing in a way that’s easily turned into GIF sets. The Umbrella Academy doesn’t romanticize sadness, but facing childhood trauma is more palatable when it’s strong-jawed David Castañeda crying over his dead robot mom or Ellen Page confronting her repressed memories and destroying the world in a fitted white suit.
There are multiple romantic arcs in the first season of The Umbrella Academy, some squicky (cough, Luther and Allison), some short (Diego and his detective sometimes-girlfriend Patch), some sweet (assassin Hazel and donut shop owner Agnes), and some manipulative and evil (Vanya and Harold Jenkins). But Blackman made the correct choice by giving Robert Sheehan — who’s been a darling on Tumblr since his role as Nathan Young on Misfits — the most tragic and romantic romance of season one, a deep connection with a Vietnam soldier who is killed in action. It’s tragic from the setup, star-crossed lovers displaced by time. Klaus then pines and yearns for the lost Dave, all while wearing just a jacket over his bare chest and eyeliner that would make Umbrella Academy graphic novel creator — and My Chemical Romance frontman — Gerard Way proud.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe never promised that it would be sexy. Though when it enticed viewers to the setting, it wasn’t just with shiny armor, fun fights, and snappy dialogue. It was also with the goals, drives, and hangups of its characters. The reaction to Endgame’s endings for Captain America and Black Widow reveal that the audience was just as interested in those characters’ feelings as their actions.
And those fans weren’t wrong to expect that kind of storytelling from the genre. From the X-Men to Spider-Man — and all the way back to Superman, who leapt onto the comics pages with a built-in love triangle — superhero stories have always leaned into soap opera. Umbrella Academy proves there’s still an audience for this kind of thing. By promising soap opera emotions, the MCU showed that it knew that very well — but it didn’t consider keeping that promise to be a big priority.