Doomed Planet: Syfy’s Krypton

Some quick thoughts on the pilot episode of Syfy Channel’s Krypton, which falls a little outside my mandate because it features zero appearances of Superman, Kal-El, or Clark Kent. I’m creating a new tag, “Doomed Planet”, which may come in handy for other bits, or may just be the flag I wave when reviewing more of this series. Who can say, really?

The first thing to discuss is the comparison text Krypton invites by its title. It isn’t Gotham, and it isn’t Smallville. Both of those have their up and downsides, but both end up, in different ways, being exercises in denying an audience what it wants. They may have successes along the way, but we go into them knowing that at no point will they let the dog see the rabbit. Both engage in a long-form kind of tease, showing just enough hints of who Bruce and Clark will become to keep that particular hook in the audience, then quickly substituting other plots.

And because I like to bash the concept of canon while constantly referencing it, both put themselves well out of canon by deploying secondary and tertiary canonical characters far too early in the hero’s story. Hinging many of its central plots on a young-ish Riddler and Penguin works for Gotham’s narrative, and gives the audience performances by Cory Michael Smith and Robin Taylor, who are both excellent fun to watch. To follow it forward would mean Batman punching Grandpa Riddler in the face down the line. And as the fourth Indiana Jones demonstrated, it’s no fun to see a grandpa get punched in the face.

The other thing Krypton isn’t is a CW-style teen drama with superheroes. I deeply hope Titans has the good sense to be a CW-style teen drama with superheroes, but Krypton has the good sense not to be.

It’s too early to figure out exactly what it is, because it’s not clear the show knows that itself. But we can mention one thing it wants to be: the pilot wears its Game of Thrones aspirations like a house sigil on its chest.

We live in a world where 75% of sci fi fantasy pitches in any medium will take the form of “Game of Thrones meets X”, and there is certainly plenty of that here. My feeling is this only becomes a real problem when it’s based on an understanding of Game of Thrones as “Lord of the Rings with more tits and blood.” This kind of fundamental misreading is the same one that got us fifteen years of “grim and gritty” comics billed as “Dark Knight Returns meets X” or “Watchmen with Y”.

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the narrative politics of Game of Thrones, so I won’t get deep into it here, except to say that the two things about the show (or the books) that come off as revolutionary are its moving the big high fantasy concepts to the back in favor of Shakespearian palace intrigue, and the sense that no character is safe from the axe. If you’re wondering why George RR Martin is struggling with the next book, notice that these two innovations are no longer readily available to him. That winter he kept telling us was coming is here in all its blue zombie glory, and at least a couple of his main characters need to live. There’s a sense of betrayal knowing that Martin was telling a rather classic fantasy story all along, he was just telling it veeeeerrrry slowly.

Krypton sets up some of the same types of palace intrigue, with battling houses and opposing guilds, deep family resentments, and intersections of romance and politics. It also tries to replicate the Thrones trick of offing characters earlier than we expect, establishing a sense of risk. If the trick is a little less effective because we’ve seen it before, it still works fairly well.

Okay, let me say here that the pilot is very good. Solid production, solid performances, and kind of excellent writing. Tightly plotted, moving through a lot of world-building quickly. It also manages to avoid feeling heavy, despite utilizing the deep gray palate Man of Steel employs to show Superman’s home planet. You should watch it, if it sounds at all like the kind of thing you would like.

From here on, there be spoilers, most of which stress the fact that I think the show is off to a good start.

Ready?

So the decision to use Adam Strange is odd when Booster Gold is the intuitive choice for the role. My money says that the movie folks called dibs on Booster, most likely for the Flashpoint film that’s set to come out two years from never. The nice thing about using Strange is that he’s a somewhat schlubby human rather than arriving decked out in shiny space armor, and the contrast plays well, introducing a weird visual element to the story. The world of Krypton becomes more fully realized, visually, through the injection something that doesn’t fit.

Brainiac as the big bad is a no-brainer (forgive me, I am jet-lagged), and the chance to see him in his Morrison/Johns “Collector of Worlds” iteration is kind of a thrill. Speaking of things the movies should have called dibs on, this feels like an admission that the Superman film franchise is going nowhere and won’t be needing a big bad of its own.

Lastly, related to the movies, Krypton seems designed to fit within DC movie canon, even if it’s never acknowledged. As I mentioned above, the design aesthetic for Kandor City looks like a proto version of Man of Steel’s Krypton. Budget dovetails nicely with this, since you can pass off the planet’s technology looking cheap as “it’s just early days.”

As the series moves forward, I’d expect it to carve out its own little corner within that film universe, without ever impinging on the plans of the Big Kids. To the extent we’ll see established DC Comics characters, they’re likely to be cosmic C-listers, maybe with some Green Lanterns thrown in for sport. Possibly the Legion, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

And that is okay with me. Because that means the possibility of Space Cabbie.

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