3The umbrella Academy
The upcoming X-Men sequel Dark Phoenix is viewed as a way to finally make amends for 2006’s The Last Stand, which shoe-horned the seminal Marvel Comics story-line, about the rise, corruption and ultimate fall of Jean Grey, into a muddled subplot. But less than four months ahead of its premiere, the Fox film has been beaten to the punch by Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, which tells its own, thoroughly satisfying, version of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in its first season.
Jean Grey: The Dark Phoenix
Just as in “Apocalypse Suite,” the emotional core, and eventual overriding threat, of Season 1 is Vanya Hargreeves, who spent her life believing she was ordinary, and therefore less than her extraordinary siblings, only to discover the truth about her unhappy childhood and unlock her own terrible powers.
Those even passingly familiar with “The Dark Phoenix Saga” will undoubtedly recognize broad similarities to the 1980 X-Men storyline by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, which exerts influence over the franchise nearly four decades later. Oh, Jean Grey was never mistreated by her father figure (manipulated, maybe) nor led to think she’s “average,” but there are unmistakable parallels between her journey to become Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix, and Vanya’s path to embracing her potential as The White Violin.
The Phoenix arc actually begins in 1977, with The Uncanny X-Men #101, in which Jean is exposed to radiation from a solar flare as she pilots the team in a space shuttle back to Earth. The spacecraft skids off the runway and into the water, from which Jean emerges as Phoenix, later revealed to be the vessel for a cosmic entity of unbelievable power. Bonded with the Phoenix Force, Jean’s already-formidable mutant with telepathic and telekinetic abilities are amplified to a cosmic scale.
Because of, and perhaps despite, her power upgrade, Jean is targeted by the villainous telepathic Mastermind, who uses his own mutant ability to seduce her and project illusions into her mind, which leads to the corruption of Phoenix. Eventually breaking down the mental barriers she had constructed, and tapping into her full potential, Jean embraces the identity of Dark Phoenix, exacts revenge on Mastermind, overwhelms the X-Men, and leaves Earth for deep space.
2The white violin: The Umbrella Academy
On The Umbrella Academy, it’s Luther Hargreeves (Tom Hopper) and not Vanya (Ellen Page), who spent time in space. Her origin is far more grounded, and more heartbreaking. All but ignored by her adoptive father and excluded from the activities of the Umbrella Academy, the team of celebrated child superheroes, Vanya grew up isolated and lonely. The author of a poorly received tell-all memoir that only further ostracized her from her family, Vanya became an anxiety medication-popping concert violinist who lacks the confidence to move her from the third chair to first, or even pursue relationships.
That’s where Leonard Peabody (John Magaro) comes in. We can think of him as the Mastermind of the Netflix series, although he also replaces the demonic Conductor of the source material, who is rather two-dimensional. Socially awkward but likable enough, he displays a nebbish facade that barely hides his more sinister motives. Seemingly crossing paths with Vanya by chance, when he seeks violin lessons, Leonard is soon revealed as a master manipulator whose childhood worship of the Umbrella Academy (a fantasy that provided the escape from an abusive father) was transformed into hatred by a public humiliation.
When he discovers Sir Reginald’s journal, discarded by the drug-addled Klaus Hargreeve (Robert Sheehan) after his father’s death, he learns the secret the Umbrella Academy founder took with him to his grave: that Vanya possessed abilities too powerful to be contained, and too dangerous to leave unchecked. And, so, with the help of medication, and the reality-altering Allison Hargreeves (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Sir Reginald made young Vanya believe she was nothing special.
Leonard, who as a child killed his own father, goes to great lengths to enact his plan, kindling a romance with the lonely Vanya, committing murders, and even orchestrating a brutal attack on himself, which succeeds in triggering her destructive powers. Despite his extensive injuries, including the loss of an eye, Leonard checks him out of the hospital so he can further Vanya’s training. It comes at a high cost: When she learns of his manipulations, Vanya does indeed embrace her potential, and immediately murders him as punishment. (Mastermind, by contrast, was merely driven insane.) But Leonard’s scheme ultimately succeeds, as the newly empowered Vanya next turns her rage on her family.
1Similarities and Differences
In “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Jean Grey’s journey across the galaxy leaves her drained, and so she consumes the energy of a star, causing the death of the entire population of a nearby planet. Viewed now as a threat to the entire universe, Dark Phoenix is marked for death by the alien Shi’ar, Kree and Skrulls. That brings the Shi’ar into conflict with the X-Men, but in the end, Jean Grey sacrifices her own life.
The Umbrella Academy doesn’t rise to those levels of cosmic melodrama, but Vanya is the mechanism for the apocalypse her siblings have tried to stop. After destroying the family home, and with it the children’s robotic caretaker Mom and longtime adviser Pogo, Vanya makes her debut as first chair in the Icarus Theater where, like Jean Grey, she embraces a new form — The White Violin, although the name isn’t mentioned in Season 1 — and unleashes her destructive power. She succeeds in truly reuniting the Umbrella Academy, but their head-on approach proves ineffectual.
But as Vanya suspends her helpless brothers in mid-air, her sister Allison, whose vocal chords she slit earlier in the evening, sneaks up behind her with a gun, and fires it alongside her ear. The act knocks Vanya unconscious, freeing their brothers, but it also causes her to release a beam of concentrated energy that strikes the moon. Alas, it’s the pieces of the natural satellite striking Earth that brings about the apocalypse the Umbrella Academy spent much of the first season seeking to avert.
It’s doubtful that Vanya, fueled by rage over lifelong betrayals, sought to destroy the moon and trigger the apocalypse (in the comic, she declares, “tomorrow we end the world,” she makes no such over-the-top proclamations). Even as The White Violin, it’s unclear whether she is fully aware of the extent of her power. But we’re left to wonder whether the — it turns out — futile defeat of Vanya is a result of Allison’s stealthiness, or of Vanya herself.
Even before her transformation, Vanya demonstrates she’s acutely aware of every sound around her. Yet, she’s seemingly oblivious to Allison creeping up behind her, with pistol in hand, and then hesitating to fire. It could be merely a moment of storytelling convenience, or it could be a realization by Vanya that she’s unable to stop herself. Jean Grey brought about her own death (although if it didn’t stick), but Vanya may have left the fate of the world in the hands of Allison — even if her decision didn’t actually change anything.
Streaming now on Netflix, The Umbrella Academy Season 1 stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton, Mary J. Blige and Colm Feore.