Krypton—both the planet and the Syfy series—has a bit of a problem.
By now, you know the planet’s problem. Thanks to a combination of internal pressure, scientific hubris, and the fact Russell Crowe is the smartest scientist they have, Krypton eventually exploded, leaving one single baby with a hell of a chin cleft to escape and eventually save Earth a thousand times over. It’s a story you know if you’re even a little tangentially aware of Superman, quite possibly the most familiar superhero origin story of all time.
And that’s also exactly what’s been holding back Syfy’s Krypton—from Batman v. Superman writer David S. Goyer—which stars Cameron Cuffe as Superman’s grandfather Seg-El, and set decades before the Man of Steel is even born. With the apocalypse set in stone, Krypton has struggled in the early going with justifying its own existence as a TV series. Right now, the show’s tag line might as well be “if you like Superman and Game of Thrones, here’s something that will probably remind you of all that,” plus then a pair of hands gesturing vaguely. The show has no identity. It’s gotten by on some flimsy political plot bolstered by empty references to IP you know and love: Brainiac; Zod; a major character from the Superman canon frozen in ice for characters to gawk at for a hot second before being shoved back into storage. Watching Krypton is like walking through the world’s dustiest Superman museum where you can certainly look at the displays from a distance, but you’re not allowed to feel anything. Which begs the question: If you’re going to make a Superman show without Superman, using mostly references to Superman, why not just make a Superman show?
Let’s take a little Zeta Beam trip through time to 2014, a year when people were asking a very similar question about Fox’s Gotham.
When Gotham premiered, Bruno Heller’s Batman prequel about a baby Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) living in a pre-Rogues Gotham City guarded mostly by a mustache-less Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) shared a ton of issues with early-days Krypton. Selina Kyle couldn’t make it through a single scene without holding a milk jug, Ivy Pepper’s sole character trait was “plants,” and Oswald Cobblepot’s archnemesis was literally named Fish because penguins eat fish, you see. Season 1 of Gotham was one long, extended nudge in your ribs, like a personal hell spent sitting next to the guy who catches every Easter egg in Ready Player One for eternity.
Then, somewhere between its first and second season, Gotham changed, and by changed I do mean lost its goddamn mind. And not to sympathize too much with Gotham City’s resident homicidal clown, but the madness is just much, much more fun. Gotham went from a series bogged down in all that classic Batman heaviness to the type of show where James Purefoy gets blown up with a bazooka. The latest season of this show has been a trip, man, to the point that I’m halfway convinced Fox told the writers this is the final stretch, and started paying everyone exclusively in MDMA. An operatic pig-themed serial killer was the Big Bad for a few episodes and nothing has ever felt more on-brand. Recently, the top hat-wearing, low-key incestual Mad Hatter dropped a wrecking ball on to some newlyweds for reasons that are never quite explained. This show killed its “Joker”—played with gleeful energy by Shameless star Cameron Monaghan—brought him back to life, and then killed him again so they could turn his twin brother into the actual Joker.
Gotham is wild. Gotham is a lot. But most importantly Gotham found an identity for itself—a no-rules, over-the-top identity—completely outside of the future it’s leading up to. It stopped being about a nonexistent Batman, and started asking what kind of out-of-control insanity would create a need for something as bonkers as the Batman in the first place.
What I am not saying is that the fix for every struggling series is to hop in a car to coo-coo-ville and start (sometimes literally) throwing shit at the walls. If that were true, we’d still be singing the praises of ten-time Emmy winner True Detective Season 2. The lesson Krypton needs to take from Gotham is one of individuality, of finding something to say and a style with which to say it that does not depend entirely on a character we will never see. The best superhero stories use the highest of heightened realities to tell us something about ourselves. Especially Batman and Superman, two characters so rooted in the divide between who they are during the day and what they do at night. Krypton has all the tools to do just that, with its charming-as-hell cast and an entire planets-worth of original ideas to explore. But Krypton is never going to be able to tell us anything interesting about us unless it figures that out for itself.
Stories with a fixed ending can still be worth telling. I’m pretty sure we all knew the Titanic was going to eventually hit that iceberg and that movie still made ten billion dollars. But if I’m taking a trip on a boat, or bus, or plane, or planet I know is doomed, you better give me a hell of a reason not to hop off while I still can.
Krypton airs Wednesday nights on Syfy; Gotham airs Thursday nights on Fox.