The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol subvert standard superhero genre tropes and explore the stranger side of superhero storytelling.
You can’t throw a metaphorical rock across the television landscape without hitting at least half a dozen superhero shows.
We have dark, brooding superheroes who use nothing but their fists and endless riches, and cheery, breezy superheroes armed with superpowers and a ready quip. We have superheroes with tragic backstories, mysterious backstories, morally ambiguous backstories. We even have shows that are essentially just the superhero’s backstory.
We have shows about superhero loners, duos, trios, and teams; superhero found families, biological families, and dysfunctional families; gen z superheroes, millenial superheroes, and gen x superheroes (baby boomers are villains, obviously).
With so many superhero shows floating around, it can be hard for a new one to stand out among the increasingly crowded field.
Luckily, both The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol set themselves apart by turning genre tropes on their head and unapologetically leaning hard into the strangeness of their storytelling.
In doing so, they further push the boundaries of the superhero genre and redefine who gets to be a superhero.
(Major spoilers for The Umbrella Academy season 1 ahead)
The Umbrella Academy is, first and foremost, a story about family.
A really fucked up, barely functional family traumatized by its caretaker/father and mostly raised by its chimpanzee butler and robot mother.
We are, of course, used to seeing dysfunctional families and neglectful fathers in our superhero shows. Except normally, the dysfunctional families and bad fathers are in the hero’s rearview mirrors — part of the hero’s backstory, the things which motivate them to do better and be better in their new found families.
Great apes are generally found in the rogues gallery, rather than in the ancestral home helping to raise children. Ditto on robots, for the most part (though people with robot parts or cyborgs are generally found on the superhero side of things).
The Umbrella Academy first distinguishes itself from other superhero shows by taking a common trope in superhero comics — the kindly, older hero who becomes a mentor and good father figure to a lonely group of misfits — and going in the complete opposite direction. Asks — but what if that man was neither kindly nor a good father figure? What if it were easily debatable whether or not he was a kind of monster himself?
Reginald Hargreeves of The Umbrella Academy is not a gentle old man looking to help lost and lonely children. He is so detached from them that he never even gives them names, instead choosing to label them with numbers; it’s their robot mother/nanny who ends up naming them.
He withholds love from all of the children so severely that they almost completely fracture, both as a family unit and as individuals. He manipulates Allison, locks Klaus in a mausoleum and isolates and neglects Vanya to the point where he is essentially to blame for her supervillain origin story.
The Umbrella Academy also gives us a decidedly stranger and more dysfunctional set of superheroes than we’re used to seeing. Of course there are your standard vigilantes, like Diego. And once we find out Vanya’s superpower — the ability to manipulate sound into pure, destructive energy — it’s certainly unordinary, but not too far from the range of superpowers we normally see.
But things just get stranger from there.
Allison has the ability to tell lies that change the shape of reality, Luther is super strong and now a super hairy great ape/man hybrid. Klaus is Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense all grown up and with a raging drug addiction in order to numb his abilities, while Ben can summon monsters from another dimension through his body.
Also, he’s dead, but he doesn’t let a pesky thing like that stop him from talking to his brother and helping out the family when they need him most.
Finally, to round out our not to merry band of misfits, we have the time traveling #5, who — thanks to a time traveling mishap of epic proportions — is actually 58 year old assassin in 13-year-old’s body.
An added feature about these superpowers is, first, for a superhero show, we barely see them. Secondly, these powers have been more a source of pain and suffering than they have been a way to inspire and save.
Though at least with The Umbrella Academy, the Academy’s powers were — at one time, at least — used to save other people.
In DC Universe’s Doom Patrol (with the most recent comic book iteration written by Umbrella Academy scribe Gerard Way!), we’re treated to another misfit group of superheroes with strange powers.
However, unlike Netflix’s dysfunctional family, these individuals are so strange and so scared of what they can do and the world around them that they have not yet even begun to think about how to be a superhero.
To be fair, they also barely even even know how to be a person since their conditions are all so extreme that the members of the nascent team have spent decades moldering in a hidden-away mansion in the middle of nowhere.
Doom Patrol likewise plays with genre conventions, giving us a strange team of misfits who — more or less — want little to nothing to do with saving the world. In fact, when they decide to take a stand and try, the result is nothing short of disastrous.
And really, really absurd.
Like The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol doesn’t shy away from the strangeness of its characters or the overall absurdity of superhero comics as a genre.
In fact, Doom Patrol delights in its strangeness on a different level than The Umbrella Academy, fully embracing it and creating a show more characterized by its absurdity and playfulness than Netflix’s slightly more serious version.
The villain, Mr. Nobody (voiced by lovely Alan Tudyk), is a literal shattered version of a man who narrates each of the episodes with numerous fourth-wall breaking moments. There are no sly winks to the camera here — just straight up taunts and diatribes to both the characters in the show and those of us watching at home.
The heroes are, to put it plainly, characters who would’ve probably been rejected by Professor X’s gifted academy.
Negative Man has a being of pure energy living within him who he can’t control (and makes him pass out if he tries to do something it doesn’t like), while Rita Farr turns into an uncontrollable blob of a person if she gets too stressed out. Robot Man is exactly what he sounds like and Crazy Jane has 64 personalities, all with different powers that she — yes, you guessed it — cannot control.
The hero’s first foray into the world ends with Rita inadvertently turning into a blob that rampages the town, and their second adventure is in the belly of a mutant donkey.
The Avengers they certainly are not.
But that’s exactly the point.
In a world where so many superheroes are either paragons of goodness, perfect specimens of humankind and/or really, ridiculously good looking (I’m looking at you, Chris Hemsworth), the characters of The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol give us heroes who are far from the best of us.
In fact, in many ways, the superheroes of these shows highlight the worst of us — or, at least, the more unsightly parts of humanity. These shows highlight the pettiness and the brokenness of superheroes, the bizarre and fearful and ugly parts of their selves and their stories.
And that’s exactly what the superhero genre needs.
Ten years of superhero films and dozens of superhero TV shows across half a dozen different channels and streaming services have — at times — left the genre feeling a little stale, the tropes feeling a little tired.
Shows like The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol help to shake up the conventions of the superhero story and remind us of the fact that comic books are a medium, not a genre — which means that the types of heroes we highlight and the kinds of stories we choose to tell with our comic book heroes can be more versatile than your standard caped crusader or first avenger.
They give us heroes who are strange and silly and more than a little sad, and stories which subvert common superhero tropes in a way that makes old stories feel new and refreshing.
I hope that the critical and commercial success of these shows means that we get a more diverse array of superheroes and superhero stories. It’s just what the genre needs, and what we the audience deserve.