In terms of superhero mythology, the Man of Steel remains the gift that just keeps on giving. Syfy’s clever Krypton isn’t just another origin story – it’s the origin behind the origin, going back a couple of generations into Superman’s family history, on his native planet. Cameron Cuffe stars as Seg-El, Superman’s grandfather, hundreds of years before the future protector of truth, justice and the American way Kal-El was born. He is an outcast there, ever since his own grandfather Val-El was killed for flaunting his unbecoming curiosity about alien civilizations that might be lurking out there in the universe. It seems the House of El is shunned in proper society on Krypton, a rigidly hierarchical place where different houses angle for supremacy – part Game of Thrones, part Project Runway.
Then one day Seg-El happens to meet Adam Strange, a visitor a planet called Earth, not to mention a planet within that planet called Detroit. Strange has travelled through both time and space to this faraway planet, coming from our own time bearing Superman’s cape. He has arrived to advise Seg on his own heroic rendezvous with destiny, from the perspective of the planet that Superman will eventually save over and over again. “This cape belonged to your future grandson,” he announces. So Seg needs to rescue Krypton from destruction, just long enough for the Man of Steel to be born there, because hey, our big blue marble will be totally screwed if he never exists. (Earth exceptionalism – so rude!)
Krypton doesn’t require a deep dive into Superman mythology, to say the least. There’s no crossover with the DC superhero adventures on the CW; for better or worse, this series stands alone. But as showrunner Cameron Welsh did in the sorely underrated Ash vs. Evil Dead, he brings a little vibrant irreverence to freshen up a hallowed franchise. It works in encounters with villains like Brainiac and Hawkwoman – and there’s also a strange Deadwood connection in Paula Malcomson, who appears as the House of El’s matriarch Charys. Black Mirror’s Georgina Campbell is superb as Seg’s lover Lyta, a warrior from the House of Zod who has her own doubts about society in Kandor City. Sag-El even has his own Fortress of Solitude, where he beholds a vision of his slain grandfather Val-El, who tells him to avenge the family honor and hold the planet together, announcing, “You are the torch bearer for our legacy now.”
And thankfully, the Syfy show has a light touch, which is why it works even when you’re tempted to dismiss it as a Prequ-El. It would probably fall flat if it tried to do much heavy lifting or take on too much of a long, convoluted mythology. For the most part, it’s about Sag-El’s quest to prove himself as a guy worthy of having a heroic descendent some day in another world. On some level, it evokes Patton Oswalt’s classic routine about George Lucas pitching the Star Wars prequels: “Do you like Darth Vader? In the first movie, you get to see him as a little kid!” As Oswalt explains gently to Lucas, nobody cares about how cool things get made, if the origins themselves are not cool. “Do you like Angelina Jolie? Does she give you a big boner? Well, here’s Jon Voight’s ball sack!”
But we know from the beginning Superman is not going to fly in to the rescue on this show – for one thing, he wouldn’t enjoy any of his special powers back on the world that’s made out of kryptonite. The one thing everybody knows about Krypton is that it doesn’t exist any more; the whole premise of the planet is that it gets blown up, forcing Superman’s father to relocate him to a more hospitable, Kansas-like place. Mass extinction is the reason the Man of Steel fell to earth in the first place. So there’s something enjoyably skewed about the quest to preserve it for Earth’s benefit. Krypton is a clever shot at finding new stories inside one of the most beloved superhero sagas in any universe.