This Krypton review contains spoilers.
Krypton Episode 1
We live in an age of reboots, reimaginings, and revivals where, all too often, familiarity gets in the way of ambition. Fortunately, Krypton, the new Superman prequel from Syfy, has its priorities mostly right. While there are elements that feel familiar or old-fashioned, and a time travel connection to Superman that feels wholly unnecessary, Krypton is a show that is thoroughly interested in doing its own thing.
Because of its world-building ambitions, Krypton has a lot to accomplish in its opening hour. We are introduced to Krypton 200 years before the birth of Kal-El (aka Superman). Like our own planet, it is a world that is starkly divided between the haves and have-nots, a world that seems to sense, on some level, that it is living on borrowed time. Unfortunately for the House of El, grandfather Val-El is not interested in burying his head in the sand. When he tries to prove that Krypton is in danger from a world-destroying villain coming their way, threatening the power the mysterious Voice of Rao has accumulated, he is put to death right in front of his grandson, series protagonist Seg-El.
Fast forward 14 years later and a now 23-year-old Seg’s entire life has been understandably shaped by the execution of his grandfather. The El family has been stripped of their name, their status, and banished to the poorer, lower districts of Kandor City. Seg has a chip on his shoulder the size of a small planet. He is your classic struggling, street urchin Chosen One. Think Aladdin or Great Expectations‘ Pip, but with comic book connotations. It’s a familiar archetype, but one brought charismatically to life by British relative newcomer Cameron Cuffe. In lesser hands, Seg’s character might not work—and with its would go the success of Krypton as a whole, so central is this character to the story—but Cuffe imbues Seg with a youthful vulnerability, self-deprecating sarcasm, and unfortunate but heroic impetuousness that makes you want to root for him.
It probably helps that Seg is set up as the ultimate underdog in this opening hour (even though, as the member of a former guild family, he has a leg up on most of the residents of Kandor City). In the space of an episode, he loses his grandfather, loses his father, loses his mother, loses his girlfriend, and more or less loses his home. In the grieving eyes of Seg, it’s all Adam Strange’s fault. Strange is a man who hails from our world, where the existence of Superman is threatened. Remember that galaxy-swallowing maniac Seg’s grandfather was killed for mentioning? Yeah, it’s comic villain Brainiac and he’s got some serious plans to, you know, conquer everything. In one of the best visuals of the entire episode, the Collector of Worlds is making his way across the galaxy as we speak, and he is so, so creepy.
I’m not crazy about the time travel elements of this plot, which feel like a tacked on, stakes-raising element for a story that already had pretty high stakes and plenty of plot to get through. Adam Strange comes off as a kind of obnoxious fanboy everyman, apologizing about the deaths of Seg’s parents, but not taking much responsibility for his part in it. His big schtick is that he has Superman’s cape, which acts like Marty McFly’s picture in Back to the Future. Once the cape is gone, there will be no chance of rescuing Kal-El from the fate of non-existence. But, even as a viewer, it’s hard to care that much about Superman, who is two centuries and lightyears away from this present and world. I can only imagine how Seg feels.
I’d much rather spend time on Seg’s navigation of Kandor’s complex social politics. When Seg thwarts a revolutionary hoping to blow up the Voice of Rao and the oppressive oligarchy he represents, he is “gifted” a placement in the House of Vex, which comes with a spot in a guild and a betrothal to the icy Nyssa-Vex. It is an obvious power play from Daron-Vex, who is the chief magistrate of Kandor and the man who handles the day-to-day oppressions of the oligarchy. He also happens to be the person who ordered Val-El to his death.
Seg openly hates Daron, but also knows an opportunity when he sees it. It’s kind of unclear why he would want to leave the supportive community of the lower districts in exchange for a stuffy guild job and a betrothal to a woman he doesn’t know, but, especially after Seg’s parents die and he learns of his family’s mission to protect Krypton, it makes more sense. The decision is complicated by Lyta Zod, the woman Seg loves and who loves him. Lyta is the daughter of Jayna-Zod, the ruthless leader of the military guild. She is the kind of woman who stabs her own daughter in the hand to make a point and who shoots Seg’s parents in front of him in what might be a mercy killing. Somehow, she still seems like one of the better people within Kandor leadership circles, though, to be fair, that isn’t a very stiff competition. Following the deaths of his parents, Seg breaks up with Lyta, breaking both of their hearts.
The best parts of the Krypton pilot come in its worldbuilding, which already tells you a lot about how much thought and well-articulated execution went into this series. But the continued narrative success of this show will lie in how these characters are developed, in how they inhabit this rich world. Right now, they are stereotypical in the way you might expect from a pilot, but show serious promise. I wish the show hadn’t killed off so many “olds” in the opening episode. It would have been nice to see what part Seg’s parents could have played in the revolution. One of the more refreshing aspects of the episode came when Seg’s mother, Charys, showed up in a stolen skimmer to rescue Seg and reveal to him the Fortress of Solitude. Rogue revolutionary is not a role the mom usually gets to play in these things, and it would have been nice to see it develop.
Perhaps we’ll get more exploration of the already-established rebellious organizations with Black Zero, a group Daron calls “a terrorist organization” and seems to be genuinely afraid of. Before her death, Charys claims she is part of the group, though later backtracks on that, implying that it was a lie to get her in front of the Kandor leadership. Either way, the group is obviously alive and well, as we see Daron ordering some of its members to their execution earlier in the episode. Which leads to the question: Which of the characters we’ve already met are a part of it? My money is on Jayna, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Another possible option is Seg’s lower district, bartender buddy Kem. If Kem isn’t a secret revolutionary, that will mean he’s seemingly just in the narrative for comic relief, which would be a major bummer. Right now, he’s the only lower district character in the narrative, and that feels like a vital perspective to include in this story. Because, while Seg did send his formative years in the shadows of the gleaming buildings of Kandor City, he has never been your typical working class citizen, either.
While most of the plot mechanics in the Krypton pilot work, in an effort to get through so much plot development in the pilot, there were some contrivances that took away from the realism of this first episode. For example, though it was cool that Charys stole the aforementioned skimmer, it doesn’t make much sense that she would risk everything just to show Seg the Fortress of Solitude one time. There wasn’t a less dangerous way to do this? Or maybe she could have just told him about his family’s mission without the visual aid, for now? Also, it’s unclear why Seg is able to visit the Fortress at the end of the episode without any negative repercussions.
Still, there is a lot to like here. Thus far, Krypton is incredibly ambitious in its worldbuilding, while at the same time cathartically archetypal in its age old, yet still endlessly topical tale of class struggle and societal oppression. It is at its best when it doesn’t try to shoehorn itself into the Superman narrative. For this viewer, it is enough (albeit tragic) that we know Krypton’s eventual fate. As much as I like Superman, he is not relevant to this story. If this story leans away from the time travel shenanigans and towards a nuanced exploration of systems of power in an oligarchy in decline, Krypton could be something truly special.