After so many shows, movies and books, it may seem hard to imagine what there is left to mine about Superman and his home planet. But Syfy and Warner Bros. have invested in something far deeper than an origin story of DC’s Man of Steel — an intricate look at his grandfather, Seg-El (played by Cameron Cuffe), told in a setting with political parallels to what is going on in our real world today.
Five soundstages in two studios in Northern Ireland played home to the planet Krypton for the new series, aptly titled “Krypton,” bowing Mar. 21. The nuanced world created comes with its own language, caste system and religion. And set during the time of Seg-El, the story unfolds 200 years before Superman was born — when Krypton was a xenophobic society with an implacable caste system and a yawning chasm between rich and poor. A despotic, not terribly bright, ruler’s most trusted aide is his beautiful blonde daughter. Science itself is under attack.
The series opens with Superman’s great-great grandfather, Val-El (Ian McElhinney) tried for treason. Later, we watch as storm-trooper police round up the poor and shoot at will. Pollution has ravaged the planet leaving it as an icy wasteland, the core of it stripped bare.
It’s not a pretty sight.
All religions are outlawed except the cult of Rao. His representative on Krypton wears a gold mask with six faces. Only the House of El dares speak out.
“We are not alone in the universe,” Val-El maintains as he’s facing death. “Krypton is vulnerable.”
For saying this, the family is stripped of its rank. When we meet series’ star Cuffe as Seg-El, he’s getting into bar fights.
“It makes him more relatable being rankless,” Welsh says. “He’s got a big road ahead of him when we meet him. He’s become detached, disconnected from the past. He’ll learn the Els, for many generations, are woven into what makes Krypton special.”
Welsh and his crew worked for months to create the look of Kandor, the largest city on the layered planet, where those with top ranking live highest up. Here the sets are filled with gold-laced marble, white furnishings and verdant plant life.
Deep below, however, it’s fifty shades of dinge where the rankless live in the crusty innermost parts of the planet. People lick rocks for water and cook rodents for protein. The set is so convincing that even the floor is intentionally pitted, meaning no step is ever certain.
Out of this squalor comes Seg-El.
Fittingly, Cuffe is the superhero nerd in the cast. At age eight, he read an encyclopedia of Batman at a Borders bookstore and became hooked on caped crusaders.
“This is not a superhero show,” Cuffe says. “No one is fighting crime or slapping on a mask. No one is fighting for truth, justice and the Kandorian way. There is no freak of the week. No one sees his parents get murdered and must seek revenge. Like all great sci-fi, it’s not about aliens or robots, it’s about the people.”
These people are divided into six guilds: labor, artisans, religions, science, lawmakers and military. The famous “S” insignia is very similar to the classic “S” — though Welsh stresses no one source was used to devise this series.
“When a lot of people think of the Fortress of Solitude look they go to the [Richard] Donner films, but we are trying to do our own,” Welsh says.
In the pilot, Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) comes from the future, toting Superman’s iconic cape. Naturally, Seg-El initially dismisses Strange but soon comes to realize he’s telling the truth. Sipos expects the audience to be surprised by Seg-El’s actions.
“This guy was just hustling people,” Sipos says. “That’s not something Superman would ever do and he doesn’t even kill guys who should be killed. The biggest thing is finding out who Seg is.”
Also a longtime superhero fan, Sipos recalls that he read for “Smallville.” Though he landed a small role on that series’ third season, he’s thrilled to be an integral part of “Krypton.”
The first five episodes set a leisurely pace, laying out a love triangle. Seg-El and Lyta-Zod (Georgina Campbell) are in love, but Nyssa (Wallis Day), the ruler’s daughter, picks Seg-El as her mate. Complicating matters, another man, Dev-Em (Aaron Pierre), is in love with Lyta. And Nyssa still carries the torch for her former love, a woman.
“It reminds me of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ — one person chasing someone chasing someone else,” Pierre says.
Day, who intuits Seg-El’s secret, says her character picked Seg-El for “political reasons.”
“She knows how important he is for the uprising. Seg is such an untamed spirit and that throws her and makes her look inside. She’s never met a rankless person before,” Day says.
Pretty much every character faces a rocky path. Lyta, determined to prove herself as a fierce warrior, is forever trying to convince her mother of her worth. Her mom is the supreme warrior, Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo). This role came at the perfect time for Ogbomo, who recently appeared in “Wonder Woman.”
“I auditioned for this job just after doing ‘Justice League,’” Ogbomo says. “I feel like I had the Amazon spirit in me. “
Playing Nyssa had Day lob off long auburn tresses for a platinum cut that required her flying to London every 10 days for touchups. Some characters spent five hours in the makeup chair to have prosthetics applied. And most of the actors say the fight scenes put them in the best shape of their lives.
Cuffe, especially, marvels at how “crazy” the experience on “Krypton” has been. Superman is the first part he ever considers to have played, and now here he is, taking on another key member of the family.
“I went as Superman for Halloween a lot. I don’t believe in destiny but something crazy is going on here,” Cuffe says.