Gotham, Asgard, Wakanda: for many superheroes, their home is as important an element of their mythos as their super powers or rogue’s gallery. For Superman, one of the longest-running superheroes in the game, that’s Krypton — a technologically advanced, utopian planet orbiting a red sun, destroyed by cataclysm. From the Golden Age of comics to Supes’ many film and TV adaptations, the planet Krypton has been host to as many different looks as it has causes of its destruction.
With next week’s premiere of David S. Goyer’s prequel series Krypton on SyFy, audiences will get a closer look than ever before at the politics and aesthetics of one of comicdom’s most hallowed (and frequently shown) locales, two generations before Kal-El is even born. Which version of Krypton will we see in this new series? And how will it compare to Kryptons of the past? We break down the myriad Kryptons die-hard Superfans have seen thus far — and talk to Krypton star Cameron Cuffe — to give us an idea of where Krypton might go with one of pop culture’s most iconic planets.
The Comics – Golden and Silver Ages
Before the televisual medium graced us with images of floating Marlon Brando heads and Russell Crowe’s magic Avatar dragons from Man of Steel, Krypton’s home was the same as Superman’s: the comics. Kal-El’s home world was glimpsed briefly in a single panel in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, described only as “a distant planet… destroyed by old age.” We wouldn’t even get the name “Krypton” until Superman. No. 1 or visit it in earnest until a brief flashback in 1948’s Superman No. 2, “The Origin of Superman!”
While most depictions of Krypton emphasize its technological advancements and the millennia-old nature of Kryptonian civilization, Golden Age comics (1930s-1950s) drew heavily from art-deco and futurist aesthetics of H.G. Wells, particularly the William Menzies adaptation of his novel Things to Come – this is especially clear in Krypton’s capital city of Kandor, a series of delicate spires covered by a protective dome of energy.
While the Golden Age comics only occasionally referred to Krypton, writers of the Silver Age (1950s-1970s) featured the planet more frequently in Superman stories. Unlike the Golden Age Krypton, where Kryptonians naturally had Superman-like powers, the Silver Age introduced the idea of Superman getting his abilities from the Sun’s yellow rays. The planet’s look was upgraded as well to something more vivid, featuring more diverse geography (including landmarks like the Gold Volcano and the Scarlet Jungle) and brighter colors.
Krypton in the Donnerverse
The Krypton of Richard Donner’s Superman feels like a place of detachment. That comes through in the palate Donner uses, made up of overwhelming whites, various darker accents, and other grayscale elements that make the entire planet seem serene and even sterile.
The Kryptonians are likewise demure and reserved, wearing big, white smocks to match the terrain, with various family logos on them, all speaking in the measured tones of enlightened beings that were common for 1970s cinema. The setting has plenty of the trappings of that era’s take on the futuristic “other,” with grand councils composed of giant faces, force fields in the form of undulating hoola hoops, and baddies dressed in baked potato wrappers.
But that just emphasizes the warmth of Jor-El’s quarters and his farewell to his only son. The home of Superman’s parents has a particular glow in the 1978 original, with the towering turbines that shine intermittently and the crystalline apparatus into which Jor-El and Lara place their only child. These individuals are the last gasps of color in an otherwise barren world, before it’s engulfed in red flame and crumbles into nothing, as the rust-colored hues overwhelm the craggy porcelain canvas.
Donner’s Krypton is a repressed, alien place, but one that hides a light soon to be gifted to another world.
Krypton in the Modern Comics Era
In 1986, Krypton underwent a massive overhaul in the wake of the previous year’s massive DC crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Writer/artist John Byrne’s miniseries Man of Steel introduced Krypton as a planet slightly larger than Earth, orbiting the red sun of Rao. In Byrne’s version, the planet was home to a Kryptonian society much more alien and detached than in the past – a race of cold scientists who repress their emotions and use cloning to propagate the species. Aesthetically, Krypton remains similar to the Silver Age versions, with greater detail: its citizens wear elaborate, metallic headdresses and other accouterments, while the buildings remain towering spires amidst an alien desert.
As is common with most comic book runs, Krypton has had many changes, large and small, to its origins and society even past Byrne’s radical re-design. In his version, Superman wasn’t even born on Krypton; instead, he was shot off into space in a “birthing pod” that created him from genetic material before Rao went supernova. Future versions restored his natural birth on his home planet, but the planet itself continued to receive a number of revamps in the comics.
Krypton on TV – From Lois & Clark to Supergirl
Even before Goyer’s Krypton hits screens next week, Krypton has had its fair share of appearances on TV over the decades. The pilot for the Adventures of Superman TV series, starring George Reeves, showed a Krypton with buildings adorned with marble columns and burning torches – not unlike a Lawrence Olivier Shakespeare adaptation.
In the fourth season of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Supes discovers a lost colony of Kryptonians (called New Krypton), with a design aesthetic befitting the show’s modest budget – roomy robes for the civilians and aristocrats, authoritarian-looking leather numbers for the Kryptonian military, and an interior design akin to a new-age day spa.
Superman: The Animated Series, meanwhile, brought Krypton back to its art deco roots with its three-parter “The Last Son of Krypton”. Kryptonian fashion more organically melds the Silver Age robes with the metallic, armor-like accents of Byrne’s Man of Steel version. We also get more of Krypton’s unique geography, with tall, blocky cliffs interspersed with strange, alien trees with branches that veer off into right angles. It’s a design choice that fits Superman: TAS’ visual kinship with Batman: The Animated Series.
The CW’s Smallville and Supergirl have presented varied versions of Krypton as well – Smallville’s Krypton features a similarly jagged, crystalline look to the Donner films, but bathed in the deep red sunlight of Rao. Supergirl, meanwhile, emphasizes Krypton’s desert landscapes and a slicker, white-gray design scheme with nods to Snyder’s Man of Steel.
Goyer and Snyder: The Krypton of Man of Steel
The Krypton from Goyer’s former gig within the DCEU fits the grim and gritty tone that he and Man of Steel director Zack Snyder tried to import from the Dark Knight trilogy. The 2013 film opens with Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, darting across the planet’s dying landscape. That location is a mix between techno-futuristic fortresses and a medieval dystopia, to where Superdad may outrun a standard-issue spaceship, but he’ll do it on a moth-winged dragon.
The most visually distinctive element from this incarnation of Krypton is the planet’s hovering helper bots, who transmit images in the form of hyper-advanced pin art. The movie has the elders of Kryptonian society dressed in dark, ostentatious garb in bleak but ornate quarters. And appropriate enough for a testosterone-filled Snyder joint, there’s plenty of phallic imagery in the setting’s design, from the rounded towers that jut into the sky, to the vessels that launch General Zod and his confederates into the Phantom Zone, dubbed “penis pods” by my partner here.
The Krypton of Man of Steel is a grab bag of the usual crumbling empire wasteland detritus and other genre ephemera, each appropriately (or inappropriately) dark and severe, as befits the approach Snyder and Goyer took to the film as a whole.
Krypton Star Cameron Cuffe on Honoring Superman’s Legacy
One of Krypton’s major risks is centering itself not around the Man of Steel, but on his dad’s dad, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), 200 years before Krypton would meet its doom. Speaking to us for this piece, Cuffe – the Grandpappy of Steel himself and a huge comic book fan in his own right – feels the show pays considerable homage to Superman’s 80-year legacy. “The genre of superheroes has been around for a while now,” Cuffe said of Krypton’s unusual approach. “We’re at the point where we can start taking risks with these kinds of stories.”
That extends to everything from the show’s Game of Thrones political thriller elements to its heavy reliance on practical props and fully built sets. “They’re still there [in Belfast, where we filmed] now,” says Cuffe. “All of these buildings and locations we have, they’re epic in scale but really well thought out. Every single weapon, every single piece of clothing has a purpose and thought behind it.”
A comic book fan since childhood, Cuffe’s pre-show research mostly centered around refreshing himself on Geoff Johns’ New Krypton and Braniac runs, as well as the Christopher Reeve films. But he also brushed up on Blade Runner and Star Wars, films with world-building approaches that Krypton clearly strives to model itself after. “We are making a show set in the wonderful DC comic book universe, but as much as it’s set in that universe, it’s really a science fiction show. It’s equal parts Flashpoint and Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Much of Krypton’s exploration of the show happens through Seg himself, whom Cuffe calls “a drifter… aimless, not fully-formed” – especially in the wake of his grandfather (Ian McElhinney) being sentenced to death and the House of El being stripped of its prestige in Kandorian society. It’s through Seg’s struggles to navigate Krypton’s intricate political world, and the call to adventure that comes from the arrival of a mysterious time traveler from a planet Earth (Shaun Sipos’ Adam Strange), that audiences will explore this version of Krypton.
As for Cuffe, he’s excited for what fans will think of Krypton, but stresses the show’s dedication to rewarding patient viewers who give it a chance: “The show is a little bit weird, a little bit funky. Stick with it, because I promise you – even after you’ve seen episode 1, or 2, or 3, things are gonna change. This is not the show that people expect.”
A Superman Show Without Superman?
The Krypton of, well, Krypton takes a few cues from its predecessors. There’s a dome-covered capital city, denizens wandering around with their family crests, and various councils giving stentorian declarations about this or that.
But mainly, the Krypton of the series that bears the planet’s name is designed to remind you that, hey, this is the planet where Superman is from. His trademark S-logo is everywhere: patched onto clothing, etched into artifacts, and carved into the ground itself. Krypton is nigh-desperate to latch itself onto the absent, medium-defining hero it nominally exists apart from and uses that iconography generously — cape and all — in case the viewer might forget for 10 seconds just which character the show’s connected to.
The city at the center of the series fits the show’s Game of Thrones-esque vibe, with extravagantly-adorned locales up above for the privileged and more hardscrabble living spaces down below for the rabble. And yet everything has that Battlestar Galactica sheen, with a color palette from stones that have washed up on a riverbank and just enough cinematic shine and CGI sweetener to let you know this is kind of the future (though nominally the past).
The show was developed by David S. Goyer, whose depictions of Superman in movies like Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, films he co-wrote, have been controversial, to say the least. But as much trouble as Krypton has separating itself from its Last Son in the early going, the series is a chance for Goyer and his collaborators to move away from the iconic hero and tell a story without all the baggage and expectation that come with him.
The jury’s still out on whether that’s a story worth telling, but Krypton promises to explore the ins and outs of Superman’s home planet and the society he came from with conviction and hopes to find a world that’s compelling on its own, even without the Man of Tomorrow.
Krypton will premiere March 21st on Syfy.