By Darren Franich
March 21, 2018 at 11:00 AM EDT
Gavin Bond/Syfy

Krypton was born to die. Superman’s home planet was a cool bit of backstory invented by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for a few illustrated panels of origin story. It lived on as a source of Earthly intrigue. The murderous green rock came from Krypton. The murderous terraforming terrorist came from Krypton. The puppy with a red cape came from Krypton. It was an explanation, but also an excuse to avoid explanations: This impossible thing is possible because Krypton. So the dead planet was also a toy box, with kryptonite in every color.

Syfy’s Krypton (debuting Wednesday at 10 p.m.) takes place on the titular rock 200 years before Superman. And it argues that, 200 years before Superman, Krypton was boring. The hero’s grandfather Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) is our bland hero, a young man in a repressive society. The Krypton we see here is drawn from various comic book and film sources, but it looks like the fourth Divergent movie even Divergent fans didn’t want. This world is antiseptic and violent, emotionless and brutal. Aristocrats live in professional guilds: a military class, a science class, a religion built on sun worship and nuns covered in writing. And then there are the less-fortunate, who have a black market and the kind of tavern where four things can happen per episode.

Seg is trying to redeem his family. The House of El has fallen on hard times, and things get harder in the Krypton pilot. (This is one of those miserabilist origin stories, like Amazing Spider-Manthat keeps killing family members in the hope that a dull hero can be traumatized toward charisma.) But then there’s a whole inexplicable time-travel twist, already spoiled in the trailers, which pushes Krypton from irrelevant to incoherent. Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) is a time-traveling Earthman holding Superman’s cape. He tells Seg-El about his grandson. Turns out Seg has to fight another evil force, a familiar supervillain who wants to destroy the planet, so Superman can never exist.

It’s an oddly pointless premise for a show — save Krypton now so it can explode later! — and it distracts from the stuff that should feel vital. Georgina Campbell plays Lyta Zod, a woman from the warrior caste who is troubled by the violence underpinning her society. She’s also Seg’s lover, but the best scenes in the five episodes I’ve seen belong to her. There’s a sequence in the third episode involving her squad that winds up portraying police brutality. It’s almost as dumb as that time UnREAL did police brutality, but Campbell finds a compelling core in playing a good soldier in a bad army.

She’s ably assisted by Ann Ogbomo as Jayna Zod, Lyta’s mother and commanding officer. Their scenes together crackle with energy, even if they always have the exact same argument. But the Zods can’t save Krypton. If you’re any kind of Superman fan, stick to Supergirl. If you’re a science-fiction head desperate for some weird alien worlds, Krypton feels hermetic, gray, unfun. (At least on Caprica, people wore cool hats.)

But if you’re willing to read some deep meaning into shallow waters, there’s something terribly poignant about Krypton. It is a last vestige of a dying world… the last survivor of a cinematic universe…

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Zack Snyder isn’t involved in Krypton, but his essence haunts the show. The series was created by David Goyer, who wrote the Man of Steel screenplay and worked on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (He also carried writing credits on the Dark Knight trilogy, and a very distant echo of those films’ terrorist allegory pops up in Krypton.)

Man of Steel opened with an overextended Kryptonian prologue, and Krypton can be understood as an overextension of that extension. Key elements of Man of Steel are replicated with odd precision. The film followed Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent on a long journey to the Fortress of Solitude, a remnant of his family’s legacy buried in secret in an icy wasteland. He met a hologram of his dead father, played by Russell Crowe. In the Krypton pilot, Seg travels to the same Fortress of Solitude in a different icy wasteland. In the second episode, he meets another zombie-hologram ancestor: his own grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney).

Other aspects of Man of Steel recur, in specific or ambient ways. That dumb little command key which so tormented Lois Lane reappears. At one point, Seg takes a knife, cuts his hand, and drops blood on a stone carving of the S logo. This is a Zack Snyder moment through and through: the blood fixation, the nigh-biblical reverence for symbols. Man of Steel featured Michael Shannon as General Zod, a dedicated soldier driven to genocide. And the one decent thing about Krypton is how its Zods explore more ambiguous layers of duty and justice. They’re a family of stormtroopers passionately devoted to a society they know is partially (or entirely) broken.

The Zods are also, it must be said, ultraviolent characters. Lyta undergoes a bloody trial in the second episode, a ritualistic combat that owes less to the comic book incarnation of Krypton than to the ethos of Snyder’s 300, where a warrior race of gym-rat baes proved their manhood by killing enemy aliens. At the end of her combat, Lyta is victorious, and her opponent is beaten. And then she snaps his neck—the same way Superman killed General Zod at the end of Man of Steel.

Now, I think Man of Steel is a very dumb movie, plot-rehashing Christopher Reeve movies while adding the same violent-Messiah tone that convinced a generation of frat dudes that The Boondock Saints is super deep, man. But I am touched by the dedication of Man of Steel followers, who carried the torch for Zack Snyder’s heroically brooding super-dumbos through the Martha-obsessed Batman v Superman, a movie where eternal Oscar nominee Amy Adams holds a bullet, throws a spear in water, and then jumps into the water to get the spear she threw in the water.

Snyder was building a whole cinematic universe. The most interesting thing about that universe is that it seems to be pretty well finished now, or anyhow, changed beyond obvious recognition. The director was planning two Justice League movies, and the studio demoted that plan to one. He left Justice League due to a family tragedy, and the little-loved finished film bears the unmistakable stamp of screenwriter/reshooter Joss Whedon — more on that in a moment.

Wrong to say that the Snyderverse is over. Snyder carries a “Story By” credit on Wonder Woman, the most universally beloved of the recent DC films. But it’s not clear how involved he’ll be as a producer on the second film. And a much-circulated costume comparison of the Amazons in Wonder Woman to the Amazons in Justice League confirms every bleak thing anyone has ever had said about the male gaze. Snyder developed the look of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, starring in his own movie this year. But recent announcements imply that Warner Bros. is shifting direction, there’ll be some new directorial blood for Batman, and Ava DuVernay presumably will get to ignore Ciarin Hinds’ Steppenwolf with her New Gods.

Viewed against this background, there’s something terribly poignant about Krypton. When his grandfather’s hologram appears to Seg, the old man tells him: “You are the torchbearer for our legacy now. You must keep that flame alive. Pass it on to the next generation. If you believe in yourself, the way I always have, your accomplishments will stand alongside all those that came before you and will inspire all those that follow.”

The man saying these words is dead. He’s saying these words on a planet that is famously dead. And death was a constant fixation of Snyder’s films. In Man of Steel, Superman is tormented by two dead fathers, one in flashbacks and one in hologram form. His first great act of superheroism is a baptism by bloodsport: He kills Zod, and then Zod reappears in Batman v Superman. (His corpse is reanimated into Doomsday—still the best accidental metaphor for the age of gritty rebooting, so many old dead ideas reanimated with digital effects and a bad attitude.) Superman himself followed Zod on the death-rebirth cycle: Buried six feet under in Batman v Superman, grave-robbed for resurrection in Justice League.

I kind of loved Cavill’s performance in Justice League; the silly-sweet iPhone prologue captures all the childlike wonder that Snyder’s films otherwise avoid. (Conventional wisdom holds that Whedon shot that scene, and probably any scene where Superman smiles.) As a diehard member of the Man from UNCLE fan club, I maintain the fervent hope that Cavill will get to play the last son of Krypton at least one more time. But when you watch Krypton, you start to feel that Seg—the last son of House El—is the torchbearer for the whole legacy of that big-screen Superman. The show recreates Man of Steel‘s Kryptonian sensibility, androidal gene-fascism awkwardly stacked on top of ancient-empire bloodlust. When Lyta makes a decision to punish one of her fellow officers, she is punished for doing the right thing, scapegoated for a whole tragedy that left a citizen dead. This is an odd recreation of the whole central drama of Batman v Superman, where two very good guys tried to punish each other for saving people (before heroically realizing their moms had the same name).

Snyder devotees dream of a lost masterpiece: a mythic first cut of Justice League, made before the director’s departure and Whedon’s punch-ups. It’s unclear if such a cut actually exists, which only makes it more powerful as a symbol, a remnant of greatness that could have been, a dead planet. And the perception that Snyder’s vision was destroyed by the studio feeds into a healthy victim complex, an essential ingredient for any online fandom. (The fact that Snyder was given more than half a billion budget dollars to spread his vision across three directorial efforts makes the Snyder Bros’ victim complex kind of hilarious; welcome to Bizarro World, where the biggest problem facing Hollywood today is how some male directors don’t get literally everything they want all the time.)

Syfy’s Krypton is unquestionably a diet beverage, but it could be as close to the Zack Snyder Cut as we’re ever going to get. Here’s a curious cocktail of militaristic warfare, totalitarian paranoia, “heroism” as an unwanted calling devoid of any real social conscience, all of it rendered through weird layers of tormented legacy and death-cult fatalism. “Maybe I could finish my grandfather’s work,” says Seg, an oddly passive hero who has to further the legacy of the S symbol and create it, honoring both his dead ancestors and a famous descendant whose mythic actions inspire him. Krypton can’t escape a simple fact: This world ended long ago. C-

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