Think about the future.
With Krypton making its debut on Syfy last month, we now have two live-action TV series set before the rise of an iconic DC hero. Krypton explores the struggles of Superman’s grandfather, Seg-El, while Gotham has spent the past four years chronicling the rise of the future Commissioner Jim Gordon and Batman’s rogues gallery. One thing both shows share in common is that they’re not content simply to anchor themselves in the past. Both series devote a lot of time and energy to introducing characters and elements from the present-day DC Universe. But while that’s often been one of the larger flaws with Gotham over the years, in Krypton’s case it’s helping to build a more compelling story.
Gotham seemed like one of the biggest no-brainers in TV history when it was first announced. Everyone loves a good police procedural, and once you factor in the Gotham City setting and the promise of seeing a young Bruce Wayne slowly evolve into Batman, you have the recipe for a great crime drama.
But from the very beginning, Gotham has been at odds with itself. It’s telling a story of a Gotham City before Batman, yet it seems determined to include as many Batman characters and storylines as possible. Over the course of four seasons, the series has introduced everyone from the Riddler to Penguin to Mister Freeze to Ra’s al Ghul. Many of these villains have basically evolved into fully formed versions of themselves in this Batman-less environment. Meanwhile, the show has started adapting iconic Batman storylines like The Long Halloween and No Man’s Land. How much longer until Gotham attempts to do a Batman-less take on The Dark Knight Returns?
It’s not that Gotham hasn’t found success in its villain-focused approach (some more than others). But not only does that approach prevent Gotham from becoming the gritty, Gotham Central-inspired crime drama a lot of fans were hoping for, it ignores one of the most fascinating questions about Batman. Is he responsible for the rise of these costumed psychopaths? Would Gotham City actually be better off without a a vigilante who has seemingly inspired a new breed of criminal? Gotham would have us believe that these characters sprang up independently of Batman. It diminishes the complicated psychological relationship between Batman and his enemies. The series would likely be better off if it abandoned the prequel conceit and just focused on an adult Batman and his rogues.
It’s easy to picture Krypton falling into a similar trap. The series may technically be set 200 years before the time of Superman, but the first episode ended with the revelation that contemporary hero Adam Strange has been sent back in time to ensure that Brainiac doesn’t wipe Superman out of existence. Here again, a prequel series can’t help but dwell on the future and a more familiar, well-established cast of characters.
The critical difference, though, is that this eye towards the future works in Krypton’s favor. As neat as it is to see a closer glimpse of Superman’s home world before it was destroyed, is that enough of a selling point on its own? Even casual Batman fans have an interest in seeing how characters like Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon came to be who they are today. But does learning more about the grandparents of Superman and General Zod really do much to enhance the mythology of the franchise? The Superman connection might have actually wound up hurting the show.
Krypton faced the problem so many prequels do. When viewers already know the endpoint of a story, it’s harder to keep them hooked for the extended journey. We know that eventually Krypton will be destroyed and baby Kal-El will become the last son of a dead civilization. But by establishing this link between past and present, the series is able to become more than just a prequel. Seg-El’s quest to save his own grandson gives the series a greater sense of urgency purpose. It also gives Seg’s own struggle more meaning. He and his world may ultimately die, but he can at least die knowing he played his part in ensuring that Superman lives.
Not to mention that the addition of time travel opens up all sorts of new possibilities. If Adam Strange can travel back to Krypton’s past, what’s to stop Seg from following him into the future? Who’s to say this timeline even has to follow established Superman lore? What if the series establishes a divergent timeline where Krypton is never destroyed or where Seg fails and Superman is never born? Maybe neither of these things will happen, but regardless, there’s a lot of room to surprise viewers with a story whose ending is seemingly a foregone conclusion. Where Gotham succeeds mostly in spite of being torn between past and present, Krypton works precisely because the two are bleeding together.
For more on Krypton, check out our explainer on Superman’s home planet, and read up on the 12 villains we’d like to see on the new series, and for the latest on Gotham, here’s our take on the latest Jerome twist, and Ben McKenzie’s thoughts on Jerome’s future.