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'The Umbrella Academy': Superheroes with the power to thrill

Aidan Gallagher, left, Ellen Page, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert

Aidan Gallagher, left, Ellen Page, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Tom Hopper and David Castaneda star in "The Umbrella Academy."  Photo Credit: Netflix/Christos Kalohoridis

THE SERIES "The Umbrella Academy"

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the middle of the last century, 43 infants with superpowers were born on the same day to 43 mothers around the world, each of whom had no idea they were even pregnant.

Stateside, one enormously wealthy reclusive billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts the seven who survive because he'll eventually recruit them to battle the evil that is about to destroy the world. The petulant plutocrat doesn't bother giving them names, but only numbers. In time, the kids — members of Hargreeves' so-called Umbrella Academy — settle on their own names. They are: Vanya (Ellen Page); Luther, aka Spaceboy (Tom Hopper); Klaus (Robert Sheehan) who has substance-abuse issues; Diego (David Castañeda), skillful with knives and a troublemaker; the Boy, aka Number Five (Aidan Gallagher); Allison, aka Number Three (Emmy Raver-Lampman); and Ben (Ethan Hwang), who may have the most extraordinary gift of all, but, alas, he dies, leading to the breakup of this unusual family.

At series' outset, Hargreeves has also died. His longtime man servant Pogo, who is actually an ape, welcomes the grieving clan back to the family compound. Meanwhile, two assassins have arrived from another time dimension to kill one of the family members, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

"Academy" is based on the long-running Dark Horse Comics series of the same name by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá.
 

MY SAY In a cinematic world bursting with superheroes, originality seems like it should be the first casualty. Tropes pile on top of other tropes, cliches on cliches. One multiverse bleeds into another multiverse. The Avengers may be entirely different from the X Men who are utterly distinct from the Guardians of the Galaxy who have nothing to do whatsoever with the New Mutants. But that's to the experts. To the rest of us, they're just one big undifferentiated pile of do-gooders with specials talents, psychoneuroses and mother issues.

Hence, welcome to "The Umbrella Academy," where this shouldn't be much of a problem at all. As one obvious point of difference, Mary J. Blige plays a time-traveling hit woman named Cha Cha. That's easy to remember. She is, too.

Another difference: This team of superheroes is hardly a team, nor scarcely superheroic. Page's Vanya has no superpowers at all, or at least any that we (or she) are aware of. Klaus' ability to commune with the dead hardly seems like a super-talent, although it does come in handy. Number Five can space-and-time-jump, so that makes him the most conventionally "heroic." But his personality is so caustic and so abrasive that he seems more like someone we think we've met before, and don't care to meet up with again. Space jump? Meh. 

They are of course Marvel-esque in the fullness of their humanity, which is pretty much the case with all TV superheroes these days, including the DC Comic-based ones. But these ones are different: It's their averageness which becomes them most. Their personalities do the hard work of making them stand out, not some otherworldly gift.

That's just one secret in the secret sauce of this fine newcomer. Another is this: Distinctive as it seems, "The Umbrella Academy" is really just a bric-a-brac assemblage of other comic franchises, most notably DC Comics' "Doom Patrol," which may (or may not) have inspired Stan Lee back in 1963 when it launched. (Coincidentally, DC Comics kicks off its own high-gloss TV adaptation of "Doom Patrol" on its streaming channel on Feb. 15 too.)

Yet "Umbrella" looks, feels and sounds different — music does much of the heavy lifting, and effectively so. It's a gorgeous-looking production that evokes another world, with both feet still firmly planted in this one.

As Disney claws back all the Marvel franchises perhaps for its own streaming service one of these days, Netflix may have just landed the new signature franchise to replace them.

BOTTOM LINE Mary J. Blige — or her Cha Cha— may end the world in seven days. How could you possibly not watch to find out how? A bingeable winner.

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