NOT YOUR GRANDPA'S SUPERMAN
‘Krypton’ Is Superhero TV’s Soapy New Guilty Pleasure
Syfy’s new Superman spin-off series, which follow’s the iconic hero’s grandfather on his home planet of Krypton, is just promising enough to keep us watching.
Good news: I’ve got your new guilty pleasure right here, and its name is Krypton. Airing on Syfy, Krypton follows Superman’s grandfather, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) as he reckons with the tarnished legacy of his own grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney), and the evolution of his home planet. That said, this is less a show for Superman fans, and more a show for folks who miss Da Vinci’s Demons or The Borgias. Krypton is a soapy period drama — it just has space capes instead of tabards.
As usual, there’s a smartass protagonist, a wisecracking friend, multiple love triangles, bizarre mythos, and a surplus of familial angst. There’s some existential angst thrown into the mix, too, as it turns out that Superman is in a bit of a pickle, and has sent Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) back in time in order to help sort things out. Needless to say, this is a lot to juggle, and only some of these storylines prove compelling.
Seg-El’s brand of hero-ing is — to me, at least — one that’s worn out its welcome. It’s not necessarily that Seg-El is written in a regressive mold, but that we’ve seen similar protagonists so often before and, particularly in Krypton, at the expense of much more interesting secondary characters. We’ve already seen so many “bad boys” running around, being rebellious in order to pretend that some past tragedy (usually a death in the family) hasn't affected them, and generally causing havoc before accepting the mantle of hero, or savior, or something to that effect. Just as we don’t really need to see Thomas and Martha Wayne die yet again, we don’t need to see this particular archetype to play out again, either.
Still, Cuffe does his best with what he’s given. At his side is Rasmus Hardiker as Kem, Seg-El’s best friend, continuing in the time-honored tradition of character actor sidekicks delivering much more compelling performances than the leading men they’re paired with. Also along for the ride is Wallis Day as Nyssa-Vex, the chief magistrate’s daughter, and Seg-El’s state-appointed wife. She’s terrific as a Kryptonian femme fatale, propelling the show toward noir-ish territory as the disparate storylines intertwine.
But the real attraction of Krypton isn’t Superman’s family history: it’s that of the Zods. (For those of you wondering what the hell I’m talking about, you’ll remember that Zod was the character Michael Shannon played in Man of Steel — yeah, that Zod.) As the mother and daughter pair of Alura and Lyta Zod, Ann Ogbomo and Georgina Campbell are easily the best parts of the show. One of the threads woven through Krypton is the portrayal of the planet as essentially a government-run state. The divide between the haves and have-nots (or the “rankless,” as they’re referred to here) is hammered home over and over again as Krypton attempts to assert itself as a political allegory, re-litigating Superman’s family history in the context of the Kryptonian eugenics practices that generally get glossed over in stories about Superman’s time on Earth. Only the Zods come out of this framing without feeling like they’re being dealt with in an unnecessarily heavy-handed way.
Ogbomo (last seen in Wonder Woman) is particularly great, pulling off the seemingly impossible feat of combining two old storylines (which I won’t spoil here) and turning them into something that feels, if not fresh, then still utterly compelling. Campbell, meanwhile, has the bad fortune of being stuck in a web of love triangles, but her ascendance within the Kryptonian state and her struggle with the expectations of her mother make for some of the best scenes in the series. It’s almost a pity that they’re not the show’s leads.
Given the five episodes sent out for review, I’m not sure that I can say Krypton succeeds as quote-unquote “timely story.” The intention pretty clearly seems to be there, what with the focus on the rich versus the poor, the implementation of religion as a way of keeping the masses sedate, and the Kryptonian equivalent of fighting over the existence of global warming, but it’s less interesting than the family drama that’s playing out behind it. Hopefully the show will achieve some sort of balance as the season progresses.
That said, hardcore DC-heads should still find plenty to like about the show. The primary villain, as you may have heard, is Brainiac (Blake Ritson, who seems to have made an art out of being calmly menacing), in perhaps the best live-action iteration of the character yet. There’s also a liberal amount of Super-history sprinkled in, as well as the promise of appearances from Doomsday and Hawkgirl as the series goes on. On top of it all, there’s even a revamped Fortress of Solitude. (And so far, at least, Krypton hasn’t become so wildly divergent and strange as some of DC’s other TV properties.)
All in all, Krypton isn’t appointment TV, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching it. It’s pulpy and soapy enough to keep a viewer’s attention, and the central performances are all great, to the point that the initial skepticism around the concept “a story about Superman’s granddad” can largely be dismissed. Much like Seg-El himself, Krypton has the potential to be something great. Whether or not it’ll live up to that potential remains to be seen, but I don’t mind going along for the ride.