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Syfy’s KRYPTON Doesn’t Need Superman to Fly (Review)

At the nexus of the prestige teen drama, political sci-fi, and our superhero movie century stands Syfy’s Krypton.

The series takes us back (way, way back) to Superman’s home planet where the citizens of Kandor live under an iron-fisted, gold-faced god president who enforces a brutal caste system marked by growing oppression and the denial of an oncoming global threat. Kal-El’s great-great-grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney), kicks things off by getting kicked out of society for speaking publicly about a planet-destroying event headed for them, but it’s Superman’s grandfather Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) who carries on the fight for the truth with an obsessive loyalty to his family and brash (or stupid) allergy to authority.

For its dose of teen drama, the show features attractive young people caught between love and the arranged marriages of the high born. Seg fools around with elite soldier Lyta Zod (Georgina Campbell) but is betrothed to bittersweet, scheming Nyssa (Wallis Day) as part of a devil’s bargain to regain his upper class status by joining the house of Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan), who, inconveniently, is the one who killed Val-El and destroyed their house in the first place.

These PG trysts (Kandorians make babies by pressing their thumbs on a DNA scanner) are the spice of a main course that’s all about the political choices Seg has to face. Keep his family name and stay poor, or take his enemy’s and become powerful? Carry on his grandfather’s work, or fall in line? Stand on the authoritarian side that has all the guns, or take his chances with the lowly scroungers who barely show even a glimmer of fighting back?

All of that is complicated by Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos), an Earthling from the future claiming that Seg must follow a painful, demanding path or risk the billions of lives saved by the Man of Steel.

The first three episodes lay solid groundwork for interweaving stories about unlikely or unwilling heroes facing impossible odds. Krypton cannot escape some of its comic book cheesiness (which mostly comes from the initially awkward inclusion of Strange and a Superman angle that feels like a second cherry on top of a teetering tall sundae) but it survives on the strength of its actors. Krypton’s aliens all come by way of London, with standouts like Campbell (who many will recognize from the best episode of the latest Black Mirror) and Ann Ogbomo, who plays Lyta’s mother General Alura Zod with the seething layers of someone embedded in a political system despite her conscience.

Cuffe plays Seg as if Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk were under the watchful eye of a murderous, dictatorial regime. There’s a severity there that grounds even the clunkier bits of dialogue because Seg is tough and smart, but almost completely powerless.

Strange is messier, mostly because the casual jokes they’ve written for him don’t work, and because the bro-tastic arguments and camaraderie between him, Seg, and lowlife bartender Kem (Rasmus Hardiker) don’t gel. Still, while the show’s dips into humor don’t land, it shines when characters are whisper-screaming at each about future battles. When things do get bloody the fights are almost always fierce and shot with long, open takes that let us appreciate the intensity and choreography without editing everything to choppy smithereens.

The production design and costuming is also first-rate. There’s a metallic clinical sheen to the upper crust’s living and working areas, and a ratty second-hand tone to the impoverished zones, and while the uniforms are largely generic mash-ups (Tron meets Equilibrium), Nyssa’s outfits have a sinister allure and The Voice of Rao is downright mesmerizing.

Like anything trying to take flight with too much baggage, Krypton struggles to get off the runway, but once the plots coalesce a bit, it becomes freer to find the good kind of turbulence. It’s impossible not to see timely nods to political struggle in the subtext. The clearest is the large-scale, administrative denial of a force that could harm the whole planet, but other episodes deal with the age-old, Orwellian/Huxleyian menace of the police state with some topical twists.

Syfy seems to have borrowed some from The Expanse in creating the world of Krypton with its interlocking palace intrigue and trigger-happy standoffs. Not to mention the diminished blue hue of a city-state in crisis. Overall, Krypton sticks a difficult landing by blending an aggressive (if standard) authoritarian government story with an expanding mythos of Superman’s doomed home world.

Normally, that canon knowledge of what ultimately happens to Krypton would deflate any sense of meaning. The whole thing’s just gonna burn anyway. Yet the series uses it as an advantage by placing it, silently, overwhelmingly, at the center of a pile of choices Seg must make. Knowing Superman’s origin means knowing that, eventually, Seg will face deciding the fate of a world he’s fighting hard to save. That paired with Krypton‘s seriousness and creativity has me prepping the popcorn for the full season.

3.5 out of 5 red sun burritos

Images: Syfy

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