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Both of EW’s TV critics watched the pilot for Krypton, the new Superman prequel series debuting Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy. One of those critics, Darren Franich, knows entirely too much about comic book history. The other critic, Kristen Baldwin, has a lot of questions.
KRISTEN: Am I supposed to giggle every time I hear that voiceover guy say “House of El”?
DARREN: If you think “El” sounds funny, wait until you hear everyone try to make “Seg” happen.
I know this is your first question, Kristen, and you’re just holding on for dear life, but can I nerd out on the nomenclature here? Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster revealed early on that his birth name was “Kal-L” (later rendered as Kal-El), son of a brilliant scientist named “Jor-L” (later known as Jor-El and still the only fictional character played badly by Marlon Brando but decently by Russell Crowe). Superman’s Kryptonian name echoes the particular sci-fi lingo of that pulp age, almost a cousin to “Klaatu” from The Day the Earth Stood Still. But apparently, the name “Kal-El” can translate into something like “Voice of God” in Hebrew, reflecting Siegel’s and Schuster’s own background, and offering Super-subtext seekers a deep vein of Jewish-immigrant symbolism.
Which is cool, right? Now, in the ’80s, in the midst of one of comic book continuity’s eternal reboots, John Byrne and Mike Mignola invented a character named “Seyg-El,” Jor-El’s father and thus Superman’s grandfather. The name “Seyg-El” was intended as an homage to Jerry “Siegel” — also cool, right?
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What no one ever intended, of course, was that a TV series aiming for some vaguely serious tone would feature a main character named “Seg,” recently ranked by babycenter.com as the 18,313th most popular name for girls. At the risk of offending anyone named “Seg,” I would cautiously throw out there that they would’ve been better off naming the main character of Krypton literally anything, and that perhaps “The House of El” is a phrase better read than said.
KRISTEN: The Big Bad is called “The Voice of Rao”? That sounds like a lounge act. Is that a real thing from the comics?
DARREN: I’m so glad you bring up the Voice of Rao, because The Man With Many Gold Faces is my favorite part of Krypton, and the possibility of the Voice of Rao suddenly bursting out into a “Nick the Lounge Singer”-type musical number is all that’s keeping me going with this show. To the tune of the opening bars of John Williams’ majestic “Superman” theme:
Kryp-ton, you’re so gray
Why so gray?
Kryp-ton, you’re so dull
BLOW IT UP!
In my memory, Rao was actually the name of the star in Krypton’s solar system. I was going to credit the show for coming up with a cool-weird religion built off that idea. But Superman’s been around long enough now for everything to already be canon, and the notion that Planet Krypton has some kind of Rao-centric high priest comes from a more recent comic book series. So it is a “real” thing from the comics, which isn’t the same as being a “good” thing from the comics.
KRISTEN: Why is Superman’s grandpa British? Why is EVERYONE on Krypton British? Of all the dubious decisions that went into making Krypton, this one irritates me the most. Why won’t the TV industry realize that giving your characters a British accent does not automatically make your show an Important Drama?
DARREN: GREAT question, Kristen, on so many levels! I think the top-layer answer is “Because everyone is British on Game of Thrones and The Crown, and Krypton badly wants to be those shows with more casual-chic capes.”
At the risk of getting knee-deep in the subtext, rendering Krypton as a society split between the attractively posh and attractively cockney further separates the show from Siegel’s and Schuster’s roots. (They were second-generation Americans with Euro-Russian backgrounds, and I realize making an outer-space show with lots of Eastern European accents could be distracting, but specifically making Krypton into Space Britain feels distracting in a dumber way.) At the risk of sidestepping all that subtext into the dumbest possible form of enjoyment, I like the evil Kryptonian British guy because I enjoy British villains; I like Lyta Zod because Georgina Campbell was great in Black Mirror, and I despise the lovable tavern-owning lad-dude sidekick because I’m still in recovery from the Snatch reboot.
KRISTEN: The magnetic handcuffs are cool. Sorry, that’s not a question.
DARREN: Magnets are always cool.
KRISTEN: Is this backstory — that someone is going to come from the future to destroy Krypton and prevent the existence of Superman — canon, a story from the comic books? Or is it just a convenient explanation for why Krypton ultimately gets destroyed? (Yes, even a neophyte like me knows that.)
DARREN: The most confusing and exciting thing about Krypton was always that it was a story that didn’t really have much to do with the popular conception of Superman. The planet was introduced in the past tense, this place that exploded long ago. There are stories that dip into Kryptonian history, and villains that derive their powers from Kryptonian sources, and basically every Superman movie is about someone/something from Krypton coming to Earth to fight Superman. But making a whole show about Krypton was either a shameless cash-in or a brilliantly diagonal storytelling gambit, the equivalent of making a whole show about the backstory of the gun that shot Bruce Wayne’s parents.
Which could be cool, if the big pitch was to tell a totally original story that had nothing to do with Superman. But Krypton seems to largely exist to remind people that Superman is a character they love. Hence the creation of this deeply weird time-travel plotline, which mainly requires characters who shouldn’t know anything about Superman to talk a lot about Superman. I’m not sure if this particular storyline comes from the comics, although the potentially Krypton-destroying character Brainiac has a deep history as a bad guy.
One note: It seems like a big through line for this season will be that Seg has to save Krypton in order to create Superman. But there’s a long-term paradox here. To create Superman, Krypton has to blow up. I guess that could be a hilariously bleak sixth-season story arc, like suddenly old man Seg has to destroy Krypton to save the future. Or maybe he would implant false memories into baby Kal-El and fire the kid to Kansas. This also seems hilariously cruel.
KRISTEN: Is this Adam Strange guy Dr. Strange? Also, he can time-travel, but he can’t think of a better disguise than a hoodie and a Detroit Tigers cap?
DARREN: Oh boy, so Adam Strange isn’t Dr. Strange, and was actually created a few years before the Marvel superhero. The broadest possible description of Comic Adam Strange is that he’s a pulp hero out of the John Carter/Doc Savage mode, a man from Earth fired across the galaxy to a planet called Rann. I actually have a lot of love for the classic version of Adam Strange. He wears one of those full-body yellow-bootie/sharkfin-headgear tights that no actual actor is brave enough to wear, and he rocks a cool space-gun holster.
And so the Krypton version of Adam Strange is, um, a Tigers fan? I truly think the makers of Krypton needed someone from Earth who could say “Kal-El” 10 times per episode and went to the bin of Characters Greg Berlanti Isn’t Using Yet and pulled out a half-burnt index card with “Adam Strange” written in wing-ding font. And then someone showed them a picture of the yellow booties, and someone said, “QUICK GRAB THE CLOSEST BASEBALL CAP.”
(It’s possible there are decades of Adam Strange history that delve into his Tigers fandom. Apologies to Adam Strange fans everywhere if that’s true. This is not me making some dumb joke. If there is an Adam Strange fandom, I want in.)
KRISTEN: It makes sense that a person like myself, someone with no real knowledge of/interest in the mythos of Superman, would have a hard time getting drawn into this story — to me, it just seems boring and a little cheesy. But I’m interested to hear from you, a comic book geek, about what you think the biggest missed opportunity is with Krypton?
DARREN: On a pure sensory level, I think they whiffed bigtime with the bland look of this show. Krypton creator David Goyer worked on 2013’s Man of Steel, which established a particular Metropolis-meets-Clash-of-the-Titans Kryptonian aesthetic in its very long prologue. As aesthetics go, this is intensely offputting, like someone made a show about the industrial revolution starring only the Night’s Watchmen who stabbed Jon Snow. But Man of Steel could afford a scene where Russell Crowe flies a four-legged dragon. Krypton has pretty much the same gray-imperium look, but there’s no sign of a dragon just yet, so you have the feeling of a whole society built out of hallways.
Which is a bummer! There have been lots of variable depictions of Krypton over the years. The original Superman movie reflected a very ’70s chic for glimmering white disco bodysuits, and Krypton itself looked like every Uber driver’s crystal collection. There’s a more ancient history in the comic books of portraying Krypton as, basically, a Jet Age fantasy of a utopia, everyone wearing primary colors and tights — a whole world of people who dress as colorfully as Superman.
I’m not saying by any means “the show should’ve done that.” I’m saying the show could have literally done anything. There’s a real missed opportunity here, I think, to portray a new kind of Krypton onscreen. It’s an advanced society that is also an incredible paranoid society — which basically describes the society we live in now, too! And say what you will about our society, but we sure aren’t gray, and if we wear capes, we make damn sure they’re fashionable capes.
KRISTEN: Full disclosure: I never like to see a movie unless I’m reasonably sure it has a happy ending. Knowing that Krypton is a doomed planet, why would you want to set a series there? And more importantly, why would I want to get emotionally attached to a group of characters whose entire world will eventually be rendered obsolete? (Yes, you could make the argument about shows set on Earth — death waits for no man, woman, or character — but at least planetary destruction isn’t written into their show Bible.)
DARREN: There’s a line in Seg’s opening narration that I think is aimed specifically at this anxiety. Seg says, “The story of El isn’t how we died, but how we lived.” Translation, I think: Even if Krypton does last 20 seasons, we still won’t see the planet blow up. (This jibes with the chronology, since Kryptonians have a long life and Seg doesn’t even have a son yet.)
He also says, “Our ending is yet to be written, but this is how we begin.” Translation, I think: Perhaps some of the characters from this show could time-travel past Krypton’s explosion! Although it’s not on the same network, I wouldn’t be shocked if a later season of Krypton featured some kind of crossover with Greg Berlanti’s DC universe, which has absorbed non-CW characters like John Constantine and Supergirl without missing a step.
But on the grander scale, Kristen, I think you’ve hit on a basic overarching problem with this show. How do you get the average viewer to care about a society that isn’t just dead, but famously dead? I suspect this might not matter for viewers who are used to projects that pencil in the backstory of pop culture icons. (Like, Krypton isn’t any less depressing than the high-grossing Rogue One, and if the show loosens up a bit, it could become as ludicrous as the very entertaining Kid-Batman epic, Gotham.) And yet, I don’t think it works to the show’s credit how its whole big plot idea is that there’s a bad guy who wants to destroy Krypton. Like, not to be blunt, but: Of course he wants to destroy Krypton! That’s all the planet was ever good for!
KRISTEN: OH COME ON, SUPERMAN’S CAPE IS AN “HOURGLASS”? When it disappears, Superman ceases to exist? I am offended and annoyed on Marty McFly’s behalf. The only way Krypton can pull this off is if every subsequent episode has a picture-in-picture Cape Cam that gives us a real-time update of the cape’s current state of disintegration.
DARREN: Let me answer your final question with my first question: If the cape disappears, does Batman v Superman get wiped out of existence? If so: Dissipate, Supercape, dissipate!