Monday, March 4, 2019

Umbrella Academy and the De-Marvelization of Netflix

Over the past ten years, two juggernauts within the entertainment industry have risen up that, for better or worse, have permanently shifted the way movies and television are made today.

The first, The Walt Disney Company, was an old player in the Hollywood system, well established and with a familiar brand presence. But through a series of aggressive purchases of other companies, plus a daring new strategy of cross-promoting their films through "cinematic universe" style movies, they effectively forced all other major studios to play by their new tent-pole franchise strategy. The acquisition of Marvel was probably the most significant moment in this narrative. The subsequent "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (or MCU) rewrote the handbook for how to get movie-goers into seats, at a time when audiences willingness to head to the theatre was dwindling.

Speaking of dwindling cinema attendance, the second industry juggernaut, Netflix, effectively destroyed the home video rental market, and ever since then, has been chipping away of what is left of regular cable services. Other streaming services, like Hulu and Crave, have risen up to compete with them. Even television broadcasting companies, like CBS, are trying to entice viewers onto their own streaming services, but despite this, Netflix has remained the front-runner. Even when major networks pulled their content from Netflix, hoping to protect their own viewership, Netflix survived and thrived by fostering it's own original content.

By the force of these two companies, one thing has become very clear. No one wants to leave their house unless given a very good reason. Otherwise, we'd all rather stay in and watch Netflix.

So it's little surprise that for a while, these two teamed up to create content. Marvel launched several TV shows on Netflix, including Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and the Punisher. All of them developed followings, and the shows allowed the Marvel brand to pursue stories that might be too mature to be palatable as part of the MCU. But gradually, these shows have been dying off. Netflix cancelled the last two quite recently, and while it might be easy to get mad at Netflix for doing this, my guess is their long-time collaborator is no longer playing ball.

Because yet another media giant is coming for Netflix and this time, it's Disney. Their own streaming service, Disney+, is due for a US launch in the fall. Let's face it. They'd rather not let Netflix enjoy a slice of their Marvel pie. 

So with Marvel no longer in the picture, where was Netflix going to get wham-bam super hero content for our lazy I-don't-want-to-leave-the-house butts?

Enter a team of heroes. Enter The Umbrella Academy.

Tale As Old As Time

The Umbrella Academy follows a group of super-powered siblings, who were all adopted as infants by eccentric millionaire, Reginald Hargreaves. Raised to be a crime-fighting team, they've since gone their separate ways, largely due to the abuse they suffered as children at the hands of their "father." But when they get the news that dear old Dad has died, they're forced to reunite for the funeral, which is crashed by an unexpected guest.

Their time-travelling brother, Five, ran away as a child, but he's back now, with bad news to boot. One, that he's a fifty-eight-year-old man trapped in the body of a thirteen-year-old. And two, that the apocalypse is coming in eight days and it's up to their dysfunctional family to try to stop it.

It's only been a couple weeks since the show launched, and already it's made an enormous splash. While Netflix's formulas for measuring viewership are a bit confusing, by most metrics, Umbrella Academy's debut has surpassed every Marvel property TV show that Netflix has ever carried. And yet, undeniably, Umbrella Academy owes much of its success - perhaps even its existence - to Marvel. Not just because of the economic pressures that likely played a role in Netflix choosing to develop the show as outlined above. But in terms of tone, character, plot and theme, Umbrella Academy owes more to Marvel properties than almost any other source.

Many have pointed out that The Umbrella Academy is essentially what you get if Professor Xavier had been abusive towards the X-Men (one of the few Marvel properties Disney doesn't control the movie rights to. Yet.). Or it's a goofier, more stylish version of the Marvel/Netflix shows it was designed to replace. But if you ask me, there's an even clearer analogue in the MCU, and for the remainder of this essay, I plan on focusing on the similarities between the two.

Before I do though, please remember that similarity is not necessarily the same as plagiarism or unoriginality. Most of the similarities these properties share are due to the fact that both are superhero genre science fantasies. The tropes I describe are healthily on display in most superhero teams, whether you're talking about The Incredibles, The Justice League, or The Avengers. In many ways, Umbrella Academy's use of these tropes is more a form of "joining the conversation" or responding to tropes that have existed for a very long time. After all, even if Reginald Hargreaves is basically an abusive Charles Xavier, the implications of that are dramatically different, and why not create a property that explores the impact of an abusive mentor figure on a team of superheroes? But setting X-Men aside for another day, let's take a look at...

Guardians of the Academy: Umbrella Galaxy


We're all so used to the MCU, it might seem hard to remember that there was a time Disney wasn't certain Guardians of the Galaxy would be a smash hit. But once upon a time, the film was considered a gamble. Enough so that it was scheduled for release in August, a month that is famously lean for new releases. Disney didn't run the risk that the movie would fall flat among the bigger, flashier movies released earlier in the summer, prime "tent-pole" movie season. Guardians likely did benefit from being the only thing worth seeing in theatres for the month of August, but in hindsight, the film didn't just succeed because of marketing strategy. It succeeded because it was good.

Unlike previous entries into the MCU, Guardians was the first to feature heroes that by and large, no one knew. And it just looked so silly! A talking racoon? A sentient tree monster? Who was going to watch that? As it turned out, literally everyone. It knew it was silly, and it reveled in it. The characters were memorable, the aesthetic appealing and the theme of misfits coming together to save the world just so satisfying. In many ways, the relatively unknown nature of the property freed up the production team to pick and choose what elements they thought would work and what would build a strong movie.

In a similar vein, I'm not even going to pretend I'd heard of The Umbrella Academy before it popped up in my Netflix feed. And I say that as someone who actually reads comics. Not religiously. Not enough so to try to claim a high degree of street cred. But enough so that I know more than the big players of Marvel and DC. Enough so that seeing The Umbrella Academy get an adaptation, it made me hopeful Netflix might distribute the rumored adaptation of Black Hammer. Like, see? Enough so I've read at least SOME comics.

And so, Netflix had a lot of leeway when it came to adapting The Umbrella Academy, and what they chose ended up being something that hits almost all the same notes as Guardians of the Galaxy. Swap outer-space for an Edward Gorey soaked orphanage vibe, and you've essentially got this series. And because we all prefer seeing these comparisons as outright contests, let's bring back one of my favorite features of this blog. 

Trope VS Tropes!!!! WHO DID SUPERHERO GROUPS BEST???

Category 1: Plot

The plots are almost identical between these two, aside from the inciting incident. In Guardians, a group of misfits meet in prison, and discover they can make a lot of money if they work together to bust out. But as they pursue the cash, they realize that they have something world-ending on their hands. Can they overcome their personal weaknesses to form an effective team and save the world????

In Umbrella, our heroes meet at a funeral and as befits a funeral, they have history with each other. Initially, they each want to get something out of that funeral - closure, cash, validation. But as they each pursue their goals, they realize that they have something world-ending on their hands. Can they overcome their personal weaknesses to form an effective team and save the world????

Without giving too much away, I'll say this. Despite the characters not knowing each other, Guardians has the stronger, tighter inciting incident and, all the way through, the more motivated, driving plot. This is pretty typical of movies compared to TV properties, but whoever said these contests are fair? Still, when it reaches the final act, there is no denying that the stakes feel higher and more compelling in Umbrella Academy. There are some incredible moments through the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, but I'm not sure anyone ever really engages with the villain or feels the sense of dread Umbrella Academy manages to invoke. Still, due to never lagging and never wasting a moment of my time, this point goes to Guardians of the Galaxy. Way to go, guys!

Category 2: Tone

Both films are marked by high amounts of humor, undercutting the casual violence that the characters participate in. Of the two, Umbrella definitely has the darker tone, with actual blood appearing in several scenes. Much of this has to do with Guardians making certain they maintain their PG-13 rating in theatres, where red blood is marketing poison. In fact, I'd argue that if there was blood, the violence would feel almost identical between the two. I'm guessing one of the reasons Umbrella Academy was more successful than previous Marvel/Netflix collaborations is because that, even with the red blood, the level of violence is more on par with MCU movies than the television shows.

But even outside the violence, Umbrella Academy deals with more mature themes. Both properties are about traumatized misfits, making jokes about how much their lives suck, but in Umbrella Academy, the suckage is just more real. People die in the present, not just backstories. The line between hero and villain is blurry. Guardians tries to explore some of these same emotional places, with characters like Nebula crossing over from evil into good come the sequel. But I'm of the opinion that the darker moments are just better done in Umbrella Academy. When Klaus cries, you cry.

Guardians is almost hampered by its own optimism when it comes to the dark moments. Though, on the other hand, it's more consistently funny. Since it's not trying to balance anything as dark as what Umbrella Academy does, it's less likely that a joke arrives at a time when the audience isn't ready to laugh. 

Umbrella Academy is assuredly darker than Guardians, and so the comparison isn't as one-to-one here as it might be in other categories. It won't be for everyone, and in many ways, whichever you prefer will win out. But for my part, I found the tone more interesting in Umbrella Academy. It gave itself more room to do more things. Some have complained it tries to be too many things, but for me, the blend absolutely worked. So point to Umbrella Academy!

Category 3: Music

It was when I searched out a playlist of the Umbrella Academy music and put it on that the similarities between the two properties really began to hit me. This one is closely related to tone, and it's striking how much both properties rely on music to carry the humor and tone of their stories. It's pretty easy to trace a line between a jailbreak happening to "The Pina Colada Song" in Guardians and Five dispatching a team of assassins in a doughnut shop to the tune of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

Both rely on nostalgic music to tell parts of their stories, and some of my favorite scenes owe their impact to the soundtrack. Guardians is anchored to seventies pop, Umbrella Academy draws from wider sources and decades, with a penchant towards rockabilly. Overall, Umbrella Academy featured more music that I like. Artists who I love and wish got more attention appeared all over the show, so I'm a bit biased towards their soundtrack BUT! But...

Guardians of the Galaxy uses licensed music better than almost any movie or television show has within recent years. Most of the music is diegetic too - meaning that the audience understands that the soundtrack heard by the audience can also be heard by the characters. On top of that, the music is clearly used to tell a character story, about Peter Quill and his relationship with his mother. In Umbrella Academy, only a few scenes bother with this level of character integration (hint: they're also the most powerful). Otherwise, it's just awesome, funny music playing overtop of dramatic scenes. Guardians does that, plus ties the music into the identity of the main character.

So overall, the win goes to Guardians. Even if I'd personally rather listen to Umbrella Academy on loop.

Category 4: Theme and Villains

The enemy is Dad. Bad parenting is the root cause of almost every problem both groups face. Ronin the Accuser is something of a villain-by-proxy for Thanos in the first Guardians, and then, in the second, the metaphor lands much closer when Starlord meets his actual father.

From the outset of Umbrella Academy, child abuse and reconciliation are central themes. I don't want to spoil how everything plays out over the course of the series, but rest assured, Reginald Hargreaves plays an instrumental role in how everything goes down, even after his death. Umbrella Academy has a plethora of villains, and manages to explore its themes around overcoming your childhood in a variety of ways through them. By the time the true villain of the series does reveal themselves, it's not enough to wipe the record clean for Reginald Hargreaves or others who supported him. It's still kinda true. The enemy is Dad.

Overall, the villains are scarier, more memorable and more thematically resonant in Umbrella Academy. Honestly, I wish I could say more, but I'd rather not spoil anything, so I've confined myself to these words. But I don't think you have to say much in order to beat out someone as forgettable as Ronin the Accuser. And much as Ego was an improvement, he doesn't hang over the series the way Reginald Hargreaves does. That much is evident from episode one. So in the end, our winner is Umbrella Academy, by a long shot.

Category 5: The Heroes

When Guardians of the Galaxy came out, it copied a lot of the successes of the Avengers. After all, Disney was trying to make money off of an unknown intellectual property. Why not follow the formula of their most successful franchise? People have made a lot of jokes about how easily the team members match up across the two films and, wouldn't you guess it...

THE HERO: Captain America = Starlord = Luther

THE LADY FRIEND: Black Widow = Gamora = Allison

THE MUSCLE: Thor = Drax = Diego

THE WISE GUY: Iron Man = Rocket = Five

THE SWEET HEART: Hulk = Groot = Klaus

THE OTHER ONE: Hawkeye = Mantis = Ben

 THE MENTOR: Nick Fury = Yandu = Hargreaves

Superhero teams tend to function on a system that can be described as a Five Man Band. The five core characters that form the Avengers, the Guardians and the Hargreaves siblings have been repeated ad nauseum across superhero fiction. Much of the drama that comes from these superhero mash-ups come from how different characters inhabit a role and whether they play with or against type.

FOR EXAMPLE!!!

Of our classic "hero" role outlined above, Captain America is the only one who plays the trope completely straight. He's ethical, kind, a touch na├»ve and a natural leader. Even though Tony Stark is the more prominent character in the group, he's not an organizer. So that role falls to the good soldier. Contrasting him is Black Widow, a pragmatist who serves as an ideological foil for him, with her history as a hired killer. Among the reasons Black Widow is more compelling opposite Captain America than The Hulk is because, frankly, their roles are more intertwined. 

On the other hand, Starlord is a self-centered rascal, and it takes some time before he settles into the role of leader and organizer. The lady friend who contrasts with him is Gamora, a far more ethical, determined person. She makes up for what he lacks, steering him towards doing good. They're something of a deconstruction of the leader classic, with more qualities of a good leader embodied in the second-in-command, rather than Starlord himself.

And then there is Luther. On the surface, he's very much Captain America, with his brawny physique, dedication to the team and reliance on black and white morality. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear that the naivete that made Steve Rogers sweet might be making Luther dangerous. It's a deconstruction of a different variety. Allison has a more world-wearied persona, having made more of her own mistakes. 

Similar comparisons can be made across the other characters. Thor, Drax and Diego are the least deeply entrenched in the team drama, and function more in a supportive role, whether that be by punching things or cracking jokes. Iron Man, Rocket and Five all could, arguably, lead the group if they wanted to. They're the most powerful and effective individual, so wouldn't that suggest they'd make the best person to call the shots? But through a combination of ego and surliness, they struggle to take on the squishier, people handling aspects of that role. 

Finally, there's the team sweet heart. The one who makes the audience cry with their tragic backstory or willingness to sacrifice for the group. Classically, without the sweetheart, the team falls apart. The Hulk is probably the most playing against type, as he eschews the whole role at points, much to the distress of his teammates, who all just want to convince him he's worthy of love. Groot is lovable, largely because of his willingness to protect the others and his innocence. And finally, there is Klaus, who despite his numerous addictions and calloused selfishness, is probably the most loyal take on the character type. He's the literal connection to the team's past, through his ability to commune with the dead, and as mentioned above, if Klaus cries, the audience cries. He's a precious little cinnamon roll that the world keeps pooping on, and there's almost no better recipe for audience sympathy.

In all three of the above iterations, each of the characters doesn't just exist as an individual, but as a member of a team. It might be tempting to cherry pick a perfect team from across the three properties best characters - one where the hero is Starlord, the lady friend Black Widow, the muscle Drax, the wise guy Five and the sweet heart Klaus - but even though these five would be my five favorites in each category, they don't work well mixed together. 

And even though only Black Widow made it into my top pick for each category, I think somehow, as a team, the Avengers are the strongest of the bunch. Maybe it's because they've got add-ons like Hawkeye and Nick Fury. I don't know. Suffice it to say, there's a reason the Guardians were modeled on the Avengers and that the Umbrella Academy echoes that themselves.

So I'm breaking my own rules and giving it to Avengers for this category. I CANNOT BE STOPPED!

OVERALL:

?????????

With both Guardians of the Galaxy and The Umbrella Academy, the franchises are still in progress. I'd say that I probably preferred the original Guardians movie, but some aspects of the second disappointed me, which raises the new kid in my estimation - The Umbrella Academy - due to having had fewer chances to mess up it's legacy. 

I'm mostly just grateful that we live in a world that gets to have both - the optimism of the MCU and the dour stylishness of The Umbrella Academy. And as Disney and Netflix move into competition with one another, my hope is that Netflix has enough of their Marvel formula mastered to carve out its survival underneath the pressure of Disney's streaming service. Disney has eaten up a lot of companies recently, and, as much as I enjoy their content, I get nervous thinking of a world where they consume too much of the media pie. 

So I'm all here for Netflix creating its own mythos. And if The Umbrella Academy is the first step towards the new media landscape, I'm excited to see where it goes.