Can a Superman-themed production fly without Superman?
Syfy’s new series “Krypton” is set on the hero’s doomed home planet 200 years before Kal-El (a.k.a. Superboy) was sent to Earth by his protective father just as the planet explodes.
So why watch a story where the main attraction is missing, and everyone else is destined to become space dust?
“Krypton,” which premieres March 21, addresses that issue within minutes of the opening credits: “This story isn’t about how we died but how we lived,” says Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), Superman’s grandfather and the hero of this story.
If only life on Krypton was as dramatic and colorful as that line suggests.
Instead, drab, neutral browns and institutional gray appear to be the official colors of Kandor City, Krypton’s capital. Superman’s ancestors are tried for treason in a chamber of muted colors. The rabble-rousing Seg-El picks fights in dreary alleyways. Even the snowy terrain outside the protective (and confining) city walls appears more beige than white.
No wonder Superman chose a flashy red cape and bright blue unitard. It’s an instinctual reaction to all that monotone.
The series relies on that primitive/futuristic feel we’ve associated with deep space ever since Han Solo ordered that first drink in Tatooine’s Mos Eisly Cantina. You know the place — cavernous stone-like spaces equipped with high-tech gadgetry, with an inhospitable climate right outside those sensor-activated doors.
But what works in the billion-dollar “Star Wars” franchise productions sets this prequel back in unintended ways.
When those meant-to-be smooth doors open and close in “Krypton,” they look more out of alignment than space-age. And when a fight breaks out between characters, it’s hard not to root for the walls, which appear to be made out of molded plastic not unlike your little brother’s Incredible Hulk Halloween costume.
It’s a shame, because over the first three episodes reviewed here, the untold story of Krypton — and Superman’s family saga — holds promise.
The pilot episode finds Superman’s family clan, the House of El, in peril. Seg-El’s grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney) has warned the society’s rulers and magistrates that there are other life forms in the universe, and they mean to harm Krypton. He’s not only ignored, he’s sentenced to death for suggesting theirs is not the only life form in the universe, and the family is stripped of its elite rank. A young Seg-El witnesses it all.
Fast forward 14 years: Seg-El is 23, cavorting with the rank-less lower caste and pulling scams in a local bar to help support his parents, Ter-El (Rupert Graves) and Charys-El (Paula Malcomson). But everything changes when an Earthling, Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos), travels back in time to Krypton to warn Seg-El about the fate of his future grandson (In the DC universe, Strange becomes a space-faring superhero).
Strange, who looks like Eminem in his hoodie and Detroit Tigers baseball cap, tells Seg-El he must find a way to save his grandson — and Krypton — from harm, or Superman will fail to exist and Earth will be left unprotected. When Seg-El later discusses his odd run-in later with friend Kem (Rasmus Hardiker), he says the interloper is ”from another planet. Detroit, I think he called it.”
Krypton may not be the most colorful place, but at least they have a sense of humor.
The race is on to save a grandson who’s yet to be born. Seg-El must fight the planet’s caste system, the militarized political forces that run the city and his own family legacy to succeed. He’s also having a clandestine affair with Lyta-Zod (Georgina Campbell), the daughter of hard-nosed military leader Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo). And we haven’t even gotten to the nefarious plans of Brainiac, the planet-detroying extraterrestrial.
The show, from executive producers David S. Goyer (“Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and Cameron Welsh (“Constantine,” “Ash vs Evil Dead”), has the opposite problem of other superhero productions that tend to be all action and no story. There’s a compelling narrative here, but the drama lacks the fireworks and color to keep things engaging.
Hand-to-hand combat scenes are plentiful, but awkward choreography and truncated shots remind viewers that this show could really use a superhero — or more high-end production value. And though the tensions between the rank-less masses of Kandor and the elite military group draw interesting parallels to many scenarios around our world right now (the disenfranchised poor are rounded up, abused and labeled terrorists if they resist), it’s a little too grim without the counterbalance of a powerful avenger to set things right.
The latter, of course, will come with time. But as a prequel without a caped crusader, “Krypton” needs more lift to get off the ground.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)