Pop Culturing: As Disney/Marvel Readies to Bail on Netflix, Enter 'The Umbrella Academy'

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday February 15, 2019

From left to right: Aidan Gallagher, Ellen Page, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Tom Hopper, David Castaneda in "The Umbrella Academy."
From left to right: Aidan Gallagher, Ellen Page, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Tom Hopper, David Castaneda in "The Umbrella Academy."  (Source:Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix)

We are on the eve of the Great Streaming Wars.

By the fourth quarter of 2019, Disney will launch its very own streaming service. Called Disney Plus (or Disney+), the company that owns Marvel, Pixar, 21st Century Fox, ABC, the "Star Wars" franchise and much more will unleash its own over-the-top platform full of its impressive library of content as well as new films and TV shows. Most notably among the new programs cropping up is the "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian," directed by John Favreau ("Iron Man," "The Jungle Book"), starring Pedro Pascal, Nick Nolte and many more. Other high profile shows that are in the development pipeline include series based on the "Avengers" character Scarlet Witch, superheroes Falcon and Winter Solider, as well as a show based on Tom Hiddleston's Loki from the Thor universe.

That's an impressive slate but it's not the first time Disney's Marvel has ventured into the small screen. Most notably, in recent years, Netflix and Marvel worked together to bring to life some of the company's lesser-known characters, like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron First and Luke Cage. (There's also "The Punisher" series). The rollout of those shows climaxed with a film for Netflix called "The Defenders," which featured those four superheroes. Despite the popularity surrounding those programs, "Daredevil," "Luke Cage" and "Iron Fist" have been canceled by Netflix, signaling a major move from the Mouse House.

Ellen Page in a scene from "The Umbrella Academy." Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Back in August 2017, when Disney first announced its streaming service, the company also revealed it will end its distribution agreement with Netflix for new releases. Right now, you can watch "The Incredibles 2," "Black Panther" and other Disney movies and shows on Netflix but that won't last for long as Disney recently revealed that Marvel Studios' "Captain Marvel" will be the first film that won't end up on the streaming service after it's theatrical run.

With Disney turning off its faucet, readying to go to war with Netflix, Amazon and Apple, which is working rolling out an over-the-top service of its own, Netflix, which has no problem shelling out millions and millions of dollars for original content, is buckling up, and working to fill the superhero void that many of its users may feel once all of Disney's content has all but vanished from the popular streaming platform. Enter "The Umbrella Academy," which is now streaming in full on Netflix.

Based on the popular comic book series from My Chemical Romance front man Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá, "The Umbrella Academy" is not your typical superhero story. It does, however, most resemble the "The X-Men" but in a deeply weird way — think that misfit franchise meets Wes Anderson. The show follows a group of eight people, all of whom were born on Oct. 1, 1989 when 43 women, who were not pregnant when the day started, from around the world suddenly gave birth to children. Those eight kids were adopted by the mean spirited and eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore). Seven of the kids he adopted went on to have special abilities that range from super strength to time travel. Reginald started a school of sorts, training the kids to hone their powers and fight crime, forming The Umbrella Academy. Fast forward to the present day, when these kids are adults, and the death of their father brings the siblings together under suspicious circumstances.

From left to right: Cameron Brodeur, Aidan Gallagher, Blake Talabis, Dante Albidone, Eden Cupid, Ethan Hwang, Colm Feore in a scene from "The Umbrella Academy." Photo credit: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

"The Umbrella Academy" already comes with a built-in fan base and it's a smart move for Netflix to develop the popular series into a high budget TV show, especially in this moment when Disney/Marvel is pulling the plug on Netflix and migrating to Hulu (Disney owns 30% of Hulu and acquired 21st Century Fox's 30% when the company bought Fox) as well as its own platform. It is no coincidence that Netflix is launching its own superhero franchise on the dawn of the streaming wars.

The company doesn't have to enlist household talent to attract viewers to the show — the biggest star here is arguably Ellen Page (though Mary J. Blige shows up; more on her later) who plays Vanya, the only adopted child who does not have any sort of power (an outcast among outcasts). Marvel did the same in terms of casting when it came to its Netflix shows — none of its stars were big names — but some shows did feature A-listers in its supporting cast, like Rosario Dawson, David Tennant, Mahershala Ali and a few others. "The Umbrella Academy" features also has Blige as Cha-Cha, a time traveling assassin, as well as Tom Hopper, who plays one of the adopted kids, nicknamed Number One.

"The Umbrella Academy" is a misfire, however; tonally different from what Marvel and superhero fans may be looking for in a show. There's a robot mom on the fritz and a CGI monkey/butler named Pogo, who walks and talks, giving sage advice to the children. There's lots of characters to keep track of, each who have a completely different motive in a story that takes awhile to present itself. Those not familiar with the graphic novel series may struggle connecting with the show. Like Netflix's disastrous "Lost in Space," the glossy series feels too prestigious and heady to be a show for kids but it's too kiddie for adults who want the sex, drugs and violence from gritty superhero stories. "The Umbrella Academy" draws dead and doesn't live up to its potential.

None of that really matters, of course. Netflix doesn't play by industry rules; it makes its own rules and plays by those. The company is notorious for keeping quiet about how many of its users watch a series or a movie but that's changed recently. Figuring out how many people tuned in for a new show or film has been, up to this point, anecdotal. Judging how many thinkpieces a show generates or how it trending on social media were the best ways to gage the popularity of a program. But Netflix has flexed its muscles over the last few months, claiming that 80 million accounts watched the Sandra Bullock horror flick "Bird Box" during the first four weeks the movie debuted on the streaming service. More recently, the company said the campy drama "You," which was canceled on Lifetime but later revived by Netflix, was viewed by 40 million households — the same goes for the Gillian Anderson comedy "Sex Education." According to Deadline, Netflix, which revealed the numbers during its fourth quarter earnings, considers an episode as "viewed" if at least one episode has been watched at least 70% of the way through.

Mary J. Blige, left, and Cameron Britton in a scene from "The Umbrella Academy."

If those numbers are accurate, it would make "You" and "Sex Education" the most watched TV shows right now. FX CEO John Landgraf, notorious for criticizing Netflix in the past, slammed the company during the Television Critics Association this month, saying that was "not a remotely accurate representation of a longform program performance," suggesting about one fifth, or 8 million households, watched "You" (which is still an impressive number).

As existing networks gear up for the impending streaming battle (HBO is doubling its production, AMC is reaching into its vault and turning their most popular shows into feature films, and Apple is likely to unveil its possibly game-changing platform this spring) Netflix is putting in its own work, puffing up its chest and distorting reality.

What is even considered a breakthrough show when there were over 500 scripted series airing and competition for eyeballs in 2018? Netflix, which drops new content every Friday, has dominated every part of the TV landscape, and has leveraged enough power to create its own blockbusters. You may have no idea what "The Umbrella Academy" is right now but by this time next week, Netflix may tell you they've got another hit on its hands.