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What if Marvel’s The Avengers were too busy bickering over breakfast to save the world? Such is the hyper-quirky starting point of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, in which a team of mismatched superheroes occasionally fight the forces of evil but are predominantly taken up with the slings and arrows of everyday life. Think Wes Anderson meets Curb Your Enthusiasm – with a sprinkling of “biff pow!” comic book excitement stirred through.
Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or with the original graphic novels by Gerard Way (of rock band My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Bá, is probably groaning already. With Marvel scraping its comic book barrel and Batman fresh from yet another reboot, does anyone truly require bonus superhero content? But while such cynicism is understandable it is misdirected at The Umbrella Academy. Returning for a third season, the madcap romp lands like a charming treat.
If anything, The Umbrella Academy doubles as an antidote to all those underwhelming Marvel TV spin-offs on Disney+. This late into the superhero craze, many of us will have had our fill of wisecracking heroes leaping tall buildings. By contrast, a tale of flawed humans try to work out their differences in trying circumstances never gets old. And as the new series gets underway, one of the challenges the Umbrella Academy heroes face is the gender transition of team-member Viktor, previously known as Vanya. He is played by Elliot Page, who in the real world has transitioned from Ellen.
Elliot’s transformation – and the way rest of the Umbrella Academy respond – is dealt with humanely and with humour. Everyone is supportive of Viktor, but he appreciates it will take a moment for them to come to terms with the new reality. There is lots of humanity here: nobody is preached at or ridiculed for not being bang up to date on questions of gender and identity. If only people were as empathetic and big-hearted beyond the screen.
Away from Viktor, Netflix has provided a lengthy list of spoilers to avoid – including any detailed references to an early set-piece that rates as the most outrageous Eighties tribute this side of the NeverEnding Story scene from Stranger Things. Then, the joy of The Umbrella Academy has always had less to do with the specificities of plot – which this season revolves around a mysterious hotel and its secrets – than with the chemistry between the characters.
Having only just prevented the apocalypse, the action resumes with Viktor and his companions bouncing into an alternative dimension. Here, the Umbrella Academy has been replaced the Sparrow Academy. They are a troupe of crime-fighters who, as with our heroes, were all born spontaneously to women around the globe in 1989 (a surprise to everyone – not least the mothers, none of whom were pregnant leading up to the births).
The similarities don’t end there. As with the the Umbrella Academy in their previous timeline, the Sparrows have been raised by Professor Hargreeves (Colm Feore), a mercurial inventor whose motives for assembling a crack squad of crime-fighters are at best ambivalent.
Alas, the universe isn’t big enough for two eccentric superhero gangs. Bad blood inevitably bubbles up. It doesn’t help that the Sparrows are mean, lean and skilled in the dark arts of brand extension (visitors to their lair receive a complimentary goodie bag).
The Umbrella Academy are, by contrast, a spectacular shambles. Supposed leader Luther (Tom Hopper) is nice but dim – and allows his feelings for another superhero derail him and put the rest of the gang at a disadvantage. We are also re-introduced to Robert Sheehan’s flamboyant and dissolute Klaus, whose superpower is seemingly getting on everyone else’s nerves, and Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), eager to reconnect with her daughter in the new timeline. Strangest of all is Five (Aidan Gallagher), a dead ringer for Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, who has the the ability to spontaneously blink across time and space.
Superhero parodies have arrived thick and fast. There is the gross-out the Boys on Amazon – which presents its Spandexed icons as fascist Übermensch. And the hilarious cartoon Teen Titans Go, which skewers the portentousness of the genre. But Umbrella Academy soars above mere pastiche – is it really all that clever in the first place to point out that real-world superheroes would be hugely problematic? – and tells a deeply human story of imperfect individuals muddling through. Funny, sweet, outrageous; third time out it once again puts on a brolly good show.