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A-Train flexing on stage in his new costume Photo: Prime Video

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The Boys and Umbrella Academy are finally doing more with their marginalized characters

Beyond cheap diversity points, the Netflix and Amazon shows have at long last expanded their relationships with race and gender

Superheroes: they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. This is, at its core, the basic premise of Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys and Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, two of the most subversive superhero shows on television. Though vastly different, when they premiered in 2019 both offered a diverse alternative superhero team to the overwhelmingly white and male Avengers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But neither honored that diversity — until now.

Diversity wasn’t the only thing that set Umbrella Academy and The Boys apart in 2019. Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe had taken a mostly optimistic approach to superheroes, The Boys and The Umbrella Academy provided viewers with a more gritty and, sadly, grounded take. As an R-rated superhero satire about a world in which superheroes are real and extremely corporate, The Boys offered a more sinister lens on superhero fandom. In the show, Vought Industries has manufactured a drug to create superpowers, and it used this power to create The Seven, the world’s most prestigious superhero group. Led by Homelander (Anthony Starr), essentially an evil Captain America, The Seven include The Deep (Chace Crawford), Starlight (Erin Moriarty), Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), and Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell).

In contrast, The Umbrella Academy is less of a critique of the genre, though season 1 did briefly explore the pitfalls of superhero stardom. It focuses on the Hargreeves siblings — Viktor (known by a different name in seasons 1 and 2) (Elliot Page), Luther (Tom Hopper), Diego (David Castañeda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus (Robert Sheehan), Five (Aidan Gallagher), and Ben (Justin H. Min) — who were adopted as children by an eccentric billionaire and raised to be a superhero team.

The Umbrella Academy. (L to R) Emmy Raver-Lampman as Allison Hargreeves, Elliot Page, Tom Hopper as Luther Hargreeves, Aidan Gallagher as Number Five, David Castañeda as Diego Hargreeves, Robert Sheehan as Klaus Hargreeves in episode 301 of The Umbrella Academy. Image: Netflix

Despite their diverse casts and more gender-balanced superhero teams — remember, the O.G. Avengers was composed of five white men and one white woman — neither The Boys nor The Umbrella Academy truly took advantage of the wealth of stories this diversity afforded them. Diversity in casting, however, only takes a show so far, and in their respective seasons 1 and 2, neither seemed all that interested in digging into the non cis, white, male experience.

The first season of The Umbrella Academy didn’t really acknowledge ethnicity at all. This was seemingly in part by design. In the graphic novel the show is based on, all the Hargreeves siblings are white, and it didn’t focus much on the ethnic identity or heritage of the heroes. Season 1 took a similar approach, never really acknowledging how the siblings’ ethnic identities might have affected them personally. In some ways, this was a step forward. None of their powers were related to their ethnicity, as is a very common tendency in the fantasy/superhero genre, and the characters’ storylines were about more than just their race. But, it also flattened the characters, taking away complexity that adds texture and humanizes them.

In season 1, for example, Allison is a famous actress who grew up in the spotlight with her famous siblings, but the audience knows that, in reality, she would likely have faced death threats and constant harassment for being a Black woman in that position. Meanwhile, Diego loves to play vigilante and somehow isn’t afraid of being arrested and thrown in jail, despite being a Latinx man who carries knives. This changed a bit in season 2, after the Hargreeves siblings went back in time to 1960s Dallas, Texas. Given the setting, it was impossible for Allison’s race not to factor into her storyline — and the show was better for it — but Ben, Diego, and newbie Lila (Ritu Arya) were still treated as somewhat ethnicity-less.

The Boys took a very different approach to its non-white male characters, but the result was equally disappointing. Because of the dystopian world in which the show takes place, all non-white male characters are explicitly shown as prized by Vought for their ethnic and gender identities. In the twisted world of The Boys, A-Train is mainly valuable to The Seven as a Black man (to a point, he finds out). It’s a commentary on how corporations use diversity as a marketing tool, exploiting people of color to be seen as inclusive and make money. The problem is that the show’s first two seasons, on the whole, didn’t really succeed in actually treating its non-white male characters as anything other than that either.

allison hargreeves looking like she’s a 1950s housewife or something Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix
Kimiko guarding MM and Hughey Photo: Prime Video

A major theme of The Boys season 2, for example, was how Vought capitalized on feminism, manufacturing a girl power narrative for Starlight, Stormfront (Aya Cash), and Queen Maeve, three women who a) didn’t like each other very much, and b) had no autonomy or power to decide their own futures. It way into how industries package and sell girl power without actually advancing women’s rights. But this critique was dulled by the show’s insistence on still centering cis white men. It’s hard to applaud The Boys for going after faux feminism when its female characters can sometimes feel like mere plot devices, and whose only female lead of color, Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), doesn’t speak. It’s difficult to effectively critique a trope while actively supporting it.

After two seasons of failing to give non-cis male white characters the depth they deserve, both The Boys and The Umbrella Academy have made significant shifts in their third seasons. These changes seem directly in conversation with the events of 2020, a year that saw a global pandemic and a massive surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. During lockdown, pop culture became an even greater source of connection between people isolating at home, and the enormity of BLM renewed discussions on how we consume pop culture and how media can perpetuate negative stereotypes. And it appears the writers rooms of The Boys and The Umbrella Academy were listening.

While The Boys season 3 still spends a majority of its time focusing on its white male leads, it also gives more agency to MM (Laz Alonso), Black Noir, A-Train, and Kimiko — arguably four of the show’s most underserved characters to date. After two seasons of silent threats and anonymous appearances, Black Noir is finally seen without his helmet, and we see his backstory, which makes his identity as a Black man inseparable from his superhero alter ego. Kimiko is also given more agency, both in terms of communication — she finally gets to really converse with those around her via text messages, sign language, and music — and as a superhero. After losing her powers in a fight, she decides to take V again to regain her powers, despite declaring it the last thing she’s ever wanted.

MM’s backstory and his family life get more fleshed out, giving him a life beyond just being Butcher’s (Karl Urban) number two. And A-Train, struggling with a significant loss in his powers, decides to rebrand as a Black superhero exploring his African roots. At first, his decision is a purely calculated career move, his attempt at making the racist world of Vought work for him. The difficulty he has reconnecting with his Black identity is used as a punchline, yes, but it becomes much more than that — and could set him up for more down the line too.

Diego and his “son” standing with their arms folded looking at each other Photo: Netflix
Allison and Viktor walking down the street Photo: Netflix

The Umbrella Academy season 3 similarly allows its characters to embrace their identities, both in small ways and big. In the first episode, for example, emo Ben and Diego start spontaneously arguing in Korean and Spanish — languages neither of them have ever really spoken on the show before. In fact, Castañeda had previously said in interviews that he didn’t think Diego would necessarily identify as Hispanic. “He was never raised in that culture,” he told PopSugar while reflecting on season 1 Diego. “I thought this guy wouldn’t even speak Spanish.” This makes a certain amount of sense, but by just giving these two actors the opportunity to use their language skills, it opens up Diego and Ben as characters. All of a sudden, they are more fleshed out, more real — specificity creates better characters and, therefore, better stories.

Viktor’s and Allison’s season 3 arcs are the perfect example. After Elliot Page’s public transition, it only made sense for his character to go through the same evolution in the season, which added a whole new layer to the character. And, instead of leaving Allison’s season 2 trauma in the past, season 3 uses it as her main motivation. This leads Allison down a dark — potentially even villainous — path, but even her biggest betrayals in season 3 point to a greater understanding that her life experience has been different than that of her siblings. It’s something that Raver-Lampman says she was “asking” the show to dive into. “That was very much a part of the conversation before we started filming,” she tells Polygon. “I think there’s a certain amount of trauma and lingering side effects from her time there [in the 1960s] that we could not ignore.”

It’s out of this exploration of trauma that, for the first time in the series, Diego and Allison, two of the non-white Hargreeves siblings, actually have a conversation about race and how it affects them. In one particularly moving scene, they have a heart to heart where they connect about how the rest of their (white) family doesn’t understand the real scope of what Allison had to live through in the ’60s. To help deal with her anger, Diego takes her to a white supremacist bar where they get into fights and blow off a little steam. As Raver-Lampan said, “Being the two siblings of color, I thought it was nice to have a moment where they can connect on that and really see each other for the first time in a way that they potentially never have.”

Giving Allison and Diego this moment in season 3 also allows the audience to see them in a new way without making their ethnicity their entire personalities. Both characters have their own arcs this season completely unrelated to their ethnic identities (though Allison’s is related to the trauma of her experience in the ’60s), and that’s important, but it’s also affirming to see the show recognize that their race plays a part in their story.

The Boys and The Umbrella Academy had opposite challenges going into their respective third seasons. The Boys had to expand its characters of color beyond stereotypes and props used to satirize the superhero genre, while The Umbrella Academy had to incorporate ethnic and gender identity to give more context to its characters. Characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and female characters can’t just be used for diversity points, but they also can’t be completely separated from their identities. There is a happy medium somewhere, and The Boys and The Umbrella Academy might finally be on their way to finding it.

The Umbrella Academy season 3 is now streaming on Netflix. New episodes of The Boys season 3 drop every Friday.

Correction: A previous version of this story credited the wrong actor for The Boys’ Queen Maeve, who is played by Dominique McElligott. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.