At times, The Umbrella Academy feels like it has more in common with the Gothic works of the Brontë sisters than it does with superhero tutelage.
Perhaps, given the series’ pedigree, this isn’t surprising. The comic the Netflix series is based on was penned by My Chemical Romance lead, Gerard Way. But there is a difference between Mall Goth and Romantic Goth, and there are elements in The Umbrella Academy that speak to the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley. Were this interpretation of the Hargreeves siblings simply another tale of superheroes living together, it would not captivate nearly as much, but because the superpowers are treated more like elements of the preternatural, the landscape and aesthetic feel lifted from the pages of an 1800s Romance, and the characters feel less like superheroes and more like Byronic heroes.
Using a checklist of Gothic tropes from various online study guides, I thus present to you the reasons The Umbrella Academy is actually a Gothic novel and why that makes it work.
[Ed. Note: This post contains mild spoilers for The Umbrella Academy]
The gloomy setting
One of the biggest staples of Gothic literature is the setting. Wuthering Heights wouldn’t be Wuthering Heights without the vast Yorkshire moors and the titular estate. Jane Eyre would be nothing without the halls of Thornfield Manor. There’s a reason why so many Gothic staples are named after places — The Castle of Otranto! The Romance of the Forest!
The physical location of the academy serves as the backdrop for the greater part of the series. There are few, if any, happy memories within its very aesthetic walls. The high ceilings! The intricate iron-wrought decor! The halls full of paintings that the robot mother gazes longingly at, knowing that these glimpses of the outside world are all she will ever get! The study their father holed himself up in that the children are never allowed to enter and still carefully tread around in his passing! The fact that there’s basically a cemetery in the backyard!
Rooting the show in the walls of the academy not only fuels this aesthetic, but also serves as a haunting reminder of the Hargreeves’ siblings upbringing. When they leave the academy, it represents drastic change, both good and bad.
Byronic Heroes, galore
Almost all the main cast can check off the qualities on the Byronic hero list. Some, admittedly — brooding Luther (Tom Hopper) and Diego (David Castaneda), as well as grown-man-trapped-in-teen’s body Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) — fit it more so than others but overall the Hargreeves siblings fit elements of this Gothic trope.
For those who forgot most of 12th grade English, the Byronic hero is a staple of the Romantic and Gothic periods, named for poet Lord Byron. Think of him as the brooding anti-hero, the bad boy that all the good girls go for, but with more 19th century woe than 21st century angst.
Superheroes don’t necessarily exclude Byronic heroes, but the difference between the Hargreeves siblings and other Byronic-esque superheroes (hi Batman) is that except for Diego, none of them are actually picking up their masks and determined to fight crime. They emulate the characteristics of the Byronic hero first, the superhero part coming afterwards.
By the nature of being superpowered and adopted by Reginald Hargreeves, all of the main cast are outcasts to society, but Vanya (Ellen Page) fits this trope the best. She is an outcast among outcasts, kept separate from her siblings for most of their childhood because she wasn’t born with powers. Her isolation fuels most of her arc, as she struggles to connect. She’s the lonely Jane Eyre wandering the halls of the academy, never quite sure if her siblings accept her, or if she will ever belong.
Her two-fold ostracization — from greater society for being a Hargreeves, from the Hargreeves for being “normal” — makes it so we never doubt that she would turn to the first person to give her validation.
They are the supernatural beings. But it is particularly Klaus (Robert Sheehan) who falls most into this slot, considering his powers are tied with death. He’s able to communicate with ghosts and his constant companion is his dead brother Ben, whose own macabre power involved unleashing monster inhabiting his body. Klaus shuns his abilities for the most part, but when he’s actually compelled to use them, he struggles, and the result is particularly heartbreaking.
Supernatural elements in Gothic literature were used to explore fear of the unknown. At the time of Frankenstein, for instance, rapid growth in science and technology challenged existing norms. Klaus’s powers challenge emotional relationships and the ideas of love and grief.
Curses or prophecies
From the trailers, it’s evident that Number Five returns from a grim future. It’s not so much a curse or prophecy in the traditional sense, but it is a harbinger of potential doom hanging over the characters. Just eight days till the end of the world...
The haunting orchestral music
Okay, sure this isn’t on the literature checklist, but damn it if the lilting tones of Phantom of the Opera played on the violin isn’t absolutely chilling. Classical music plays an important part into the overall story of The Umbrella Academy and the selections chosen umph up the Gothic tone even more.
For the record, there are plenty of things about The Umbrella Academy that are not Gothic Romance tropes that work for it. Robert Sheehan and Ellen Page are captivating, and Aidan Gallagher holds his own among the adult cast. The musical selection — even when it’s not the ominous classical — is unexpected and amazing.
But for fans of 1800s Gothic novels, this show just might fill that Brontë-shaped hole in your deep, dark tell tale heart.
The Umbrella Academy is currently streaming on Netflix.