Umbrella Academy Season 3 takes on too many characters, too much complexity — and the kugelblitz
Superhero family drama adds wealth of depth but at the expense of clarity
Way back when The Umbrella Academy first premiered in 2019, there was already a bit of an image problem. Between D.C., Marvel and even non-franchise options like Watchmen and The Boys, there wasn't much room for yet another superhero offering to stand out in the crowd.
Fast-forward three years and Umbrella's identity problem has only gotten worse.
The show's third season, which premiered on Netflix Wednesday, dives even further into the time travel aspect of its superpowered-sibling narrative — a trope that in the past few years seems to have consumed TV and movies, with everything from Russian Doll, Palm Springs, Everything Everywhere All At Once to, again, D.C. and Marvel jumping into the multiversal pot.
But showrunner Steve Blackman says Umbrella still stands "in a different space."
"It really is about a family first, and a very dysfunctional one at that — a sort of Wes Anderson, dysfunctional family like The Royal Tenenbaums," Blackman said in an interview with CBC.
"You know, we're trying to always subvert the genre of superhero as much as we can. And yes, it is becoming a crowded field, but I still think we managed to be something different than the other shows out there."
Looking at the third season, you can't fault the effort.
What began in Season 1 as a loose but ambitious story of seven orphans reuniting to save the world from the apocalypse — a danger their brother, Aidan Gallagher's Number Five, discovers after accidentally time travelling to the future and back — each successive season has followed the same formula, albeit with a growing number of characters and subplots.
WATCH | The Umbrella Academy Season 3 is 'about family first':
Season 2 saw the cast (accidentally) travel to the 1960s once again and fight to save the world from destruction — though with a refreshingly grown-up look at civil rights issues woven in and a mercifully shorter runtime. And the character development, tighter writing and expanded scope helped make that season an overall improvement over the first.
For Season 3, the show's writers apparently didn't see a need to mess with a good thing. The episodes are still shorter, with one even falling under the 40-minute mark. And following yet another botched effort at time travel, the Hargreeve siblings find themselves in an alternate version of their present, this time pitted against a through-the-looking-glass version of themselves: the Sparrow Academy.
The stakes are even higher; it's not just the Earth that's at risk but every version of it on every possible timeline. A timeline paradox — and the black hole "kugelblitz" wreaking havoc in the Hargreeves' basement — is threatening to rip apart the entire multiverse and everything in it.
But though the end result is a similarly irreverent storyline, full of all the offbeat comedy and mind-bending plot choices of past seasons, it almost gets crushed under its own weight. While last season saw the addition of Ritu Arya as assassin/frenemy Lila, Yusuf Gatewood as love interest Ray Chestnut, and Marin Ireland as pathos-engine Sissy, Season 3 comes with a tidal wave of new characters — along with different versions of some of the established ones.
Of the seven Sparrow Academy siblings, we're asked to meet, care about and remember Sloane (Genesis Rodriguez) as she hits it off with the eminently loveable Luther Hargreeves (Tom Hopper), Alphonso (played by an absolutely unrecognizable Jake Epstein of Degrassi fame) battling it out with Diego Hargreeves (David Castañeda) — and then there's Christopher, a sentient cube that speaks in its own unintelligible robot language.
When you factor in new characters outside of the Sparrows (including Euphoria's Javon Walton), new versions of old characters (like Justin H. Min's "new Ben") and a time-bending plot that has twisted so far into itself it's become almost impossible to follow, it can feel like Umbrella has almost jumped the shark.
But while Season 3 might not live up to the previous one, it doesn't fall on its face. The wider story in a season absolutely lousy with subplots gives Umbrella Academy the space to do what it does best: develop characters.
Robert Sheehan's Klaus stands out in an expectedly off-the-wall performance, as he discovers new elements to his powers that, he told CBC, read like "history repeating itself" back to his first standout role in the U.K.'s Misfits. Gallagher's Number Five continues to prove himself as the show's star attraction, even as the fact that his character is a 58-year-old trapped in a 13-year-old's body continues to grow more confusing as the actor himself inches toward legal drinking age.
And elsewhere, Elliot Page gave a deep and emotional turn to the first half of a season badly in need of one. When Page announced he was transgender in December 2020, Netflix quickly altered the show's credits to include his new name, but it wasn't until now that they could reflect that change in the show itself.
Though Blackman says they didn't learn of Page's transition until after the third season was already on paper, the show's writers consulted with GLAAD, trans writer Thomas Page McBee and Page himself about grafting his character's transition to Viktor Hargreeves over the existing plot.
The result is one of the strongest elements of the season. The team wanted to highlight the moment but not have it overshadow the story or become Viktor's only character trait.
"It was important that it didn't become the story of the show," Blackman said, "that it just became, you know, part of the show about a family who has a sibling that's transitioning and how they would handle that."
WATCH | The Umbrella Academy team reflects on Viktor's transition:
To that effect, we see virtually every character get a moment with Viktor, now one of the most high-profile trans characters ever on TV, accept him and move on. It's deftly handled without becoming an after-school special: Number Five even manages to be supportive of the announcement before immediately landing a characteristic barb in the next breath.
But in the same way as it does with other subplots, Season 3 has trouble juggling this storyline with all of the others. After Viktor's transition, he's left with little to do. In both the first and second seasons, he was driven by a struggle to learn about his past, control his otherworldly power and find a home in his family.
Though the first two seasons handled that well, all those issues seem to have been either resolved or forgotten by Season 3 and, even though he represents a larger part of the story here, it feels as if he has fewer motivations to contend with.
So while Umbrella Academy has firmly differentiated itself from other superhero fare, adding more complexity and more characters to a story already drowning in them causes the show to suffer. And — much like the kugelblitz in the basement — if the Umbrella keeps adding more weight, soon it'll fall right into its own black hole.