'Krypton' takes off as Superman-themed Syfy prequel

Cameron Cuffe, Ian McElhinney in 'Krypton'

(CNN)At a glance "Krypton" looks like this year's version of "Gotham," inasmuch as each of these comic-book prequels has as big donut hole in its plot, structured around a marquee character (there, Batman; here, Superman) who doesn't appear as we've come to know him.

In a pleasant surprise, "Krypton" creator David S. Goyer (as a screenwriter, a veteran of "Man of Steel" and the "Dark Knight" trilogy) has infused the show not only with a dense, time-bending mythology but upped the ante -- with Superman's eventual birth at stake -- while weaving in an irreverent streak that in ways resembles his under-appreciated Starz series, "Da Vinci's Demons."
Granted, the nerd quotient is strong in this one, and the level of minutia will surely play better with comic-book geeks familiar with the House of El (whose most famous son, Kal-El, was shipped to Earth) or the city of Kandor. Yet what initially looks like the variation of CW's "Legends of Tomorrow" cleverly brings Superman's fate into the equation, while building an intricate world filled with scientific wonders, class inequality and tyranny.
As it turns out, Superman's grandfather, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), fought against those forces generations before Kal-El was born. And yes, he's part of a family of scientists, which will eventually become significant, given Krypton's leaders' reputation as a pigheaded lot.
    It's a strange culture, to be sure, made more interesting by an abundance of name-dropping. Seg-El, for example, is involved with Lyta (Georgina Campbell), who comes from the House of Zod, a warrior family that serves the regime in power. Alas, Seg-El is promised to someone else.
    Nitpickers might ask why Kryptonians have British accents, including "Game of Thrones" alum Ian McElhinney as Seg's grandpa. But hey, Marlon Brandon started it, so never mind.
    "Krypton" not only creates tension in the planet's internal politics, but also presents an otherworldly threat from the DC universe, the world-destroying Brainiac (Blake Ritson), adding an extra dimension of jeopardy to the proceedings. (Ritson, like Elliot Cowan, is part of the show's "Da Vinci's Demons" alumni squad.)
    The design owes a debt to the planet's depiction in "Man of Steel," but it's an intriguing look, one that takes full advantage of things like those flowing capes and triangular family crests.
    "Krypton" clearly won't be for everybody, and like "Gotham," it's difficult to foresee how long the producers can keep the premise airborne (although they've shrewdly set the show far enough in the past to alleviate concerns about its built-in expiration date). But a bit like the reboot of "Battlestar Galactica" -- which worked out pretty well for Syfy -- they've essentially taken little more than a title and built a credible sci-fi concept out of nothing.
    To be clear, "Krypton" is good, not super. Yet based on first impressions, that "S"-like symbol could just as easily stand for "surprising" and "satisfying."
    "Krypton" premieres March 21 at 10 p.m. on Syfy.