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The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol have very different approaches to adapting their wacky source material
A group of super-powered misfits live in a mansion, constantly argue with each other, and deal with many strange elements sprinkled throughout their comic book-based story. This doesn't just describe one series that is available to stream right now, it describes two — neither of them have "X-Men" in their titles.
The Umbrella Academy (now on Netflix) and Doom Patrol (on DC Universe) may sound somewhat similar when they're described so simply, and though they share some DNA, they diverge greatly when it comes to how they are adapted from their source material. This is most apparent when it comes down to just how weird they get, something the respective shows deal with very differently.
**WARNING: The are spoilers within for The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol. If you want to stay unspoiled, portal yourself out of here immediately.**
Though there's far more Doom Patrol in comic form than the more recent Umbrella Academy, both comics are, for lack of a better way to put it, really friggin' loony. That's a great thing for the comics, but it can be tricky to translate to screen. Do you embrace the weird, or do you try to ground it?
The Umbrella Academy definitely chooses the latter option. In the original comics (written by Gerard Way and drawn by Gabriel Bá), the seven children adopted by Reginald Hargreeves (known as "The Monocle") have very comic-y nicknames. Instead of being referred to by numbers (or their real names), they go by Spaceboy, The Kraken, The Rumor, The Seance, The Boy, The Horror, and The White Violin. The series references these titles from time to time, but usually, they use numbers or the kids' real-world names.
The characters themselves are far more grounded, with the possible exception of Number 5 (The Boy), the time-hopping Max Fischer of the family. Luther (Spaceboy), in the series, has super strength, is involved in space exploration, and has had his body mutated by Hargreeves (played by Colm Feore) in order to save his life. We see Luther (played by Tom Hopper) in an array of overcoats, but eventually, we see his bare body, which is bulbous and covered in ape-like fur. That's as weird as he gets on the show.
We get much more information about Luther in the comic. Hargreeves didn't just give him any old DNA, he used the DNA of a gorilla — more importantly, a Martian gorilla. Luther also consistently uses a jetpack and a space gun, which are nowhere to be found on the series. They probably wouldn't fit in with all of the brooding going on.
One of the fan favorites from the comic is definitely Pogo, the talking chimp who acted as an assistant to Hargreeves, and now attends to the mansion. The series actually includes the character (performed through motion capture by Adam Godley), though if you're thinking "oh man, chimp butler, time for some laughs!" you'd be mistaken. Pogo is one of the most serious characters on the show, and the fact that he is a chimp barely registers at all. He's not only grounded, he becomes something out of an Ibsen play. That's fine, because he's incredibly effective, and in the televised Umbrella Academy, it really works. If he was anything other than what he is, it would be tonally off with the rest of the show.
That said, if Pogo was on Doom Patrol, he'd be swinging on the ceiling, tossing off one-liners, and relieving himself on someone's head within 30 seconds.
The original Doom Patrol comics (originally created in 1963 by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney, with artist Bruno Premiani) have taken various approaches to weirdness, but it's hard to get too serious when you consistently have a lead character called Robotman. When Grant Morrison worked on the title in the post-Crisis era, he really ran with the surrealism — look no further than the character called "Danny the Street" who is, that's right, a sentient piece of road.
The new Doom Patrol series not only goes with the surreal tone of the Morrison run, it doubles down on it. Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Negative Man (Matt Bomer), Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) are very much comic characters come to life, with Elasti-Woman turning into a huge blob of flesh in the very first episode, and Crazy Jane being, well, crazy right off the bat. Though The Umbrella Academy has some quirks similar to a Wes Anderson movie and sometimes comes across in a A Series of Unfortunate Events manner (the ever-changing way the title of the show is depicted, copious needle drops, etc.), it never goes truly nuts. Doom Patrol doesn't just go nuts, it goes circus peanuts.
The Umbrella Academy saves much of what weirdness it has for its final few episodes. Doom Patrol doesn't wait — it tosses around the aforementioned circus peanuts in the first two episodes. Aside from the already mentioned blob-form of Elasti-woman, there's Crazy Jane spitting out physical words that can kill (as well as a myriad of other insane talents), and an ongoing fourth-wall breaking narration from Alan Tudyk. He calls attention to how weird everything is, drops the notion that critics will hate the show, (Interestingly enough, they don't), and mentions in the second episode that the audience is probably made up of "Grant Morrison fans."
Whereas the grown-up family of The Umbrella Academy no longer have their mentor around to control them (though his shadow persists), the members of Doom Patrol certainly do. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) is on the scene of the DC show, and he manages to calm things down when he appears. He's never around for long, though, and soon enough the weirdness blasts back. Even with Dalton on the scene, however, there's still potential for weirdness. If you need proof that this is possible, here are some tapes — do feel free to spool through.
The end of the pilot episode features a donkey farting words into the sky. Ibsen isn't gonna want any part of that, and Pogo (the talking chimp who wears a suit, mind you) would be aghast. Tudyk's narrating/antagonizing Mr. Nobody mentions that there are probably three people still watching after this moment, and all of this is before a good portion of the second episode (which introduces Joivan Wade's excellent version of Cyborg) takes place inside of the farting donkey.
The Umbrella Academy (rated TV-14) arrived on Netflix with a full season, designed to be binged. Doom Patrol (just rated plain ol' R) doles out its weirdness in single episodes that are added every week. Perhaps that has something to do with their respective approaches, as maybe there's only so much strange that some viewers can handle in one sitting? Personally, after the farting donkey in Doom Patrol, I was ready to plant it for at least six more episodes immediately. The mileage of other viewers may vary.
In one very important aspect, though, both shows share common ground. Despite varying approaches to the craziness of their subjects, both shows have real stakes. You really care about Robotman (especially when you see his backstory), and you feel bad (so, so bad) for Elasti-Woman and Negative Man. They'd probably prefer a world with a little less weird in it because whenever they try to fit in, bad things go down.
On the other side of the world, you always feel for most of the characters on Umbrella Academy (Robert Sheehan's Klaus is regularly heartbreaking), as long as they aren't in the Recurring Doughnut Shop of Halted Momentum. The siblings have the bonus (Luther aside) of not looking like cyborgs, mummies, or Golden Globe-winning blob-women. They can fit into society (looks-wise, at least) just fine if they need to.
In terms of the dangers lying in wait for them all? Every look that Pogo gives makes me think that the world could end at any moment. Doom Patrol's Mr. Nobody may be hilarious, but he's lethally powerful. Strange or not, the stakes are real on both shows. Whether it's farting donkeys or Ibsen chimps, they're both playing for keeps.
I don't want to give the idea that I prefer one show over the other, as they end up being very different viewing experiences. I had plenty of fun with The Umbrella Academy, even though they diverged from the comic and went a little Watchmen-esque with the tone. Doom Patrol doesn't seem to know (or care) what tone is, what a comic is, or what a television is... it's decided to lean into something that makes DC's Legends of Tomorrow look safe. By midseason, it wouldn't be out of place for Crazy Jane to light a stack of Watchmen comics on fire before kicking Deadpool in the nuts and giving birth to an elephant made of lightning. We're only on Episode 3, and puppets have already hit the scene.
Tastes (and weirdness) may vary, but The Umbrella Academy is available to stream on Netflix right now. The first few episodes of Doom Patrol can be seen on DC Universe. The fact that both shows exist at all is a truly wonderful thing.