Warning: Significant spoilers ahead for season 1 of Krypton.
The first season of Syfy’s Superman prequel Krypton focused on the denizens of Kandor, the Kryptonian city bottled and preserved by the malevolent alien AI Brainiac in Superman canon. But even before Brainiac (Blake Ritson) arrived, the show felt claustrophobic, with almost all the action relegated to a few sets that primarily showed off the city’s rigid caste system. That’s changed in season 2, where the show feels uncorked. The characters are now taking to the stars, as part of a story that continues exploring the politics of Superman’s home world, while also examining its place in the galaxy. By embracing the potential of the show’s science-fiction setting, Krypton’s writers have made the show stand out in a market packed with comic book adaptations, and they’ve shrugged off the inherent limitations of a prequel — the sense that the entire story is just rote prologue for a better-known story.
Season 1 ended on a particularly dramatic note, with Superman’s grandfather Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) saving Krypton by trapping himself and Brainiac in the Phantom Zone, a prison outside time and space. Seg’s time-traveling future son General Dru-Zod (Colin Salmon) then shattered the Phantom Zone Projector, to ensure that sacrifice wasn’t undone. That pyrrhic victory changed history, but not the way time-traveling Detroit native Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) hoped it would. The show’s most irritating gimmick, a time-displaced Superman cape that was slowly fading out of existence like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, knit itself back together to indicate Superman was no longer being eliminated from the future. But now, it showed the symbol of the House of Zod, rather than El.
Season 2, which launches on Syfy on June 12th, picks up six months later. General Zod has taken over Krypton and begun transforming it into the world of shining skyscrapers that Kal-El is born into in Superman canon. Now, Zod has set his sights on ensuring the survival of his race by colonizing other worlds, in a plan that harkens back to the plot of 2013’s Man of Steel. The slums occupied by the Rankless, members of the Kryptonian underclass who don’t belong to one of the great houses, have been eliminated, with most of the residents conscripted into the military to crush a rebellion led by Seg’s grandfather Val-El (Ian McElhinney) and former terrorist leader Jax-Ur (Hannah Waddingham). Meanwhile, General Zod’s grandmother Jayna (Ann Ogbomo) is a fugitive trying to lead her own rebellion on Krypton, and Seg is having adventures on Brainiac’s home planet, after inevitably escaping the Phantom Zone.
After a season where it felt like all the characters were just a short walk away from each other, the physical and narrative distance between this season’s plots are jarring. Kandor still seems to be the only city on Krypton that matters, but the writers are improving on last season’s worldbuilding by further examining the impacts of the planet’s sophisticated technology. Unfortunately, the story’s bigger scope comes at the cost of personal narratives, with some characters feeling totally isolated during the first half of the season.
The cast seems to finally be coming together by the end of episode five, the last of the season’s 10 episodes made available to critics. But separating them for so long shows off both their strengths and weaknesses. Val only existed as a hologram for most of season 1, and he’s even less of a compelling character in the flesh. As a hologram, he could be forgiven for being an extremely generic mentor character for Seg, and he could blame his limited programming whenever he didn’t actually have any sage advice to give. When Val escaped from the Phantom Zone, he claimed that his time there gave him insights into the past and future, but that seems to have been entirely forgotten. Instead, he’s just a hopelessly optimistic foil to Jax’s ruthless pragmatism.
And despite Jax’s assurances that he’s an important symbol as an El, he doesn’t actually seem to have any loyal followers. The entire rebellion plot feels like a lackluster retread of season 1’s efforts to overthrow a different tyrant ruling Krypton. And while their rebellion’s conflict with Zod eventually results in a surprisingly dramatic payoff, it starts off as a collection of clichés as old as Star Wars: a scrappy coalition of largely nameless soldiers whom audiences only know they should cheer for because their enemies wear scary helmets and commit genocide.
Zod’s mother Lyta (Georgina Campbell) has been badly undermined this season. In season 1, she was a fierce character who knew what she wanted and took it, whether that meant having an affair with Seg, or challenging a superior officer to battle, to win improved standing in Krypton’s military. But this season, she’s entirely subservient to Zod, always asking him for permission to carry out her ideas, and often being sidelined as a result. Seg’s scheming fiance Nyssa-Vex (Wallis Day) is downscaled as well — her political maneuvering was a highlight of season 1, but her skills seem to have nearly disappeared as her priorities have narrowed to protecting her infant son. Their weakness strengthens Zod, who does make for an excellent antagonist. Salmon radiates power, perpetually standing ramrod-straight in his striking costume, which suggests both military and royal authority. Even on the verge of violence, he feels perpetually calm, possessed of a dry wit he uses to dismiss and dress down anyone arguing with him.
Season 2 starts off significantly stronger than season 1, and a big part of that comes from better use of Seg and Adam. Seg initially suffered from the plight of so many protagonists: he was saddled with a tragic backstory and great destiny, but he didn’t have enough charm to carry the burden of the narrative. Meanwhile, Adam’s doomsaying prophecies made him feel more like a plot catalyst than an actual character. This season, the duo have taken on a sort of inept charm in their misadventures together, reminiscent of Legends of Tomorrow’s time-bros Ray Palmer and Nate Heywood. “Was I dead?” Seg yells after an accident requires Adam to resuscitate him. “Maybe just a little bit. But I undeaded you,” Adam reassures him. Both have also been significantly powered up, and they feel more like actual heroes.
Their bumbling works particularly well when they’re confronted by the alien bounty hunter Lobo (Emmett J. Scanlan). Showrunner Cameron Welsh and Krypton’s writers have nailed their portrayal of the swaggering, hyper-violent Superman antagonist, giving him a 13-year-old boy’s lewd sense of humor, Wolverine’s regeneration powers, and a seemingly endless supply of medieval and futuristic weapons he can use to menace the heroes. Created in the 1980s, then revived in the 1990s as a spoof of gritty superheroes, Lobo became a fan favorite in his own right. While he’s appeared in several animated adaptations, this marks the character’s live-action debut, and the constant stream of jokes he unleashes at Seg and Adam’s expense make him a real highlight of the beginning of the season. It’s unclear when the character might return to Krypton, but he certainly has unfinished business to tend to.
While Lobo is the season’s comedic star, Seg’s best friend Kem (Rasmus Hardiker), who served as season 1’s primary comic-relief character, continues to deliver plenty of witty, self-deprecating dialogue. While everyone else is playing high politics and dealing with cosmic threats, Kem is there to help keep things grounded by just focusing on his own survival. His perpetual exasperation with Adam contrasts particularly well with the self-proclaimed hero’s attention-seeking attempts at nobility.
The scenes between them bring some much-needed humor to a show that regularly gets bogged down in melodramatic soap-opera theatrics, which feel at odds with its more outlandish plots. But some of Krypton’s heavier moments also strike strong emotional chords, by combining highly relatable issues with strong performances. Jayna’s newfound understanding of her family’s toxic legacy and her efforts to redeem herself are a real standout. This season is also taking a page from The Expanse in examining some of the practicalities of waging war across planets, with oxygenators that let soldiers breathe in thin atmosphere proving to be the most strategic resource. But the show’s attempts to make big points about genocide, loyalty, and family legacy are undermined by inconsistent writing. References to the family name “El” meaning “hope,” or riffs on “Kneel before Zod” crop up in nearly every episode in the first half of season 2, and both were already old in season 1.
Krypton is far from a perfect show, but it has respectably big ambitions. It’s not just trying to tell another Superman story: Welsh and his crew are seeking to build an entire world, combining established canon with compelling original characters to deliver a mix of fast-paced action and slow-burn intrigue. The time-travel element also makes the show’s final outcome seem much less certain than most prequels. If the show is given enough time to run its course, it’ll likely end with baby Kal-El heading toward Smallville, but this season’s focus on a future where Zod takes over Earth shows that Welsh is willing to explore the potential of other options.
Many plots on The Flash have focused on the idea that using time travel to make things better often makes them much, much worse. In Krypton’s second season, there are hints that Adam’s latest efforts to make things right might result in disaster for the entire universe. But these risks are the key to the show’s success, letting the writers produce something that feels distinctly different from other prequels or superhero shows. In season 2, they’re still keeping their viewers guessing.
Krypton returns to Syfy on Wednesday, June 12th at 10PM ET.