source: Netflix

The Umbrella Academy has always been a scrappy critique of superheroes, less biting than The Boys without being less bloody and even more prone to emo kid indulgences than The Batman. The world ends a lot but there’s a frivolity that undercuts any self-seriousness, at least when it comes to actual destruction, because its focus has always been on the seven messed up siblings that make up the Umbrella Academy, not their actual heroics.

That focus is particularly acute in season 3, which loses some of the breakneck pace of the first two seasons in favor of good old family time. The adjustment makes sense considering the series began with the siblings estranged from each other, and after two seasons of apocalyptic events forcing them together, they understand that they’re stuck with each other.

Stumbling back into present day after the time travel of season 2, the siblings wearily stay banded together when they realize their attempts at correcting the universe’s timeline has once again escalated the pending apocalypse. Somehow their mothers are dead in this “corrected” timeline, setting up a grandfather paradox that gives rise to a kugelblitz-style black hole (because kugelblitz is way more fun to say than black hole). And oh yeah, the father that adopted and made them into the superhero family they are chose a different set of kids this time around, and that team (the Sparrows) aren’t welcoming competition.

If you’re lost, don’t worry about it. It’s been two years since the second season of The Umbrella Academy premiered, and the ins and outs of what has happened or is happening in this chaotic universe isn’t key to enjoying its idiosyncratic indulgences. It’ll remind you of rules and backstories as needed. Otherwise, roll with whatever is happening and enjoy the word kugelblitz, because glossing over plot developments that whiz by so fast you forget they happened is part of Umbrella Academy’s charm.

This ethos turns out to be a perfect approach for its most headline-inducing development yet: the transition of Umbrella Number 7, Viktor, which coincides with actor Elliot Page’s real-life transition. As one of the most prominent actors to transition mid-career and with a horrifying assault on the rights of trans people occurring in the US and several other countries, it’s natural to hold your breath hoping the series doesn’t stumble over this storyline, and how The Umbrella Academy quickly has him come out, be accepted, and moves on makes it feel like a footnote by the time the series wraps up its season. Let me quote Jen Richards from the documentary Disclosure talking about Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl to explain why this is effective:

“What’s remarkable about his performance is the transness, is the way that he’s been able to manifest those feminine parts of himself into a convincing trans performance, but it reduces that person, in this case who was a real person, to a performance of transness, to a performance of femininity, rather than as a whole person, of whom transness is one aspect of.”

Viktor has a long, complicated past within The Umbrella Academy, of which, it turns out, transness is one aspect. So it gets its moment and the character moves on to dealing with the many other parts of himself, allowing him to remain the whole character he’s always been and not reducing him to his transness. It’s a perfectly small thing, and in not sticking out within the series it makes the storyline a massive success.

Much more important to season 3 is the relationship between Viktor and his sister, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), the latter of whom has steadfastly supported Viktor through his near-apocalyptic accidents with his massive powers. The losses these caused have built up, though, and the series takes a moment to acknowledge that she, a Black woman, had a much harder experience than her siblings during their venture to the 1960s in season 2. All of that means she’s flirting with a breakdown the entire season, which Raver-Lampman manages to nurse without being repetitive. Her other siblings reach out with support as well, particularly Diego (David Castañeda) and Luther (Tom Hopper), but it’s Viktor who’s most likely to pull her back from the brink. Their rocky relationship means he has no room for error, though, and when he inevitably slips, their relationship careens to a heartbreaking place.

The rest of the siblings deal with romantic entanglements, ominous older versions of themselves, and the pesky, much more disciplined Sparrows while trying to stop the kugelblitz from sucking everything into the abyss. Certain aspects of all these goings on inject more life into the series than others, particularly the return of Ritu Arya as Lila, who absolutely nails the abrasive hilarity of her damaged character. The new Sparrows, unfortunately, are largely disappointments, as they are barely given backstories and the two most enjoyably bad ones quickly succumb to the series’ background churn.

The only truly engaging Sparrow is a new version of Ben (Justin H. Min), who died as a child in the Umbrellas’ timeline but survived here as a self-righteous jerk. The Umbrellas’ desire to be close to him and his desire to keep his distance from everyone tears at the family’s patched up wounds and helps bring the series’ main concerns to the fore. Because no matter what is going on with the universe, it all comes down to these siblings, their trauma, and the question of whether they are superheroes at all. They’ve had two seasons to save the universe and have only made things worse. Their doubts in themselves are now openly discussed, but giving up that purpose would mean giving up on the family they’ve built, who get more moments of ease this season hanging out in a run-down hotel (the kind that’s best advertised as having character) and blowing off steam with in-universe musical numbers to catchy pop hits. The extra time spent on these character beats means less time for zany action, but after two seasons The Umbrella Academy needed to slow down if it wanted to sustain itself. It’s still an overstuffed show, but in building up the relationships audiences truly care about, season 3’s existential musings become time well spent.

The Umbrella Academy Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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