The one substance that can cause Superman harm… and even kill him, Kryptonite was first introduced during the 1940s Superman radio series to give actor Clayton “Bud” Collyer an opportunity to take a break from his hectic schedule.
In the latest instalment of our “Great Debate” feature, we ask the question…
Should Krypton exist?
There is a moment in Man of Steel when I realized that the writers had decided to play with our expectations and do something different. The Kryptonians, when they first land on Earth and meet Clark, are wearing environmental suits of some kind and don’t appear to have developed any yellow sun derived powers yet.
I realized in that moment, and that realization was borne out when Clark first boards Zod’s ship and basically collapses, that this movie wasn’t interested in using Kryptonite as a foil for Superman. And I was thrilled.
I hate Kryptonite. Not the concept itself; from a scientific perspective it’s dubious but fine, and it makes sense that, if Clark was going to have some sort of allergic reaction to something and that reaction rendered him powerless, it would more likely be something from his home planet that he hadn’t had exposure to yet. That’s all fine, if kinda contrived. You’ve got a character that, as I’ve alluded to in previous columns, it’s really hard to write good physical conflict for; if you want human villains for him, you’ve got to give them a way to level the playing field.
What I hate about Kryptonite is the inconsistent way it’s used and how often it becomes an ITEM OF GREAT IMPORT™ that, once deployed against him, becomes either way too central to the plot, or completely inconsequential after much dramatic buildup.
I hate that different writers use it to wildly varying effect, sometimes neutralizing Superman instantly, sometimes providing only nominal inconvenience. Sometimes Clark is weakened by Kryptonite from a distance and uses that proximity alert to strategize a different approach to a target, and other times he doesn’t notice until it’s basically up his left nostril and oh, dang it, he’s dead.
Kryptonite doesn’t make any sense in the way it’s applied. It’s just a sloppy way to impose weakness on a physically strong character for the sake of plot, and I’ve got a simpler solution.
Make Superman weaker. Not like, average-JLA-member weak just, you know, not-able-to-chuck-mountains-into-the-sun-strong. Give me a Superman who’s just as scared of nuclear fire as we are (no matter how powerful the wailing in the ashes of armageddon moment in Kingdom Come was) or who can be at least bruised by tank buster rounds.
Or, failing that, take the Man of Steel route. Give Superman weaknesses that are intrinsically tied to who he is in a way that different colored rocks can’t ever be. Use different types of radiation (if his skin can soak up solar radiation and he’s weakened by the light of a red sun, he’s definitely vulnerable to light in a way he isn’t to lava. Or make it atmospheric. Superman breathes; think of ways to poison him.
The idea that people are constantly tripping over hunks of irradiated rocks from a dead planet light years away, or are able to synthesize the same, is silly bordering on offensively dumb.
Kryptonite belongs on the controlled substance list. Forever.
When John Byrne rebooted Superman in the Post-Crisis era, he made many changes to the character. Now a couple of those changes I didn’t agree with. For one, he de-powered him. The fact that he could no longer “juggle planets” was fine but being able to hold his own in a fight rather than just taking a villain out with one punch didn’t sit that well with me. I mean Pre-Crisis Superman had some problems fighting certain villains (i.e. Mongul, Darkseid, etc) but we knew when certain bad guys started to get that super punch they were finished 1, 2, 3. Then there’s the whole needing a mask to breath in space! This is Superman! At one time he could fly a million light years in a blink of an eye, now he needs to wear a mask in space. Certain creators would play fast and loose with that one but you’ve got my point. Now after awhile I got used to these things and fell in love with the Post-Crisis Superman. But there was one wrinkle that I never quite got used too. Kryptonite was nowhere to be seen. Well not quite.
Kryptonite was first introduced on the “Adventure of Superman” radio show. It would show up on the series now and again until it was introduced into the comic books sometime in the late Golden Age. Kryptonite, that little gift left over from the destruction of Krypton. Now Superman’s foes had a weapon they could use to take Superman down. Originally Green Kryptonite weakened Superman and became fatal after long exposure. His skin would turn green and our hero would be no more! But wait! It wasn’t only Green Kryptonite that gave him trouble. We had Red (which could become so unpredictable that it could turn Superman into a giant ant or a little baby or split him in two, etc.) Then Gold, which took away his powers forever. Blue, which was dangerous to his foe Bizzaro. White killed plants. Jewel Kryptonite gave the Phantom Zone villains powers. Red gold Kryptonite. Red green Kryptonite. Negative. Positive. Magno! And so on and so forth. And if you think I got all of this from memory check this website! The point is it got silly after awhile. But it made for some fun stories. Was it overused? Sure. But as powerful as Superman was back in the Silver and Bronze Age the writers needed something that villains could use as leverage. They new they were going to lose no matter how hard they tried, but now they had a weapon! And for a time it made for some great stories. The use of Green Kryptonite added an element of suspense. Red was fun because you never knew what was going to happen. Kryptonite was a great tool for the writers when it was used correctly. Unfortunately it was used too much. Way too much! So when John Byrne took over, Kryptonite was almost nonexistent.
Lex Luthor discovered its existence and used a small chunk that he made a ring out of to hold Superman at bay. That didn’t work out too well for him. When Superman got hold of it he gave it to Batman to keep in case he lost control and needed to be taken out. Other than a few Metallo appearances and an occasional story that was about it for the little piece that could take out a god. I miss it! We don’t need Kryptonite to be used in every story but when I think of those issues in the Silver Age with the covers of Superman on the ground surrounded by a green glow with a look of anguish, I can’t help getting sentimental over those great stories. It’s not that I liked seeing Superman dying! It’s the idea of wondering “how is he going to get out of this one?” It’s that element of surprise. Kryptonite was practically a character in the Superman mythos for decades and now something was missing.
I don’t want Kryptonite brought back regularly. We certainly don’t need 20 different varieties. But knowing the threat is there, knowing Superman has to tread carefully, can make for some interesting stories. Yeah, I kinda miss the old days sometimes. But there’s nothing wrong with that!
Many thanks to our Great Debaters – Julian Finn and Marc Lax.
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