The promotional tagline for the famous 1978 film Superman was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” These days, when Superman’s grandson, Seg-El, brawls in the new SyFy show Krypton, you’ll believe a man can get into bar fights. The new Superman prequel series Krypton takes place on the Man of Steel’s home planet two generations before his birth, but thanks to a time travel plot, maybe Kal-El/Clarke Kent won’t get born unless Seg-El fixes everything. Krypton is a weird mash-up of Superman mythology and Back to the Future stakes. And the thing is, that combination is made better by the fact that the show might actually dare to kill Superman’s history.
Light spoilers follow for the debut episode of Krypton on SyFy.
Like a Gotham City without Batman, Krypton rests on the assumption that comic book backstories can make for compelling television. But, Krypton probably has more in common with the ill-fated 2010 SyFy show Caprica than it does with Fox’s Gotham. Hell, both shows even cast the same actress in nearly the exact same role: Paula Malcomson played Zoe Graystone’s mom on Caprica and plays Seg’s mom (that’s Superman’s great-grandmother) on Krypton. (Malcomson also played Katniss’s mom in the Hunger Games movies. What gives?)
But, weirdly, even though it has way more canon to cope with, Krypton doesn’t have the same baggage of Caprica. As a Battlestar Galactica prequel, that series had to show the birth of a race of murdering robots who would wipe out 12 whole planets. It’s a somewhat familiar science fiction setup for a prequel so let’s find out how everything went to shit. In Star Wars, this means the entirety of the prequels and The Clone Wars TV series had to end with the rise of the Empire and the death of nearly all the Jedi. So, does this mean Krypton has to end in the destruction of the titular planet it’s set on? Maybe not.
Speaking to Inverse, the showrunner of Krypton — Cameron Welsh — mentioned another relevant prequel: that other Superman show, Smallville.
“We’d love to have the same longevity as something like Smallville,” Welsh said.
Meanwhile, producer David S. Goyer has thrown down the time travel gauntlet, saying, “This is an untold story and time travel is involved. History could be changed and what happens in this story can be very different from the backstory people know.”
Welsh echoes this sentiment. When asked point blank if the titular planet Krypton could maybe not blow up this time, Welsh told Inverse: “Absolutely. That is the goal of Seg, and we’re writing for that character, and he wants to save Krypton, and he wants to find a way for Superman to still be born. I could see us going that way.”
Still, despite the fact that a time travel incursion into Krypton’s deep past could threaten to destroy the Man of Steel, the charm of the show itself isn’t tied up in all the Supe references. Instead, Cameron Cuffe as the young Seg-El pulls off a charming scoundrel routine without feeling too rote. Because his brashness is the heart and soul of the show, and Seg’s quest to save his planet is the essential conflict, everything rests on this guy’s shoulders. Luckily, he’s able to deliver a compelling performance, even if those shoulders are devoid of a signature red cape.
The rest of the cast is similarly above average for what one might have written off as a clone of a CW-DC comics show. From Georgina Campbell as Lyta Zod to Rupert Graves of Sherlock fame, to Shaun Sipos as the time-traveling Adam Strange, the show has a legit weightiness to it that doesn’t come across in the trailers. These Kryptonians can’t fly and lasers don’t shoot out of their eyes, but the show feels strong and hot at the same time.
Maybe, like Smallville before it, Krypton will prove that the best Superman stories don’t need Superman to actually appear all that much. Who cares if these people ever fly. So far, Krypton is by leaps and bounds the most exciting superhero show in years.
Krypton debuts on Wednesday, March 21, at 10 p.m. Eastern on SyFy, right after The Magicians.