Analysis

Umbrella Academy Shows Us Why It’s Important to Plan Your Powers

The Umbrella Academy characters standing on a ruined street.
Season two of The Umbrella Academy is finally here, and it is definitely a TV show. Not a good TV show, mind you, but it does have a series of filmed episodes that are approximately the same length arranged in chronological order, and that’s gotta count for something. There are even characters and dialogue! All the basic requirements are met.

In case it wasn’t clear, I’m not a big fan of Umbrella Academy, regardless of season. I could go on about the badly paced plots or the jarring changes in tone, but for today I’m focusing on the character’s poorly planned magical powers. Any writer who wants to give their characters supernatural abilities needs to think about how those abilities work in the story, and it’s pretty clear that didn’t happen with Umbrella Academy. The siblings’ powers are all over the place, and it does serious damage to the story. Some of these issues were no doubt inherited from the comics, while others appear to have been the TV show’s invention. Let’s take a look at exactly what those problems are.

Spoiler Notice: Season 2 of Umbrella Academy

What Are Luther’s and Diego’s Powers?

Luther and Deigo looking at a piece of paper.

The first problem we run into is with Luther’s and Diego’s powers. Namely, what the heck are their powers? In season two, it’s stated that Luther has superstrength, but does he? For most of the show, his strength seems to be roughly equivalent to that of a very large man. He never does anything that would qualify as superhuman; he’s just big. In season one, we see him get into fistfights with normal humans, and sometimes he actually appears to be at a disadvantage. That really doesn’t seem like superstrength.

The one exception is at the start of season two when Five jumps ten days into the future and sees the other characters battling against Soviet forces. Here, Luther can leap tall buildings in a single bound and absorb a rocket blast with no visible injuries. But then later in season two, he goes down after a few shots from a submachine gun. So, does he have invincibility or not? Maybe he has to focus on activating it? Then again, the Soviet fight scene is choreographed like a dream sequence, with opposing soldiers charging into melee range before opening fire, so even though they refer to it later, I have no idea how much of it is supposed to have happened. The show also retcons how apelike Luther is supposed to look between seasons, but, honestly, who cares at this point?

Meanwhile, Diego’s powers are even harder to pin down. They actually skip him in the season two dinner scene where Five explains everyone’s powers. As far as I can tell, he can alter the trajectory of objects he throws, though even that’s iffy. If he had such a power, I’d expect his knife throwing to be a lot more effective, but he still seems to either miss or only hit his enemy’s armor most of the time. I’d also expect him to be a lot more creative with his throws if he can do that, like throwing around corners or sending a projectile past an enemy and then reversing the trajectory. For that matter, I’d also expect him to be a lot more creative with what he throws. Maybe try a grenade or a flashbang sometime, Diego.

Then, just when I thought I’d figured out Diego’s powers, season two makes it even weirder: apparently he can deflect bullets too! This is sort of shown in the Soviet invasion scene, but it’s not really clear until the finale, when it’s a major WTF moment. I’d ask where this power was in the previous season, but I’m too busy asking where it was in this season. Diego gets shot at multiple times by time-traveling assassins, but instead of deflecting the bullets, he just hopes they miss? Granted, no one in this show can aim, but I don’t think Diego is supposed to know that.

Whether it’s acting like a light-hearted comedy or a gritty deconstruction, Umbrella Academy is an action show. Most of the major conflicts are solved with violent fights, and it’s important for viewers to know what the characters can do in those fights. Instead, Diego and Luther have big question marks over their heads whenever fisticuffs begin. When they lose, it’s not clear if they’re outmatched or if they just aren’t using their powers properly. When they win, it’s hard to tell if they earned it or not because we have no idea what they can actually do.

Vanya’s Powers Are Overpowered and Vague

Vanya with her eyes closed and blue light shining from her chest.

For most of season one, Vanya seems to have no powers at all. Then she’s briefly a villain, so it’s not a huge problem that her powers are both incredibly strong and also not well defined. But in season two she’s both in control of her powers and a good guy, so we’re in for a wild ride.

At first, the writer’s solution is to give Vanya a sudden attack of amnesia, but that wears off surprisingly fast. Before long she’s up to full strength, able to annihilate her enemies with the greatest of ease, especially since most of her enemies are normal humans with no powers of their own. In one fight, Vanya is sucker punched by a cop she presumably thought was already unconscious, which is reasonable. But once she’s captured, she decides to only use the slow-burn version of her powers, even though we know her powers can knock people out in a split second. The writers make her do this so that her captors have time to drug her and prevent her escape. Why they didn’t drug her while she was unconscious, I’ll never know.

Vanya’s overpowered abilities show up again in the season finale when she destroys the villain’s army so easily that I don’t know why it was even there. Seriously, the villain knew about Vanya’s powers, and it seems like the big plan for victory was to deploy a superpowered lieutenant, so why waste so many soldiers? Presumably it’ll take time and money to replace them.

Then, we get into the frustrating vagueness of Vanya’s powers. This season, in addition to her already godlike powers, she can also bring people back from the dead. When she does this, the boy she resurrects gains a similar suite of powers, which he then can’t control. For a while, Vanya doesn’t know how to help him, and then suddenly she does know how to help him, all without any rhyme or reason. This is the big climax of the season, and it’s just random things that happen whenever the writers feel like. “Oh damn, the episode’s nearly over, guess that means it’s time for the Deus Ex Vanya to solve our problems.”

The final nail in Vanya’s power coffin is the unexplored question of moral responsibility. Both seasons focus on Vanya causing mass destruction, but it’s never established whether that’s some side effect of her powers or if that’s just who Vanya is. In season two, the destruction in question is Vanya destroying a building while being tortured. That seems like it could just be Vanya lashing out in a moment of extreme duress. But in season one, her murder and mass destruction is clearly premeditated. She has good reason to be angry, but that just doesn’t seem like something Vanya would do.

This leaves us asking an important question: Is Vanya just the type of person who kills when she gets angry, or does accessing her power change her somehow? Since Vanya’s coming to terms with her past deeds is a big part of season two, it seems like that would come up, but no. We’re left with possibly the most important aspect of Vanya’s character completely unexplored, let alone explained.

Allison’s Powers Aren’t Immoral

Allison looking concerned.

Of all the Umbrella Academy siblings, Allison has perhaps the strangest personal storyline, especially in season two: the idea that it’s wrong for her to use her power. Granted, her powers are a type of mind control,* and that’s certainly a good setup for exploring complicated morality. In season one, she’s trying to atone for using her powers to make her daughter more cooperative, which is definitely a bad deed she should be sorry for.

But then in season two, she’s joined the 1960s civil rights movement, and using her powers is still treated as a bad thing. She proudly states that she hasn’t used her abilities since arriving in the past, and the implication seems to be that it would somehow be cheating for her to do so in the cause of racial equality. When she’s finally forced to use her powers, the show treats it like a failure on her part.

Here, The Umbrella Academy’s writers seem to have forgotten a key tenant of right and wrong: just because some uses of an ability are immoral, that doesn’t mean all uses of it are immoral. It was wrong for Allison to mind control her daughter into calming down. It would not be wrong for her to mind control cops into leaving demonstrators alone or for her to mind control a racist politician into resigning. A story cannot invoke the evils of segregation and then expect the audience to nod along with a message about how it would be wrong for Allison to resist with her full power.

To make matters worse, when Allison finally does decide to use her powers, it’s to steal clothes* from segregated stores and force a racist restaurateur to burn himself. This looks like another attempt to show how Allison’s using her powers is going “too far,” but it falls completely flat. For one thing, I’m not shedding any tears over stolen clothes. More importantly, it just raises the question of why she doesn’t use her powers for something more beneficial. It would be a lot harder to see her powers as a bad thing if she, for example, stopped a defendant from spending decades in jail for nonviolent drug possession.

This is like if you tried to show it was wrong for a hero to use their superstrength, but you only ever had them punch drivers who go under the speed limit. It always feels weird to explain basic morality on a blog about storytelling, but context matters. Something that’s wrong in one context might not be wrong in another. It’s wrong to send tanks against protesters; it’s not wrong to send tanks against the invading army of another country.

At this point, the only remaining explanation is that Allison’s powers are supposed to model addiction, where using them in any context is a problem because it encourages a spiral of overuse. That’s clearly not the case though, as Allison is happy to go full mind control when the writers decide it’s time for a fight scene, even when she doesn’t strictly have to, and there are never any repercussions.

Honestly, it seems like the writers got Allison’s and Vanya’s power mixed up. If Vanya’s abilities are indeed supposed to make her more prone to killing, that would actually be a good setup for a conflict about using them as rarely as possible. Instead, that possibility is completely dropped in season two, while the writers try their hardest to create contrived conflict over Allison’s abilities.

Five’s Powers Destroy the Plot

Five scowling at a commission desk.

Time-travel stories are notoriously difficult at the best of times, so when Umbrella Academy made time travel the focus of its plot for both seasons, things were never going to work out well. How time travel works seems to change on a scene-by-scene basis, the bad guys act like they can only travel to wherever the show’s narrative currently is, and in season two it’s never clear why the characters think that returning to 2019 will fix the apocalypse from season one.

But this all pales in comparison to Five, the 53-year-old in a 13-year-old’s body. You see, Five has the ability to travel through time at will. He can even bring other characters with him! In fact, season one kicks off with Five arriving at the Umbrella mansion via a time portal.

Why he doesn’t use his powers after that is a series of increasingly desperate question marks. In a flashback, we see him try and nothing happens, even though it was working fine a moment ago. So why doesn’t it work now, and why isn’t he constantly trying to see if it works later? No one knows. Later, there’s some dialogue about how he doesn’t always end up exactly where (when) he wants to go, but that’s not really a limit, since he can just try again. Finally, it’s explained that if the jump goes wrong, it can have permanent consequences, which is how he got stuck in a 13-year-old body in the first place.

This is well into season two, but better late than never. Even so, all this means is that he’d wait until the risk of jumping is outweighed by whatever is happening around him. Like, say, one of the apocalypses that is always about to happen in Umbrella Academy. So long as Five doesn’t get sucker punched, he can always travel back and try again. Unless this is one of those times where his time powers just don’t work, for reasons.

But then the writers go and destroy their own justifications for no reason at all. In the seventh episode of season two, Five travels from the ’60s to the ’80s for a mission. Just like that. His time jump is so unimportant that we don’t even see it happen. At first, I was sure he’d have to use one of the bad guy’s time-briefcases, but that explicitly does not happen. This is such a blatant violation of the existing rules, I have to wonder if it was intentional, like some writer thought it would be funny to mess with us. If that’s the case, then congratulations on sabotaging your show, I guess.

As one last kick in the teeth, season two’s finale features Five gaining a brand-new power with no buildup or foreshadowing. Until this episode, Five’s time traveling has always taken the form of him disappearing from one time and appearing in the next. But in this episode, he can suddenly rewind time rather than jumping back through it. This happens because the writers wanted all of the main characters, including Five, to get shot, then have him go back a few seconds to undo the shooting, reversing his injury. Instead of just leaving Five uninjured, they decided to spontaneously give him a new power. Pardon me while I press my palm to my face.

Giving Five time-travel powers was always going to be a tall order, especially with a plot so dependent on characters getting stuck in time. At the very least, giving him some kind of obvious, easy-to-explain limit would have helped a lot. For instance, maybe his blood vessels get visibly darker when he travels in time, and if they ever turn completely black, he’ll die. That would make for a cool visual, anyway. If nothing else, not violating the show’s own limits on Five’s powers would be something.

Klaus’s Powers Are… Fine!

Klaus and Ben in front of a smoking car.

Klaus is the odd sibling out on Umbrella Academy because his powers are actually suited to what the writers wanted to do with him. Klaus can talk to dead people, and a big chunk of his storyline is spent on shenanigans with his dead brother, Ben. Ben’s powers are also fine, but he’s dead, so I don’t give the show credit for that.

At the end of season two, Klaus gains a new power: he can give the dead corporeal form. This is pretty powerful, but it requires him to be on good terms with whatever ghosts he’s summoning. This allows for some fantastic drama where Klaus’s power is useless because he and Ben are having a spat. There’s even a relatively strong explanation for why Klaus doesn’t use his powers to solve the mystery of his father’s death in season one: for most of the season, he thinks the death was from natural causes. Plus, Klaus has good reason to hate his father and want nothing to do with the man, alive or dead.

The only significant problem with Klaus’s powers is that in the Soviet invasion scene, he summons a squad of ghost soldiers to do his bidding, something he clearly can’t do in the rest of the show. But we can clear that up by saying that it only worked because these were soldiers killed in battle, so they just kept up what they’d been doing when they died.

It’s honestly surprising how well Klaus’s powers work compared to the other characters. Not only do they fit his personal storyline, but it’s also clear what they are, and they don’t break the plot – not even once! I’m not sure if his character was better planned or if it’s just random luck, but something clicked with Klaus that didn’t with any of the other characters. If the other Umbrella Academy siblings were this well thought out, the show would have been a lot better. It’s not like they were against making changes from the comic, either. For example, did you know that in the comics, Diego can breath underwater? Cutting that was a good decision.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Superpowers and magic are always challenging, I think. You really need to build your story around those powers and in a series that can get challenging.

    I haven’t seen this series, but from the article, it looks as if they just picked powers that would be cool and could be used in a conflict, but never tried to really put them all together in context and think about how to limit them or those using them.

  2. Poopshloper

    That’s is the point of the show it isn’t that their isn’t ruled to their abilities it’s that they don’t know how to use their abilities because they are all man child’s and refuse to see the obvious and gives power don’t work because they have an undisclosed limit which yes we don’t know but that’s the point we don’t know how far their abilities can go or what is the true limits seeing that they themselves don’t know such as luther’s powers I believe are linked to his emotional state

    • AK Nephtali

      Yup — it’s really annoying when character’s don’t explore the full extent of their powers.

  3. Clover

    I think this article is wonderful! It is really weird, especially since they are numbered/ranked according to how useful their powers are. I have always thought it was weird that Luther was Number 1, and not Allison or Five, since Allison can do her rumor thing and Five can time jump and teleport (and the only thing Luther can do is be strong). It is also weird that Diego (in the first season) only controls where knives go, but then he can suddenly deflect bullets which took me by surprise. I wonder if this is limited to the tv show though? Maybe its better in the comic.

    • Grützi

      I seem to rememeber that they weren’t numbered for how useful their powers were, but for how useful they themselves were for Hargreeves.
      Thus it makes sense for Luther to be number 1 as he is basically Sir Reginalds lapdog, Diego makes sense too. While he doesn’t really like his father, his caped crusader style personality makes him easy to control and direct.

      And Diegos Power in the comics is the ability to hold his breath indefinetly … nothing like his knife throwing ability like in the TV show

  4. AK Nephtali

    Great article!

    Yup, it does feel a bit like a group of Dungeons and Dragoners dreamt up some ‘cool’ powers and took the handbrakes off of both the powers and reality. But hey, it can’t possibly be Deaux ex Machina if it adds explosions!

  5. Erynus

    My major grievance on the second season is how looong it takes and how slow it feels.
    They spend time in characters that don’t matter at all, to the point that there are moments when nothing happens. Nothing at all!
    They waste 10 episodes to cover 8 days and it drags too much.
    Despite Five’s insistence on how urgent is to stop the apocalypse, they devote almost an episode on they reaching a door in the end of a corridor.

  6. Lord Degarius

    Regarding the idea of using Allison’s power to ask a racist politician to resign, I personally wouldn’t think is the right thing to do, since basically it is a transgression of democratic values. No matter how much I despise a political ideology, I’ll rather prefer seeing it being defeated in elections and debates rather than using (supernatural) force to take it down. It is basically what some dictatorships do around the world to keep their own ideologies / agenda in power.

    Having said the above, however I see the storytelling potential of that idea that was not explored in the series. We could have Allison “rumouring” a racist politician in Dallas to step down, only to discover that a more radical and racist member of the same party took over. Then we would have Allison trying to patch up things following the consequences of her actions, getting her to support the civil rights movement in more subtle ways.

    The above is an example on how the show could support a more powerful character arch, since she would progress from someone that was using her powers in Season 1 for egoistic reasons to someone that is using them for more altruistic purposes in Season 2. This would make her powers to be actually more in service of the story and not the other way around.

  7. Sinjin Reed

    First off, let’s just say for the sake of argument that their powers are magically based, therefore, they’re tied directly to how the caster sees themselves.

    Luther and Diego has severe confidence issues that holds them back from their true potential (which is true for the rest of the cast, but we’ll get to that). Luther was incredibly strong before he was given the ape-serum – now, whether this gave him a boot in strength or was simply a cosmetic change is probably up to debate – but it stands that his powers are what he expects them to be; he knows he’s strong, so he’s strong. He doesn’t know he’s invulnerable, so he’s not invulnerable. Same with Diego, although he at least is trying to branch out with his powers, he just has no practice with them.

    Vanya’s powers are tied to sound. Sound = vibrations. Vibrations = energy. Energy = everything. So she can control energy. It’s a stretch, I know, but she’s supposed to be the most powerful member of the Academy, so.

    Alison’s power isn’t itself immoral, but easily abused. That’s the conflict. It’s not immoral to make a racist police officer stop beating a black man to death, but it ‘is’ immoral to make someone love you. It’s just too easy to snap your fingers and have everything you want, and you can get drunk on that power. That’s how she lived her life, and that’s what made her lose everything. She was Kilgrave with a wake-up-call.

    Five’s power is too dangerous to use. Firstly, it’s prone to “shorting out” which is what stranded him in the future the first time. Secondly, it seems he requires the right mathematical calculations for his time-portals to work, and even THEN there’s no guarantees. He saved his family in the Season One Finale by sending them back in time, but they were scattered across the 60’s. Only the briefcases offer perfect time-travel.

    Klaus and Ben are fine.

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