Back in the year 2000, when the X-Men trilogy kicked off the superhero movie craze, even Miss Cleo couldn’t foresee the genre’s pop culture takeover. These days, superhero movies and TV shows are taking over theatres and airwaves like Bébé’s Kids at a theme park. So, it makes sense if you’re suffering from cape and cowl fatigue. But not all superhero flicks and TV programs are created equal. And on occasion, a series comes along that slaps around your senses and demands you take notice. The Umbrella Academy is one such show.
In 2007, My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, and artist Gabriel Bá teamed up to create a graphic novel called The Umbrella Academy. A little bit X-Men and a little bit Harry Potter, the series follows a group of extraordinary children born to women who weren’t even pregnant. Reginald Hargreeves, a millionaire and genius inventor adopts seven of these children and raises them as a special forces team destined to save the world.
As the children grow up, adult drama creeps into their lives, and they go their separate ways. They’re so broken and full of resentment that not even the threat of an impending apocalypse can bring them back together. Or can it?
The Umbrella Academy is now a ten-episode Netflix series starring Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, and Aidan Gallagher as Hargreeves’ former disciples. This over-the-top program features lots of complicated characters, and twists and turns galore – perfect for a heavy-duty winter binge-session. The Umbrella Academy was shot in and around Toronto, and Netflix came to town to celebrate the program’s global premiere. That Shelf sat down with the series’ showrunner and executive producer, Steve Blackman, to discuss adapting the show.
Each episode of The Umbrella Academy immerses viewers in a vibrant comic book world. It takes the most fantastic (and absurd) elements of superhero stories (superpowers, time-travel, and melodrama) and plays them straight. The show doesn’t want to ground the heightened material in the real world or take itself too seriously, but it is incredibly earnest. There is a sentimental streak running through the series’ DNA that makes it easy to root for these damaged characters. The Umbrella Academy embraces its comic book roots without winking at the audience, and it’s a better show for it.
Throughout our conversation, Blackman sang the praises of the series’ source material. “Gerard [Way] and Gabriel [Bá] had spent years on this comic book, it has a cult following,” he told me. “My idea wasn’t to toss it out and try and start over. My idea was to make the fans feel as respected as possible while still adapting it.” He later added, “I had to go from 45 pages of comic to ten-hours of storytelling on a TV show, so I had a lot to fill in.”
The Umbrella Academy’s heroes would look great fighting off the apocalypse (and each other) on the silver screen. But it’s tough serving so many characters within the constraints of a 2-hour film. A streaming series is a whole different animal, and Blackman saw the opportunity to work with Netflix as a win-win for source material and its fans. Blackman said, “It was important to me not to alienate the base and also to make them feel like they still got in the TV show what made the comic wonderful for these people.”
One of The Umbrella Academy’s most wonderfully bizarre bits is the team’s butler/caregiver, a spectacled talking chimp named Pogo (voiced by Adam Godley). Pogo is an incredible technical achievement, especially from a VFX team working on a TV budget. “I insisted from the beginning that if we were going to do it and wanted to do it, I would go to a company like WETA, who at the time had never done TV,” Blackman said. He added, “I said to them, ‘Come do this thing for me.’ And they said, ‘We don’t do TV.’ And I’m like, ‘Why not? Here’s a great opportunity to do what you do so amazing, in a TV show,’ and they looked at the material and said, ‘Ok, we’ll do it.’ And it was very expensive and very complicated to do. Every shot of Pogo takes 12-weeks so you can imagine how much that was.”
There are a lot of ways a series like The Umbrella Academy might go off the rails, and I asked Blackman how he convinced his cast to buy into a story with a robot nanny and a talking chimp. “I had a lot of talks with them beforehand,” he said to me. “It helps that the cast are so nice, and I’m not just saying that. They’re a lovely group of people who like each other offset as much as they did on set. So, it wasn’t like I had any weird hostilities or egos to deal with.”
“We talked a lot as a group, [about] who each character was and how they fit into this world,” said Blackman. “Once they had a bigger understanding of it, we worked hard with Peter Hoar, the first director, to really make them feel grounded. You don’t feel like they’re thrown into this. You feel like they just exist, have always been in this world, and we’re just picking up where they left off. That was the goal.”
Blackman describes himself as a lapsed comic book guy. Someone who loved X-Men and Daredevil comics as a kid but couldn’t tell you what’s hot now. So, when Netflix initially pitched him on The Umbrella Academy, he thought it wasn’t the project for him. “What brought me to this was just a great story,” he said. “I had come off Altered Carbon, and Netflix wanted me to do another project, and they said this was a graphic novel and I’m saying, ‘No, no, it’s not for me. I’m not the graphic novel guy.’ And they said just look at it. And I instantly read it and said this is a dysfunctional family show.”
Blackman was drawn to the comic book’s messy family dynamic. He added, “It’s superheroes, yes, but that’s ancillary. This is a show about a broken family, foibles and all the warts that they have, and I wanted to tell that story. I saw in my head, a little Wes Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums. I said I can do this, I have a tone for this. It won’t be like Marvel, it won’t be like DC. And I’m very respectful of those, they’re very good at what they do, but this had to feel like something different.”
I asked Blackman about what makes his series different from all the other superhero shows on TV right now. He wasted no time responding, telling me, “The other stuff is very, very good and there’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but I feel this fits into a different space. It’s such a broken family show, and you’re rooting for these characters to come back together, The Big Chill-style. They’ve been apart so long, and they were a family way back when and now they barely know each other – one is an addict, one is messed up. Well… all of them need therapy.”
“Unlike the X-Men who could go to Professor Xavier’s house to train and leave if they wanted to, these guys… you don’t choose your family.” Blackman also added, “This is the dad they know. These are the brothers and sisters they have. And that’s it. They’re stuck. They don’t get to choose their family, so that’s a different take on it.”
Unlike many of the plot-heavy superhero shows on the air, The Umbrella Academy’s world has so much texture. The program slows down to let character beats play out and takes time out for fun personality flourishes. This is a show about the end of the world that stops (more than once) for dance numbers. It’s a dream-like dance sequence, and not a fight, that delivers the season’s standout moment.
“I wanted to do a dance, and I wanted to do it practically,” said Blackman. “So, there’s no CG in that scene. We hung thousands of lights in a park on a big rig and just started to lower them down and pick them up. And our DP did a great job with it. I wanted to do something that’s really fun and very heartfelt and sweet and not make it bigger than what it was. Ellen Page’s wife Emma Portner who is a famous choreographer came and did that choreography for free for us which is amazing.” Blackman followed up with, “I think it’s one of my favourite bits in the show.”
I ended our conversation by asking Blackman what nerdy obsession or prized possession he keeps on his shelf. “I’m a true collector,” he told me. “My obsession right now is two things: I have a huge collection of antique typewriters that I’ve been collecting for twenty-years.” My inner-Hemingway kicks in and I can’t help but interrupt him by blurting out the word heavenly. “It’s heavenly, and I make them all work. I tinker myself to the point where they can all type. And I’m also obsessing with radios now, antique radios. Small desktop radios.”
“I love that it was very simple technology,” he said. “I love the mechanical nature of typewriters. Unlike computers, these don’t break. You can fix a little piece, and they’ll go on forever if they’re in good shape. Before we had televisions, we used to sit around a radio. That was your TV, that was your internet. It was communal. And people sat down at night time, and they listened.”
You can watch The Umbrella Academy’s ten-episode season right now on Netflix.