Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, but it’s still pretty good.
Everyone knows the story of Krypton: The destruction of Superman’s home planet is the inciting incident that allows Kal-El to come to Earth as a baby and grow up to become its greatest protector, an origin story that has been told and retold in countless comic books, TV shows, and films over the past 80 years.
But as Action Comics (the series that first introduced the world to the Man of Steel back in 1938) prepares to release its milestone 1000th issue in April, Syfy is offering an origin story for the origin story — taking us back 200 years before Superman’s birth to meet Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), his grandfather, as an equally headstrong young man.
Why should we get invested in the fate of a planet that’s doomed to die? Because it turns out that Krypton‘s fate is inextricably linked to Superman’s, thanks to an intriguing time travel element introduced in the pilot. We catch up with Seg-El after his family has been disgraced and stripped of its social standing thanks to the forbidden scientific research of his grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney, aka Game of Thrones’ Barristan Selmy), who believes the planet is in danger and, spoiler alert, may be on to something.
Val’s fears are confirmed by the arrival of Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos), a time-traveler from Earth who has come to warn Seg that Krypton has been targeted by Brainiac (Blake Ritson), an alien entity that destroys planets and collects civilizations. If Brainiac succeeds, at least at this point in the timeline, Kal-El will never be born, endangering the future as well as the present.
Krypton’s biggest obstacle in the early offing is the sense of inevitability — we know the planet has to someday be destroyed in order for Superman to be sent to Earth, so in some ways it feels as if the show will be stuck vamping for time, much like Gotham, until it reaches the point that we’re all anticipating with the birth of its iconic hero (although by setting the show 200 years before Superman’s birth, they certainly have plenty of narrative runway).
Tonally, the pilot also has the moody aesthetic that Zack Snyder and Krypton executive producer David Goyer established for the planet in Man of Steel (it’s a relief to see Superman’s cape just for the pop of color), so if you didn’t dig it there, you might not be enthused by it here. One key difference between the projects is Krypton’s sense of humor, which helps undercut some of the grimness of watching an oblivious populace on the verge of annihilation.
The producers promise that the show’s time travel underpinnings mean that the future can be changed, but you get the sense that Krypton would have a lot more fun if it dispensed with the Superman elements and just focused on Seg and Adam planet-hopping, Mystery in Space style — which could very well be the gameplan for future seasons, given that executive producers Goyer and Geoff Johns have already name-dropped Thanagar, the Omega Men, and the Green Lantern Corps while promoting the series.
In the meantime, Krypton certainly isn’t short on scope; the worldbuilding on display — from the complex political structures of Kandor City to the costumes and elaborate production design — creates an environment that feels lived-in and deeply specific, from the accurate Kryptonian graffiti scrawled on walls and buildings in the lower class locations, to the fascinating technological advances that have made Kryptonian life much easier, and yet much more impersonal.
Like Game of Thrones, the show is filmed in Belfast, and certainly seems to aspire to that level of detail — while also benefiting from a roster of top-tier British talent, including Sherlock’s Rupert Graves and The Hunger Games’ Paula Malcolmson as Seg’s parents. The pilot is undeniably beautiful to look at, with the kind of care and attention to detail that seemed wholly absent from Marvel’s Inhumans, which chose to present its alien world with all the visual inventiveness of a trip to Ikea.
The series has set up plenty of interpersonal conflicts to keep Seg busy while he’s also attempting to save his planet and his grandson’s future; he’s having an affair with Lyta Zod (yes, the ancestor of General Zod), despite both of them being engaged to other people thanks to the passionless “binding” agreements that have replaced actual romance, and there’s growing political unrest due to an enigmatic religious leader known as the Voice of Rao, incited by the underground terrorist group Black Zero. The pilot throws a lot of competing factions and terminology at viewers in a short space of time, so it might take a couple of episodes for you to find your footing, but it’s also kind of refreshing that Krypton doesn’t attempt to spoonfeed us with a simplistic setup, instead dropping viewers right into the chaos, putting us on equal ground with our hero.
Seg certainly has more attitude than his future grandson, and Cuffe plays our protagonist with the rakish charisma of James T. Kirk (our introduction to him has definite shades of Chris Pine in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot), but he also has an earnestness and sense of justice that seem genetically ingrained in the House of El. Sipos’ Adam Strange is the lone American voice among a sea of polished Brits, but that kind of works for his everyman, fish out of water persona, and the odd-couple chemistry between the duo has the potential to be one of the show’s highlights, once they have time to actually hang out.
The Krypton pilot has a lot of heavy lifting to do, establishing not just the complicated alien culture of a technologically advanced planet, but also laying the track for several competing conflicts on a micro and macro scale. If the episode occasionally buckles under the weight of all this set up, it’s not for lack of ambition, and while the first episode is a little too preoccupied with exposition to have much fun, later episodes start to allow the protagonists’ humor and sense of adventure shine through.