Somewhere along the line, today’s comic book-obsessed pop culture landscape became so jam-packed with origin stories that studios decided we needed origin stories for our origin stories. The superhero tale before the actual superhero shows up. Basically, you’ve seen Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive spider, but have you met the radioactive spider’s cousin? The most notable example is Fox’s Gotham, a Batman prequel series that mostly succeeds by taking this concept and injecting it with several doses of cocaine, to the point where the surly Dark Knight showing up would only ruin the insane fun of it all.
Syfy’s Superman-without-Superman series Krypton—created by Damian Kindler and Man of Steel writer David S. Goyer—is a much more high-concept, self-serious affair than Gotham. There are certainly moments when the pilot episode soars. But like Superman without the sun, it’s a bit of a bumpy ride getting off the ground.
Anyone even vaguely aware of Superman’s origin story knows Krypton eventually explodes into tiny pieces of celestial stardust, leaving baby Kal-El to make his way alone to Earth, where he grows into Henry Cavill’s jawline and becomes the greatest hero history has ever known. (His older cousin Kara Zor-El also travels through the Phantom Zone into a pocket dimension called The CW, but that’s a whole different story.) Krypton lands us decades before that tragedy, focusing instead on the Man of Steel’s grandfather, Seg-El, played by British newcomer Cameron Cuffe.
Cuffe is charmingly roguish in the pilot, displaying a Chris Pratt-esque ability to make a bar fight seem like a joke with a grin and a wink. The problem is in the character itself, which the writers seem to have assembled patchwork from stories we’ve seen before. Seg is a society-spurned street rat with a heart of gold (Aladdin) who is burdened not only with a star-crossed love for Lyta Zod than can never be (Romeo & Juliet) but also a capital-letter Great Destiny only he can fulfill, despite the fact his father worriedly says he is not ready (every Y.A. story in the past decade). He even shops at the same outer-space jacket emporium as Han Solo and Star Lord.
The underlying story, at least as laid out in the first episode, is similarly thin. Seg’s scientist grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney, always a pleasure), was handed an extremely harsh death sentence by the planet’s powers that be for A) Positing that life exists out in the cosmos, and B) Some of that life, a planet-collector known as Brainiac, is coming to harvest the shit out of Krypton. Fourteen years later, Adam Strange—played by Shaun Sipos, and disappointedly not wearing nearly as bonkers an outfit as his comic book counterpart—travels through time to tell Seg his grandfather was correct, and he brought the quickly-dissolving cape of Superman to prove it. Like most storylines involving time-travel, the explanation stops right at the point where it only kind of makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard. “It’s like an hour-glass,” Strange says about Superman’s cape, which is fading like a Marty McFly polaroid. “Once this cape is gone our times up and Superman will have been wiped from existence.”
Since Strange is effectively acting as the Obi-Wan to Seg’s pre-Jedi Luke Skywalker, I’m sure the why’s and how’s of all this will be explored as the season progresses. But for a pilot episode, Goyer and co-writer Ian Goldberg do a surprisingly poor job of making us care about the fate of an entire planet and DC’s most famous hero, choosing instead to cram a majority of the impending Brainiac story into a last-minute exposition dump.
It’s a shame, because the personal stakes raised by the script are more fleshed out, but somehow feel more cliche for it. As Seg’s impoverished parents Charys-El and Ter-El—the entire family stripped of title and rank because of Val-El’s crimes—Paula Malcomson and Rupert Graves add a much-needed touch of humanity to the over-stuffed proceedings. But years of absorbing comic book stories being told the same way have taught us to know exactly how long Charys-El has to live as soon as she says the line, “We have to finish his work…together.” By the time both parents are gunned down in front of Seg for crimes they did not commit, you can almost see the emotions you’re supposed to feel—Cuffe, for his part, is game for portraying trauma—but it feels more like a check mark ticked off in the Tragic Figure textbook. As if the impending destruction of an entire planet is not enough to give a story weight, we must be reminded that a leading comic book character cannot truly exist unless said character watches his or her relatives die horribly.
Funny enough, Krypton truly excels when it moves away from its source material trappings and works more as a Game of Thrones-ian drama of warring factions and families. Again, the hardest part of this show’s entire existence is making us care about a place we all know is set to explode. The script—along with some truly gorgeous visuals framed from the dusty dystopian ground up by director Colm McCarthy—does a great job turning Krypton into a living, breathing space occupied by actual human beings, complete with separate cities, corrupt leadership, and an underbelly of rebellion. Wonder Woman’s Ann Ogbomo almost lifts the entire episode on to her own shoulders—she certainly looks strong enough to do it—as Alura Zod, leader of Kandor’s elite Sagitari. It’s a fierce performance, as steel-edged as the knife Alura drives through her own daughter’s hand.
But the success of the world-building and background characters is exactly what makes Krypton an interesting show but a disappointing pilot. Everything truly intriguing—the terrorist organization Black Zero, the enigmatic many-faced voice of Rao, the immensely chill Nyssa-Vex—is glimpsed or mentioned only in passing, making space for the time-hopping cliche that is the main plot.
Nowhere is this more glaring than the introduction of Brainiac himself, played by a CGI-covered Blake Ritson. The visuals on the villain—and his terrifying trademark Skull Ship—are incredible, genuinely surpassing some of the work we’ve seen in the actual DCEU. But it comes in the episode’s already rushed closing minutes, delivered so dispassionately by Sipos that it sounds less like the entrance of a Big Bad and more like someone on a deadline reading Brainiac’s Wikipedia page.
- Welcome to Krypton coverage, where week-to-week I will try my hardest to avoid wondering why everyone on this alien planet has a British accent.
- A few things here are borrowed directly from Superman’s long, long comic book history. Brainiac’s look, for instance, is a ringer for Gary Frank’s art in writer Geoff Johns’ Superman: Brainiac. The term Rao, as well, has been around for awhile, a name given to both the planet’s primary divine figure and the red sun that orbits Krypton.
- Speaking of, there’s something very, very funny to me about how ridiculously unwieldy that many-faced helmet looks on the Voice of Rao.
- What a disturbing concept the Genesis Chamber is. “Strange to think our ancestors used to carry children in their wombs. Just seems so inefficient.”